Monster Geese In Manitoba

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The coastline of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba is simply a goose hunter’s Mecca – thousands of Canada, snow and Ross’ geese stage and feed along the productive shoreline before continuing their annual migration south in the fall. It is a far cry from the waterfowl hunting opportunities further south in the province, which most waterfowl enthusiasts are familiar with. With historic areas like Delta Marsh and Oak Hammock, a sojourn to the far corner of this unique province is often overlooked.

I recently ventured north and bounced between airplanes to get to the Kaska Goose Lodge on the west side of Hudson Bay. The third and final morning of my remote goose hunt was dawning and I looked at the bright new dawn as a positive sign for an outstanding day of new adventure.

Birds were already on the move and anxious to get a belly full of breakfast. I could hear the squawking of the arctic birds long before I could see them. There were literally thousands of birds staging and migrating along the coast, which is a traditional collecting area for waterfowl coming off the northern Arctic islands and there are extensive nesting grounds along the coastline.

We had hunted out of traditional driftwood blinds the previous days and had done well. The nomadic spirit of the land had made several of us restless and we found ourselves venturing out to hunt specific eskers and forest opens that the birds seemed to be targeting. The hunt seemed like science fiction in many ways, as the birds were often landing in small clearings in the stunted spruce forest to gorge themselves on wild blueberries and low bush cranberries. It was a vast contrast to what I was used to at home in the open stubble fields in farm country. It was so obscure from anything else I had seen geese do – I was caught off guard several times when I spotted birds in the trees and wondered aloud why someone had left decoys in such a strange place. When heads lifted and bodies started wiggling at the sound of our approaching Argo, we all shook our heads in disbelief.

There were Ross’, snow and blue geese, as well as lesser and greater Canada geese. Some of the little Richardson’s and cacklers were no bigger than a fattened mallard and seemed to be a target species for many of the hunters in our group.

I had planned on doing the trip solo but met up with a crew of hunters from Delta Waterfowl that were in camp during the same time period. We hit it off and decided to share the hunt together. I’ve often said that some of the best friends I’ve ever met have been in the strangest and remote places on Earth. This group of avid waterfowlers was comprised of two men from Virginia, Briscoe and George, John hailed from North Dakota and Rob and Jim were hunting their home province of Manitoba. We took turns hunting together and on the last morning I ventured out with Rob and George for a sort of walkabout up the coast.

Outfitter Randy Duvell had created a curiosity in a few of us with stories of a hunter that had visited the camp many times. They had nicknamed the fellow “Wandering Bob” for his walkabouts along the tidal marshes that sprawled across the lowlands to the north. Wandering Bob had always done extremely well on his hunts and often returned with lanyards heavily laden with ducks and geese. A few of our group had gone on a wander the day before and came back with a limit of green-winged teal and six different species of geese. The stories left no doubt in my mind that the arduous walk in chest waders would be well worth the effort.

We wound our way down the path the Argo had traveled many times and came to a stop at the top of the river break. Our guide gave us instructions on where to cross the river and what time we needed to return in order to catch the low tide again. It would be an all-day affair, but with the reconnaissance knowledge the boys had learned the day before, I was anxious to get started.

The nice thing about hunting anywhere at Kaska is that you could literally shoot a goose anywhere. We had loaded our shotguns and fanned out to cross the river as though pushing for upland game birds. If we saw geese approaching on the horizon, we would stop and hope the flight path would intersect our location. I had been trying hard to shoot a mature blue goose and the first flight of geese to wing past me had a large eagle head on the close edge. I downed the bird with a single shot and hooted with excitement. I strapped the bird over my shoulder and continued my march towards the tidal flats, where we would set up the decoys and wait for the tide to roll in, bringing more birds along with it.

Rob knew the perfect spot to set up from watching the birds the day before. After walking for close to an hour, we took off our backpacks and set up the windsock decoys. The finger-like depressions that wound their way inland would fill with water as the tide came in and we had to watch that we didn’t trap ourselves in areas that we couldn’t wade across.

George gave strict instructions to only shoot the small Canada geese and to leave the large grays for someone close to camp. The immature giant Canada geese molt and summer on the coastline and finding 12 or 14 pound honkers wasn’t unusual. George just wanted to make sure we didn’t have any of the gargantuan birds to pack back on the long slug home. Of course, I’ve never been one to take advice and often need life experience to kick my butt to get the message. With the decoys set up, we had several hours to kill before the tide would bring the birds inland. We opted to head for a treed esker to the west and push the cover for ptarmigan to fill part of the day.

I had no sooner got into the trees than three giant honkers caught my attention with their deep voices. A sense of excitement rushed through my veins and I knew if the birds passed within range there would be no way I could pass up the opportunity. They started to angle closer to me and I got so excited I had to make sure I didn’t get goose fever and mess up the opportunity.

I stood behind a small black spruce and the trio passed at 40 yards in perfect formation. They looked huge with their long necks stretched out far in front of their rotund bodies. One of the big birds honked and was so close I could feel the vibrations of the deep guttural sound reverberate through my body. I forgot all about George’s rule and shouldered my shotgun and swung through the first bird. I pulled the trigger and watched the monster goose crumple before swinging onto the second with the same results. The excitement overtook me and my third shot connected, providing me with a natural triple on the pterodactyl-like honkers. George was at least 200 metres into the willows but I could hear him groan as he saw my shooting display. I put the birds on my lanyard and they stretched from my neck to well below my knees. The three birds weighed well over 40 pounds and I knew I had some work ahead of me packing them on walk back to the river.

When something big crashed through the trees ahead of us, we decided it was time to head back to our decoy spread. We had been warned that migrating polar bears are a common sight and that they didn’t have any fear of wandering goose hunters. We decided to be safe rather than sorry.

A number of small flocks of geese began to land on the sedge flats and I wandered out past the decoys to spread out from my hunting companions and increase our odds on some pass shooting until the big swarms of birds headed inland. A small flight of Ross’ flew directly over top of me as I laid flat on the ground behind the sparse arctic willow. I sat up and shot my second triple of the day and couldn’t believe my good fortune. Rob and George had a flock of 20 whites decoy in and I watched several birds drop from the flock. The tidal push had started and it was time to return to the set up and join my buddies for the big event.

It happened fast. Before I knew it, a swarm of several thousand geese were feeding on the flats in front of us, stretched over 500 metres wide. The flock continued to build until newcomers were looking for new grazing territory ahead. A flight of lesser Canadas decoyed beautifully and we knocked three birds down, of which two had leg bands. The day was turning out to be like a dream of epic proportions. Rob set up the Canada geese we had harvested as traditional Cree decoys, with a length of arctic willow inserted into the bill to hold the bird’s head up.

The tidal water started to fill the depressions around us, drawing a few green-winged teal that buzzed along the newly filled waterways. Rob downed one of the little speedsters while I watched a pintail swing around in front of the spread. The diversity of birds was impressive and adding a few ducks to the bag was a welcomed treat.

The white geese started to show up en mass, but the birds on the tidal flats were more typical of the geese I knew at home. Their keen eyes scanned for anything out of place and the three of us trying to nestle in behind a clump of stunted willow was challenging to say the least. We did flare birds and had to make some adjustment to our cover before we managed to get a larger flight of birds to decoy.

Our white windsocks were strategically placed off to one side, as to not draw attention to our hide. It worked and, as birds hovered over the spread, we sent a barrage of steel in their direction. We giggled like a group of schoolboys out at recess as we took turns at singles and ganged up on the larger groups. When the action peaked, the noise of thousands of geese was mesmerizing. It was a chorus that only an avid goose hunter would love.

There was 45 minutes of shear mayhem when we completed our limit of Canada geese and continued to work on the whites. The seawater had come in so fast that many of the birds we had placed as decoys were now starting to float away. We collected any of the free floaters and tried to strategically place them where they’d stay on solid ground. We worked our calls, but it was unlikely the geese could distinguish our minuscule vocal attempts to entice more geese. I remember a flight of 10 whites that provided our last opportunity of the afternoon – with feet dropped and wings back peddling, it was a sight that I won’t forget. Then it was over. After the tide peaked, it was as though somebody had thrown a switch and turned the birds off. Our walkabout had made for such a special day there was no way anyone could have wiped the smiles off our faces.

We packed up the decoys, loaded up the birds and started our journey back towards the lodge. Many of the Kaska guests charter the services of a helicopter in camp to take advantage of the unique hunting in key locations. I was happy we did it in a more traditional manner. Working up a sweat always helps make an adventure feel like you earned it.

We had headed out for an adventure but what we ended up finding was a unique tidal push that came inland through a series of channels and bays, turning miles of sedge flats into a chaotic ruckus of birds that followed on high tide. From green-winged teal to Ross’ geese, the action was incredible and non-stop. I had more than 40 pounds of what George describes as pterodactyl strapped to my back, but I’d have shot another triple if given the opportunity.

The original hunters, trappers and fur traders who historically used the Hudson Bay lowlands’ rich resources must have been hardy folks. Kaska Lodge was established on one of the original trading posts, built by the York Factory Branch of the Hudson Bay Company, on the Kaskattama River. Goose hunting has always been a historic food-gathering exercise and my unique hunt gave me a special glimpse of the power of the tide and the tradition of the northern people. Who would have thought we’d be hunting the tidal push of geese in northern Manitoba? It is a province of rich diversity requiring further exploration.

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