November 03, 2010
Canada's grasslands and parklands still offer endless opportunities
By no means am I a wealthy man. However, I can say that I am rich in Canadian waterfowling having hunted throughout Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba. After years of hunting the prairies, I know these three provinces can offer up some great duck and goose hunting action. Not only that, I've also seen that each province has something different to offer.
Navigation made easy.
What I'm going to tell you is based on my own experiences of where I've been and what I've seen. With that in mind, I'd also like to point out that water is the key to all waterfowl hunting in the prairie provinces. Water dictates where the birds nest in the spring, which greatly impacts where the early season hunting action starts. Water or lack of water also greatly influences where local and migratory birds will stage as the hunting season progresses. With climatic changes, some of the areas I've been to may change and other new areas may develop.
All three of the Prairie Provinces have large numbers of honkers. These birds nest both on the prairies and in the forest. Those that nest on the prairies normally stay close to where they nested and only move elsewhere when hunting pressure gets to be too much or when the local potholes and waterbodies freeze over.
For the most part, honkers in Saskatchewan tend to be spread out and well dispersed. It seems they can be seen in small groups virtually anywhere in the province where there's small waters and agricultural lands. Late in the season, these birds will move to bigger water bodies such as Lake Diefenbaker, Last Mountain Lake, Quill Lake, Wascana Lake and Boundary Dam and congregate until "Old Man Winter" sends them south.
Thankfully many of these late season locations are within driving distance of my house as the timing of such movements and concentrations is often difficult to predict.
Saskatchewan offers hunters the best opportunity at a mixed bag harvest. Ducks and geese of every species can be present at any given time. Honkers seem to nest everywhere there is a small pothole and when things are wet, ducks can be found in large numbers. Saskatchewan does not allow any Sunday hunting. Legal hunting times are from a half hour before sunrise until a half hour after sunset. Saskatchewan has morning only hunting for dark geese until approximately the middle of October. Many Saskatchewan waterbodies have 500 metre shooting restrictions in place on them to reduce hunting pressure on the birds. Saskatchewan also has a sandhill crane season.
Species Hot Spots:
Northern Saskatchewan -- Honkers and Lessers
Central Saskatchewan — Snows and Canadas
Southern — Specs in the west and Ducks in the east
Over the years, I have found a slight exception to this pattern. I have observed large early season concentrations of Saskatchewan honkers just south of the forest fringe boundary where forest gives way to farmland. These are the birds that nested in the forest and made a short migration out of the trees in early September to find food and water.
While southern areas of Alberta and Manitoba have their share of pockets of small groups of honkers, these two provinces are well known for their large concentrations of honkers. Alberta's Peace River Country and Manitoba's Oak Hammock Marsh are two of the very best areas I know to find large concentrations of honkers.
When hunting these areas of Alberta and Manitoba, it's very common to find fields of up to one thousand honkers. I also find many fields with four or five hundred birds, but often overlook them with intentions of finding larger concentrations of geese. Yet, in Saskatchewan, a field with four or five hundred honkers would be considered a mother load and the makings of the hunt of a lifetime. In most cases, when hunting honkers in Saskatchewan I look for fields of honkers in the 250 range and will even hunt fields with 100 birds, providing my scouting reveals those big birds traveling in several smaller flocks as opposed to coming in one big group.
Due to sheer numbers and large concentrations, I have found it relatively easy to concentrate exclusively on honkers when hunting in Alberta and Manitoba. When hunting in Saskatchewan, I find that I often shoot honkers in conjunction with other geese or ducks. However, I still have my share of honker-only shoots, but usually such hunts happen later in the year when the big birds are concentrated.
Spreads tailored to fit the situation.
Each fall thousands of Lesser Canada geese migrate through Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Ten years ago, I could predict with great accuracy when and where these acrobatic little geese would show as they moved south. However, over the last few seasons with milder temperatures and an abundance of water in the northern reaches of the various provinces, these geese are becoming more and more unpredictable.
It seems these little geese are now staying in the northern agricultural reaches for longer periods of time each fall. As well, when they do start moving south, they do not tend to push as far south with each migratory flight .
Even with such unpredictability, there is no doubt that each fall Lessers will pile up in large numbers in the same areas of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba as do the honkers and will usually get there in advance of the honkers. However, it is interesting to note that their concentrations in these areas are generally getting smaller in number than previous years.
Manitoba offers excellent duck hunting, especially for divers. During the peak of the Oak Hammock Marsh is one of the best places to hunt geese. Manitoba allows Sunday hunting. Legal hunting times are from a half hour before sunrise until a half hour after sunset. Manitoba has morning only hunting restrictions in some zones for non-resident alien hunters until mid-October. Manitoba has a sandhill crane season. This province does have a limited number of speckle bellies and the opportunity to harvest Brandt.
Species Hot Spots:
Northern Manitoba — Ducks — All species — Lots of Divers
Central Manitoba — Oak Hammock Marsh
Honkers — Large Concentrations
Southern Manitoba — Snows — Ducks
In addition to piling into traditional large scale staging areas Lessers also stage in huntable numbers throughout various areas of the three Prairie Provinces. Since they are in smaller pockets, it seems that more time and miles are required to find them than if they were staging on a traditional roosting waterbody. However, the reward for finding a group of these birds is often a good hunt. As well, in many of these cases, Lessers and resident honkers can be hunted at the same time. On such days, the Lessers always come first and show a strong tendency to try and land in the main body of the decoys. As for the honkers, they generally wait at least until sunrise to head out to feed and will often try to land on the outer edges of the decoys.
Smaller pockets of Lessers can be found in much of central Alberta, especially in the triangle area between Vermillion, Llyodminster and Provost. In Saskatchewan, these birds seem to congregate along the North Saskatchewan River early in the season and along the South Saskatchewan River in the later stages of the season. Lessers seem to stage good numbers in Manitoba's Interlake Regions. I have also seen them along Manitoba's Assiniboine River.
Snow geese can be found in large numbers throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Snows stage in large flocks in these provinces and move when the hunting pressure gets to be excessive or temperatures get too cold. In a typical year, snows start staging in the northern regions of each province and slowly work their way south.
In my experiences of hunting in Alberta, blue phase geese are almost non-existent and are considered a real trophy by local hunters. Yet, when hunting in eastern Saskatchewan and western Manitoba, it's possible to exclusively target blue phase geese and still have a very successful outing. If I draw a line that runs north and south and divides Saskatchewan in half I find the ratio of blues to whites is about 25 percent. The farther west I go from that line, the fewer and fewer blue phase geese I see. If I travel east from that line the ratio of blue phase snow geese to white snow geese increases dramatically almost to 50 percent.
Fistfulls of Candian puddlers.
When I'm hunting snow geese in the various provinces, I always try to keep this color phase phenomenon in mind. As a general rule, I use all white decoys in Alberta, a mix of 75-percent white and 25-percent blue phase decoys when hunting central Saskatchewan and as much as a 50/50 mix when hunting in eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The other thing that I've noticed when hunting snow geese in the three Prairie Provinces is that there are Ross' geese in each. However, I have observed that there are more Ross' geese in Alberta and western Saskatchewan than there are in eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. As well, I have noticed that I harvest more Ross' geese over dark goose decoys in Alberta and western Saskatchewan, than I do in eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
When I first started goose hunting, whitefronts were very evenly disbursed throughout much of central and western Saskatchewan. In those days, the areas around the Quill Lakes and Last Mountain Lake were prime areas to harvest whitefronts. Over the years, the fall migration routes of these geese have changed and shifted in a westerly direction. Today, few whitefronts migrate south through the center of Saskatchewan and I hardly ever encounter whitefronts in those once popular areas. Instead, the bulk of the whitefronts travel south along the western side of Saskatchewan.
Alberta is a great place to hunt puddle ducks over small potholes. This province also has some fantastic early season goose hunting in the northern regions. In recent times, the central region of Alberta is becoming the place to hunt in this province for all species of birds. Alberta does not allow any Sunday hunting. Legal hunting times are from a half hour before sunrise until a half hour after sunset. Alberta does not have any morning only goose hunting restrictions. Alberta does not have a Sandhill Crane Season.
Species Hot Spots:
Northern Alberta — Honkers Early Season
Central Alberta Ducks — Green Heads and East
Central -- Pintails
Eastern Alberta — Speckle Bellies
South Alberta — Pot Holes — Ducks and Honkers
All three of these provinces offer great duck hunting. In each province, you can hunt ducks over potholes, over large waterbodies or in dry fields. However, each province seems to have a "best" style of duck hunting.
Galloway Bay, north west of Swift Current is a great staging area for Saskatchewan whitefronts and birds will feed on both sides of the bay and the Saskatchewan River. The area really is amazing. Aerial surveys have revealed that during the peak of the migration in mid October in excess of one million whitefronts can be found staging in the Galloway Bay area. In wet years, the areas around Kindersley offer some incre
dible early season whitefront action.
From what I've seen, east central Alberta seems to be the place to go for whitefronts in that province. Over the years, I've had great gunning east of Highway 41, especiallybetween Vermillion and Consort. Unlike Saskatchewan, where whitefronts gather by the tens of thousands, whitefronts in Alberta are more spread out, but still in huntable numbers.
I've seen the odd small flock of whitefronts in Manitoba, but I've yet to harvest a Manitoba whitefront.
The prairie pothole region of central Alberta offers the best pothole duck hunting opportunities I've ever experienced. The reason for this is an ideal combination of habitat and birds. The rolling hills, numerous potholes and small lakes in this area produce countless ducks including mallards, pintails, widgeon, gadwalls, redheads and canvasbacks. To make things even better, as the season progresses, the region attracts and holds migrating ducks from the northern reaches of Alberta.
Truly mixed flocks of snows and blues are most common in eastern Saskatchewan and western Manitoba.
I really don't know how many ducks can be found in this central area of Alberta during the peak of the migration, but I have been told that upwards of 80 percent of the continents breeding mallards pass over Bittern Lake, which is smack dab in the middle of this duck haven. It's no wonder that my experiences there have been spectacular.
In my eyes, Saskatchewan offers the best field hunting opportunities for ducks. This should be a natural considering that Saskatchewan is the bread basket of Canada. However, there is more to it than the abundant crops. Many of the big lakes in Saskatchewan have a 500 metre shooting restriction on them for most of the season. In addition, many landowners within Saskatchewan have self-imposed water restrictions that forbid hunters from shooting ducks over water. Since hunting cannot take place on or within 500 metres of such waterbodies, ducks tend to congregate in large numbers on these water-based sanctuaries. The result is swarms of ducks that make daily flights to surrounding grain fields to feed. However, once the restrictions come off the water, the ducks quickly disperse and the ability to pattern them becomes difficult.
If I'm looking to hunt ducks over big water, I look towards Manitoba. More specifically, northwestern and central Manitoba. The reason is that much of this portion of Manitoba is covered by large water bodies. As an added bonus, many of these big water bodies have prime marshland shorelines or mid-lake marsh areas. I've found that the vast majority of these prime hunting areas are only accessible by boat. For those willing, the reward is grand gunning for all kinds of ducks, especially divers.
For example, in the water bodies around The Pas in north central Manitoba, it is very common to harvest canvasbacks and scaup, along with bluebills, redheads and ringnecks. As an added bonus, the area also has healthy populations of gadwall, widgeon blue wing and green wing teal.
I've been fortunate to experience a number of amazing hunts in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba over the past 30 years. I'm hoping you get an opportunity to experience what the three Prairie Provinces have to offer.