Saskatchewan Waterfowl Hunting 2003

March 24, 2009 by  

By Chris Hustad

The snow goose migration was extremely predictable when I was growing up. On the waterfowl opener in North Dakota, you could find my family staging at the Gateway Inn along with a hundred thousand snows along J. Clark Salyer Refuge by Westhope. We didn’t have to question whether or not huntable numbers were down, they just were. You won’t find the Gateway Inn in Westhope anymore, and you certainly won’t find a hundred thousand snows on the opener either. It’s amazing how warm each fall becomes, and how late the snow geese come down the past 8 years. On our journey up to Saskatchewan this year, we found that even in the Northern provinces the times are changing. Some for the better and some for the worse, I’ll let you decide.

Myself and my usual hunting partner Taylor Ells (Maverick) load into the truck of a newly found good friend of mine, Jon Madison (Madison). The crew that went up last year was unable to go this year so I was the only one with any Saskatchewan hunting experience. I was looking forward to showing them. The back of the truck was stacked with 500 snow windsocks and other miscellaneous gear, and we packed just short of 5 dozen bigfoots in the trailer for some Canada goose hunting. Nothing beats the feeling when you’re finally ready to hit the road for something you plan for so long.

We were on the road for not even 5 minutes and I was already concerned. The tarp on the trailer was catching wind and rising to the point where our stacked up bigfoots are becoming alarmingly close to flying out. We questioned how long this would last….never mind, there went a bigfoot. After a stop for some rope and some clever packing, we were confident and on our way. Only 10 hours to go, and I was already so excited I couldn’t stand it. We took the scenic route through some of my favorite stopping grounds in North Dakota. Hmmmm…the ponds are surprisingly void of ducks, not a good sign. We watch the sunset to the west while we watch some small strings of snow returning to Des Lacs Refuge to the north. That should be good for the Goosefest in Kenmare that was taking place that weekend. With only about 30 minutes to go until the border crossing, I start to dig through my traveling bag to ensure I have all my paperwork. We started our decent down the overpass of the refuge north of Kenmare. Just as we reach bottom and over a hard bump on the bridge, I heard a noise in the rear. I take a look in the rear view mirror and what I was to witness next will stick with me for a long time. Evidently, the nut on the bottom of the hitch somehow wore itself loose. As we hit that bump it popped off, and the force bent the safety chains instantly. The trailer went into a sidespin, and started rolling over itself like a bowling ball. On about the 4th roll the tarp came off and the bigfoots exploded out of the trailer like a popcorn machine. I couldn’t believe my eyes; it was like a bad dream. Luckily, a gentleman by the name of Cole Allen from Lignite (Lignite Oil Company Inc.) came by and had enough room in his large trailer to fit our decoys and what was left of the trailer. He offered us to leave our trailer and decoys at his farm by Lignite until our return, which we gladly accepted. God I love the people of North Dakota. Minus one trailer and 5 dozen bigfoots we were on our way into Saskatchewan.

After many hours of traveling we were finally at our destination in Saskatchewan, late on Saturday night. We were instantly greeted by our neighboring hunting party, Perry Thorvig, Ken C., Todd G. and Dan L. (djleye). This was their first trip up there, and weren’t familiar with the area. I had been in touch with a local up there from the site named Paul (nickel ditch), and he nicely left us 5 RM maps of our scouting area at our hotel room. If you’re not familiar, hunting is outlawed in the province on Sunday so we took advantage of the day to scout. The weather forecast for the week showed highs in the 70’s and 80’s with no clouds to be seen anywhere. This is NOT the kind of weather I was hoping for, a year earlier I remember temps in the teens while hunting and this would only be a figment of my imagination this year.

Sunday comes early and we pile into the Ford. I knew exactly where we were to be heading, the same roost that brought us good fortune the year before. Reports from the local Conservation Officer that week quoted over 100,000 birds staging, so I was optimistic even though this was only about a 1/3 of the numbers as last year. As I peaked to the west, I start to see the first strings of snow geese moving on the horizon. We follow the strings into a pea field, about 4 miles off the roost. A mile away another feed was brewing in a barley field, feeding in the same fashion as the year before. They would easily cover the field and walk over the road to start feeding the next. As I gaze across the roost, I see even more geese piling into fields on the opposite flyway so we worked our way around to have a look. It turned out to be a feed coving over an entire section, and we started our pursuit of permission from the landowner. We found the landowner, and after we gained permission we sat backed and chatted for awhile. The problems with CWD in Saskatchewan are devastating, far more than I had ever imagined. With the inability to ship their beef or elk into the states, there was no market left. One landowner in particular had over 800 head of elk, and he could no longer afford to feed them. They were going to dig a large whole and shoot and bury all but the bulls, whose velvet is valuable and worth a large price over in China. What a shame, what a shame.

Later that afternoon, we sat back gazing across the roost over a cool one. It was 82 degrees, and seemed like I should be sipping on a Corona rather than a Molson. It was so warm about 1/3 of the birds on the roost never even came off to feed that evening, not typical at all. We put the birds to bed in our same field, and got ready for the next morning. I sent Perry’s group over to another area that I heard was holding good numbers and they came back empty handed, so we decided to hook up. I got the phone call from Paul (nickel ditch), and he was going to make an appearance the following morning as well. Should be an interesting group of guys!

Morning comes and we find ourselves in a tall stubble field from the night before. We got there extra early, as we noticed 3 guides watching our field the night before. Even though we had permission, it’s better to be safe than sorry. We had a good 15 mph breeze, so we set up a backup truck downwind of us 300 yards to keep other spreads from downwinding us. With Perry’s decoys we had over 1000 out in the field, and it should do the trick. I peak into the truck and see we have about an hour to shooting time, no hurry. I sat back on the tailgate and gazed into the north sky that was dancing with the northern lights. It had been a long time since I’d seen them like this morning; it covered half of the sky. My gazing came to a halt with the sight of approaching headlights in the distance. Three vehicles in a row…that’s a hunting party. They stop on the road off of our spread for a minute, than creep away until they make their way into a field a mile downwind away. Looks like we have company, but we should be okay until….another 3 trucks make their way into the other field on our downwind side (between us and the roost). Already I had seen more hunters that morning than the entire trip the year before, it looked as if the word was out. But no matter, we’ve still got our field to ourselves. What happened next is what blows my mind. Another 3 vehicles pull up to our field, and drive in between our spread and our backup vehicle 300 yards downwind. The sight of someone attempting to set up just downwind of my spread is like a slap in my face. If you ever want a confrontation from me, that’s how you’ll do it. I hopped into Dan’s truck and head over to the approaching vehicles. The guy who approached my vehicle turned out to be an illegal guide taking out a couple groups from Utah. I asked him what he was doing and he said I’m setting up my spread right here (a couple hundred yards downwind) as he pointed in front of my vehicle. I asked if he had permission, he said no. I couldn’t believe it, even without permission he was going to downwind us. After some words tossed back and forth I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t anything that was going to change this jerk’s mind, so I headed back to our spread. I could see the disappointment in everyone’s eyes, and even Paul who lived in the area said he’s never been downwinded, some luck. Well there’s nothing to do now but try to make the best of it so we got situated and ready for the first flights.

Before the sun rose small flocks started trickling towards the set, as well as our neighbors in the fields around us. About 60 yards up and 200 yards out, a pair of snows lock up gunning for us. A couple of “shucks” later they were at 25 yards and almost over us. They fade just off the side and over Perry’s group on the other side of the spread. They pull up and moments later we had our first Saskatchewan birds in the bag. After a couple of similar vollies, we take notice to the roost erupting to the north. It’s always an amazing sight to see, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. The cloud of birds shift over one spread, birds drop…than over another, same thing. The birds drop down and enter our field giving us a good look.

They come over the group downwind of us and they start skybusting sending the flock into a panic and swung around us. We were so close to having the skies come over, but in the confusion small flocks dropped in for the next half hour. And just like that it was over, and the birds shifted past us. The morning was fun and frustrating at the same time. If you’re a snow goose hunter you know what I mean. But after all the emails, stories, and preparations I finally shared a memory with my friends that we hadn’t shared before. Downwinded by 3 spreads or not I’d do it again.

While scouting for the next day, we decided to abandon the roost we hunted that morning. We weren’t real excited about sharing a flyway with the guides the next morning so we ventured towards a new area with very little time to spare. We sent Perry and Ken in one direction, and Dan and Todd in another. We decided to take a scouting run that Perry had taken the previous day, as I’d received good word of bird numbers from a contact I had in the area. With about 20 minutes left of light, I noticed a lone snow goose drop in between some trees up ahead.

In between the trees was a small body of water holding a good number of birds. Trading between that slough were a couple fields holding around 10K each. Not real strong numbers but we figured it’d be good enough. We stopped at a farm looking for the landowner, and the farmer told us there was 100K just south of our fields. That got our blood flowing…nothing like a big surprise in the morning considering we ran out of time that evening. We got permission for our plan A and plan B field and went back to the hotel, hoping the other scouters found the mother load we’d expected. As I opened the door of the room I caught the whiff. Mmmmmmm, the BBQ goose was ready to be served in the crock pot and the Molson was cold. Just after finishing dinner and a couple innings of the World Series, Dan and Todd came in the room. As always they were sporting grins and ready to trade some jokes. They put on some serious miles but failed to put a finger on the big concentrations and were empty handed. Perry and Ken came in shortly after and didn’t look real encouraged. They had put on over a couple hundred miles through the heart of goose country and came up empty handed on a field as well. Luckily, we had permission for 2 fields so we decided to split up for the next morning.

Remember that 100K the farmer told us about? It didn’t exist. With the exception of a roost holding a few thousand to the west of us, all of our birds came from the first roost we found to our north about 5 miles away. We were banking on flyways other than that roost, but that turned out to be it. We could hear Perry’s group shooting to the north of us (just a mile off the roost in our direction), and it forced the flocks to shift to our east a couple miles. There would be very little action that morning, and our group only harvested a dozen, the others I think 16. By the time it was 9 a.m. I was sweating profusely from the heat, and there was barely a bird in sight. Hmmmmmm….just doesn’t feel like Saskatchewan.

That evening we were really discouraged. We knew there were big piles of the birds just to the north of us, but none of the groups were able to pinpoint the location so we decided to let our luck ride on our first roost. We got an early start on the scouting, but realized the birds wouldn’t be moving until late in the 80 degree heat, so we stopped at the bar for a beer and some poutine (French fries covered in gravy and cream cheese, our Canadian staple food). We left for scouting with about an hour and a half of sunlight and the birds were just starting to filter off the roost. There was a heck of a flyway this evening out to the east, in the area where we first started scouting the Sunday we arrived.

Once again, an entire section became covered with geese, in every patch of field that held edible grain. It was quite an impressive sight. Dan and Todd found the same field, and together we marveled at the numbers. After Dan and Todd got permission from one half of the section, and we acquired permission for the other we sat back and put the birds to bed so we could go out that evening and determine where we’d setup the following morning. It turned out that our crew had hunted this exact same field the year before, what was the odds???

The next morning came and we decided to spread the decoys waaaaaay out. In fact, from end to end the 1000 decoys covered about 300 yards in length, and about 150 yards in width. We had been using all white snow goose spreads the previous 2 days with very little luck so today we abandoned the electronics and put out our blue goose decoys as well. We spread out to try and cover the set, so the birds wouldn’t sneak in between us. The first flocks started coming that morning and shucked all the way to the ground, all coming into the spread from the same direction. After a couple minutes of that, one by one the guys started shifting to the side of the spread getting all the action. I held up on the high end, trying to keep the snow goose sounds constant from my call. A pair swung over me and I folded the first and click! Nothing on the second. This was the 6th time my Benelli Nova let me down this trip and it wasn’t the last either. Soon I found myself sprinting downwind as the flocks kept coming in from the same direction. But as soon as the action was hot, the sun peared out from the east and the birds came 20 yards higher and at a marginal range. We hadn’t been graced with a cloud at all the previous 2 days, and today was no exception. Soon the birds all piled into a field a mile or so away and the birds held there until they were done feeding. As we started to pick up our decoy spread, a vehicle pulled into the field. It turned out to be a federal CO that was the same CO that checked us in the same field last year!….weird…

Everyone was clean and he commented that our 25 bird shoot was the best he’s seen, so it appeared the weather was having an effect on everyone. The year before he told us horror stories of the Americans dumping all the birds in ditches and dumpsters, and that because of all the violations they were considering moving all waterfowl hunting in the province to guides only. Well it turned out that they’re having a big problem with illegal guides, and that they were the one’s suspected of all the illegal dumping. They had no other way to keep under their possession limits with all of their hunting groups. He went on about the horror stories and it just sickened me. It appears greed and disrespect of wildlife from guides can occur anywhere, not just in the incidents we’re used to in North Dakota. Apparently they’re looking into a 6,000 nonresident hunter limit on waterfowl next year. This year he projected well over 12,000 in the province, so that’d be over a 50% decrease. If that’ll help clear up all the guide problems up there I’m all for it (even if I have to wait another year).

After the hunt I could see the look in Taylor’s and Madison’s face. They were growing tired of the 80-degree heat, the weary birds, and we had a trailer to take care of back in North Dakota. We came to the decision to leave a day early, even though we could see some colder weather in the forecast. We packed up early the next morning and got an early start on the road. There were 20 degree temps that morning and I felt sickened….it turned out that Perry and Ken shot 39 that morning themselves, we had missed the best action of the week. This was kind of the way our whole trip went; hopefully our timing and luck will pan out for the better next year!

More photos of the Saskatchewan trip can be found in the Saskatchewan 2003 Photo Album.


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