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Waterfowl Hunting On The Prairies
Canada geese, snow geese and puddle ducks are some of the most common waterfowl species hunted across the prairie provinces. Over the past 35 years, I’ve had the privilege to hunt these birds in many places throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
While gunning for these species is generally good everywhere within these provinces, there are some areas that are my personal favourites.
Alberta’s pothole ducks
The prairie pothole region of central Alberta, not far from Camrose, is my favorite Alberta location for waterfowling. The scenic rolling hills, numerous potholes and small lakes in this area produce countless puddle ducks. To make things even better, the region attracts and holds migrating ducks from the northern reaches of Alberta. During the peak of the migration, upwards of 80 per cent of Alberta’s breeding mallards call central Alberta home. The area also has honkers, lessers, white-fronted and snow geese.
On my first trip to the area many years ago, my host explained that puddle ducks in this area will often roost on larger water bodies and visit small potholes before and after feeding. As well, they toggle back and forth between feeding areas and potholes while feeding. At any given time, there’ll never be more than a handful of ducks visiting a pothole, but over the course of a morning or afternoon, several hundred ducks, in small flocks, will land there. The ducks did exactly that, as they have for hundreds of years.
Based on the way the ducks utilize these potholes, scouting is essential. When hunting central Alberta, I always try to enlist the help of an outfitter. I do so because outfitters often have a few spotters, whose job is to crisscross the countryside looking for ducks and patterning them to ensure there are enough birds utilizing the pothole to warrant moving in on a hunt.
If you’re not lucky enough to spend time with an outfitter, spend the day before your hunt in the area – get a good spotting scope and watch the sky, close to a large body of water, and hopefully you’ll pick up on some local traffic.
Compared to all the time and effort required to scout an Alberta pothole shoot, the hunts themselves are very simple. In most cases, the potholes will have enough cover around them that hunters can hide in bulrushes, willows or weeds without being detected or having to build blinds, providing they wear camouflage that blends in and a pair of rubber boots or waders.
Since incoming ducks are already committed to the pothole and are accustomed to seeing few birds on the water, a half-dozen floating duck decoys, loosely spread on the pothole, will get the job done.
Amazingly, action lasts from September until the potholes freeze up in mid to late November.
Saskatchewan’s Quill Lake snows
The Quill Lakes area in central Saskatchewan is a waterfowl magnet. The lakes consist of over 40,000 acres of saline and freshwater wetlands and surrounding the lakes are countless grain fields. Many of these fields also contain small potholes and small lakes. The abundance of water and food makes this region a prime staging area for migrating waterfowl.
In mid September, tens of thousands of ducks, sandhill cranes, snow, Ross’s, Canada and white-fronted geese migrate into the area to join the local ducks and Canada geese. The migration of and staging of birds on wetlands throughout will last well into November. As smaller water bodies freeze over, birds either migrate south or congregate on the larger Quill Lakes (Big Quill, Little Quill and Mud Lake.)
With all the birds in the area, it’s difficult to single out a particular species to hunt. However, due to the large concentration of snow geese, this area is my favorite snow goose hunting location.
It’s generally not a problem to find fields full of geese to potentially hunt. The challenge is determining which field to single out and hunt.
While deciding where to hunt, it’s important to take a few things into consideration: is the feeding field close to a roost? If it’s within a kilometre, the first volley or two of shots will likely spook geese off the roost and cause them to head elsewhere. Is it possible to hide in the field? Wheat or barley fields can hide a layout blind much easier than pea or lentil fields. How close are the birds to a farmhouse? If the birds are too close to a farmer’s yard, he may not grant permission. Have the geese eaten out the field? If the geese have been feeding in the same area for a few days, they may have eaten the field out and may move to another feeding location.
My ideal scenario is a flock of snows that’s been in the same wheat or barley field for two days, and those geese are coming to the field from multiple roosts a few kilometres away. Under these conditions, if something goes wrong between one of the roosts and the feeding field, such as pass shooters, there will still be birds coming from other locations.
A minimum of 400 decoys is a must when hunting snow geese and spreads in excess of 1,000 decoys are often required to bring the birds into shooting range.
When setting up, deploy a large, tight group of decoys upwind of the blinds to represent feeding birds. Then, run small lines of loosely spaced decoys downwind, with wide gaps between the lines, to represent birds running to join the feeding ones set up. Incoming birds will approach along the openings, between the lines of decoys, and hover above the blinds as they look for places to land amongst the feeding flock. Snow geese typically don’t circle so if they’re in range as they hover above the blinds, call the shot.
Although snow geese can be hunted mornings and afternoons, I restrict myself to hunting once a day and scout when I’m not hunting, as this allows me stay on birds. For years, I hunted mornings and scouted afternoons. Now I’ve discovered that hunting afternoons makes for a less demanding day, as I can get up around 5:30 a.m. to scout, and then set up decoys after lunch for my afternoon hunt, as opposed to getting up at 3 a.m. to set up decoys, hunt and then scout all afternoon.
Manitoba’s Oak Hammock Marsh honkers
Oak Hammock Marsh is located in Manitoba’s Interlake Region and is a mere 20 minutes north of Winnipeg. This Wildlife Management area is approximately 36 square kilometres in size, with almost 20 square kilometres of actual marsh.
While this area produces lots of local ducks and geese, the marsh fills up with migrating birds in the fall. During the peak of the migration in mid October, over 400,000 ducks and geese will roost on the marsh. Each morning and afternoon, the birds will fly to surrounding agricultural areas to feed in wheat, barley and pea fields. In addition, the surrounding water bodies throughout the Interlake Region also hold large concentrations of waterfowl.
The hunting in this area is good all season long, although hunting is not allowed on the Oak Hammock Marsh or within a buffer zone extending one kilometre from the water’s edge. This gives the birds safe roosting and protects them from pass shooting as they move to and from their roosting locations. It is important to note that this protected buffer zone extends outside of the Oak Hammock Marsh boundaries in some locations, so hunters must be careful where they set up their decoys.
For me, the real draw to the Oak Hammock Marsh area is the hunting action for giant Canada geese. When I hunt honkers in my home province of Saskatchewan, I look for fields of 250 honkers and will even hunt fields with 100 birds if I’m desperate for a hunt. While hunting around Oak Hammock Marsh, concentrations of 250 birds or less are overlooked as it’s the norm to find fields of 400 to 500 birds and fields of more than 1,000 feeding honkers are actually quite common.
The beauty of hunting such large concentrations of geese is you can limit out and then continue to remain in your blinds and watch as flock after flock work the spread. To extend the hunt, take turns shooting or only shoot at small groups of birds and let the bigger flocks have a safe path. With so many birds coming to feed, you can try different calling and flagging tactics with various flocks of birds to learn what works best.
As for decoys, don’t let the large concentrations of feeding honkers fool you into using a mega spread. You can be successful using smaller spreads of three to eight-dozen decoys to attract and fool the incoming birds. A couple of years ago, my son and I hunted this area and the first morning we used eight-dozen decoys, set out in a loose U shape, for our hunt. The next couple of hunts where we had to walk into our fields due to wet conditions, we used four-dozen decoys set out in small family units.
What I’ve just described are my favourite places to hunt different species of waterfowl across the prairies, based on my personal experiences. There’s no doubt that there are countless other places to hunt waterfowl and I will continue to explore different places. Who knows, may one day I’ll find some new favourite spots.
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