By Tyler Shoberg, Associate Editor
History in a Hunt
Manitoba trip provides an intimate look at Delta Waterfowl's humble past
November 19, 2012
The hunt was a baptism by slough sludge. The mucky, methane-burping concoction that fought to swallow my waders awoke the primitive hunter nestled deep inside.
"Almost there," I said, with a burst of newfound vigor. "Only a bit farther."
With heavy grunts, Nigel Simms, Delta's vice president of communications, and I wrenched our gear-laden canoe across the last few feet of exposed pond bottom and back into the blessed ease of open water, the promise of decoying ducks looming ever closer.
The Delta Marsh: What a sight for sore legs.
Having grown up in Minnesota, I know what it means to work for your ducks. In my teens, it was nothing to trudge hundreds of yards through dense reeds to find water. Even after that toil, a banner outing could consist of nothing more than a single duck seen, never mind shot.
This was Canada, however. Land of plenty. Easy pickings. For my first experience of hunting the storied Delta Marsh north of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, I was a bit taken aback with the early morning mini-death march into School Bay.
Jim Fisher, Delta's director of conservation policy and a Delta Marsh veteran, informed us the water level was five feet below normal, which was why we were forced to drag our heavy canoes through boot-sucking sludge.
The work would be worth it.
We decided to split into groups to keep the ducks hopping, and hinder them from funneling into unmanned spots. Simms, my wirehair, Remy, and I sat near the back of a small bay, a hodgepodge fleet of decoys strung before us. Editor Paul Wait, art director Roland Millington, photographer Fred Greenslade and Fisher found their own corner. The tactic worked.
Although we weren't set up until well after shooting time, the morning flight was strong. Divers and puddle ducks swooped low over cattails to investigate decoys, and sporadic shots from the other side of the pond told us our companions were seeing action.
Simms and I did our best to follow suit. A ring-necked duck was the first tally, which Remy dutifully retrieved. Shortly thereafter, two Canada geese fell from a flock that managed to swing a bit too low in formation en route to breakfast.
The wind eventually shifted to face us, and the earlier eagerness by ducks to decoy soon turned into passes just outside of range. Under Fisher's guidance, we hopped to the bay's other side reset our spread.
It proved a wise decision. Fleet-winged teal cut close, offering sporting chances as our barrels sliced through the cattails. A gadwall cupped down from the stratosphere, and fell like a stone after a single shot.
Remy was getting his work in, and by morning's end he was covered in stinky water, mud and feathers. In short, dog heaven.
Between hunts, the communication team busied itself with tasks around Kirchoffer Lodge, our humble abode. For me, that meant snooping, or as journalists call it, "sleuthing."
Being new to the Delta scene, but not to Delta Waterfowl itself, I was immediately awestruck. This was it, the place where some of history's most passionate and brilliant conservation minds — James Ford Bell and H. Albert Hochbaum among them — worked out the frustrations, fickleness and future of waterfowl management.
Rifling through the many cabinets of the lodge, I stumbled upon old publications from various conservation organizations, including the likes of the North American Wildlife Foundation — Delta's forerunner. The published pictures within portrayed scenes of days gone by. Students dressed in period garb busily worked on their projects. A birds-eye view depicted a hive-like campus equipped with the latest in research technology. Holding pens burgeoned with fowl.
Now, all was empty, save for the half-dozen souls who descended upon the marsh for a weekend of traditional duck hunting.
Still, the research opened to my eyes to what had been, and what could be. Passionate hunters, who felt they needed to give back more than they took, started Delta Waterfowl. They were selfless folks who dedicated their lives to waterfowl, conservation, and especially, to hunting.
Those us mulling through the old papers and talking about history are still connected by this common bond. Given our status as Delta's communications team, it is up to us to tell fellow hunters about the great things Delta has done and continues to do.
I held onto this thought as I bumped down the pitted dirt road leading south, the Delta Research Station fading into the distance. If the muck had baptized me into the fold, the history and heartbeat that is Delta Waterfowl solidified my mission going forward. People need to know what we are all about, and I will share those stories.
If I get to shoot a few birds along the way, well, that's a bonus.