Hunting Mixed Bag Waterfowl with Black Dog Outfitters
By Ryan Sparks
Originally published in the January-February 2024 issue of SAFARI Magazine.
Dawn burned on the edge of the horizon for nearly an hour. Eventually, dark shapes materialized overhead to accompany the chorus of calls and wings we had been hearing in the darkness. Against the ice-gray sky, we could just make out the silhouettes of ducks and geese above us. With 20 minutes left before shooting light, we slid into our layout blinds, camouflaged with straw and hidden among a cluster of snow goose decoys.
Almost immediately, pintails began dropping into the spread. As we waited in the dark, they came and went. The number departing seemed to match the number of new arrivals so that the volume of birds milling in the decoys didn’t seem to change. With five minutes left, mallards began to arrive and the cackles of geese above us increased. When the time came, Simon Terry, guide at Black Dog Outfitters, shouted, “shoot em’ low!” Six guns barked 18 times and a combination of birds tumbled to the ground.
The first shots proved to be a warm-up. Flight after flight of birds cupped into the decoys. Over the next several hours we experienced more waterfowl than most hunters will see in a season. Thousands of birds streamed overhead including pintails, mallards, snow geese, speckle-belly geese, and Canadas. The birds we shot weren’t pass-shot while examining the spread. We shot finished birds with their feet stretched towards the ground.
On the drive back to the lodge, Alberta’s grain fields and prairie pothole ponds stretched as far as I could see in every direction. These fields annually attract millions of migrating waterfowl, which stage here before continuing their long journey south. Black Dog Outfitters is situated in a prime location directly in the middle of the Pacific, Central and Mississippi flyways. More waterfowl likely pass through these skies than almost anywhere in North America.
This abundance of waterfowl is the reason Alberta has such liberal waterfowl limits. A one-day bag limit for a waterfowl hunter consists of eight Canadas or white-fronted geese, eight ducks, five sandhill cranes and 50 white geese. While hunting water is possible, most hunts take place in dry fields where birds go to loaf and feed. Identifying these feed fields is crucial for success. Being just a little off where the birds want to be is the difference between shooting a limit and bird watching.
During each hunt, Black Dog Outfitters sends a group of guides to scout for the next hunting location. With access to 30 million acres, finding a place to hunt is never a problem. That number is worth repeating — 30 million acres. For comparison, Texas’ King Ranch, the largest ranch in the United States, totals 825,000 acres. Black Dog Outfitters is licensed to venture the 30 million acres of Parkland, Foothills and Northern Boreal wildlife areas surrounding Edmonton. A group of the most hardcore waterfowl hunters couldn’t scratch the surface of that much country in 100 lifetimes.
Black Dog Outfitters was founded in 1996 by a group of sportsmen who wanted to offer Alberta’s abundant waterfowl hunting opportunities to visiting hunters. Over the years, Black Dog has acquired additional outfitting areas from the provincial government, eventually growing to the enormous amount of territory the outfit on today. They specialize in guiding small groups of waterfowlers for geese and ducks in the area’s expansive grainfields and plentiful potholes.
Over a heaping plate of bacon, eggs, sausage, and pancakes, I sat down next to Kyler Harms, owner of Black Dog Outfitters. Speaking with Harms it quickly became clear that Black Dog Outfitters has no intention of slowing down. Harms is currently in the process of acquiring additional land, both for outfitting, and to create a flooded marsh waterfowl sanctuary to hold birds longer in the season. Harms plans to keep this water open with a system of ice-eaters, creating a magnet for the significant waterfowl population in the area and with the end goal of building a second lodge for another base of operations.
Despite having access to such a wide swath of territory, hunting at Black Dog Outfitters differs from other Alberta waterfowl lodges in that hunting generally takes place within a short drive from the lodge. There were no long morning rides, meaning alarms could be set for a reasonable hour rather than the usual 3 a.m. waterfowl wake-up.
The current lodge is comfortable and homey with modern amenities, an ideal combination for a waterfowl camp where you have enough space to spread out but can also socialize with other hunters at the lodge.
Traveling to and from Edmonton is simple, and hunters can have their pick of Beretta, Benelli and Fausti shotguns when they arrive. Hunting takes place from A-frame or layout blinds in well-scouted fields over high-end decoys. The mixed bag opportunities mean hunters can choose how they want to hunt, focusing on white geese, speckle-bellies, mallards, pintails, or a combination of everything.
After the hunt, birds are processed and frozen for bringing home. And you certainly should bring some home. After tasting a variety of preparations from the lodge’s kitchen, including peppered and grilled speckle-belly and smoked mallard poppers, bringing birds back is as simple as stacking them in a cooler and checking it with your airline.
That evening, we arrived to the field as the descending sun cast a golden glow over the sprawling expanse of harvested wheat. We set up an A-frame along a slough that extended towards a lake where we could hear the distant honking of geese and the faint calls of mallards. Under a sky painted with hues of soft red and purple, we unloaded armloads of goose decoys from two trailers and arranged them in a half-moon pattern composed of small family groups. At the same time, the other guides meticulously brushed the blind with cut branches and straw until it seamlessly blended into the draw.
Before we had finished, a few small groups of geese were already trying to land in the spread, and we hurried to get everything set. With shotguns loaded and everyone in place, Caleb Clark, our guide for the evening hunt, pointed out a long string of snow geese in the distance. He called to them, and they rapidly swept across the field toward us. When they were within 100 yards they made a long turn, locked their wings, and began a slow glide into the wind. The first handful of birds settled in the decoys 30 yards in front of us and as more hovered above, Clark called the shot. We sprang up and fired, tumbling nine from the group with our opening volley.
Just like the morning’s hunt, numerous flocks decoyed under the red glow of the prairie sunset. We shot a mixed bag of nearly everything Alberta has to offer, with a dog named Easy, Clark’s two-year-old retriever, yo-yo-ing back and forth from the blind to pick up birds. By the time Clark called an end to the hunt, Easy had retrieved 88 birds. Sensing his job was over, he curled into a tired ball next to the birds as we packed up.
On the drive back, the northern lights shone emerald green in the Alberta sky. I knew we had a hearty meal, a warm fire, and an evening of storytelling waiting for us back at the lodge. Tomorrow we would wake up and do it all over again.
Black Dog Outfitters has generously donated several hunts that will be available at auction at the 2024 SCI Convention in Nashville. For more information about hunting with Black Dog Outfitters visit blackdogoutfittersalberta.com
Ryan Sparks is the former associate editor of SAFARI Magazine and current editor of Quail Forever Journal.