By Jason Mitchell
I am a duck hunter who collects decoys. While I collect decoys, a genuine decoy collector often has a different agenda than mine. Decoy collectors might search out the most well-known carvers of a by gone era… names like Elmer Crowell or John Tax. Antique auctioneers might grade a wooden Mason decoy by the condition and whether the eyes are tacks or glass. A decoy collector is looking for relics of a bygone era that are in pristine condition.
My decoy infatuation is different. My favorite old decoys are not worth much to collectors. The decoys I collect are chipped, missing eyes and were once repainted by somebody long by now deceased. I covet these blocks of wood because these are the decoys that have a story. Waterfowl hunting has always made me nostalgic. I have always loved the romance of North America’s fabled waterfowl hunting history. Sometimes when I gaze at a new dawn and watch great flocks of ducks rise from the horizon, I can imagine what the past must have been like. The decoys I collect are a connection to the past.
If you share that passion and imagination, there are some sacred areas found throughout North America with that rich waterfowl hunting history that is remembered and celebrated today. Destinations like the Chesapeake Bay, Stuttgart or the Delta Marsh immediately come to mind. Each of these regions or destinations has its very own flavor. Each pin on the map offers a rich history and an ecological significance to North America’s waterfowl.
The Delta Marsh located on the prairies of southern Manitoba is unique in that the region hasn’t been commercialized and a trip to the Delta Marsh today is like traveling back in time. Considered ground zero for much of the modern-day research and conservation policies that have now defined waterfowl management in North America. This rich history includes ground breaking research and alumni of some of North America’s leading waterfowl biologists.
This story begins in the 1930’s with an American industrialist named James Ford Bell. Bell founded General Mills and grew up with an intense passion for hunting waterfowl. Bell’s early hunting forays took him to fabled places like Heron Lake in southwest Minnesota and later North Ten Mile Lake near Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Canvasbacks were coveted and as the bird numbers dwindled, Bell decided he would concentrate his duck hunting efforts in southern Manitoba. Bell discovered the Delta Marsh.
The Delta Marsh is a massive estuary that covers over 50,000 surface acres. Connected to Lake Manitoba but separated by a beach isthmus, this shallow marsh held massive flats of sago pondweed that attracted endless rafts of canvasbacks, mallards, scaup and ringbills. The duck numbers that concentrated on the Delta Marsh were epic. The Americans had never-before seen so many ducks. Bell soon established a duck hunting camp that was a place for the rich and famous to gaze at skies filled with ducks. Visitors to the Delta marsh in its prime included the rich and famous. Actors like Clark Gable, the King of England and noted Sports Afield Magazine editor Jimmy Robinson all spent time on the marsh.
In a moment of self-awareness, Bell began to realize that there was a tremendous amount of resentment from local Canadian waterfowl hunters and this affluent duck hunting club was not popular with the locals. With the best of intentions, the Americans started a hatchery with the goal of releasing two ducks for every duck that was harvested. There was one problem. Canvasbacks couldn’t be raised in a hatchery like other duck species and the success of releasing hatchery raised ducks into the wild was minimal.
In 1937, Bell brought Aldo Leopold to the Delta Marsh. Leopold was and still is considered the leading pioneer of modern day conservation in North America. Leopold compelled Bell to start a waterfowl research program there on the marsh to study duck production. In the spring of 1938, Leopold brought in his number one graduate student, Hans Albert Hochbaum. Hans would go on to become one of the most regarded biologists in waterfowl study and management. The Delta Marsh soon became an epicenter for waterfowl research attracting the most talented research graduates from both the United States and Canada. After the conclusion of World War Two, the format and framework for the spring survey (still used today) was first developed on the Delta Marsh. This early waterfowl research led to the foundation of Delta Waterfowl, a leading nonprofit waterfowl conservation and waterfowl hunting organization that continues to have a heavy influence on waterfowl management in North America today.
Today, the vast majority of the marsh is still open to the public and is owned by the Crown (the Canadian government). A duck hunter today can gaze out across the same horizons that captivated the rich and famous from a previous generation. No motors are allowed on the Crown Marsh, so hunters must paddle or row to access the marsh. Equipment that can itself feel like traveling back in time.
Of course, the Delta Marsh has changed since Hochbaum began his research. A flood control structure on adjacent Lake Manitoba has raised and controlled the water in the Delta Marsh and invasive carp have altered the aquatic vegetation in the Delta Marsh. With a little bit of imagination however, you can still find yourself in the same place that captivated these earlier celebrities, capitalists and biologists. The Delta Marsh can still attract staggering numbers of ducks each fall. Great flocks of canvasbacks typically begin to fill the east marsh in early October. Mallards accumulate on the Delta Marsh and nearby Lake Manitoba in massive numbers, feeding on the waste grain found in the fields of the nearby Portage Plain.
The Jimmy Robinson Duck Camp still exists today owned by Rick Wallin. Seasoned guides can row you into the marsh in wooden boats. A hunter with an interest in history can reflect on a by gone era while embracing the rich waterfowl heritage that still exists today.
Dave Reese has been hunting the Delta Marsh since the fall of 1990 and has managed the Jimmy Robinson Duck Camp for thirteen years. In Dave’s opinion, the marsh has been as good as it has ever been. “The flights of ducks and water levels can vary from year to year, but the hunting remains popular because of the good hunting. There are so many options in the marsh where you can target both greater and lesser scaup along with ringbills in some portions of the marsh while other areas load up with canvasbacks and redheads. Puddle ducks will favor yet another habitat type, so you can experience different hunting throughout the season which basically spans the month of October,” explains Reese.
The famed camp has six local guides and each guide specializes on different portions of the marsh along with species and the camp typically rotates guides with hunters, so hunters can experience the diversity of the hunting.
The Community of Portage La Prairie lies approximately twenty miles away from the Delta Marsh where do it yourself hunters can find additional lodging and meal options.
The Delta Marsh today remains a massive maze of wetland, comprised of open water and marsh that attracts the great flights of both diver ducks and puddle ducks. The sheer variety of both ducks and geese that use the marsh is staggering. There are several public access points where hunters can reach the marsh by boat or canoe. Because hunting is done from small boats that must be rowed or paddled, hunters must be mindful of weather and wind forecasts. Sacred ground for many of the brightest minds in waterfowl research. The Delta Marsh still captivates hunters today. A place where the royal and the famous once stood. A place where you can still stand today and marvel at skylines filled with ducks.