A small boat and portable blind are two keys to great shooting on North America's prairie marshes. Hunters who can locate ducks and set up where the birds want to be can enjoy great sport in this storied region. Photo by Jeremy Abbas, Avery Outdoors
The "Welcome to Saskatchewan" sign flew by in a blur.
Mike Checkett had our Suburban cruising at over 70 miles per hour. The road ahead was flat and boring straight to the heart of the Promised Land for waterfowlers -- or so we hoped! We had a max load of decoys, layout blinds, retrievers, boots, shotguns and other gear; and we were giddy from the prospect of roaming like vagabonds in search of ducks and geese.
Checkett and I were in Canada to tape an episode of Ducks Unlimited TV, which we co-host. Our plan was to freelance-hunt through the southern half of this province. We'd scout for birds, ask permission and set up where we found prospects for good shooting. We'd be on our own for the next several days, and our viewers would share in our successes and failures.
But this wasn't our first "prairie waterfowl rodeo"! Checkett and I both have freelanced extensively in Canada and North and South Dakota. On this trip we intended to combine our know-how to show other hunters that they can do likewise with a high expectation for success.
Following is a checklist that Mike and I used when planning our freelance hunt on the northern prairie. Other hunters might follow our playbook in arranging their own hunts to intercept waterfowl as they stage for their fall migration.
Where to Go
Freelance-hunting possibilities exist from northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba down into both Dakotas, Montana and other northern-tier states. How does a hunter pinpoint one particular area in which to focus his efforts?
He does this through methodical research. He talks to friends who have hunted in various areas. He reads articles in magazines and on the Internet. He calls biologists to ask about major staging areas for geese and ducks. He delves into all possible info sources, keeping in mind such things as species he wants to hunt, hunter pressure, accessibility, etc. And finally he makes a choice of an area that will be his starting point.
Chances are, once he gets there, he will wind up hunting somewhere else. In several trips to Canada, I don't think I've ever stuck with my original game plan. Instead, I've expanded into new territory once I've had a look at on-site hunting potential. But you need a starting point, and you also need the versatility to make a change when you find some place that's more promising.
Over the years my best hunts have come in places that didn't have as many birds as other, better known that received a lot of publicity. Even in the North Country, hunter pressure can be heavy and competition between hunting parties intense. So for the first two or three days of a trip, I'll check out the edges of popular hunting regions or move to a new area entirely if I'm running into too many other hunters. This strategy has paid off in many spectacular hunts with no competition whatever.
Finally, nothing works better than making contact with local farmers on site and asking their help/advice in locating birds.
When to Go
Timing of a hunting trip on the prairies is something of a crapshoot. Plan to go early (mid-to late September), and lingering balmy conditions can result in a delay of birds concentrating for fall migrations. Time it too late (late Oct., early Nov.), and cold weather may have already pushed waterfowl south.
My pick for most consistent hunting is the middle two weeks of October for Canada and the last week of October and the first week of November for the Dakotas. These are times when average peak numbers of birds are highest in these areas. Still, atypical weather conditions can play havoc with normal migration schedules.
What to Take
Equipping oneself properly is crucial to the success of any hunting trip, and this is especially true about hunting on the northern prairies.
The first requirement is a vehicle capable of covering a lot of country, including treacherous back roads, and hauling heavy loads. This typically means a full-size SUV or a pickup with a bed cover. Four-wheel drive is a necessity for accessing hard-to-reach spots in muddy or snowy conditions.
Many hunters pull fully enclosed trailers to carry decoys and other gear and to provide security for these items when staying at motels. (Unfortunately, hunters who leave their decoys in open trailers or pickup beds may wake up the next morning to find them gone!)
Being mobile allows hunters to "go to the birds," and this is especially important when freelance-hunting on North America's prairies. A layout blind is especially helpful in setting up where ducks and geese have been feeding or loafing. Photo by Curt Wilson, Avery Outdoors
If hunters are considering hunting on large lakes or rivers, they should take a boat that's big enough to safely ply these waters. Such a boat can be trailered or car-topped. Also, a reliable outboard motor, gas can, PFDs and other essentials should be included. If a boat is trailered, a portable blind might be attached for providing extra cover for hunting in reeds, cattails or other natural cover.
Decoys are a huge consideration. For goose hunting, shell decoys and silhouettes are preferable because they can be transported in more compact spaces. This means hunters can carry greater numbers of shells and silhouettes in their vehicles/trailers, and numbers are important. Generally, more decoys translate into better shooting on geese and to a lesser extent on ducks.
On our trip, Mike Checkett and I took several dozen Canada and snow goose shells, 3 dozen duck floaters, a dozen full-body duck field decoys, and a dozen full-body specklebelly decoys. This collection gave us the versatility to hunt geese and ducks in fields and over water. Instead of targeting one species, we decided to prepare for any/all possibilities. We didn't have too much of anything, but we had enough of everything.
Other must-have gear items include shotguns (take a spare in case of a malfunction), ammo, a layout blind for each hunter, waders, calls, a rake for gathering stubble to camouflage the blinds, GPS, binoculars, and other gear normally used at home. Pack clothing items for hunting in weather that can be warm or bone-chilling and dry or rainy/snowy.
Aside from hunting gear, freelance hunters obviously need hunting licenses. In most states and provinces, these are available online. (Alberta is an exception.) Hunters will also need firearms permits (see sidebar) and maps of chosen hunting areas. These latter items should show backroads and section roads that are crucial for navigating out-of-the-way areas. These maps are available through a variety of sources. Hunters should start early in their trip planning to locate and purchase them.
There is one main key to success on any freelance hunting trip on the prairies: scouting! This country is vast, and geese and ducks don't spread evenly across it. Instead, they concentrate in choice areas, and it's up to hunters to locate these areas and gain permission to set up on them.
This means hours behind the steering wheel, miles of dusty or muddy backroads, and arms tired of holding binoculars while scanning for birds. Typically the first day of a trip is spent with guns in their cases. Armed with maps, good optics and a tank full of gas, hunters will drive through their chosen area early in the morning and watch for birds hitting feeding fields. When a concentration is found, then the landowner must be located and approached for permission.
Congeniality is a hallmark of prairie life, and locals generally welcome visiting hunters. Mike Checkett and I got on the best hunt of our trip by stopping to visit with a farmer who was working on a tractor. We'd seen ducks and geese hitting a pea field along a section road near his house. He owned the field and gave us permission to hunt it. But then he mentioned another field that he felt would offer better shooting. We checked it out, and it was loaded with mallards. The next morning we enjoyed a quick limit shoot.
If possible, hunters should locate several possibilities, then recheck the best spots again in late afternoon to make a final choice of sites for hunting the next morning. Also, it's important to determine exactly where a flock is feeding, not just the general area. One good strategy is to observe at a distance until the geese or ducks fly back to their roosting site at dusk, then make a quick foray onto the field to pinpoint their feeding location. Taking a GPS reading or leaving a flag in the field will assure that hunters can return to the precise spot before dawn the next morning.
This is when the payoff comes. Decoys and layout blinds are set out, and blinds are camouflaged with field stubble to blend into the scenery. Hunters should allow plenty time to complete these tasks before first shooting light. Ducks typically come in the twilight of dawn, while geese will arrive up to an hour later.
The same general strategy works for hunters wanting to shoot over water. Scout for birds, then move in and set up where they're working. Some of the best hunts for ducks take place on small potholes where these birds go after feeding. Mid-morning scouting is essential for finding these often-overlooked opportunities.
A freelance hunting trip on the northern prairie can be both fun and instructive for retrievers as well as hunters. Here, thanks to big concentrations of birds and liberal bag limits, a dog will get a lot of retrieving experience in a short amount of time.
A retriever travels well in a padded, insulated dog crate. When driving, pull off every three hours or so to allow a dog to "air out". Offer water periodically, and feed before bedtime. A hunter may bring his dog into his motel room at night (if allowed), or he can bed him in his crate, but only if the crate is inside a locked vehicle or trailer.
The only requirement for a hunter to take his retriever into Canada is proof of a current rabies vaccination. Without such proof, canine entry will be prohibited by Canadian customs. If a retriever is traveling by air, the airline will require a recent health certificate (including proof of rabies vaccination). Hunters should see their local veterinarian to obtain this certificate.
The northern prairie is beautiful in its vastness. It's not uncommon to see many miles to a far horizon. And scattered here and there are gatherings of geese and ducks, the sizes of which will stagger first-time visitors to this region. Many of these birds are hatched and raised locally. Others come from nesting grounds farther north and stop over temporarily before heading on south. When a big flight takes wing over a feeding field or roost area, the sky can literally grow dark with birds.
Hunting these prairie waterfowl is about more than shooting. It's about witnessing the timeless pageant called migration. It's about seeing and hearing one of the grandest spectacles in nature. And it's about satisfying the urge many hunters have to go to the source of what they love so much so they can understand it better.
Each fall the northern prairie beckons me, and I've answered this call many times. I am haunted -- yea, compelled -- to go back there to continue my personal waterfowling odyssey, and God willing, I'll return once again when the cool October sun falls across the grain fields.
Transporting Firearms into Canada
American hunters heading into Canada must fill out a Non-resident Firearms Declaration to bring hunting guns into Canada. Declarations may be obtained online (http://www.cfc-cafc.gc.ca/online-en_ligne/form-assistance/indiv_forms/909_e.asp) and completed ahead of time. Or, hunters can obtain the form and complete them as they pass through Canadian customs. There is a fee of $25 (Canadian) per form, which can include two guns.
Also, hunters may import 200 rounds of ammunition into Canada duty-free.