November 03, 2010
Saskatchewan's Lake Diefenbaker holds birds, no doubt.
I know of a place in Saskatchewan where on any given day, from the opening of the season to the end of the season I can hunt Canada, whitefronted, snow or Ross' geese. While these various species migrate through the area at various times, it seems there is always at least one or more of these species of birds to hunt. In addition, I've had days when I've been able to harvest a bird of each type. That place is an area I call the Mighty "D".
Thirty dozen dekes for snows.
Setting The Scene
Lake Diefenbaker and the South Saskatchewan River that feeds this man made lake are located in south western Saskatchewan. The lake itself is 140 miles long and has close to 500 miles of shoreline. It was created during 1959 and 1967 when the Gardiner and Qu'Appelle dams were built on the South Saskatchewan River and at the intersection between the South Saskatchewan River and the Qu'Appelle River. This manmade waterbody is so big, that many including myself don't really know where the Saskatchewan River stops and Lake Diefenbaker begins. Thus my Mighty D is the body of water from the Alberta border east to Elbow, south to the Qu'Appelle Dam and north to the Gardiner Dam and some of the tail waters towards Saskatoon. I also lump the multitude of grain fields and potholes in the surrounding area within this description.
The term mighty is not just based on the sheer size of the area and water body, it's also based on the massive numbers of migrating waterfowl that stage on and near this water system. While the lake was originally created to control the waters of the South Saskatchewan River in order to generate power, hold water for irrigation and to prevent flooding, it created a unique and incredible waterfowl staging area that's used annually by hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl.
During the spring and summer, water is stored in Lake Diefenbaker. During the fall and winter months, water is released from the lake. This controlled process creates prime waterfowling staging areas in the form of countless sandbars on the lake and sandbars and islands on the river portion. In addition, a 500 metre hunting restriction from the water's edge for most of the hunting season adds an additional level of security to these sandy roosts, making for a waterfowl haven.
While sandbars, islands and cold deep water are safe places to roost, they offer very little in the way of food. Hence, the birds must leave the safety of their water sanctuaries and head out for the stubble fields to feed on cereal crops. Geese can be found feeding anywhere from a few hundred yards of the water to fifty plus miles from the water's edge. In addition throughout the season, birds will find local marshes and smaller reservoirs to temporarily stage on.
When I first started hunting around the Mighty D, I found it very intimidating. There were vast amounts of territory to cover. There was and continues to be a 500 metre restriction for hunting within the water's edge for most of the season and there are countless marshes, potholes, creeks and feeding areas scattered throughout this prime hunting hotspot.
However, over the years, I have experienced some prime hunting in and around the Mighty D. My success is a result of learning where to go for the various species, when to go and what tactics to use.
The author and a healthy bag.
I generally target whitefronts from early September through late October, as this is the prime time for these geese to arrive and stage on Lake Diefenbaker. At the peak of the migration, which occurs in early October, there are usually well in excess of one million whitefronts staging on Lake Diefenbaker. During most seasons, the vast majority of those birds typically roost on Galloway and Miry Bays. However, in wet years, whitefronts may also stage on smaller wetlands surrounding Diefenbaker.
Over the years, I've hunted on the north side of the lake near the communities of Kyle, Lacadena and Whitebear and on the south side near Abbey, Shakleton and Cabri. In most years, the hunting is equally good on both sides of the lake. However, in some years, the hunting can be better on one side or the other based on food conditions and/or surrounding wetland conditions. For example, if the south side had drought and poor crop production, the birds will tend to feed more on the north side than the south. Other crop factors, such as bumper crops, hailed out crops or a lack of pea, wheat or barely fields may dictate which side of the lake the birds will feed on. In addition, changes in wind direction and hunting pressure can also dictate where the whitefronts go to feed.
Even with such large concentrations of whitefronts in one place I've discovered that scouting is essential to finding a prime place to hunt. In addition, with so many live birds in the area, a good sized spread is also important. Hence, when targeting these geese, I spend hours scouting and always try to set up a minimum of 10 to 15 dozen decoys.
When setting up my decoys for whitefronts, I try to represent a large undisturbed group of contently feeding birds. My set consists of a main body of decoys with family units spreading out to feed, new arrivals joining the main flock and an open landing zone to attract and funnel incoming birds. While a spread of all whitefront decoys would be awesome, the vast majority of my spreads are Canada goose decoys with a few whitefront decoys mixed in. In most cases, the whitefront decoys are placed in the landing zone and the upwind end of the spread.
A spread for lessers.
Over the years, I have seen the habits of whitefronts change. Maybe it's because they are becoming more like snow geese or they simply are adapting to hunting pressure. When I first started hunting them, they were quite naÃ¯ve, easy to decoy and could be harvested throughout the entire morning. They were also easily drawn into range with Canada goose calls. Now, they seem much warier. The majority of whitefronts I shoot these days are taken in during the period of a half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunrise and usually require lots of realistic shrill two note whitefront calls to draw them into shooting range.
There are two prime times each fall when I h
unt greater Canadas around Lake Diefenbaker. The first time is early in the season around mid September and the second time frame is later in the season starting about the middle of November.
I've found that early season honker hunting can be good all around the lake. Which locations are better than others is dependent on what the spring nesting conditions were like. These early hunts are for local geese that nested in the area and are congregating in small groups to feed. In most cases a good shoot can be enjoyed if 120 to 150 Canadas can be found feeding in the same field.
Working for snows near Lake Diefenbaker.
In many of these early season hunts, the geese are still in family units and often come from multiple roosts. When I encounter such a scenario, I'll deploy no more than two to three dozen decoys. I set them up in family groups consisting of two to seven birds, with large open spaces between the groups. If all goes well, the geese will come to the field at different times and offer several shooting opportunities. As each group approaches, I'll work them with a few soft clucks and moans until it's time to shoot.
In November when surrounding wetlands freeze solid, the local greaters along with honkers from the more northerly portions of the province start to congregate on the open waters, back bays and sandbars of Diefenbaker. When they do, they offer some great hunting opportunities. In most years, the shooting action can extend well into December and there have even been years when there have still been geese around after the season is over.
Later in the season, these big geese are more concentrated so I generally use six to eight-dozen full body Canada goose decoys. Since most of the mornings are frosty this time of the year, I use all fully flocked decoys like the Greenhead Gear full body Canada decoys to eliminate frost build up and decoy shine.
My go to spread is a "U" shape with my blinds positioned on the downwind edge of the main decoy spread. I usually space my decoys three feet apart and place most of my feeders around and upwind of the blinds, with the majority of active decoys downwind of the blinds.
During these late season hunts, the arrival of birds to feeding locations can and does vary. In many instances, the birds go to a once a day feeding pattern and as result, they periodically fly out to feed later in the morning than they did earlier in the season. On extremely cold days, I've even experienced geese waiting until early afternoon to head afield. Regardless, I'm always prepared and ready to go at legal shooting time.
Between hunting the greater Canadas early and late in the season, there is a period when migrating lesser Canadas start staging on the Mighty D. In most years, the lessers start arriving in the Lake Diefenbaker area in late September and depending on the weather are basically gone by the end of October or early November. The peak of this annual lesser Canada goose migration usually occurs the last three weeks of October.
Over the years, I've experienced good lesser hunting all around the lake. However, based on my many years of hunting the Mighty D, I typically tend to concentrate my efforts along the western portion of Lake Diefenbaker and the Saskatchewan River as far west as the Saskatchewan/Alberta Border, around Gardiner Dam, east of the Qu'Appelle Dam and north of the Riverhurst Ferry.
Since this area holds large concentrations of lesser Canadas, I've come to realize that a spread of at least 10- to 15-dozen Canada goose decoys is necessary to successfully hunt these geese. One thing that I have noticed while scouting lesser Canadas around Lake Diefenbaker is how they react to hunting pressure. When there in minimal hunting pressure, the geese tend to be very relaxed and spread out when feeding. However, when the hunting pressure is heavy, these geese tend to bunch up real tight while feeding.
Whitefronts of Galloway Bay.
My go to decoy pattern for lessers is usually a crescent shaped decoy spread with two or three open and obvious landing zones on the downwind end of the main body of the decoy spread. When hunting relaxed birds, my decoys are generally spaced three to four feet apart and when hunting pressured birds, I tighten my decoys up and set them up one or two feet apart. My blinds are always positioned within the decoys and behind the landing zones which puts them in the middle or slightly upwind portion of the spread.
During the mid October period, it's quite common to be able to hunt both lesser and greater Canadas on the same hunt. Generally, the lessers come to the decoys at first light and the greaters come later in the morning.
From mid-September through the end of October snow geese can be found in most areas of the Mighty D. Large concentrations of snow geese form at various locations on the lake and head out daily to feed on surrounding grain fields. When the hunting pressure in one area gets too much for a group of these birds, they simply relocate to a different area on the lake and start feeding elsewhere.
While hunting snows around Lake Diefenbaker I've observed there are usually more snow geese on the north side of the eastern portion of the lake and along the southern side of the western portion around Galloway and Miry Bays. However, this is not to say that there are not snow geese at other locations around the lake. In addition, it seems that the further west I go, the fewer and fewer blue phase geese and more and more Ross' geese I see.
Over years of hunting snow geese around Lake Diefenbaker I've observed that if the snows are feeding in a field with dark geese, they are more inclined to return the next day as opposed to when they feed in a field by themselves. Thus, I've enjoyed good success with mixed spreads of white and dark goose decoys.
The main body of my decoy spread usually consists of thirty plus dozen snow goose decoys positioned two feet apart in a pattern best described as a squashed football. My blinds are positioned in this main body just slightly upwind of the middle of the spread. I then set out two groups of dark decoys each consisting of 10 or more dozen Canada or whitefronted decoys. One dark grouping is deployed upwind of the snow goose decoys on either the left or right side of the spread and the other dark group is positioned downwind of the snow goose spread on the opposite side of the dark upwind decoys.
Like snow goose hunting across North America, I've found that motion and realistic decoys are vital to success. Luckily, most areas around this lake seem to get their fair share of wind, so full body and shell decoys on motion stakes along with win
dsocks work very well.
For most of my snow goose hunts I prefer to set up and hunt larges concentrations of feeding snows. This way, the bulk of the snow geese will fly to my field and hopefully work my decoy spread. However, late in the season, when the geese tend to feed all day long and the weather turns nasty, I change my approach. I try to find a field between two or three feeding fields and target singles, pairs and small groups of snow geese that toggle back and forth between the various feeding groups.
The duck hunting around Lake Diefenbaker is greatly impacted by the pothole situation of the areas surrounding the lake. When nesting conditions are good almost any area around the lake can provide great duck hunting opportunities. In these instances, the ducks toggle back and forth between small potholes and stubble fields until the small potholes freeze up. Once the potholes freeze, the local ducks will usually stage on nearby open waters the lake and remain until their feeding sources get snow covered.