October only comes once a year, but hunting in western Canada is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! Chasing Partridge and Sharpies across the vast prairies, along with world class waterfowling is like a dream come true. 2013 marked my twelfth trip of a lifetime. This past year was unique in that instead of our usual fearsome foursome, it was just my dear friend Stoney Mills, myself and my two Griffs – Jazz and Addie. Months of preparation go into the trip … buying and sorting of shells … repairing the assortment of decoys … waterproofing boots and coats … ordering dog booties and first-aid supplies … securing passports and firearms declarations … and that doesn’t even include the hours of dog training and conditioning.
Most folks think we are a little crazy because we drive straight through from North Carolina to our secret getaway north of the border. Yes, 32 hours and 2100 miles one way! “Why travel so many miles to hunt birds?” you ask. Have you ever seen 50,000 Greenheads funnel into a harvested pea field as the sound of whistling wings pierces the soul? Or perhaps watched in awe for an hour and a half as continuous flights of Snows, against the pink and purple hues of the evening sky, engulf a 140-acre barley field, yet the stream of birds never ends, it extends past the infinite horizon? That same day you might have the opportunity to find and flush a dozen coveys of Huns that hide out in the coulees and Carrigana wind breaks. Sharptail Grouse (‘chickens’ to the locals) are elusive, yet plentiful and can be almost anywhere. Big game abounds with Whitetails, Muleys, Pronghorn (Speed Goats) and moose can be see at dusk and dawn.
The two-day travel concludes with our awesome hosts and friends, Dave and Sharon, greeting us with a scrumptious pot of soup and some fresh homemade pastries or donuts. Sharon’s cooking alone would be worth the drive! We chat for a few minutes and get up to speed on the harvest and the locations of local duck sightings. But there’s no time to rest – we hustle to unpack the Filson vests and bibs, grab our Benellis and hurry off to Iverson’s, an abandoned homestead that’s traditionally our first stop. Ten rows of windbreaks, each a mile long, separated by alfalfa, wheat, canola and lentils hold a lot of birds … now if we can only find them.
But first, the girls must be ‘bootied up’. It took me a number of years to create the right system to protect my dogs’ feet from the four inch, pencil-like stubble that covers the Great Plains. I first cover the ankle with a couple of laps of athletic wrap. This protests the skin from rubbing against the nylon bootie. I then slip on a medium Scott’s nylon bootie, tighten down the velcro and secure it with a one-half width 12″ strip of duct tape. Without the tape the bootie is easily lost in the brush. One foot done and only seven more feet to go.
Now I release the girls with a command, “Find the birds, hunt ’em up!” The first mile-long row was unproductive, but Jazz and Addie got to stretch their muscles and work off the trip. Shortly into our second row of trees, Jazz locks sideways about 70 yards to the front as Addie honors like a champ. “Stoney, get ready, we have a point!” Quivering with excitement, Jazz remained steady while I briskly stepped passed her and could hear the thunder of partridge erupting on the other side of the row. Boom, Boom, Boom. “Double! Hot dang!” Stoney exclaimed. At that moment, a single got up on my side. Dumb bird, the Benelli rang true. The dogs retrieved to hand as we took a moment to soak in bird paradise and all that goes with it. We spent the next few hours with one more covey rise and more chickens than we could count. It was one of those days when the Chickens could sense our presence and would flush at 200 yards. We were able to harvest three Sharpies between us. With no time to waste we only had about a hour to scout out our duck hunting for the following morning. Sharon gave us directions at lunch, “West four miles and then south a mile. There are a bunch of ducks in the slough in a bluff at the north end of the pea field. Should be easy enough to find.” We drove around bluff, after bluff, after bluff …14 bluffs and none had water. Then came number fifteen. As we drove up to check for water, Greenheads started exploding out of the trees, at least 500 strong. “Found it! Hope they come back in the morning; Now, let’s go get a great meal, a hot shower and a warm bed!” We both beamed with excitement.
Like always, the evening meal was tremendous. Shrimp cocktail, baked ham, scallops wrapped in bacon, perogies, sour kraut, pickled carrots and pickled beets, roasted parsnips and potatoes, fresh melt-in-your-mouth rolls with sweet cherry jam, concluded with warm pecan pie or my favorite Saskatoon berry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting over the edges. We would laugh and chat for an hour or so before we retired to bed. Wow, it sure felt good to be horizontal for the first time since we headed north.
The days would start with the smell of coffee brewing and an annoying alarm at 5:15am. We’d dress for subfreezing weather, check the prevailing wind, load the dogs and decoys and head to the the killing fields. We had a great feeling about the first morning as we set up some floaters and a couple of Mojo’s and hid in the Cattails. With legal light came the first group of Mallards. They circled once, I gave a couple of subtle quacks on the call and their wings cupped with landing gear down. Six shots and four birds on the water, but there was no time for retrieves. More birds were in the air! This continued for the next thirty minutes until there were 16 birds down. It was time for Jazz and Addie to do their stuff. This was a true test of marking and blind searches. The water was so chocked with reeds I couldn’t even penetrate. However, with great tenacity one dog searched the water, while the other was searching the overgrown field behind us. Forty-five minutes later we had 12 Mallards, 3 Pintails and a Green Winged Teal. We would then load up the truck, head to the house, clean the ducks, feed the dogs, and sit down to a huge breakfast. Dave fixed us his famous pancakes, link sausage, bacon, kiwi, oranges, banana, coffee and juice. After this morning feast, we would then change to upland gear and trek to the fields and coulees. We have them all named: Big Buck Valley, Beaver Dam Valley, Triangle Covey, Jackie’s Valley, Clem’s Coulee, Red Barn slough and the Windmill Homestead, just to name a few. You won’t find these places in any book, map or magazine, they’re all named from our personal experience! The rest of the day is spent in walking for miles in pursuit of upland game all the while scouting for ducks in preparation for the next morning’s hunt.
Sharptails are unpredictable. One day there are only singles, the next day you might hit Chicken City with 40 birds in the group. Some times they hold tight, others they spook in the next county. But one thing is for sure, I will never get tired of hunting them. Ducks, however, are extremely predictable, always found in pea or barley fields. With two dozen dekes and a couple of Mojo’s strategically placed in a scouted feeding area along with a little luck, we’ll have our limit.
Porcupines are abundant in the plethora of abandoned farm yards; therefore, hemostats and a first aid kit must be on hand at all times. My girls will point and then bark at a porcupine; thank goodness they don’t pounce! Jazz, however, responds differently to skunks. Once she retrieved a live skunk while she was being sprayed straight to the face. She held it until the release command was given. It was definitely a long-distance release command! A solution of equal parts Dawn, hydrogen peroxide and baking soda removed most of the stench. This mixture, however, should be kept away from the eyes and nasal passages. Remember, she got sprayed in the face!
We pass a lot of great states as we travel to Canada – Kansas with Bobwhites and Ringnecks, Wisconsin with Ruffed Grouse and ducks, The Dakota’s with a truckload of birds.
So why Canada? The reason never becomes more clear than when the sun sets on our last hunting day. I thank God for this grace He has granted me. I thank Him for people like Dave and Sharon, Keenan and Gayle, Doug and Susan, Brent and Susan, John and Jackie and Rod and Mary who show us great love and allow us to feel a part of the small community. I thank Him for the opportunity to work with two great Griffs as we pursue these wonderful winged creatures in the land of the living skies. The next morning tears roll down my cheek as the Canadian farm house fades in my mirror. I’m grateful for the blessings of the trip and the hope of more October dreams.