Everyone knows about the Canadian prairie's honkers, but what about the ducks?
Photos by Dame Spartas.
For those most familiar with it, or hunters researching Alberta waterfowling for the first time, it's the dark goose gunning Peace River Country has to offer that gets the most attention, the most press. And rightly so. With eight bird dark goose bags, and limit shoots the rule rather than the exception, its fair to say Peace Country Canada goose hunting, if not unparalleled, is tough to beat anywhere.
"But what about ducks? Will I get some duck shooting as well?" the inquiring wildfowler might ask.
The few days of gunning I enjoyed in the Peace Country last October answered that question pretty dramatically.
That first morning's hunt began to unfold as so many in Peace Country do. Kevin McNeil, me, and his clients, Winston Chance of Maryland, and Kim Ward of North Carolina, both of whom were on their first Canadian prairie hunt ever, were putting the finishing touches on our goose spread when the day's first birds, mallards, began their bonzai attack. Some scraped the deck, simply materializing from the still black western sky. Others rushed in silhouette overhead, their pinions shredding the heavy, dense air with that whoosing sound that always sends shivers down my back.
Even as we stood in our dimly lit world of blurring wings and happy duck-chatter; I could clearly see the drop-jawed amazement on Winston and Kim's stubbled faces. Striding up in his typically fast-paced gate, Kevin, after having parked the truck and trailer, intoned, "Let's get down in the blinds boys. Time to lock and load." At that the hunt was on.
Once settled in Kevin announced, "It's your hunt guys. You can take some ducks now if you want. Or you can wait for better light to pick the drakes." The temptation for the newbies was, understandably, too great. But the results, after their first two highly-productive vollies, were predictable. Just why it is, given that ducks are born 50/50 on a sex basis, I don't understand; but shoot in low light conditions and you'll invariably kill hens on a ratio of 3 to 1 or worse, just as Winston and Kim did in the early going. With the dust off their gunning bottles, both quickly agreed to hold out for the brighter shooting conditions that would allow them to concentrate on the greencaps.
But by that time the geese were on the move, prompting Kevin to put the ducks temporarily off limits. Still, even as the geese began to work, and we started to tally our share, the ducks, in naive, smoke-like clouds, continued to roll over our pea field. When there would be a lull in the goose flight, all we had to do was flip on our two wing-spinners, and we'd have, much to our mutual delight, the ducks in our laps. It was then the drakes began to pay the price. Still, it was the geese, per Kevin's instructions, and in total agreement with my inclinations anyway, that always took precedence.
Ours proved a banner morning to be sure. We were in the right field and on the "x". With our goose limits wrapped up, Kevin finally gave the green light on the ducks. Our duck bags, the substance of which was the centerpiece of that evening's dinner, were topped off in short order.
Even as we collected the rig, mallards, though in then smaller flocks, continued to flood the field. The great goose hunt aside, all Winston and Kim could talk about was the ducks. And that's how it continued over lunch.
"Look guys," Winston, sensing in Kevin and I no small amount of puzzlement, "you gotta understand. We do a lot of goose hunting back on the Eastern Shore, and have for our entire lives. But never€¦ 'and we mean never' Kim interrupted, "have we seen ducks like this.
"Don't get us wrong", Winston offered. "We enjoy the goose hunt thoroughly. But if all we gunned for the next two days was ducks, we'd be fine with that."
"What we've seen this morning alone€¦and I mean in terms of ducks€¦has already made this trip", Kim added.
There was no doubt these boys meant what they said, a fact not lost on Kevin. "Well then", our eager-to-please Canadian host replied with a wink and a grin, "we'll have to see if we can show you another decent duck shoot or two, though I hope you don't mind if we throw in a few more geese as well."
Now, Kevin will be the first to tell you that Peace Country duck hunting is underrated. "While our goose shooting remains the top priority, our consistent duck hunting tends to get taken for granted. Though the duck shooting is always a reliable Plan B for my goose hunters, more clients than you'd think, actually want ducks first."
And that's understandable I guess. There are a lot of us (wildfowlers) who'll rate goose hunting as arguably more challenging, but duck shooting more fun.
Mark Heckbert, Area Biologist with Alberta Fish and Wildlife explains the natural abundance of ducks in Peace Country. "The many lowland swamps, beaver ponds, and small waterways along the edge of the boreal forest bordering the Peace Country prairie, host good numbers of breeding ducks, both puddlers and divers, in dry and wet years alike. By late summer these birds begin to stage on our larger lakes in the transition zone between forest and prairie. Come early September, as their numbers increase, the ducks spill out into the few dugouts, creeks, and the beaver ponds along them, in farm country. Once there we enjoy consistent field shooting until freeze up."
And leather-booted, high and dry field hunting is what Peace Country ducking is really all about. Available in good numbers right from the September 1 opener on, the first four weeks of the season feature basically brown, uncolored ducks, but wonderfully pleasant early Autumn weather. Hunters looking for fully-colored birds will want to gun Peace Country in October. But they have to expect to roll the dice with the weather. Winter can come at any time in these northern latitudes.
Water shoots are available for those who prefer them. Leisurely, midday hunts on beaver ponds, or typically fast and furious early morning or late afternoon hunts on dugouts in close proximity to fee
d fields are highly productive on birds needing a drink to wash down their dry wheat or pea-oriented meal.
We got together for the late afternoon scout that first day, and after looking at several fields full of options, agreed that a half section of wheat stubble holding good numbers of both ducks and geese would be our best bet for the second morning. One that began as a mirror image of the first.
This time, though, it was a challenge, we held our fire early on. But the hungry, confident mallards, with a few pintails sprinkled in, still swarmed us as the day's gathering light finally allowed us to differentiate "color". For a few minutes the seemingly-oversized, fully-plumed greenheads took a beating. But like the day before, we gave them a rest whenever we had geese working, which was frequently.
These geese didn't play the game like those of the day before. Their unusual skittishness no doubt due to having been gunned before. One thing was certain. There'd be no goose shooting with the spinners running. And relatively little duck shooting without them turned on. So we proceeded to nearly wear the switches out on the darn things, constantly flipping them on and off in response to the type of feathery customers we were dealing with. An inconvenience to be sure, but hardly a big deal in the full scope of things.
The ducks put on a grand show, and our limits, when we chose to work on them, came easily.
The dark geese were another story. While we were busy with the ducks, a concentration of lessers and cacklers built in the southeast corner of our field. And these real McCoys out-pulled our rig pretty handily. Though we came up short, we finally managed to backshoot a few Canadas as they straggled back to the roost in small flocks.
The special highlight of the morning was an encounter of the snow goose kind. Why that flock of a hundred birds or so gave our dark spread a serious look I'll never understand; but they did. At first only kiting characteristically high overhead, their excited barking gave us hope as they swung once, twice, and finally a third time, each at lower altitudes. Having spent way too much time dealing with the "wild one" over the years, I'd have called the shot on the 50- to 60-yard high second pass, thinking surely that it was then or never. We literally talked ourselves into waiting for that "should-never-have-happened" third swing that brought them overhead at a relatively comfortable 40 to 45 yards. When Kevin called the shot a handful of the pure white birds hit the steel wall, only to smack the prairie in a series of satisfying thuds.
That afternoon's scout again produced a number of combo hunt options. But then we came upon the mallard motherload.
With a dazzling late afternoon sun sliding out form under the day's dark, gray curtain as it hustled toward the western horizon, the sprawling pea field was set awash in its last golden rays, as thousands of silvery underwings flashed and whirled above it. There was really no guessing just how many mallards€¦all happy, hungry, and apparently unhunted€¦there were using this field. Even as we sat in the truck on the muddy two-track, ducks streamed well within gun range overhead, only to swoop low, like so many wisps of smoke on the wind, eventually evaporating into the billowing, tornado-like clouds funneling across the rolling field's mid-section.
We were almost, almost, speechless. But then Winston made the call. "This is it. Let's hunt these ducks tomorrow."
"You sure?" Kevin queried, adding, "There's no geese here."
"Doesn't matter," Kim added. "This is the show we want to go to."
And early that next morning, the ducks didn't disappoint. Confident and a bit cocky, we sat back as the dimly lit predawn sky around us filled to overflowing with the sights and sounds of Lord-knows-how-many mallards. This day no one so much as reached for their gun during lowlight, with the stated goal being that of a greenhead limit.
It was a calm, clammy, gray morning with low ceilings, the type of day that threatens to never dawn. But just as the grudgingly gathering light allowed us to finally begin spotting the drakes, the unseen pipeline that had been funneling the birds to our spread shifted eastward. Our relatively lonely pair of spinners provided little competition to the several twisters of ducks bombing the pea field in the distance.
The unasked question was obvious. Had we outsmarted ourselves?
Things actually looked pretty bleak for a while. But then the tide inexplicably turned, and waves of ducks once again began to roll our way. There was little hesitation then. When we vollied on the first few flights the sky rained greenheads. But then we settled down, agreeing, as Kevin suggested, that one gun take one drake at a time. Though it eliminates those ego-satisfying doubles, working on only one bird all but eliminates cripples, and prolongs what is for many hunters, an all too rare experience.
With the mission truly accomplished we lingered, watching in awe as flight after flight of ducks continued to close the distance. Some landed, with often hundreds more hanging on backpedaling wings, between the ten-yard distant robos and our layout blinds. Talk about in your face!
The feeding flight finally ended along about mid-morning. With a then birdless sky we solemnly gathered up the rig, saddened to realize the adventure had come to an end.
A dreamlike experience, the morning's had been so dramatic, so moving; that a guy had to question, "Did it actually happen?" When I offered as much out loud, Kevin replied by asking, "Now, how special is that?"
"More than you'll ever know," stressed Winston as he gratefully pumped our Peace Country "duck" guide's hand. "More than you'll ever know!"