Ducks and geese put on a stunning aerial display in Alberta.
A horde of ducks plummeted from the clouds -- wings cupped and tail feathers spread. We were hunting an ankle-deep pond of not more than 2 acres. I swear the ducks were more than 100 yards high when they touched the east end of that tiny pond. I figured the birds were just going to pass overhead, not heeding the pleadings of championship duck callers Barnie Calef and Steve Bierle.
But the flock of more than 100 birds dropped so fast at such a steep angle that I was simply amazed. I've watched many times in awe as ducks and geese extended their wings straight above their heads and then fell from the sky. But the ducks diving for this Alberta pond didn't do that. Instead, they just cupped up, extended tail feathers wide and came nearly straight down -- very much in control of their flight.
We had a line of six guns waiting. Calef called "Take 'em!" at just the right time.
We came up blazing. I was a little slower than the rest, because my jaw was still wired wide open after having witnessed so many ducks descending so rapidly on cupped wings.
Katie, the black Lab, had quite a few ducks to fetch -- all pintails. A couple of the gunners helped her fetch the closer ducks. No sooner had we calmed down a bit, had all the birds gathered and Katie settled back in, when Bierle whispered, "Here comes another bunch."
It was a mirror image, another huge flock of well over 100 ducks that did the same thing.
Still very high and not very far from our hides on the west shore of the little pond, the ducks cupped wings and plummeted so steeply that all I could do was marvel. But this time, the flock was all greenheads and susies.
It was a bright afternoon with sunlight galore. Send me a flock of three greenheads and a couple of hens, and I'll have no trouble selecting drakes to shoot under those conditions.
However, which greenhead to shoot becomes much more mentally challenging with more than 100 targets to choose from. When we shot at the previous pintail flock, I don't think all that many of us zeroed in on the long-tailed sprigs. But this time, we were thinking greenheads only the moment the birds began their startling descent.
I had trouble picking one out. As soon as I would select a drake, another bird would cross in front, so I'd have to switch. As a result, the firing was somewhat sporadic. The hitting suffered significantly. We only picked up a miserly three ducks, and two of them were not drakes. Maybe it's little wonder a huge flock of birds that do baffling things on the wing can confound so many very experienced waterfowlers. I know I was muttering to myself.
Low afternoon light can help create wonderful photos. I knew I had to put my digital camera to work, so I put my shotgun back in its case. I was attaching a lens when Calef alerted, "Look out. Here they come, and it's another huge bunch."
Bierle and Calef cranked on their calls, while I crawled 20 yards west of the gun line, swung around with the camera aimed at the right place and started on the shutter button.
That third big flock of mallards wasn't the last one of the afternoon either. The pattern was set: Approach high, hear the calling, drop from the sky. The ducks were making almost vertical descents. It was a beautiful thing to photograph -- and to experience.
To the Wheat Field
The next afternoon, Bierle, fellow writer Phil Bourjaily and I set up in a huge wheat field.
Much of the terrain I had seen in Alberta consisted of relatively flat fields. But the huge wheat field outfitter Rip Clark had us in was rolling, with some slopes steep enough that harvesting machines would have to go up and down, as the terrain was too dangerous to work across with a tractor or combine.
The land was owned and farmed by a religious sect called the Hutterites, and their straw balers hadn't left much to dress our layout blinds. Fortunately, plenty of wheat seed leavings littered the ground.
Clark had a bale of straw in the back of his pickup to conceal our layout blinds completely. By 5 p.m., we had four blinds perfectly camouflaged and a good-looking set of full-bodied decoys nicely arranged, most of them behind or upwind of our hides. Clark wanted to be all set before 6 p.m., because that's when scouts had discovered the Canada geese coming into this field the previous evening.
Bierle saw them first. "Here they come," he uttered.
It was only 5:30 p.m., so all four of us went from standing to diving into our layout hides.
Bierle talked to the geese in most enticing tones, but the Canadas had water on their minds instead of food. They winged past, without a single bird offering even one bit of interest.
White Cheek Patches
Within minutes, another flock came from the south. Bierle worked them masterfully. Numbering about 35, this bunch swung to our west, then, once a little north of our spread, they turned east. This maneuver put them right in front of our blinds, so it was easy shooting when Clark gave the signal for us to go to work.
I remember thinking, "Eye on the white cheek patch. Start the left hand moving the gun first. Head tight at the shot. Follow through."
With that pre-shot routine, smoking a Canada goose at only 20 yards was easy. The first one folded, I swung to a honker slightly behind. That one spun quickly to the ground, too.
A double is a very good way to start an afternoon of goose hunting, so I was on figurative Cloud Nine.
On the next flock, however, Bierle upstaged me with a beautiful triple. Like a true wing-shooting professional, he came right down the line, taking one Canada, then the next bird in front of the first one hit, then the third goose in front of the second one that fell.
I hit my goose from that flock, but evidently from too far behind. It didn't crumple cleanly, so I stuck with the bird on my second shot. Hit again, but the goose wasn't coming down immediately. My third shot brought it to the ground.
"Great shooting, Steve!" I cried. "I saw most of that action in my peripheral vision."Of course, maybe Bierle's great shooting kept me from a hard focus on my goose's white neck patch.
"You know, Steve, I made a triple, too. I hit my bird all three times," I said with a laugh.
Mostly, it was Canada geese coming from the south that reacted so positively to Bierle's calling. Of course, the odd single, pair and three-bird bunch that came from other directions. Those coming from the south, however, provided the lion's share of the action. By 6:30, we had each shot seven dark geese, one short of a limit.
"OK," Clark instructed, "Let's just have only one shooter on anything that comes in from now on. Steve, you take the first one."
Minutes later, Bierle made a nice 35-yard shot on a right-to-left crosser. Then, as Bierle was in the process of enticing another 25-bird flock, Clark instructed Bourjaily and me, "You can each take one out of this flock if the birds are separated."
Waterfowl hunters in Alberta are likely to have a chance at white-fronted geese, also known as specklebellies.
When Bierle called the shot, Bourjaily had a cupcake 15-yarder, and I had an easy one at 20 yards and climbing. Too easy. Bourjaily swung on a goose at a good 35 yards away, and I did the same. Thump. Thump.
I pinched myself a couple of times as I walked from the blind to pick up that final goose of the day. Was this really happening? How could we be so lucky?
I've made six trips to Alberta. I have yet to experience any bad luck there. The waterfowling has simply always been filled with good luck. Further, all my trips to Alberta have taken place when stateside waterfowling had not yet started. Consequently, I always look at the wonderful waterfowling opportunities in western Canada as warmups to the gunning we're going to have later in the year.
I've been fortunate to hunt with Bourjaily a lot. He's an experienced waterfowler, but despite numerous tries and quite a few close calls, he had never killed a white-fronted goose, also commonly called specklebellies. Because of their lilting calls, this species is also known as the "laugher" or "laughing geese." A little smaller than most subspecies of the Canada goose, specks are much sought after as table fare. Bourjaily had tasted specks before, so he was certainly hoping to bring a few home.
Not long into our first morning of shooting, this time in a harvested pea field, Calef and Bierle combined to call in a trio of specks. I just pulled up and shot one -- a speck with a tiger-striped breast. Bourjaily was just getting ready to pull the trigger on that bird when it crumpled. So he swung on its non-tiger-striped companion. Happy as a grade school kid coming home with all A's on his report card, Bourjaily was soon prancing back with his first white-fronted goose.
Specklebellies are usually plentiful on September and October hunts in western Canada.
In my experience, they have always been more difficult to come by here in the United States, although there are good concentrations of them in many areas. If you hunt geese in Alberta for two or three days, you are likely to have several opportunities at specks.
Always double check on seasons, bag limits and regulations, but for the past several years, duck and goose season has opened in Alberta on or around Sept. 1. Seasons are long, with some running into December. Of course, many of the migrating birds have left Alberta weeks before that.
Limits are liberal, with eight dark geese daily, five of which can be specklebellies, and eight ducks, with a limited number of pintails. You can also shoot 20 snow geese per day.
A few outfitters specialize in snow goose hunting in Alberta, but not many. However, in my experience, many groups will almost always bag a few snows.
No one can guarantee limits of eight ducks and eight dark geese every day. But provided you can shoot well, I have no doubt you will take a lot of waterfowl in Alberta.
Nick Sisley is a veteran wingshooter from Apollo, Pa.