Wild Rice & Mallards On the Kapuskasing

The James Bay frontier offers solitude and off-the-beaten-path waterfowling opportunities

By Gary Koehler

Intermittent rain from an angry black sky splatters the windshield as I travel north on Highway 11 en route to Kapuskasing. An Ontario road map is unfolded on the seat beside me. All clues are welcome on this journey into the wilderness. Mallards and black ducks await. So, too, does Willie Nelson, who, upon my switching on the radio, croons a golden oldie delivered by the grace of 93.1 FM, a station known locally as "The Moose." Waylon, Kenny, Dolly, and others string together a medley of country hits that soothe a tired soul for more than an hour, until the signal fades into oblivion and is ultimately lost. Alone again.

This has been a long day, my luggage having been misplaced somewhere in the bowels of the Toronto airport. A nearly three-hour wait for the bags to catch up in Timmins results in a quick tour of the city. Country singer homegirl Shania Twain is not to be found, although the front page of the Daily Press reports that she is scheduled to return to her roots for a visit.

After donating more than a million dollars worth of memorabilia to the Shania Twain Centre, she is coming back for her first closeup look. No word whether her husband, Mutt Lange, will be accompanying her on the trip from Switzerland. But enough on that.

More important, my host, Peter Martin, is awaiting my arrival in Kapuskasing, a historic lumber town with a decidedly French accent. Fifteen years ago, Martin packed up the family and moved his chiropractic practice to this pristine outpost. A longtime hunter, fisherman, dog trainer, and Ducks Unlimited Sponsor, it did not take him long to discover clouds of puddle ducks frequenting the Kapuskasing River . The best part was, he had the stream all to himself.

"There weren't any other duck hunters," Martin says. "I'd see a fisherman once in a while, or a moose hunter, but nobody cared about the ducks. There was no competition. I could hunt wherever I wanted to and never hear another shot being fired."

A few years later, Martin's pleasure became his business.

"I had a lot of friends, particularly dog people, field trialers, including some from the states, who I would talk with in the summertime. I'd tell them about the great duck shooting at home and ask them to come up. Basically, when I started guiding, we weren't charging anything. It was getting buddies together from all over Ontario , Quebec , then into Michigan and Minnesota ," Martin says. "One day, when I was semi-retired and itching to do something other than crack backs, we got into the outfitting business."

The next morning, I'm paired with Martin and one of his regular clients, William Jackson, a former Toronto Ducks Unlimited area chairman. The first stop requires launching Martin's duck boat off a muddy, make-do ramp on a tiny stream. We motor into the quiet, dodging boulders and deadfall along the way, eventually arriving at a lake fairly covered with wild rice. Thirty mallards rise 300 yards ahead of us, bank, and disappear into the mist. The scenery rivals that of any travel guide. But the ducks fail to materialize. So, three hours later, decoys are pulled, the boat trailered, and we move on to the Kapuskasing River , which we will henceforth refer to as the Kap.

This is the area Martin knows best—every river bend, every landmark, and many members of the resident moose herd. He, too, is well aware of the impact that Ducks Unlimited has had on the region's waterfowl habitat. This is a prime staging area for birds on the move from the James Bay coast, which is roughly 180 miles to the north.

"The wild rice is what makes the difference," Martin says. "When everything is right, the shooting can be unbelievable."

During the early 1990s, Ducks Unlimited Canada established extensive Ontario habitat programs, including riparian disturbance within beaver pond complexes to sustain beaver populations (and thus waterfowl habitat), nest boxes to augment natural cavity nesting sites, and wild rice planting to enhance and restore wetland habitats, especially within hydroelectric reservoirs. Nearly 30,000 acres of wetlands were secured, restored, or enhanced.

The most significant achievement was the 12,550-acre Kap River project located north of the city of Kapuskasing . This project, designed to mitigate the impacts of the hydroelectric operating regime, encompasses more than 7,000 acres of wetlands and includes nearly 2.6 miles of level ditching to enhance breeding pair habitat. More than 20,000 pounds of wild rice were planted. Lush expanses of wild rice beds were the result, providing great quantities of waterfowl food.

The successful implementation and management of these types of northeastern Ontario projects forged partnerships involving local trapper councils, wild rice harvesters, forest management companies, Eastern Habitat Joint Venture supporters, and Ducks Unlimited volunteers. There is strength in numbers.

Hydroelectric plants dictate the Kap's flow. There are three dams on the river, including the nearby Smokey Falls facility. The river level is variable. When we arrive, there are mud flats near the boat ramp. Rocks are exposed in the current. The exaggerated shoreline is stark testament to a huge drop in the amount of available water.

"The river has been low for a while now," Martin says. "The good thing is, you can see the rocks, which are usually underwater. We've learned where the channel is, so we know where to go at any time. But for someone unfamiliar with the river, it can be a dangerous trip in a boat. Unlike stumps, rocks don't give if you hit them. The boat or the motor have to give. The bad thing is, most of the rice is no longer flooded. We'll be hunting potholes in the rice or at the edges of the rice."

This is a variation of flush-and-shoot gunning. As we motor a 12-mile run up the river, mallards begin erupting from the rice in pairs and small groups. When a flock of perhaps 20 birds vaults from a hide upon hearing the drone of the 25-horsepower outboard engine, Martin beaches the boat. We toss a half-dozen decoys into what amounts to a puddle of water at the edge of a mucky rice bay, hunker down next to a stump, and await the birds' return.

"When the water is up in the rice, we usually hunt from the boat, or from alongside the boat," Martin says. "I'll cover the boat up to hide it, which really isn't an easy thing to do in the rice. With the water as low as it is now, we're limited in what we can do, but it might be easier to stay hidden."

There are innumerable places for ducks to loaf and feed along this particular 15-mile stretch of river. Rice stands are everywhere. Scouting is crucial. Our group has grown. Martin leaves Al Stewart, a longtime provincial natural resources official, 23-year DU committee member Mike Eliuk, and his son, Brent, to their own devices on one side of the river. Jackson and I are dropped off upriver on the other side. Martin then takes off in the boat in search of more birds.

"This is very unusual," Stewart says later, after hours of watching a sparse collection of ducks dot the sky. "I've been here when waves of 400 and 500 mallards will fly out of the rice. But Peter told me that the hunting had been slow. I guess the birds aren't here yet."

This is October, but perhaps we are a week to 10 days ahead of prime time on the Kap. No matter, a second afternoon on the river produces mixed bag shooting, with a lone black duck the top prize. He arrived from out of nowhere. A light snow is falling. There are moose prints in the mud along the riverbank.

"We shoot mostly mallards, but also kill some black ducks, wood ducks, and teal," Martin says. "And we will see a few divers and Canada geese."

When one hunts with Martin, a dog always figures into the equation. He started training retrievers 30 years ago after meeting and becoming friends with Howard Yee, both a trainer and restaurateur of note, who resides in Toronto . Award ribbons abound in Martin's kennel shed. During the late 1980s and early '90s, he owned and trained what was recognized as the top dog throughout all of Canada for three years running. The favored pooch during my stay was Daisy, a yellow Lab, which, Martin says, has all the right stuff to make the big time. She is a single point away from champion status.

"I've been taking her a lot this season because she's had some problems breaking," Martin says. "I want to get that straightened out. And there's no better way to do that than by hunting her."

Daisy stays with Martin when he sends us to hunt a harvested wheat field for a change of pace early one morning. Jackson and I are joined by Martin's youthful assistant-in-training, 16-year-old Scott Chmilewski, and a school mate, Alec Sylvain, whose father farms this property. The youngsters take on the task of setting out four dozen Canada goose shells. I'm envious of their seemingly boundless energy.

We are kneeling in a grassy swale, awaiting an early morning flight of Canadas from an adjacent swamp, a roost area that we are told regularly holds birds. Small flocks of mallards trade over the field as the morning wears on. The ducks, like those on the river, are extremely skittish. The geese are much more cooperative. Four Canadas are lured from a flock of 30 and back-pedal vigorously when gunners arise upon their final approach. Without a creaky knee between them, the teenagers are well ahead of Jackson and me.

Late in the morning, long after the youngsters leave to attend school, I hop aboard an ATV to return the machine to Alec's father's farmyard. Jackson follows in his SUV. Just as we pull up, Ovila Sylvain arrives in a pickup truck. There's a large device on the bed of the truck. Jackson knows exactly what it is.

"Whose bear trap?" Jackson asks Sylvain.

"Huh," I'm thinking, "What bear trap?" This is foreign to me.

The apparatus in the truck looks like a metal culvert, which it is, in part. This is a clever device, open at one end and baited at the other. When a bear crawls in, the animal subsequently trips a locking mechanism, becomes stuck, and can't get out.

"My trap. Just took a bear out to the bush and let him go," Sylvain says. "That's nine black bears I trapped in town this year. The bears follow a creek all the way into town. They go where the food is. But they often come out by the school. When they see bears by the school, they call me to come and trap them. The most I ever trapped one year was 16."

Welcome to Kapuskasing, the edge of the wilderness, where duck hunters are scarce, and the mallards are nervous.