October 01, 2010
Great Slave Lake provides a scenic first chance at migrating ducks
A 20-minute ride in a floatplane brought the author to the floating dock at the lodge.
Several years ago, I heard about the early-season duck hunting that a few intrepid waterfowl hunters had discovered in the Northwest Territories of Canada. It took me 10 years to make the journey, but last September, I finally trekked to this remote waterfowling Mecca.
It was a cloudy September afternoon when we boarded the Single Otter floatplane bound for a remote island in Great Slave Lake. During the 20-minute flight from Yellowknife to Trout Rock Lodge, our pilot kept the plane below the clouds. A patchwork of fog hung over the spruce and aspen forests that shone a kaleidoscope of green and gold in celebration of the last days of summer. As our destination came into view, I asked the pilot if he would make a pass over the lodge. He obliged and flew over the top of the complex before making a perfect landing.
As we taxied toward a floating dock, I could see Trout Rock's owner, Ragnar Wesstrom, waiting to greet us. A transplanted Swede and former merchant marine, Wesstrom first came to the Northwest Territories in the late 1980s. In 1998, he built Trout Rock Lodge on the north arm of Great Slave Lake, initially as a fishing camp for giant northern pike. Later, he began offering duck hunting.
Black Coffee and Bluebills
We were up before dawn the next morning. After a meal of eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and strong black coffee, we gathered our gear and walked to the dock. I shared a blind with Fritz Reid, a Ducks Unlimited biologist, and Gary Stewart, who works on boreal forest conservation issues for the Pew Environmental Group. With our guide, Chad, at the helm, it was a 15-minute run to a rocky point, where we set out a couple-dozen decoys. Once the setup was in place, we retreated to the shoreline, where we cut aspen trees and fashioned them into a blind.
Darkness gave way to gray skies. It was not long before Stewart spotted a flock of bluebills. Ten birds skimmed the water's surface in a long line, heading our way. When the ducks were 80 yards away, they banked toward the decoys.
"Here they come!" Stewart announced excitedly.
We hunkered down while he steadied his Lab, Zamma. Our imposters mesmerized the ducks. The lead bluebill dropped its feet to land, but before it touched down, Fritz raised his shotgun and fired. The speedy diver cartwheeled across the surface.
I picked a drake flying over the center of the spread, swung past it and squeezed the trigger. My shot pattern hit the water 2 feet behind the bird. I lengthened my lead, swung past it a second time and fired. This time, the duck went down hard. Stewart lined Zamma up on a bird that already had floated beyond the decoys. At the master's command, the Lab catapulted from the rocky shoreline, hitting the water with a cannonball splash. A few minutes later, the first duck of the trip was on shore. The initial volley put a total of four bluebills in the bag.
After the dead ducks were ashore, we settled into the routine of scanning the horizon for birds on the move. Soon, Reid spied a trio of buffleheads still several hundred yards away. If the birds maintained their flight path, they would pass parallel to the point but out of range. The ducks must have noticed our decoys bobbing in the light chop because they changed course, offering us classic ducks-over-decoys shooting.
I dropped a drake bufflehead, while Stewart tagged the second drake and Reid finished off the trio. The morning action continued at a rapid pace with bluebills, buffleheads and a few common goldeneyes coming to the blocks. Because these ducks likely had never seen a decoy — or a human, for that matter — they came in perfectly.
Before long, we each had seven ducks, only one short of our eight-duck limits. A pair of buffleheads bought the decoy ruse and was quickly dispatched, followed by a lone goldeneye to finish the hunt. It was an excellent morning of duck hunting in a truly pristine environment.
The hunters and their accompanying Labrador retriever, Zamma, survey the spread of decoys.
Deep in the Boreal Forest
Back at the lodge, we met Wesstrom for lunch. One of my first objectives was to find out how a Swedish merchant marine ended up in Yellowknife. It turns out that on a hiatus from his seafaring life, he embarked on a trip across Canada to explore the fishing and hunting that was first brought to his attention in Jack London stories. One of his excursions was a 900-mile drive from Edmonton, Alberta, to Yellowknife. Wesstrom met a native girl, Doreen, in Yellowknife, who later became his wife. She is the great-granddaughter of an influential tribal chief. Wesstrom admits he likely would not have obtained the territorial permits to build Trout Rock Lodge and run his fishing and hunting operation on tribal lands without his wife's Aboriginal connections.
One of Canada's largest lakes, Great Slave covers 11,000 square miles and is the 10th largest lake on earth. It lies in the center of the 1.4 billion-acre boreal forest, a band of tree-covered real estate stretching from the Maritime Provinces to the Yukon. The boreal is one of the most intact forest and wetland ecosystems remaining in the world. It supports the world's largest caribou herds, as well as large populations of bears, wolves and lynx. Each fall, millions of waterfowl leave these northern woods bound for wintering grounds in all four North American flyways.
Duck season opens on Sept. 1. Almost immediately, migrants from the north join the local ducks. Throughout September, more ducks arrive as others head south, so there is a continual influx of fresh birds. Canada geese move through from their high Arctic breeding areas in pulses, their arrival and length of stay is highly variable. Duck hunts are operated from Sept. 1 to Oct. 1. By early October, most of the birds have departed, and inclement weather becomes a factor. Transportation to the lodge and blinds can become difficult, and while some ducks are still present, it's time to close up shop.
Divers Low and Fast
On the second morning, I was paired with
Dick and Nancy Jacobs. The boat ride was 20 minutes through a maze of channels to a point encircled by spruce trees. The morning air hung in a heavy mist with the temperature in the high 30s. We landed in a cove behind a point and hauled our gear to a blind made of stacked rocks.
Meanwhile, Wesstrom set out two-dozen bluebill and mallard decoys. The first bird out of the mist was a lone goldeneye that was over our spread before we even noticed it. Nancy reacted first and fired a round to anchor the drake.
Wesstrom, who was waiting in the boat around the corner, heard the shot and headed in to pick up her prize. At almost the same moment, I spotted a flock of approaching bluebills. I keyed the button on the hand-held radio to tell Wesstrom to wait. But I was too late. The ducks flared, so I waved him in to pick up the dead bird.
While the bluebills eluded us, soon a small group of bufflehead decoyed beautifully. They came out of the west, their flight swift and direct. Banking into the stiff breeze, their wingbeats slowed as they passed over the middle of the spread. The butterballs were 30 yards out when I gave the signal to shoot. Blocking out a drake on the right, I pulled the trigger, and then switched to a second bird and emptied my gun. Dick and Nancy did the same. We all connected, dropping four of the seven birds in the flock.
Bluebills were the next to decoy. We dropped only one, even though half a dozen were in range. Soon more buffleheads showed up, and in short order, two more birds were on the water. The action remained steady. We finished with eight-bird limits of bluebills, buffleheads, goldeneyes and a bonus white-winged scoter.
Although our hunting produced primarily diving ducks, other species commonly taken include pintails, mallards, wigeon and green-winged teal.
Worth the Trip
Duck hunting on Great Slave Lake requires a long airplane ride, and the weather can be unpredictable. However, the difficulties are worth it -- especially if you want to experience duck hunting in one of the most pristine and beautiful places on earth.
Gary Kramer is a freelance writer and photographer from Willows, Calif.
If You Go
This far north, the waterfowl hunting opportunity is early, from Sept. 1 to Oct. 1. To contact Ragnar Wesstrom at Enodah Wilderness Travel, visit enodah.com. For general information on Northwest Territories Tourism, visit spectacularnwt.com. Air Canada (888) 247-2262, First Air (800) 267-1247 and Westjet (888) 937-8538 serve Yellowknife from most major Canadian cities. A hunting license is $50 (Canadian) for U.S. citizens, and $20 for non-NWT Canadian citizens. An import permit ($25) is required to bring up to three shotguns into Canada. The forms (CAFC 909) must be filled out in triplicate and can be downloaded from the Web at cfc-cafc.gc.ca.