November 03, 2010
Sometimes The Best Plans End Up Under Water
In less than 12 steps, I went from 5'11" to 6'2". My feet slipped with every step. It felt like there were large weights around my ankles. I glanced down and couldn't see my boots. Instead, I saw two giant clumps of mud that remotely resembled the shape of my feet. I hadn't even gone from the cab of my truck to the back of my trailer and knew it was going to be a very long morning getting decoys into the field. However, based on the number of geese and ducks we'd seen feeding in this field the previous afternoon, I was extremely optimistic there was going to be a reward for all this effort!
Even so, part of me still wanted to get back into the truck and head for home. However, that wasn't going to happen. My long time friends Tommy Akin, Barnie Myracle and Stan Anderson had traveled from Tennessee for our annual Saskatchewan waterfowl hunt. This block of days had been booked months ago and we were going to have to make the best of the situation.
Through a lifetime of hunting in Saskatchewan, I had never really experienced the extremely muddy conditions and abundance of sheet water that was at hand. Last fall things were way wetter than normal. The conditions were something I couldn't have imagined. Little did I know, I was going to witness a few other scenarios that I'd never experienced during a fall hunting season.
At the tail end of August (2006) and into the early part of September, much of central Saskatchewan, including the area near the Quill Lakes where we were hunting had received tremendous amounts of heavy rain. It started with a terrible storm that dropped seven plus inches of rain in the course of a few hours. This caused large areas of sheet water to form in farmers fields. From that point forward, it seemed to rain every other day and at times every day.
For farmers not done harvesting, it was a nightmare; there were countless fields of standing and swathed crops that were suddenly under water. For the ducks and geese it was a paradise with unlimited roosting and feeding areas.
In most years, ducks and geese typically concentrate and stage on large local water bodies such as Quill, Mud, Nut, Ponass and Jansen Lakes along with a handful of giant marshes making for easy scouting starting points. However, this year, with water everywhere, the local ducks and geese along with migrating snows and lessers that were arriving daily had countless options of where to roost, loaf and drink. So instead of the birds being concentrating and in larger groups, they were spread out in small groups all around the countryside!
With all the water in the area, traveling on dirt back roads to scout was next to impossible. Access to large blocks of hunting property was cut off due to roads not being drivable. Even if a drivable road could be found, care had to be taken to ensure we didn't slip off the road and into the water-filled ditches or stop in a low spot and not be able to get going again. With such limited access, there was suddenly a lot of hunting pressure on some very small areas.
To further complicate matters, the weather was unseasonably mild. With such warm weather, the birds weren't forced to fly to stubble fields to feed on high protein foods. Instead, they could easily stay put, feed on aquatic creatures or simply walk out to surrounding water slogged fields and feed on cereal crops.
With the birds so spread out and access a problem, good waterfowl hunts were few and far between. Finally after a few mediocre shoots and several days of hard scouting, we found a barley field that had a good sized concentration of Canada geese and ducks feeding in it. Luckily, the field was along a good gravel road a few miles off the main highway, meaning I was able to pull my decoy trailer right to the edge of the field.
When securing permission the farmer told us if that we stuck to some high ground on the edge of the field, we would be able to drive a four wheel drive truck part way into the field. With that said, he offered to come pull us out with his tractor if we got stuck.
The plan was to pull the goose decoys from my trailer, put them into decoy bags, toss them into the back of a 4X4 truck and drive them in as far as possible. From there, we'd walk them in, unload them and take the decoy bags back to the trailer for another load. The downside was that we would need an extra hour and a half to get set up.
Rain showers moved through the area most of the night. As we headed to our field, the occasional rain drop splattered on the windshield. Thankfully when we arrived at our field, the rain quit falling.
Barnie and Stan drove into the field and then I started backing my trailer off the road and onto the edge of the field. As I did so, I could feel my truck tires slipping and my trailer wheels digging in. A quick shift into four wheel drive allowed me push my trailer far enough into the field so that my truck was off the road.
Once out of the truck and into the ooze, we began unloading decoys, bagging them up and reloading them into our other truck. On our first trip into the field, we spooked a large group of Canada geese out of a low spot. It was neat to see them flapping off on the headlights. However, it left a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I'd hoped the geese had spent the night in big slough a couples miles to the east of this location, rather than in field we were going to hunt.
Somehow, we managed to get setup without getting stuck and were ready to go just before shooting time. As we settled into our blinds, ducks buzzed our spread and landed in our decoys. While watching and listening to this early morning spectacle, it quickly dawned on me that the hard work and effort to get to this position were worth it!
Finally it was shooting time. At that point, we were covered up with ducks. There were ducks on the ground and in the air. As a flock of ducks dropped into range, we opened fire. Several ducks fell from the flock and splattered onto the wet field, while countless others filled the sky as they flew off. In less than 20 minutes, we had our limit of ducks on the ground. As we waited for the geese to come, we had hundreds of ducks buzzing around us. What we noticed was that ducks would come from every direction; dive bomb into a lar
ge weed choked flooded area a couple hundred yards west of our decoys. Then moments later they would get airborne, come straight at us and work our spread.
Thankfully, we had the duck show to watch that morning as only one lone goose worked into the spread. It wasn't that we didn't see any geese. In fact, we saw lots of geese. However, most of the geese were seen in the distance and headed elsewhere. The few flocks that did fly over us, had other destinations in mind and never even broke a wing beat to give our decoys or calling a second look.
As we took down our spread, we were frustrated by what happened with the geese. We assumed that the geese we pushed out of some sheet water earlier in the morning formed part of the geese we had seen the previous afternoon. However, we were puzzled as to why the vast majority of geese never returned to our field and eventually chalked it up to the birds having so many options on where to feed.
The take down process didn't take as long as the set up process. However, it was equally messy and required the same amount of hard work and slogging in the mud. Even with the effort required to clean up and the fact the geese had duped us, no one was complaining. Why would we, we had limited out on ducks in short order and were able to witness an incredible spectacle of duck activity.
After a big brunch the guys headed for a little shut eye. I was too pumped from the morning and couldn't sleep. So, I spent time reorganizing my trailer and trying to clean up some mud.
At about 3 o'clock, we headed out to do some scouting. By 4 o'clock, there were small bunches of birds everywhere in the sky. Unfortunately, it seemed like every road or trail we started down lead us to a muddy or flooded road that we were unable to drive down. As the afternoon hours quickly ticked away, we were quickly facing a situation of not finding a good place to hunt.
Out of desperation, we headed back to the field where we had hunted earlier in the day. There wasn't a bird feeding where we had been set up. Thankfully, the large flooded area west of where we had been set up and the surrounding skies were full of ducks.
As we watched the birds, it became evident that the ducks were using the flooded area to drink and were then disbursing to countless surrounding areas to feed in small groups. With so many ducks concentrating in one area and with really no other options, we instantly knew where we would hunt the next morning. However, this time it would be with a dozen floating duck decoys and a couple of spinners.
With such a small load of decoys, it only took one trip to get our decoys and blinds into the field. As we approached the large flooded area, we discovered that the area was way bigger and deeper than we had anticipated. In fact, it was a drainage canal that had overflowed its banks causing the vast majority of the tall grass surrounding the area to be underwater.
The way the wind was blowing, we needed to be on the far side of the flooded area. It quickly became evident that even with waders the water was too deep to safely cross! Walking around to the other side wasn't an option as the drainage ditch ran for miles. It was either go back to the hotel or try to come up with a workable option.
After lots of sloshing around the edges of the flooded area, we found a small little bay that would allow us to set up some decoys. As an added bonus, there was some nearby higher and drier ground where we could set up our blinds.
With everything set up, we waited for the ducks to start coming. For some strange reason there were no ducks to be seen. Legal time arrived and still no ducks. When we were at the point of starting to question ourselves, a flock of ducks appeared, with numerous other flocks behind them. Just as we had originally expected, they worked into the wind and landed on the far side of the water.
It was frustrating to watch as flock after flock of ducks landed well out of our range. To further add to our displeasure, the occasional splattering of raindrops fell from the overcast skies.
Unexpectedly, the skies started to brighten. This added light was just enough to make our decoys become visible to distant flights of ducks. From that point on, we started to get a little action. Small flocks of ducks and the occasional straggler from larger flocks were lured within shooting range by our decoys and calling. The action wasn't hot and heavy as we were forcing birds to come to a spot that they really didn't want to be in, but it was constant enough to keep us afield. By 11:30, we had our limit of ducks along with a few bonus snow and Canada geese that figured the flooded area was a good place to set down in.
After a few more days of driving and walking in mud, wading through sheet water and hand bombing decoys into areas where I would have normally pulled my decoy trailer into, my friends from the south headed home for drier ground. As for myself, I remained in my home province and continued to hunt in the mud and sheet water for the next few weeks.
In a nutshell, as the season progressed, the ducks and geese continued to stay spread out. The mud and sheet water remained. Hunting pressure in many areas was heavy and many of the birds eventually got into pockets where hunters couldn't get to. The unseasonable temperatures allowed the birds to stay in north/central areas of the province until the weather turned nasty and sent them south.
When they did head south, it was so late in the year that most of the birds flew right over my home stomping grounds, past my late season southern hunting jaunts and ended up somewhere in North Dakota.
Looking back on it, I can definitely say that last season was unlike any other hunting season I had ever experienced. Many of my hunts were impacted by poor road conditions, birds changing feeding locations on a whim, having to deal with lots of hunters and the added costs of hunting far from home. It was definitely a season of ups and downs; however, I didn't let the sheet water blues prevent me from getting out hunting.