By Bill Nichol
Clutching an oar in one hand and a decoy in the other, guide Kim O'Donnell finished setting the spread in the dark haze of first light. Nearby, hunting partner Rick Wallin and I got situated in a clump of phragmites at the end of a coveted, but unnamed, point in Manitoba's Delta Marsh. We were squashing our bucket seats into the semifirm ground just as the high-pitched whir of divers' wings climaxed, then faded, overhead.
When the slate-colored sky gradually brightened, we began identifying the squads of shadows that sped past our bobbing blocks. Soon afterward, our bag started to fill with an assortment of dabblers—gadwalls, shovelers, and teal—but there was marked excitement in our guide's voice when he announced in a stage whisper, "Cans in front!"
Slightly upwind, five canvasbacks moved across the water in a tight V formation. We watched intently as they made an effortless turn at full tilt. With the wind now at their backs, the birds zipped past us, displaying all the grace and flair of stunt fliers at an air show.
Call in hand, O'Donnell beckoned to them with the guttural growls of a bull can. I crept to the edge of my bucket as the formation followed the lead drake back toward our spread. Springing up as the mob shot past, I drew down on one of the sleek birds and sent it tumbling beyond the decoys. Later, Wallin doubled our total of prized pochards by bagging a fine redhead.
The opportunity to gun canvasbacks and other divers is one reason countless hunters have made the pilgrimage to this classic waterfowling venue on the south shore of expansive Lake Manitoba.
Tradition is another reason. Over the past century, duck clubs on Delta Marsh have played host to European royalty, Hollywood stars, and sports legends. Many of the luminaries were guests at the Sports Afield Duck Club, founded in 1935 by Jimmy Robinson, the renowned outdoor writer and wingshooter. Today, the club, located in St. Ambroise, is run by Rick Wallin's parents, Dick and Judy, who have upheld many of the traditions begun by their friend Jimmy Robinson.
One of the finest traditions is employing local Métis hunters to guide Sports Afield guests. Descendents of a mixed French and Cree ancestry, Métis have fished the big lake and hunted the adjacent marsh for generations. These days, guides like Kim O'Donnell, Billy Lavallee, and Darryl St. Goddard row the same wooden boats and use the same duck knowledge passed down to them from Lawrence St. Goddard, John Ducharme, and other guides from the Robinson era.
Equally unique to the hunting experience is the Sports Afield lodge, which harks back to a golden age in waterfowling history. Lining its walls are hunting memorabilia and rows of old pictures. A collage of color and black-and-white photographs, these images offer glimpses of past waterfowling successes and Robinson's famous hunting partners. Ernest Hemmingway, Clark Gable, and Ted Williams are a few of the visages that guests inevitably gravitate to upon arrival.
This past October, it was my turn to gaze at this wall of fame, alongside a group of guests that included acclaimed wildlife artist David Maass, DU Chairman of the Board John Tomke, and several other DU volunteers and members.
Having stayed at Sports Afield with Robinson and then the Wallins for nearly 30 years, Maass has found inspiration for countless paintings while hunting the marsh's cattail points. When asked about his fondness for Delta Marsh and its people, the artist speaks to the uniqueness of the experience: "On top of the hunting, it's the people, camaraderie, and tradition that keep me coming back to this special place year after year."
For information on hunting at Sports Afield Duck Club, contact Dick Wallin at 715-425-9059 or visit the club's website www.sportsafieldduckclub.com. For general information about traveling in Manitoba, visit www.travelmanitoba.com.
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