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.