Canvasbacks and Crankbaits!

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A Unique Delta Marsh Cast and Blast Adventure

“Grrrrrrrrr, grrrrrrrrr, grrrrrrrrrr,” I growled into my mallard duck call hard and long, trying hard to imitate a Canvasback. A big flock of beautiful canvasbacks had buzzed our decoy spread low and fast. The flock made a big swing out over the bay, banking hard to the right showing us their backs. The big, white bull (drake) canvasbacks were easy to spot. My heart was racing. The flock was full of bulls. Nothing excites me as a duck hunter like big, drake canvasbacks. They are a duck of lore, at the heart of grand waterfowling decoy and gunning traditions in famous haunts like the Chesapeake, the old Great Lakes duck clubs and of course, the Delta Marsh. Famous people came to the Delta Marsh from far and wide to chase ducks, but it was the canvasback that made the Marsh famous. Moguls like Clark Gable, Hemingway, Jimmy Robinson and James Ford Bell flocked to Delta to shoot the king of the marsh.

James Ford Bell, a founder of General Mills, was great at business but his love was hunting canvasbacks. He backtracked the canvasbacks from his hunting spots in Minnesota to the Delta Marsh in the 1920s and fell in love with the Marsh, assembling a large land holding. Through a relationship with legendary American ecologist, Aldo Leopold, Bell built a research legacy at the Delta Waterfowl and Wetland Research Station that continues today through the world famous Delta Waterfowl Foundation Student Research Program. All because of canvasbacks.

Here they come: The huge flock of ducks banked hard and came fast and bold right at out decoy spread. That’s how cans are, when they decide to come, they are coming and you’d better be ready. I looked hard into the flock for the big white dudes and there were two in the middle of the pack. I missed my first and second shots. I never miss a spoonbill or a gadwall, but put a big canvasback in front of me and I try too hard and do dumb things like pick my head up off the gunstock to take a good look at them. I was sharing the Marsh with two good friends that morning, Fred Greenslade and Darrin Bohonis. Both men are incredible photographers, so they were taking time to shoot a lot of photos, which adds so much to the enjoyment of the hunt afterwards. Although they were old pros with cameras, they are both relatively new to canvasback hunting, so they were as excited as I was and we were all shooting about the same – not too great!

I settled down and made good on my last shot. The giant canvasback fell with a big splash. I watched him closely to be sure he didn’t dive and escape. When hunting divers it is essential you are ready for another shot if the bird isn’t totally still on the water. Diving ducks by their nature have large, webbed feet and can escape and be lost if you aren’t vigilant. My dog Kai brought the trophy bird back to me. I sat and admired it for a very long time. We shot divers of many species and generally saw big flights of birds like I hadn’t in many, many years.

Delta Marsh: are the good old days back?

The Delta Marsh has gone through incredible changes over the past decades. A huge change was the regulation of Lake Manitoba (and the interconnected Marsh) with the installation of the Fairford Dam. This took away the water level fluctuations that the Marsh needed to maintain productivity. The dam tended to hold the water high. High water led to erosion of islands and shorelines which made the water muddy. Carp were introduced into the system and they exacerbated the situation, making the water even more murky. Add in the Portage Diversion, a large ditch that takes muddy Assiniboine water away from Winnipeg to alleviate flooding and deposits it in the lake and well…..the Marsh water simply became too murky to support the vibrant aquatic vegetation growth required to attract canvasbacks. Throughout my life, I rarely saw the big flights of canvasbacks the oldtimers talked about. How things have changed!

The big flood of 2011 created incredible shallow water habitat along the entire southern periphery of the Marsh. This shallow water created an explosion of food for shallow-water-feeding dabbling ducks like teal, gadwall, widgeon and spoonbills as well as lots of mallards. Corn agriculture has come to the Delta Marsh region. There is more corn around now than I’ve ever seen and it has been a magnet for mallards, bringing more greenheads to Delta than most of us have seen in some time. At the same time as the flood was happening in 2011, a large conservation consortium including Ducks Unlimited, the University of Manitoba, Sustainable Development, Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Delta Waterfowl, were busy doing important research on the Marsh and installing structures on 7 channels connecting the Marsh to Lake Manitoba. The structures were meant to keep large spawning carp out and let in “good fish” like walleye and pike. Early indications are that the water in the Marsh has gotten clearer and duck food like sago pondweed is growing again so thick in places, it is hard to paddle through it. It looks like keeping out the big, spawning carp has been important to bringing back the ducks.

The result of all the recent changes has been great duck hunting, the likes of which hasn’t been seen at Delta for a very long time. It also looks like the changes may have helped the fishing too.

Walleye at Delta? Lake Manitoba has always been a pretty good fishing locale. The Whitemud has long had a reasonable spring and fall run of pickerel. Not crazy good like Lake Winnipeg or Lake of the Woods, but decent. Folks in-the-know have long understood that if you wanted to catch a truly gigantic drum, the Whitemud was the place to go. And the perch fishing on Lake Manitoba has always been world class. All of this has changed. The big drum are still there, but the big flood of 2011 created a pike spawning boom. The lake is so full of 4-10 pound pike, the commercial fishermen have struggled to catch anything but these slimy beauties. For pike fishermen though, it’s been terrific. Out of nowhere, the pickerel have appeared to take off too. Locals have quietly been catching pickerel in healthy numbers the last few years in much of the southern end of Lake Manitoba. Nobody knows why. Some ponder that the walleye had good spawning runs in the flood years. Others speculate that there’s been a decrease in commercial fishing pressure which has led to the good walleye fishing. Whatever the cause, the walleye fishing is worth doing nowadays.

Blast and then cast

The next day after Darrin and Freddy packed up their cameras and went back to work life, I snuck out fishing at Delta Beach. I motored out to 10 feet of water and dropped down a small jig and shiner minnow to catch perch like I have my entire life. I was hoping for a few perch for supper but what a surprise I got. I set the hook on the first bite and instead of coming right up like a perch would, this fish pulled back. Real hard. It turned out to be a big, ugly (beautiful) drum. What a fight. The next fish fought back too, a nice, eater sized walleye. Then a pike. Then another walleye. It was non-stop, like the hard south wind that was blowing. The fishing at Delta is always best on a south wind. Sound winds never failed to provide a mess of beautiful perch for supper. But not on this night. I caught more walleye and pike than perch. I have never seen that in my lifetime. The few perch I caught were nice-sized and several got hit by pike on the way up. It would appear the pike and walleye have eaten the perch out of house and home. This is a much different fishery now, and not worse in my opinion.

To catch these fish, I have trolled crankbaits, banging bottom hard in shallow water and had great luck, much like you can on the beaches of Lake Winnipeg when the walleyes are shallow and chasing shiners. If the cranks aren’t producing, then drifting and dragging shiners on bait rigs or spinners works. And when all else fails, or in my case, just cause it’s relaxing, toss out the anchor in ten feet of water and dangle jigs with salties. Try crawlers for Master Angler sized drum and bullheads. The fish can be as shallow as 3-7 feet, but are commonly in the 10 foot plus range. Hop around till you find them, just like ice fishing on Lake Winnipeg. You can get a smaller boat out at the Delta Beach launch but the more reliable launch is on the west side of the Whitemud.

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 Canvasback Delight

Many modern day waterfowlers think the only duck worth hunting is the mallard. That’s a shame. Big flocks of mallards swirling in a field is incredible for sure. And although a grain-fed mallard is yummy, give me a fat, plucked canvasback or bluebill every darned day. Early October canvasbacks are fat and low on pinfeathers because they are getting ready to head south about that time. Pluck these birds, and the fat bluebills you’ll normally get on the same hunts too, and cook ‘em up with love as follows. It’s easy as pie, much easier actually. Put the birds in a pan, breast up. Season the birds liberally with whatever seasoning or rub you love. Pour one beer in the pan. Seal the pan tightly – this is critical – with tin foil. Do not use the lid, the steam escapes that way. Cook the birds for 2-3 hours at 275 degrees. Before you take them out, pull off the foil, baste them with the juices and crisp the skin under the broiler for a few minutes. The ducks will be fall apart, juicy, decadent, oh-my-gawd-I-can’t-believe-it’s-duck type of fare. Serve them with corn, smashed spuds, and make a gravy from the pan drippings. Lordy, it’s a meal fit for a King, Clark Gable or your best hunting pal.

Callin’ all Cans: Canvasbacks will often really respond well to a call. Nearly nobody knows how to do it though. Check out this video and you can call canvasbacks like a grizzled, old Chesapeake Bay market hunter.

The video is on Youtube: https://youtu.be/PftD4J0ZWWI

 

 

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