By Bruce Batt
Coot gumbo! What an intriguing possibility. One of my hunting partners on this Saskatchewan bird hunt is Pat Kehoe, manager of conservation programs for DU Canada's prairie region and a renowned cook with a reputation for creating superb game dishes. Over the course of our weeklong hunt, we have already bagged and eaten most species of game birds available in Saskatchewan, but we've ignored the coots—until now.
Every fall, several biologists who work for DU get together in Saskatchewan to hunt a variety of game birds. Over the years, we've settled on a few areas where we have made friends with local landowners, restaurant operators, and innkeepers. The weeklong excursion has become something of a tradition, a way of reconnecting with old friends to start the hunting season.
This year, Jeff Nelson, DU's former director of operations in Bismarck and now executive vice president of DU Canada; Mel Bois, a DU volunteer from Minnesota; and I start the week in southern Saskatchewan with a little upland bird hunting. Specifically, we are after sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge. We focus mostly on the "Huns," but sharptails often use the same covers. So with a little luck, we might bag our possession limits of both species. At least that's the plan—and sometimes it actually works.
We start out walking around abandoned farmyards and along hedgerows, where, we have learned over the years, the Huns usually roost during the day. But for some reason, the birds are strangely absent from their old haunts. As an alternative, we decide to hunt the thick, weedy cover of the many sloughs that have not held water since spring. This strategy works out quite well, and the next day, we find many more birds. There has evidently been more hunting pressure in this region than we realize, which we think may explain why the birds are in different habitat. We collect a nice mixed bag of Huns and sharptails—both great table birds—and, as they say, leave plenty of breeding stock for next year.
Next, we move up to central Saskatchewan, where we meet up with Kehoe and two other friends, Keith Brady and Dale Assmus, both DU members from Alberta. We move into an old farmhouse the owner rents out to hunting parties in fall. The arrangement is ideal because we have access to a kitchen and running water, so we can process birds and do some of our own cooking—all while being in the Saskatchewan countryside and enjoying the spectacle of the birds, along with some dramatic sunsets and sunrises.
In the afternoon, we head out in different directions to scout for geese, ducks, or sandhill cranes for the next morning's hunt. After comparing notes, Nelson, Bois, and I decide to go to an area I had found about 25 miles to the east. About 6,000 mallards have been feeding in a harvested wheat field and dipping in and out of several shallow ponds that remain throughout the field. The landowner is happy to let us hunt the field—as has nearly always been the case over the years.
We choose the pond that looks the most promising to us. It is windy, sleety, and cold, and the birds are slow to respond to what we think is a pretty attractive decoy spread. After a couple of hours, the rain grows more intense, so we stop a little short of the mallard limit. Nonetheless, we are happy with how the morning has worked out and decide to treat ourselves to breakfast in a nearby town. Most of the other diners are also dressed in camo and, like us, have been driven in out of the cold rain. We find that we have been as successful as many of the other patrons, who are mostly from points farther south—mainly Arkansas and Maryland. Saskatchewan in October is a magnet for wingshooters, although most focus on ducks and geese and pay little attention to the upland birds.
The next day, we set up in a pond the landowner had created by plugging a ditch several years earlier. We had seen a thousand mallards there the day before, and we flush that many when we arrive to set up. We feel certain the birds will return, as they have apparently been using the pond for several days, but it doesn't quite work out that way. So we spend a nice afternoon sitting in the sun talking about what else we should have done.
But then our success improves considerably. The next afternoon we go to the nearby hill country, where there are many isolated ponds. Our quarry is the abundant blue-winged teal young-of-the-year, which must be on the verge of heading south. Early teal seasons have already closed in southern states, yet almost every pond has several teal on it. Actually, many of the birds these stragglers spent the summer with are already in Mexico and perhaps beyond. We jump-shoot the teal, which is great fun but also produces one of the finest meals we have ever had at our little camp. In this part of the world, most hunters don't pay much attention to teal, as mallards, pintails, and a variety of geese hold center stage.
A couple of days later, we jump-shoot the potholes again, but this time our focus is mallards. We don't see as many birds as we did on the teal hunt, but we find enough to take limits of greenheads.
Through all this, we have been watching several large flocks of snow geese and sandhill cranes, both of which seem ever-present in this country during mid-October. We are joined by Dale Humburg, DU's chief biologist, and Scott Yaich, DU's director of conservation programs at national headquarters in Memphis. Humburg and I set up for cranes one morning with a rig of mounted crane decoys, also known as stuffers. But once the flight starts, the cranes frustrate us by choosing another part of the field. Our decoys can't compete with real birds on the ground, so we move to the edge of the field. Incoming birds are consistently crossing the same narrow strip of fence line as they head for the feeding flock. This strategy pays off, and we each shoot several birds. After bagging one of the biggest cranes either of us had ever seen, Humburg reveals that he is shooting his trusty 20 gauge, which he prefers for all waterfowl hunting.
The next few days are filled with more scouting, talking with landowners, great meals, and two successful goose hunts that produce some bonus duck shooting. On the first hunt for snow geese, we set up downwind from a night roost in a pea stubble field. Most birds pay little attention to our decoys, but enough smaller flocks, usually with young birds, respond that we are each able to bag several birds. The second goose hunt is nearly a bust for geese, but since mallards have also been heavily using the field, it turns into a nice duck shoot. Mallards are often in the field well ahead of the geese, so it is common to bag a few before any geese show up. This time the ducks save the day.
Which finally leads us to the coots. Kehoe is determined that they will work well in a gumbo, so we set about the task of collecting two limits by sneaking up on birds that are feeding or roosting on a few of the thousands of prairie potholes that cover the Saskatchewan landscape. Coots are relatively easy targets, so we accomplish the task quickly, giving Belle, my seven-month-old Labrador, an excellent afternoon of straightforward retrieves. My only concern is that she might lock in the idea that every time the shotgun goes off there will be birds on the water to pick up.
In the end, Kehoe is right. He applies himself to the pile of coot legs and breasts, and they are transformed into an excellent meal and a new way to celebrate the end of our great week of mixed-bag wingshooting.