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WHERE DUCKS CLOUD THE SKY
Scott Young
November 15, 1954
On the Canadian prairies, one of the last of the world's great wildfowl breeding grounds, ducks of every kind are so numerous that they are a menace to the farmers and a hunter's fondest dream
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November 15, 1954

Where Ducks Cloud The Sky

On the Canadian prairies, one of the last of the world's great wildfowl breeding grounds, ducks of every kind are so numerous that they are a menace to the farmers and a hunter's fondest dream

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It doesn't take much money. The best hunting on the prairies is not the commercial camp type, where you let someone else do all your thinking, your contribution being mainly dollars, shells and liquor. With so many ducks, and guides and commercial camp operators on every marsh who know where to find them, that kind of hunting is a good deal like buying birds at the butcher shop. Also, from a conservation standpoint, it is bad?a hunter who pays high for his hunting is more likely to insist on what he considers his money's worth, all redheads, or all canvasbacks. They are good table ducks, of course, but no better than the plentiful and pesky mallards; they are easier to shoot than mallards, and can be ill-spared from the standpoint of the numbers of them that are left. The redhead in particular is considered by some wildlife scientists to be near a dangerous point of decimation. H. Albert Hochbaum, director of the Delta Waterfowl Research Station and one of the world's leading waterfowl scientists, said that one year recently more redheads left Delta marsh dressed and frozen, for Chicago and St. Louis and other points south, than left in migration. Because of exactly that kind of pressure, the redhead has vanished as a breeder from many parts of the U.S.

So the hunter who wants the most sporty hunting, at low cost, and with little more risk of damaging the existence of a species than the average man runs when he swats a mosquito, hunts the mallard. It's as simple as this?he bases himself at any one of hundreds of villages in the West, asks a few questions, and does his own thinking and hunting from there on. Local guides are practically nonexistent, but within the law of averages applying to all humans, local hunters are usually so friendly and helpful that a man who might arrive in one of these prairie villages from Mars late one afternoon could be out shooting mallards the following dawn. He'd need no more equipment than warm clothes, gun and shells, and a pair of rubber boots for wet spots in fields or for hiding near the shore of a slough or farm pothole. Mallards sometimes come in to drink at these ponds so full that the last barley head is still sticking out of their bills, needing water pressure to get it down.

HOTELS OR FARMHOUSES

Country hotels, ideal as bases for this kind of hunting, are plentiful and cheap. Many a visiting hunter also winds up staying at a farmhouse, getting his meals there, and getting local duck and goose lore firsthand?or being steered to the best fields for the plentiful partridge and grouse or, in spots, cock pheasant. Farmers are almost all quite willing to have hunters on their land, especially if ducks have been giving them trouble, but they like to be asked first. From then on they usually expect only the normal amenities of gate shutting and not breaking down fences or shooting cows. It is illegal in all the prairie provinces to sell hunting rights and it is also illegal for anyone, even the farmer himself, to shoot on land posted with "no shooting" signs.

A car is a necessity in this kind of hunting, of course, and chains or snow tires are a help late in the season. Even in dry weather the roads through most of the rural West inspire about the same degree of affection as going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Nevertheless, many men are still alive who have been using them for years.

Despite the great mallard population, hunting them calls for about the same combination of luck and skill as prevails in any contest between men and wild things. In other words, just because a mallard has lots of friends he isn't necessarily inclined to suicide. You watch where the mallards feed, don't disturb them, and when they go off to drink you go in and get hidden. They'll be back. One of the West's best hunters once said, "If they're thick in a field at night and nobody disturbs them, they're as sure to be back in the morning as the sun is to come up." And because usually even a concentration of thousands of ducks is made up of scores of small flocks, arriving separately, such a shoot is a steady thing, lasting for hours. One man I know followed some huge flights of mallards by car for two hours one day last year and found a field of burned-over durum wheat to which ducks from lakes in Western Manitoba were flying 60 miles to feed. That day, he says, he could have matched any of his old-time kills, into the hundreds, if he'd wanted to.

Almost all of the Canadian prairies are good goose country, too, particularly the northern regions (although at one southwestern Manitoba village near Whitewater Lake last year a group of hunters from the district got 42 one morning in a field only half a mile from the town). The basic approach is the same as that described for mallards, except that geese seldom feed near natural cover, so a pit is usually needed as a hide. When you've found a field where geese are feeding and have watched from a good distance to make sure nobody shot at them before they left for the night, you go in an hour or two before dawn the next day and dig a pit at least waist-high. Camouflage its edges with weeds and stubble (some cover the pit, leaving only a peephole in earth-smeared boards). Decoys help. Then you sit still in the pit and wait, hoping that the pit isn't steaming even slightly in the frosty air, that the wind hasn't changed so that the geese will miss you by a maddening hundred yards, and above all hoping that the geese for reasons known only to geese haven't decided to feed elsewhere that day.

JUMP UP AND SHOOT STRAIGHT

If luck is with you, and if you've done everything so well that the sharp-eyed old watch gander checking the area later can't see a thing out of place; and if you hold those jumping nerves in check and sit still until you see the first heads appear in the air above your pit; and if you then can jump up and shoot straight, you are a goose hunter. For best results (a tip from a man who has shot hundreds of them): "When you jump up they'll flare and bunch. Just before they fall off, fire at the bunched ones and then pick a single with your other barrel."

All across the prairies now the hunters sit and wait, scout the roads, sit in marsh hides, stand and fire and reload. Ducks and geese flare away, find quieter fields or water, eat and drink. As the snowstorms come, more and more flocks pull out on their long and leisurely migration flights down across the continent to where the land stays warm. The potholes freeze and more birds go. The bays in the big lakes freeze, and finally the lakes themselves, and then the land is quiet. But next spring they come again.

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