Gunning The Alberta Changeup
November 03, 2010
Lessons From The Canadian Prairie
It didn't take long that first morning to realize that our guide, Sean Mann, was the man with a plan. After a long day's air travel and a too-short night's rest we rolled out of our vehicles a bit on the groggy side, only to be greeted by an address not unlike a drill sergeant's.
"Ok guys. Grab all your personal gear and stack it right here next to the trailer," commanded our leader. "I'm going to show you how I want the decoys set." And in short order our group was fast at work plugging silhouettes in teams of two.
It's amazing how well you can get to know someone when sharing the task of setting a decoy spread, and the time I spent with Guy Sagi was no exception. Learning that this was Guy's first waterfowl hunt, I enjoyed fielding his basic questions. Queries like, "These two dimensional pieces of paperboard will really fool the birds?" were, to say the least, entertaining.
We deployed the spread in a broad X-shaped pattern that Sean explained would allow us to easily adapt to the vagaries of wind shifts. Then we stuffed the stubble straps on low profile layout blinds with scraps of pea vines until they passed muster.
With daylight breaking through the low, gray scud, came the command, "Let's saddleup!" We clamored into our hides just as the morning's first flight of mallards materialized out of the blackness of the western sky, strafing us in a low pass. As the bird's wings tore at the thick, damp air, Torb, hunting partner Mountie Mizer's black Lab, sprung up from his prone position with a look that said, "What the heck was that?!" This dry land game was new to him.
"So here's the deal guys," started Sean's final pre-shoot instruction. "I want you to stay as low and still as possible. I'll call the shot with a simple 'Now!' If we're clear, lock and load."
Sean Mann at work in a layout blind.
All was quiet for a few minutes as the world around our heavily frosted pea field gradually came into focus. Then, off in the distance, the day's first goose noises could be heard filtering across the rolling countryside. Once he got a visual, Sean began flagging. When he felt he had the flock's attention he broke into a calling sequence unlike any I'd ever heard: a sound every bit a flock of happy honkers inviting the newcomers to breakfast. As the band of two-dozen birds turned and swung our way a group of unexpected guests complicated things; a twisting, whirling cloud of mallards blew over the nearest hill and dove into the traffic pattern.
Ducks or geese, geese or ducks, what's he going to call, I wondered as my trigger finger lightly found the gun's safety. Our choices represented a minor dilemma'¦though a pleasant one we'd have to deal with throughout the course of our three-day hunt. Though some ducks landed, and the rest backpedaled right in our face, Sean gambled and held out for the geese.
Not totally committed, as is often the case with the smaller, warier, arctic-nesting races of Canadas, Sean called the shot on what he judged to be their last swing at 20 to 25 yards. When the smoke cleared we had six of the diminutive cacklers on the ground. The shooting could have been better, but the dust was off the bottle. And so was Torb, one obviously happy dog on his first ever prairie goose retrieves.
The next three hours passed in a whirlwind of activity. Ducks and geese were giving us a look, eyeing the field peas. And if there was any doubt that we weren't set up on the X where they had fed the night before, Sean's goose or duck calls usually convinced them otherwise.
If there was one problem, though certainly minor, it was with the geese. Given that they were coming in five or six different sizes, ranging from the mallard-sized cacklers to the locally raised giants, depth and distance perception was an issue. Sean's experience prevailed however, and we quickly learned to trust his call, knowing the birds would be within range. When I mentioned to Sean later that I had trouble dealing with the various-sized geese he replied with a grin, "That's the Alberta Changeup for you. Get used to it!"
After the hunt I quizzed Sean Mann about his shot calling.
"Seems to me that knowing when to call it, if not the most difficult, must be the most agonizing part of your job?"
"For sure," he agreed. "Not only do I have to study the birds and judge which are most likely to finish, I have to make the call, as often as possible, so that everyone gets some shooting. It's the 'no calls' that are toughest on me though. It's my job to finish these birds. To have them in the gunner's face, locked up, feet out and totally committed. When I have them swinging close but can't turn them back on final'¦as you witnessed a few times today'¦all I can do is apologize for an opportunity lost."
Torb on his first prairie retrieve.
"That's really all part of the game'¦your game'¦isn't it?" I asked.
"Well it is, and I hope that's what my hunters understand."
Trying to squeeze the most out of this tightly-scheduled adventure we opted to hunt on our own, in the same spread, that afternoon. The result, other than just a few birds brought to hand, was an even greater appreciation for Sean's job.
Geese came in low, a hundred mallards scooped hard, and yet we were all nearly paralyzed. No one would call the shot! No one wanted to screw up. And we vowed, after loosening up with a barley-based beverage or two later that evening, it would never happen again.
"We've got a quarter section of snows lined up for you guys in the morning," Sean's young apprentice Rob Reynolds, said. "How's that sound?" Noticing the look of disappointment on some of our faces, Rob was quick to add, "Oh yeah, and there's a bunch of darks and mallards with 'em too!" Suddenly all was well with everyone.
The northern lights were dancing under a blanket of stars as we got to the field that morning. "Good Lord is that beautiful!" Guy exclaimed as he stepped from the truck. A nearly lifelong resident of Arizona, he'd never seen the Aurora before and he was quick to add, "No matter what happens next, my day is already made."
We deployed a mixed spread in the tightly clipped wheat stubble that morning, with two wings of Canada silhouettes on the
downwind edge, and a mass of snow goose shells sprinkled with Canadas upwind of our blinds. The whole time we worked we were serenaded by the constant gabbling of snow geese on the not-too-distant roost.
The broad U-shaped rig anticipated the predicted 10- to 15-knot west wind that, sadly, never came. When hunting the "White Devil," as Sean refers to snows, a stiff breeze and low ceiling are what's needed to effectively work the birds. The problem was exacerbated when the white geese began to erupt from the roost en masse, as opposed to the smaller flights Sean would have preferred. Just as anticipated, they swarmed our way, but mainly way out of range. Sean gave it his best. But with little wind to disorient the family groups there was no breaking down the flights. Though a good number of birds passed directly overhead, some as low as 40 yards, Sean wouldn't make the call. Pass shooting doesn't count in his game. He'll only call the shot on "working" birds.
Still, it was an awesome experience: the criss-crossing white waves etched the deep blue sky in a pattern not unlike that of a shattered pane of glass; the high-volume, barking calls made man-to-man communication impossible.
When I heard him comment glumly that the dark geese were leaving the roost a mile to the north, I realized Sean's backup plan had gone awry as well. "You just never know what the white devil will do," he later stated. "So we rarely target them unless we have some more predictable dark geese to work with as well."
We eventually did take a number of small Canada geese from the few flocks that slid our way, and we managed to reach out for a few high-kiting snows. One of the guys busted a dandy Tule goose, the rare big brother of the common Whitefront, thereby making the goose hunt special. But it was the mallards and pintails that really saved the morning, as they attacked our location with reckless abandon.
We were back in the same rig, on our own again, later that afternoon. It was then that we enjoyed an uninhibited hour and a half-long shoot. With a decent prairie breeze that lasted until sunset we were able to entice a few snows. I was lucky enough to pick and can a nice speckelbelly from a wide-swinging flock of darks. And the ducks were "happenin'." But the highlight was the calling of hunting partner Sean Streph on a bunch of Lesser Canada's. With the vanguard of the flock landing right among our blinds, and in his best Sean Mann imitation, he ordered "Not yet! Not yet!" Then he said, "Now!" The full flock of 20 or so geese hung right over the spread's landing pocket. We made the most of the opportunity.
Jay Pitassi on his first prairie hunt admires a pair of snows.
By the third and final morning of our hunt we knew the drill. With little direction, and like the "old pros" we'd become, we hustled to set the rig in yet another pea field. The high overcast and sporadically puffing easterly breeze seemed to put a little more spring in our step, and the task was completed in record time. As we tucked into our blinds on this classically weathered wildfowling day, it was with great anticipation.
It was still fairly dark at legal shooting time as the first flights of ducks buzzed in and out of the spread before we could react. But with the sunrise torching enough fluorescent orange streaks to lighten up our surroundings, the shoot got going.
As the roost water, a mile or so west, kept coughing up simultaneous flights of mallards and dark geese, Sean was faced with the same old problem: which birds to work? Staying true to form he "played" his goose call like the musical instrument it becomes in his hands. His unique brand of honky-tonking, as usual, worked wonders on both the dark geese--which came in an even wider variety of sizes than we'd seen on previous hunts--and the ducks. Having no doubt learned our shooting tendencies, Sean's shot calling seemed more aggressive. We followed-up his efforts by keeping our gun barrels hot, the dead birds soon adding substantially to the decoy spread.
As fast-paced as the gunning on these birds was, the most amazing aspect of the hunt was watching Sean read the birds. Although every approaching flock of geese or ducks appeared likely candidates, they obviously weren't to Sean, as he switched from goose call to duck call depending on which birds he felt he could finish.
The highlight of the whole trip for me came on that last morning when Sean, oddly enough, gave up on a passing flight of geese and started talking to a whirling flock of 200 mallards. This bunch whirled over the fringe of our setup in typical mallard fashion a half-dozen times before streaking off downwind, apparently out of sight for good. As they did Sean piped up, "Get ready, here they come." No sooner had he uttered those words than the birds banked in a sharp turn, moving back toward our spread! In seconds, the whole flock was stacked up in front of us, their bright orange landing gear reaching for the ground; their silvery underwings were locked tight in flaps-down mode.
A lucky call? Maybe. His broad grin was the only answer I got. But I suspect it was an intuitive one based on his lifelong experience with wildfowl.
Everyone shot pretty well that final outing, with our tally on both ducks and geese reaching well into the 30s. We all agreed the morning, and the hunt in its entirety, had been an experience of a lifetime.
And so this long-awaited, much anticipated trip to the fowl-rich prairies of Alberta, a countryside that serves as a funnel and stopover for major parts of both the Central and Pacific flyway's migrations, had come to a close. Having made new, like-minded friends, and learning to handle the Alberta Changeup made it special. But nothing made it more so than watching and listening to Sean Mann in action.
|Sean Mann: A Profile|
When speaking of his beloved home turf on Maryland's eastern shore, Sean Mann, in his unassuming, under-spoken way will tell you: "The area is so steeped in wildfowling tradition, so rich in the history of our sport, that I'm just happy to be able to live there and be a small part of it. To be able to make a living doing what I so dearly love is a huge bonus."
A self-professed bayman first, waterfowler second, and a world champion caller and call maker last, Sean, who is in his early 40's, developed his passion for Canada geese at an early age. He tells the story of the time when at four or five years of age, his father pulled over and shut the car's engine off next to a fog-shrouded field of feeding geese, just so his boy could listen to the birds. Even then Sean was captivated by their vocalizations. He was seven or eight, on one of his earliest hunts with his father, when the senior Mann, "Who was one of the best shots I've ever seen, and never seemed to miss," recalled Sean, somehow whiffed twice on a lone honker before young Sean ston
ed the bird with his .410. "To this day, it was the luckiest shot of my life," he'll tell you. "I've been hardcore geese ever since."
There are those who look to Sean as an expert in his field. But he'll quickly tell you there is no such thing in our outdoor world of hunting and fishing. "No one can make a fish bite anytime he wants it to, anymore than I can call in every goose."
He is a consummate professional. His contest calling accomplishments aside, at no time is this more evident than when hunting with him. It's how he so thoroughly addresses the basic elements of the hunt, a practice grounded in his 26 years of guiding experience that makes him so successful. In Alberta he hunts areas that traditionally host major concentrations of the continent's waterfowl, but primarily his favored dark geese. He and his locally hired hands scout the birds thoroughly. Then he deploys on them with a top quality decoy rig; but one that doesn't include the spinning wing gimmickry to which he is ethically opposed. And his gunners, finally, are concealed in thoroughly camouflaged layout blinds. "Only after we've got all the bases covered does calling come into play," stresses Sean.
"The ultimate challenge for me'¦my game really'¦is to get the birds to work," says Sean. "It's my job to provide quality shooting opportunities to my hunters. That said, the true beauty of our sport is, no matter how hard we work or competent we become, no way can we absolutely dictate what those wondrously wild creatures will do, or how they'll react, every time!"
As much as anything, that simple statement tells us who Sean Mann is, and what he is all about.
Editor's Note: If you're interested in hunting with Sean, contact him at: (800)-345-4539; firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit www.seanmanncalls.com