Story and photos by Bill Buckley
Let me confess that when it comes to western Canada, I'm hardly objective. I've hunted and photographed waterfowl extensively in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba over the past 30 years, and I don't think I've ever had a bad day. Even when the hunting is slow, it can still be phenomenal by lower-48 standards, and Canadians are so welcoming and easygoing that you're almost always guaranteed a good time.
It was with that in mind that I accepted invitations to attend not one but two waterfowling camps near Winnipeg, Manitoba, last fall. The first hunt was hosted by Vista Outdoor and the second was sponsored by Winchester and Browning. Conveniently for me, the two hunts were held one day apart at the same lodge, making my decision to double down on geese and ducks while field-testing new high-performance shotgun loads and a revamped autoloader a no-brainer.
Gunning and Running
On the first morning of Vista Outdoor's hunt, our guide, Dwayne Germain, chose to hide us a mere 40 yards from a tree line to our east. That would put us in the shade after sunrise and would also mean that approaching geese would have the sun in their eyes and no room to swing around behind us to scope us out. As we lay hidden in Final Approach layout blinds under thick rows of swathed barley, pretty much the only thing visible was our decoy spread.
Germain, who spent 36 years behind a desk at Manitoba Public Insurance, guides for Narrows Outfitters, a family-run operation located midway up 120-mile-long Lake Manitoba, where the lake narrows like an hourglass. A bridge spans this portion of the lake, connecting its east and west sides. Famed Delta Marsh, which is situated along Lake Manitoba's southern shore, is just an hour's drive south of the Narrows, as this area is called. Although flat, the surrounding October landscape was a gorgeous patchwork of yellow- and orange-leafed poplar stands, marshes, crop fields, and hay meadows—the perfect place to "make up for lost time outdoors," as our guide so aptly put it.
At first light, a few flocks of mallards paid the price for swinging in low over our decoys. The real show began, however, when the first flocks of giant Canada geese appeared. That's when John Vaca, Vista Outdoor's national pro-staff and events manager, got on his call and worked the big birds into easy gunning range. There's something thrilling about watching geese respond to an expert caller who can skillfully read the birds' visual and verbal cues. Vaca worked them perfectly, then managed to call the shot so that we all got in on the action.
Despite Manitoba's hefty five-goose limit, it didn't take long for us to fill our bags. In late September and early October, the Canada geese in this region haven't seen any real hunting pressure. That makes them much more forgiving of large hunting parties, but it's still hardly like shooting fish in a barrel.
Our second morning would prove that point. We were hunting in a partially flooded stubble field, taking cover in tall grass along an elevated fencerow. While the grass hid us well, the first flights of geese seemed wary of working so close to the field's edge and started short-stopping well beyond our farthest decoys. With strings of geese in the air, we ran out into the field and adjusted our spread. The next flocks reacted better and we had a successful hunt, but it was nothing like the frenetic pace we had experienced a day earlier. Still, we had enough action to keep us on our toes. In fact, we spent much of the morning "gunning and running," because just as soon as we went out to retrieve the downed birds, there were already more geese in the air winging toward us.
In a typical October, we would have been able to experience some of the region's storied diver hunting as well. Unfortunately, the unseasonably warm weather delayed the migration, so we had to settle for an afternoon of walleye fishing instead. Although I truly enjoy catching and eating walleyes, the excitement level isn't the same as hunting canvasbacks, redheads, and scaup, especially considering how rare a treat it is for me to get an opportunity to pursue divers. On the plus side, during my six-day stay at the lodge I would get to sample a mixed bag of sumptuous outdoor game and fish, thanks to the hospitality of our hosts and the culinary talent of resident chef Klaus Pagel, who prepared a variety of delicious dishes featuring goose, deer, walleye, and even bear.
Neither Rain nor Fog
When the Vista Outdoor group departed, I stayed on at the Narrows West Lodge to team up with the Winchester and Browning party. That's when the deluge began. Rain came in sheets in what would amount to seven inches over the next three days, dampening our hunting prospects if not our enthusiasm.
On the first morning, wind-driven rain and standing water made for a muddy mess and forced us to try to hide on a slight ridge of tall grass between stubble fields. Despite Mossy Oak Pro Staff Manager Cory Dukehart's expert calling and lots of geese in the air, concealment proved difficult. By the end of the hunt, we had just a few geese and ducks to show for our efforts.
The next morning we drove through soupy fog to another barley field. With so much water and so little cover, we had to position our layout blinds along a loosely strung decoy spread. The hunt consisted primarily of pass-shooting opportunities, but we made the most of our chances, thanks in part to Browning's new BXD Waterfowl Extra Distance loads and Winchester's new Super X4 autoloader, a combination that proved to be highly effective both on honkers and the numerous flocks of little Canadas that materialized out of the fog. As it turned out, neither rain nor fog could keep us from having a good time in Manitoba's goose fields.
Ending on a High Note
For our final morning, the outfitter found two active goose fields within a few miles of one another and split us into two groups for easier concealment. My group set up along a weedy field edge on what would be a windy, steel-gray morning that got darker and colder by the hour. As we listened to the other group shooting for a good half hour before any honkers flew our way, we had plenty of time to hide our blinds and fine-tune our small spread.
When flocks of Canadas finally started flying upwind toward us, they came in low but in manageable bunches consisting of pairs and as many as 30 birds. It was classic honker hunting, tailor-made for testing Winchester's Blind Side ammo and the perfect follow-up to the previous day's pass shooting. With shots averaging 15 to 25 yards, it didn't take long before we'd all claimed our five-bird limits.
The next morning we packed up and headed to the airport just as flights of canvasbacks, bluebills, and redheads were piling into Lake Manitoba. Missing a great hunt by one day might have been just my luck. But then again, coming so close is incentive enough to return to the Narrows, hopefully someday soon.
Testing the Super X4 and Several Steel Loads
I don't typically attend media camps because, frankly, I like hunting in small groups and hate shooting unfamiliar guns and ammo that can cause me to miss more than usual. After six days in Manitoba, however, I can honestly say that my shooting suffered little, thanks in part to the three new high-performance steel loads we tested, as well as Winchester's new SX4. The SX4 is lighter and faster-cycling than its predecessor, the SX3. It's also ergonomically improved for actual hunting conditions, which makes it a joy to shoot, even with gloves on. The ammo we used exceeded expectations, too, starting with Federal's new and improved Black Cloud loads, which feature a mixture of Flitestopper steel pellets and standard steel shot, plus a redesigned wad that produces tighter and more consistent patterns. Browning's BXD Waterfowl Extra Distance ammo is also designed to produce tighter patterns, by means of a rear-stabilized wad and round, plated shot. And Winchester's Blind Side ammo, with its diamond-cut wad for controlled pattern expansion and hexagonal shot for denser loads, produces lethal pellet penetration on waterfowl inside 45 yards.