While many guides and outfitters north of the border can put you onto good waterfowl shooting, Don Johnson was looking for a special place where he could take his extended family.
"I was looking for a place in the Saskatchewan area that was suitable for family, especially for ladies. I was reading a Ducks Unlimited magazine and there was a story in that issue about a hunt where some guys from Cabela's were hunting that area and talking about this great bed and breakfast so I called them up. After describing what I was looking for, they told me that this was exactly the place for me. It sure has been. I'm going back this year for the fourth time. I've taken my wife, Gayle, and son, Scott, along with his wife and our grandchildren. "The youngsters love to swim in the pool and the ladies go sightseeing or shopping. There aren't any big cities or big malls, but they have a good time. I took my grandson, Christopher, out on the late hunts. We didn't get him up early in the morning because at the time he was only 6. Naturally, he didn't shoot, but he had a great time," he said.
"You get a nice mixed bag of birds. That area is populated by several species of geese. With ducks there are mallards, gadwall and pintail, and other species, but the mallard is king. There is a tremendous population of geese up there. The ducks come about daylight for an hour or so. You could easily limit out in the first hour, but we didn't because we were holding for specific birds. We love to shoot them one by one. If you don't pick your shots you can catch them balled up and flock shoot more than you intended. That's never been a problem with our group because we're pretty selective with our shots," he said.
"Grainfields and water provide a perfect combination of habitat for both ducks and geese. In the geese family you have white geese, both Ross and Snows, and 3 to 4 of the various subspecies of canadas. Prairies, hutchisons and cacklers all migrate through this area. On any given day you'll get a variety in the field that can also include sandhill cranes. One afternoon, on the way back to the potholes, we spotted some Hungarian partridge and sharptail. Our guide had some lead shot in his pocket so we stopped and had a nice shoot on them as well," Johnson said.
Johnson notes that most days the dark geese come in and decoy quite readily. At first light there are always a lot of ducks that come in, but Johnson explains his priorities. "Normally we don't focus on them at first. We focus on geese first and pick up a few ducks as the opportunity presents itself. If geese are coming in behind the ducks, we have all agreed to hold for the geese. Since we can only hunt geese in the morning, we concentrate on them first and bag our ducks later. In the afternoon we hunt ducks on potholes and sometimes in the fields and do quite well."
On one hand, snow geese are the most wary and difficult to hunt. On the flip side of the coin, once one decides to commit you usually get several thousand at once. Snows are very gregarious. Where one goes, they all go. "Snows are the only geese that will leave you lying on your back in a grainfield trying to figure out what happened. They'll be covering up an area on one day and when you setup the next morning they go somewhere else that day. Dark geese are less likely to do that. With canadas, if you see them in a particular field, most of the time they'll be back in the same field the following day", he said.
"With snow geese, if one flock goes past you, you've had the course because they'll all fly by and won't turn around. Ross' are not that wary, so we killed some whites that day. The next day the snows came in very well. Once we set up, we take dark geese and snows as they come," he said.
Timing Is Everything
"Last year hunting in the grainfields was tremendous. Earlier in the month, potholes and water worked best, but last year we were hunting in October. Their diet had changed to grain and they came in by the thousands. You could tell they were getting ready to migrate."
"In the mornings we'd go out before daylight and set up the decoys in the fields by the headlights of the truck and ducks would see the lights and come on in to see what we were up to. The guides would be moving the trucks out of the field and the noise of ducks coming in was just unbelievable," he said.
"I have a young lab named Tex. He was a puppy when we went up two years ago, but last year he was old enough to see what he was going to be able to do. Like I said, we hold on the ducks if there are geese coming in behind them. We had a flock of ducks that came in, and they always make several circles before they commit. By the third circle there were literally two thousand ducks. I looked over at Tex and he was staring down at his feet. When I looked back he was nose to bill with a large mallard. His whole body was shaking and he looked over as if to ask when are you guys going to shoot this duck. I could tell that he wanted to reach out and grab it but his discipline held him in position."
"We hunt with goose chairs in the fields, and the guides do a great job of setting up. They dig them into the ground at the foot end below the surface, just enough to give you a nice tilt to an incline position. For us older fellas, that's just enough to help when it comes time to raise up and shoot. I have a tough time making that move, but when they're dug in like that it helps a lot."
"They also reworked the slits. The slits come from the factory about a quarter of an inch wide and that works fine, but they took a router and widened it to a half inch. That really helped because you could see better and knew exactly where the birds were when the call to shoot came. To me, it showed that they were using their "been there done that" experience," he added.
According to Johnson, every year is a little different, and it depends mainly upon the weather. "Some years there are plenty of snows and other years it may be warmer and they haven't shown up yet. Then again, if it gets cold early we may miss them in October. Hunters wanting to get in on the snows for sure should target their hunt for the end of September," he said.
The first to come to the decoys are the white fronts around the first week of October. "Two year's ago we arrived on a Sunday night and it was pretty warm. We walked down to the lake and there were geese everywhere. We didn't get much sleep that night in anticipation. We didn't need an alarm to get up that first morning either. We hunted Monday, and that night a cold front came in with the wind out of the north for the first freeze of the year. Tuesday morning at 10:30 we looked up and could see string after string of snows -several miles long- making their way south. By Wednesday morning, we were covered up with snows," he said.
"Of course we're hunting about 90 miles north of Saskatoon, close to the first edge of the brush. It can get cold in this area early, and sometimes in October the birds will leave and head south. They might not leave Canada, but they'll go down to Saskatoon or Regina."
"In the morning we get up pretty early and have a light breakfast, cereal and toast, then we usually come back in about eleven and have an excellent brunch. The guides have cell phones and they call back to the lodge so, by the time we get there the brunch is ready. We clean up, eat, and usually take a nice nap in the afternoon. Around 3:00 P.M. the guides come back and pick us up and we go to the water and hunt ducks till dark. For the evening meal we really eat hearty. That's when we have goose and all the trimmings, he said."
Back To The Land
Don Johnson is a retired agronomist that still does some consulting on the side. When he travels north to Canada for waterfowl, he can't help but getting involved with the local farming community. Since most of the hunting is done on farmland, for Johnson, it's somewhat a busman's holiday. He often visits with farmers and talks crops and production.
"One evening we limited out early so we went with our guide when he was scouting for the next day's hunt. We drove north for quite a ways and got to see a lot of the country. A farmer had called him to ask if he would bring some hunters and help him with his problem. That particular year it had been warm and pretty wet and his pea crop was still in the field. The ducks and geese were devastating it. When we got there, you could see a huge area in the middle of the field where they had laid it to waste. The farmer met us in the field because the insurance adjuster had just been there assessing the damage."
"The farmer told me that the geese were a problem, but it was the ducks that did the most damage. He said they eat all night, and instead of walking beside a swath of grain they get on top and what they don't eat they trample into the mud. He said a flock of ten thousand ducks can wipe out his fields overnight," he said.
"He had a great crop of peas before the ducks arrived, but they were too wet to go into storage. Fortunately for the farmers, the government and Ducks Unlimited help with payments for crop damage. The farmers are pretty generous about providing hunters access and some of them hunt as well, but it just depends on the weather. Usually they're battling the harvest, but once that's over a lot of them hunt birds as well. Most of them hunt birds until the deer season comes in. After that, it's strictly whitetail hunting. They're avid deer hunters in Canada," he said.
With flocks of ten thousand ducks destroying fields, one group of hunters can't do much to stem the tide, but one thing's for sure. Come October, the Johnson family will be in the fields doing their part.
Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.
When he's not out hunting down another interesting story, Frank can be found near his home in western Nebraska where he now spends most of his time guiding his two sons and teaching them how to be successful in the field. "It's part of the responsibility we all have as outdoorsmen, to share what we have learned and pass on the passion. I take the same tact when approaching a story┐. how can I help someone be better at what they love to do?"
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