Here's what you need to know for a successful hunt north of the border.
Every waterfowler should experience duck and goose hunting in Canada. Even if a trip north only takes place once in a waterfowler's career, it's almost certain to be the hunt of a lifetime everyone dreams about.
The numbers simply don't lie. With more than 75 percent of all the ducks and geese on the North American continent living in the prairie regions of southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the amount of birds available to hunt is staggering. Just as staggering is another fact of hunting the prairie provinces: Hunting pressure across the region is so limited it is common to hunt a full week and never see another hunter or hear another shot fired in the field.
A dozen years ago, I was lured north, in part based on the reports of untapped waterfowling coming out of the pages of Wildfowl. I was also drawn north out of frustration at not being able to find consistent hunting opportunities in the Lower 48. At the time, I was hunting the Dakotas heavily, but with mixed success. Gaining hunting permission was increasingly tougher as landowners tied up properties in lease agreements.
Finally, my wife, Mari, and I decided to head north for our first Canadian waterfowl hunting adventure. We hunted with an outfitter in Manitoba, another outfitter in Saskatchewan and then freelanced in both regions. On the return trip, we hit our favorite haunts in North Dakota, and eventually headed home after a little more than two weeks of adventure.
From then on, the Canadian experience has become a permanent part of our annual waterfowl hunting plans. Not only did the hunting live up to the reputation, the people we have met across prairie Canada are amazingly gracious and hospitable.
The first couple of years, we continued to book with outfitters and also to freelance. In recent years, we've settled on hunting strictly freelance, moving from area to area doing our own scouting and then making contact with landowners to secure hunting permission. In more than 12 years of chasing web feet across the region, we have never been denied hunting permission by a landowner. There's no special secret to our success at gaining access to private lands. On each and every hunt we take the time to find the landowner, ask politely for permission to hunt, treat the land as it if were our own while we're there and leave it in better condition than we found it.
It's important to understand that waterfowl hunters are providing a service to the typical farmer of the region. Controlling waterfowl numbers reduces crop damage and enables farmers to eek out a little more profit. At the same time, however, waterfowl hunters have an obligation to abide by conservation and also to treat the land with the utmost respect.
Frankly, no other place in North America offers more birds and hunting access with less effort or cost than the prairie regions of Canada. It is amazing more hunters don't make the pilgrimage north. The uncertainty and not knowing where to begin are without question big reasons why so many hunters hesitate to hunt in Canada.
Crossing the Border
Any way you slice it, crossing the border into a foreign country is a little scary. The key to making this necessary step of the journey as painless as possible is to know the rules and adhere to them strictly. The quickest way to have a problem at the border is to be dishonest with border agents or to show up at the border with a criminal record on file.
Anyone with a criminal record is likely to be refused entry into Canada -- and that includes some misdemeanor offenses like driving while under the influence, not paying child support and even unpaid parking violations. For five years after a conviction, Canadian Customs normally refuses entry to individuals with a criminal record. These records can be expunged, but a fee and considerable paperwork is involved.
American citizens without criminal records will gain access to Canada easily as long as they have proof of citizenship in the form of a passport and a second form of picture ID. A birth certificate is no longer acceptable as proof of citizenship at border crossings.
In addition to a valid passport, traveling sportsmen and women will need to complete a Non-resident Firearm Declaration form available at Canadian Firearms Center or www.cfc-cafc.gc.ca. On this form, a hunter will need to declare the exact model numbers and descriptions of firearms being transported to Canada. This form is also required for purchasing ammunition in Canada.
Currently, the fee for this form is $25, and a hunter can transport up to three long guns for one fee. The form must be completed in triplicate and signed in person at a customs office at the time of crossing. If this form is signed not in the presence of a customs agent, they will make you fill out a completely new form. Any time you're in the field, this document must be on your person, in addition to your necessary hunting licenses, stamps and permits.
Every hunter is allowed to transport up to 200 rounds of ammunition to Canada duty-free.
For airline travel, the limit is reduced to 11 pounds, which equals about four boxes of ammunition. A duty must be paid on additional ammunition. It's cheaper to pay the duty than to purchase ammunition in Canada. Also, it can be difficult to find places in Canada that sell the necessary steel shot or non-toxic shot required to hunt waterfowl.
Declare any additional ammunition over and above 200 rounds per person, and the border crossing will be painless. Should the customs agents opt to search your vehicle and find additional ammunition not declared, the experience is likely to be less enjoyable.
It's a good idea to document any valuable items you take to Canada, such as video cameras and optics, prior to crossing the border. U.S. Customs offices can supply the necessary forms to document these items. This step ensures on the return trip, you can prove the items in your possession weren't purchased in Canada and aren't subject to duty fees.
Fueled by success, the author makes a waterfowling pilgrimage to Canada each fall.
Also, on the return trip, you'll have to declare any birds being imported into the United States on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Declaration for Importation of Fish or Wildlife form, available at customs offices. A lot of time can be saved if the paperwork is filled out before you reach the border. In most cases, border agents will simply confirm the birds listed on your declaration forms are indeed in your possession. The process is quick and painless.
Again, playing by the rules makes sense. Trying to transport waterfowl without the proper documents is a felony. Every bird must be identifiable by retaining either the head or one wing attached to the bird. Package your birds one per bag to make counting and identification easy. Separate each hunter's birds so they can be counted and identified easily.
Traveling With Dogs
To travel with your retriever, simply have copies of your vet records handy to show should the customs agent request them. It's necessary to have updated rabies tags, as well as other common vaccinations on file to transport a hunting dog to Canada.
Licenses and Stamps
Across all of the Canadian provinces, hunting waterfowl requires a small-game license, habitat stamp and federal (Canadian) waterfowl stamp. The hunting license and habitat stamp can be purchased at any license agent in the providence to be hunted. Many license agents, however, don't stock the necessary federal waterfowl stamp. These stamps can be purchased at post offices.
The cost of licenses and stamps varies, but it generally totals around $150, and the license is good for one calendar year.
Currently, the Canadian dollar is undervalued compared to U.S. funds by about 25 percent. In other words, a U.S. dollar is worth $1.25 in Canada. Most businesses in Canada will offer U.S. customers some exchange rate, but the best way to ensure you are getting the best possible deal is to purchase with a credit card or convert U.S. currency to Canadian funds at the border.
If you plan to use a credit card, make sure you contact your credit card company before entering Canada so they know you're traveling abroad. Otherwise, the card can be declined when being used outside the United States.
Also, it's important to note that most debit cards will not work in Canada. Take the necessary cash or use a credit card that has been approved for use in Canada for all purchases.
A freelancer must scout. However, the rewards are worth the time investment.
Most cell phone providers offer some coverage in Canada, but the roaming charges are likely to be very expensive. A calling card purchased in Canada is an inexpensive and convenient way stay in touch with those at home. A calling card purchased in the United States will not work in many instances, and if it does work, the rates charged against the card will be double those charged to a calling card purchased in Canada.
The biggest mistake I see waterfowlers make in Canada is to bite off too big of a chunk of the almost unlimited hunting options. All across Canada, there are countless waterfowl hunting opportunities, including field hunts for both ducks and geese, small sloughs that can be waded, larger sloughs that require a boat, big-water diver hunting options, pass shooting, crane hunting and much, much more. Trying to do it all is overwhelming and not practical from the perspective of traveling with all the necessary gear.
Settle on a couple types of hunting options, rather than trying to come prepared for every potential hunting situation. The most common hunting scenarios include dry field hunts using laydown style blinds or slough hunts conducted from waders. Over time, the most productive types of hunting available will become obvious and hunters can plan accordingly depending on what kinds of birds are locally abundant and what kinds of hunting an individual prefers.
Limit Group Size
Traveling to Canada is an awesome adventure. Don't spoil the fun by traveling with too many people. Large groups create all kinds of logistic problems such as transporting guys and gear in and out of the field, coordinating meeting times, etc. Limit your group to three or four hunters who can easily travel in one vehicle. When multiple vehicles are involved, the cost of the trip skyrockets and coordination becomes a hassle.
Here in the States, waterfowl hunters have been conditioned to hunt big. We use big blinds, big motors, big decoy spreads and our ambitions for success are big. Canada has a lot of birds and little hunting pressure to contend with. It's simply not necessary to haul and use huge spreads of decoys to be successful in Canada. Every year, I take less gear to Canada and come home more successful and less worn out from hauling around unnecessary equipment.
For slough shoots, one or two dozen floating duck decoys is plenty. I personally hunt over a dozen blocks.
The typical goose hunt in a field setup can be conducted nicely with just three-dozen goose shells, full bodies or silhouettes. If you expect to find both ducks and geese in a field set up, toss in a dozen field duck decoys and you're good.
Using bigger decoy spreads will serve no purpose other than to make you more tired at the end of the day. The skill is being in the right place at the right time.
Scouting is Essential
Should you opt to hunt with an outfitter, the scouting will become their responsibility, and hunters generally enjoy a morning and evening shoot. If you opt to freelance, scouting becomes an essential part of the process and a necessity that rapidly gobbles up valuable hunting time.
Although scouting takes away from hunting time, searching for birds and pinpointing a hunting strategy is almost as rewarding as the hunt itself. Unfortunately, it's unpractical to hunt both morning and evenings when freelancing, because the best times to scout are also the best hours of the day to hunt. The amount of time dedicated to scouting will play a major role in the overall success of the trip.
It's wise to consider time spent hunting and scouting of equal value. For every half-day spent hunting, dedicate at least the same amount of time to scouting and locating new locations. It's OK to scout in the morning and hunt that evening or to scout in the evening and hunt the following morning.
It's not a good idea to try to scout during the middle of the day. At midday, most birds are going to be roosting on secluded water someplace. Without birds coming and going to give away the location of roosting or feeding areas, pinpointing good hunting areas becomes difficult. The first two or three hours of the day and the last two hours of the day are when m
ost of the birds will be trading between roosting and feeding areas. Plan your scouting efforts to correspond, and don't worry about missing out on a little time in the field. A well-scouted hunt will pay off big compared to a hunt that was poorly scouted.
Across the prairie provinces, maps known as Rural Municipality (RM) Maps are widely available. A municipality is roughly the same as a township here in the states. RM maps show considerable detail, including maintained and seasonal roads, property borders, public lands and most importantly, the name and residence location of private landowners.
RM maps are generally sold at RM offices, which are similar to a township hall. These offices are only open weekdays and during normal business hours.
Plan to Drive
Hunters can find a lot of waterfowl at countless places across southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Zeroing in on the highest concentrations of birds requires matching up areas that have both a lot of grain and a lot of water.
Unfortunately, some of the best hunting areas are nowhere close to towns, motels, gas stations, cafes and other essentials. Plan to drive a lot between hunting areas and burgs that feature the creature comforts of home.
Over the years, we've averaged a tank of fuel for every day we're in Canada. I also travel with a spare can of fuel in the truck, just in case we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere and running on fumes.
Prairie Canada is a waterfowling destination that should be on every hunter's hit list. Nothing else compares.
In addition to being a fanatic waterfowl hunter, Mark Romanack is an expert fisherman. His television show, Fishing 411 with Mark Romanack, airs on The Sportsman Channel.