South of the Border

This destination on the Minnesota side of Lake of the Woods offers bountiful mixed-bag opportunities with spitting distance of the 49th parallel

© Joseph Edwards

By Chris Jennings, Photos by Joseph Edwards

It was early July 2021. Waterfowl hunters throughout the United States were impatiently waiting for an announcement from the Canadian government about whether the US-Canada border would be open or closed by the time waterfowl season rolled around. A Canadian duck and goose hunt can be a fantastic way to kick off the season, but coronavirus precautions meant those trips were up in the air for American hunters.

I was working with Jeff Barry, Kent Cartridge Company director of marketing, and Daren Cole, who was representing Benelli, to put together an early-season hunt. If we couldn't get into Canada, we figured, we would try to find a spot as close to the border as we could get. The goal was to field test Kent's premium ammo lineup using Benelli's new 20-gauge Super Black Eagle 3 and 828U shotguns. We were targeting multiple species, including Canada geese, ducks, ruffed grouse, and woodcock, which would make for a challenging test of the subgauge offerings from Kent and Benelli.

Lake of the Woods

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Photo © Joseph Edwards

We settled on Lake of the Woods, a legendary spot for sportsmen chasing fins and feathers in the great north woods. I'd hunted and fished in the area several times, and I had never left disappointed. Flying into Bemidji, Minnesota, on October 1 and looking down at the landscape on approach got me excited. This was my first taste of fall, and the birch and aspen trees were already a fiery yellow, contrasting with the dark pines and small marshes to create a mosaic of north-country visuals. Grabbing our bags and walking out of the airport, we were disappointed to discover that it was 82 degrees—not the cool, crisp fall welcome we had expected.

The first evening, we sat outside our cabins at River Bend Resort near Baudette, Minnesota, and assembled shotguns while watching flocks of Canada geese cross the Rainy River into Canada. Our goal had been to get as close to Canada as possible, and we had certainly accomplished that. The cabins were less than 500 yards from the border. And despite the unseasonable temperatures, we were looking forward to a classic mixed-bag adventure.

"We are in the walleye capital of the world, and we don't shy from that," said Paul Johnson, owner of River Bend Resort. "But combine that with other outdoor activities like hunting grouse, woodcock, ducks, and geese, and this area has a lot to offer. We are a unique one-stop shop for hunting and fishing combination trips." 

Goose Chase

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Photo © Joseph Edwards

We teamed up with some local hunters who had a lead on a hot field just outside of Baudette. Geese were piling out of Canada, crossing the river, and hitting a rye field. We brushed and deployed layout blinds and set out three dozen full-body Canadas, plus an equal number of silhouettes and a smattering of shells. As the eastern sky began to lighten, it became clear that the weather would be an issue, and we knew we were in for a long morning. The high temperatures generated a thick layer of fog that blanketed the field. Visibility was about 10 yards.

"I can hear them!" Cole said. "But there's no way we will see them unless they land on our blinds."

He was right. Several people calling couldn't create enough noise to cut through the fog and lure the already hesitant geese into range. Several flocks passed by, and frustration began to set in. But by 9:30 the sun won the early-morning battle and the fog quickly dissipated.

We bagged a pair of honkers that had separated from a larger group, and then continued to work other flocks as they took advantage of the improved visibility. A few flocks set up on the decoys and sailed into range, wings locked and 15 yards off the ground. Kent's 20-gauge bismuth 3s made quick work of the big geese. One advantage to shooting lighter-gauge shotguns in a goose field is that the smaller guns are much easier to handle and shoulder in layout blinds, allowing for quick shots before the geese drift out of range. By 11 o'clock the birds had settled into a loafing routine and we packed up. We had a different target for the afternoon.

Upland Adventures

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Photo © Joseph Edwards

Northern Minnesota is well known for its abundance of public lands. National and state forests offer hundreds of thousands of acres for upland hunters to roam. Our original plan was to hit the thick forests for ruffed grouse. Lucky for us, Scot Mikols, a veteran upland hunter and biologist from Missouri, had traveled to northern Minnesota with five English setters and three Labrador retrievers to do some scouting before his own upland trip with friends who are members of the Ruffed Grouse Society board of directors. He invited our party to tag along with him and his world-class dogs. We switched the Benelli SBE3s out for the 828U over-and-unders and headed to the woods. 

"If a great duck dog is considered the Cadillac of bird dogs, these are the Lamborghinis," Mikols said, smiling as he dropped the first tall, sinewy English setter from the kennel. For our initial foray into the grouse woods, Mikols released two of the speedy setters as well as a flushing Labrador retriever, all outfitted with GPS tracking collars.

The first afternoon was an eye-opener for those of us who had never hunted grouse with pointing dogs, especially not dogs of this caliber. The setters were quick to fan out, covering ground at an astonishing pace. We walked the trails and forest edges as the setters crisscrossed through the dense forest, crashing through the underbrush and nosing the air every few seconds. Their collars are designed to emit a sonar-like ping when the dogs stop and lock on point. When the first ping rang out through the woods, Mikols yelled for us to hustle toward the sound.

Mikols and I approached the first point, separated by less than 10 yards. We could see the dog, frozen in the moment, its nose facing to my right and angled toward the ground. The dog's hindquarters shivered in anticipation. As we closed the distance through a wall of saplings that tugged at our clothing, Mikols sent the Labrador crashing toward the setter. An explosion of wings rushed from the ground and through the lower canopy to my right. I was able to whip the lightweight Benelli to my shoulder and fire a shot before the bird got above the smaller trees. Bird down. The Lab made a quick retrieve and we had our first grouse of the day. 

I had hunted grouse before, and my past experience usually included an entire day of walking with only one, or possibly two, shots taken. Today, we were 20 minutes into our first hunt and already had a bird in hand.

Our group repeated this process, bagging both ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse as well as woodcock, during the next three afternoons. Northern Minnesota has a wealth of upland hunting opportunities, and we took full advantage of the bounty. "Due to the abundance of public ground here that has an active forestry industry going on, this place is littered with quality habitat for grouse and woodcock," Mikols said. "It's the perfect place to get the dogs consistent work."

The Ducks

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Photo © Joseph Edwards

Our optimism for a decent duck hunt waned amid the sultry, summerlike temperatures. Months ago, when planning this trip, we had envisioned flocks of bluebills dancing just above the wind-swept waters of the big lake, snow tingling our faces. But now we couldn't buy a gust of wind as we sat in short-sleeved shirts on a point just west of Baudette. We did notice that we were the only boat at a popular public boat launch, which should have been a dead giveaway for how our morning hunt would turn out. 

Large rafts of divers traded far out on the big lake, like clouds fluttering up and down on the horizon. With no wind to push them into marshes for shelter, we were mostly just spectators. We managed to pick up a few divers in our set, but overall we knew the ducks wouldn't be the highlight of the trip. The good news was that we had a walleye boat waiting for us at River Bend Resort, and flip-flops and shorts would be recommended attire. In addition to walleye, both the Rainy River and Lake of Woods offer world-class fishing for smallmouth bass, northern pike, and sturgeon.

We spent four days bumming around northern Minnesota, and while the conditions put a damper on the waterfowl hunting, we saw plenty of birds, and our entire party raved about the upland hunting and fishing. "This was my first trip to the area, and I was blown away," Barry said. "From Kent's perspective this is exactly the type of hunt we would want. Going from ducks to geese to grouse and woodcock, our premium ammunition offerings have it all covered. The fishing here is just icing on the cake."

It's always a good idea to have a backup plan. And sometimes the outcome will take you by surprise. Lake of the Woods offers so much, it's difficult not to stumble into a great trip.