Monthly Archives: June 2012

Drought Comes to the Prairies

Jim Marshall walks past a pond that has suffered from drought. Manitoba, like other Canadian provinces, has lost many of its valuable wetlands for waterfowl in the past year to drought.Manitoba, like North Dakota and South Dakota, was rich with water during the 1990s and helped pump North America’s waterfowl populations to record levels. But drought conditions finally have come to the Canadian prairies, prompting biologists to worry. Bob Brudy, a conservation officer with Manitoba Conservation, the province’s equivalent of Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, said drought this year has hit central Manitoba’s prairies hard.

“I would definitely call it a drought,” Brudy said. “We went a month and half this summer without rain. In 2000 and 2001, we had 400 percent above snow-fall levels. That spring and summer, every pothole was full of water. Who knows if it will change? But right now, our wetlands are drying up.”

Bird Migration | Minnedosa, ManitobaThe loss of water is evident. Ponds brimming with water last year are mud puddles this year. But many of the larger lakes and sloughs still have water and continue to provide nesting and refuge for ducks. Last week, Marshall huddled along a marsh’s edge and watched ducks careen from the sky. It was freezing farther north; snowstorms swept down from the sub-arctic, putting hundreds of thousands of waterfowl into the sky. He watched and knew something was happening.

As Canadian lakes and swamps become locked in ice, hordes of birds were moving out of Canada and into the United States. Freeze-up isn’t far away. Marshall, and all waterfowlers, know what those signs mean. Ducks, snow geese and Canada geese — from The Pas, Manitoba, to Pierre, S.D., to Minnesota’s Swan Lake — are on the move.

The migration is on.

The Heart of Waterfowl Country

Minnedosa is a small town in south-central Manitoba lying in the heart of Canada prairie pot-hole country. The surrounding countryside is no more or less populated with waterfowl than other towns such as Boissevain, Shoal Lake, Neepawa or the area known as the Interlake Region, north of Winnipeg. It is here in Minnedosa, though, where much of the early studies on canvasbacks and other water-fowl species were conducted by Canadian and American researchers.

The Heart of Waterfowl Country | Minnedosa, ManitobaIt’s a landscape dotted with potholes, sloughs and-small-grain farms that seem like a throwback to the 1950s. Large corporate farming largely hasn’t reached Manitoba, but as one farmer said, “We’re getting fewer and farther between.”

Because the region is rich with duck-producing wetlands, it draws waterfowlers like Marshall, who started coming here four years ago.

“The fanners are very friendly,” said Marshall, who has become friends with landowners in the region. “You don’t get turned down when you ask permission. A lot of people come to Canada and expect to find ducks within a five-mile radius of their motel. That’s not quite the case. But if you get out and explore, knock on doors and get to know the countryside, there are plenty of ducks here.”

John Plahn, 68, of Mound and Dick Guentzel, 68, of Austin, Minn., have been waterfowling in Saskatchewan and Manitoba together for four years. They said they enjoy the multitude of waterfowl, but also the friendliness of Canadians.

“We’ve had great associations with people up here,” Plahn said. “You have to stop and visit and have a cup of coffee. I don’t think we’ve ever been turned down.

Prairie Home

Extract from the ”The St.Paul Pioneer”, Minnesota. Sunday October 20th, 2002

Gateway Motel | Minnedosa, ManitobaThere is nothing complicated about hunting waterfowl in the Netherlands of Manitoba. Ducks and geese are just about everywhere. Minnedosa, Manitoba – In the gathering twilight, flocks of mallards, wigeons and teal tumbled out of the sky into a quilt-work of potholes interspersed among wheat fields and canola fields.

The ducks swoop in unwarily, wings cupped. You could throw out decoys if you were so inclined, but it’s not necessary. There is nothing complicated about hunting waterfowl in the Netherlands of Manitoba — ducks and geese are part of the landscape like dirt roads and wheat combines. They’re just there. Waterfowl are, in fact, just about everywhere. People aren’t.

To get permission to hunt on this pothole, Scott Scherer of Minnetonka and I had to drive 15 miles into a small town and asked around to see who owned the slough. The owner, we learned, owned the local Chinese restaurant. He wasn’t in the kitchen, but his wife was, hunkered over the grill. Farmers in the dining room sipped coffee and chewed on the lunch special -— chow mein.

I knocked on the kitchen door. Mrs. Choy came out and guessed my question by my camouflage shirt before I could get the words out. She said simply: “You just go.” “Are you sure?” I replied. “Yes, just go. No problem. And no, I don’t want any ducks.”

Then she disappeared into the kitchen. The slough was a series of ponds separated by a dirt road and surrounded by willows. We split up. Scherer and I hunted one side. Jim Marshall of Fairfax, Minn., and Robbie Faught of Woodbridge, Va., were on the other side of the road. Ducks coursed between the ponds- Gadwalls. Wigeons. Blue-winged teal. When the afternoon waned, flocks of mallards flew in from the wheat fields where they fed all day.

A few miles away, a flock of snow geese a half- mile long swarmed over a recently cut canola field. Canada geese fed in a wheat field not far from the snows. We had watched all of them with binoculars. Waterfowl were everywhere. With a few hours left in the day, we gathered at the edge of the slough. Faught shook his head and said he rarely had seen such waterfowl shooting in his life, especially on the East Coast. We were just a few birds short of a limit (in Manitoba, the duck limit is eight birds per person daily, two more than in the United States), so Scherer sat on a different pond and waited for the evening flight.

As we watched ducks on the horizon, a pair of coyotes howled to each other from across the ponds. It was quiet enough to hear a car door slam a half-mile away. But of course, there was no one about at this time of the day; the farmers were done combining, the narrow dirt roads quiet of traffic, the countryside empty of people except a few duck hunters.

“There’s beauty here like you find in a desert,” Scherer would say later. “You’re out in the middle of nowhere. There’s farming here, but it’s still wild, as wild as farmland can get. There’s kind of a purity in the landscape.”

Desolation, too. When it came time to pack up for the day, Scherer’s truck became stuck — and so were we for two hours. While northern lights flickered overhead, not a single vehicle passed us. Coyotes were the most plentiful night time travelers.

Motel Welcome Mat Extends to Hunters

Here’s what the St.Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota) had to say about us on October 23, 2002
Motel welcome mat extends to hunters | Gateway Motel | Minnedosa, ManitobaMINNEDOSA, Manitoba — Now that the hunt was over, Jim Marshall carried an armful of wigeon, teal, gadwalls and mallards into the duck cleaning room and proceeded to gut and bag them. While some birds were placed in plastic bags for freezing, with each hunter’s name and license number printed on the outside, a few of the birds were set aside for further cleaning. Dark meat was gleaned from the bones and washed under cold water. In assembly-line fashion, Scott Scherer took chunks of cleaned duck meat from Marshall and wrapped them in bacon.

About an hour later, we gathered around a gas barbecue in the parking lot of the Gateway Motel and cooked ducks three ways — barbecued with bacon, in a Cajun stew and in a Chinese stir fry with vegetables. A bottle of red wine was uncorked and, under a blazing display of northern lights, we feasted.

Other motel guests drifted by, perhaps lured by the smell of bacon-wrapped duck cooking on a barbecue. Otherwise, our merry band of camo-clad hunters didn’t raise an eyebrow, mostly because the owners of the Gateway, Kathleen and Scott Martin, love it when hunters are their guests.

As any hunter can attest, it is not always that way It’s sometimes tough to get good accommodations when your boots are muddy and a wet Labrador or English setter is your companion, m the old days, rural motels in Minnesota probably opened their arms to hunters, but lately I’ve found some motel owners aren’t exactly hunter-friendly.

Three years ago, when the Martins moved from Devon, England, to the pastoral town of Minnedosa, they didn’t realized they’d settled in the heart of Canada’s duck-hunting region. Some of their hunting guests were pretty rude, too. Scott realized hunters cleaning their ducks in the bathtub were plugging his bathroom pipes. Knowing they needed the customers, the Martins launched a plan to keep their duck hunters happy, but also keep them living within the rules.

“We knew if we wanted to attract hunters, we’d have to allow dogs in the rooms,” said Scott. “We also knew we needed something more than that, so we added the duck-cleaning room and barbecue.”

Scott’s duck-cleaning shed is a beauty, with a sink, running water, chest freezers and garbage cans. Later, the Martins added the gas barbecue because they realized some of their hunters returned from a field after most of the town’s restaurants closed. They decided to continue to allow dogs in the rooms.

“Most of the hunters are good with the dogs in their rooms because the dogs sleep in the crate. The hunters are far more responsible than the average (people on holiday).” That the Martins have learned the idiosyncrasies of duck hunters is remarkable in itself, since three years ago they had no idea that they’d be motel owners in Manitoba. It started with a real estate agent who dialed a wrong number in England and ended up with Scott, a social worker, on the telephone.

The agent eventually convinced Scott and Kathleen to visit Manitoba to look at motel properties. An intense hockey fan in a soccer-crazy nation, Scott saw a visit to Canada as a opportunity to see “proper hockey,” never thinking he would move. “I’ve always liked Canada,” said Scott, with a thick English accent, “because it has hockey. It was so hard to get proper hockey on TV in England. I remember looking at the motel the first time we came here and thinking, ‘Wow, I get to watch the Brandon Wheat Kings (the local pro team) tonight!'” But with Kathleen’s experience in motel management, finances and catering, the Martins bought the Gateway and moved to Minnedosa. The once-dilapidated motel has been remodeled, and Kathleen has opened a new restaurant that stays open late enough for the hunting crowd- The Martins’ parking lot gets hunting rigs with licenses plates from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri- Maybe it’s the smell of barbecued duck that brings ’em in.

Call the Gateway Motel at (204) 867-2729. Or visit the Martins online at Chris Niskanen can be reached at or (651) 228-5524.