Paddling quietly into an expansive marsh, setting longlines, hunting canvasbacks, and almost stepping back in time as winter approaches, Ramsey joins Scott Stephens, Ducks Unlimited Canada, for an immersive tour of iconic Delta Marsh. The long-time friends discuss the region’s history and importance, wonder aloud how one of the long-standing traditions would apply in parts of the Lower 48, and other topics.
From Fabled Delta Marsh, Manitoba
The Adventure of a Lifetime
I had no idea we were going to have the adventure of a lifetime and paddle through an extremely historic property and hunt canvasbacks.
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere in Manitoba at – get this – world renowned, world famous Delta Marsh. When I reached out to today’s guest, one of my old college buddies and said, hey, I’m going to be passing through your air, we ought to go hunting, I just assumed we’re going to go dry field hunting or something, I had no idea we were going to have the adventure of a lifetime and paddle through an extremely historic property and hunt canvasbacks. Scott Stephens, how the hell are you, man?
Scott Stephens: I’m good.
Ramsey Russell: It’s kind of late in the night and by late, I mean, it’s 8 o’clock, but you put in a full day right here at Eaton lodge, there ain’t no short days here.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, that’s right. That’s a good place to be though, even if it’s late at night.
Ramsey Russell: No, it’s a great place to be. I mean, at the end of a dirt road behind a gate, a little unassuming house that was built in the 60s in 1960s.
Scott Stephens: In the 60s, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: And by the Eaton family.
Scott Stephens: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Who were they?
Scott Stephens: So here in Canada, the Eaton family owned sort of department stores all across the country. So, back in the era for folks in the US, I would make it akin to J.C Penne,y Montgomery Ward, those kind of places, the Eaton family owned those department stores, but they were duck hunters and had property here at Delta Marsh.
Ramsey Russell: I think, there were a lot more duck hunters back in those days, especially in this part of the world. There’s a book I was looking at on a coffee table here about Delta Marsh and it’s just a lot of other clubs, a lot of celebrities, heck the king of Wales, I mean a lot of people have hunted here over the years. And this is a little private landholding that you can hunt some private little ponds right here, but you keep on paddling and you got access to Delta Marsh, which is how many acres of public land?
Scott Stephens: Yeah, most of it is crown land, so I think 45,000 acres in total on Delta Marsh, most of that would be crown land and accessible to anybody who’s willing to paddle and put in the work.
Ramsey Russell: Just a cattail marsh right below Lake Manitoba, which looks like a great Lake Erie or something sitting out here in the backyard.
Scott Stephens: Yeah. It’s actually hydrological connected to the lake, so when we get a big wind out of the north pushes water out of the lake in the marsh, the water levels go up, we get a big wind out of the south reverse happens, pushes water out of the marsh and into the lake. There’s a tie there to some of the challenges that the marsh has had Carp come out of the lake, they were introduced into the lake as a food resource –
Ramsey Russell: Oh, I didn’t know they were introduced.
Scott Stephens: Yeah. And then when they get in the marsh, they root up vegetation cause turbidity in the water and then the aquatic plants don’t grow and so that had been a challenge for a long time. So it would have been 2012, 2013, we did a big project here, Ducks Unlimited Canada did to put in structures on, I think there were 7 access points, creeks or flows from the lake into the marsh that we put these structures and then put the screens in to keep Carp out when they’re trying to get in. And after we did that, we saw phenomenal recovery of the aquatic plants in the marsh. I mean, we had scientists involved from the University of Manitoba and some of them who had worked at Delta for their whole career, they said we’ve never seen plants like this, we’ve never seen these species of plants in the marsh, but we got to see that recovery.
Ramsey Russell: But the big plant you all are managing for is Sago pondweed.
Scott Stephens: Sago pondweed’s a big one, but there is really a diversity of them that we’re seeing once we got that restoration project.
Ramsey Russell: What are some of the other plants you all, not to put you on spot.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, we need to get you connected with –
Ramsey Russell: But everywhere I’ve been today, as we’re paddling and as we’re standing it’s a lot of Sago pondweed.
Scott Stephens: Lot of Sago, that’s one of the favorites, one of the preferred food items for all of the ducks that use this. And I would characterize Delta Marsh as a really key staging area, especially for diving ducks. So, we have some of the prime breeding locations not too far from here, just west of here, Mendoza, Shoal Lake landscape is a big breeding area for canvasbacks. Well, for a duck, it would be less than an hour flight to come and stage in some place like this. And the food resource is abundant, like it has been after the restoration project, they will definitely be here to take advantage of that food resource and stock up before they head south. And we know from banding, that birds from here go to the Mississippi Flyway to Atlantic Flyway, birds will trek through Minnesota, Wisconsin to Chesapeake Bay, but also go south to places in Louisiana. Yeah, so cool location. And one of the cool things for me is thinking about those continental connections that birds here end up in lots of people’s backyard.
Ramsey Russell: Down river, Catahoula Lake.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, Catahoula Lake.
Hunting Where Every Year is Different
Ramsey Russell: Catahoula Lake has got to be a major stopping point for a lot of these birds we’re seeing. And I feel blessed because I was expecting divers and I heard from a rumor myth from a few people chasing the other divers are in, but the canvasback’s long gone. And I limited out in the fields yesterday, but we paddled out to go take a look at – where we’re going to hunt, you hunt, shot a few ducks and I knew from all those canvasbacks buzzing around, I had a good chance to shoot me a Delta Marsh canvasback and I told you last night dinner I just want one duck, just one, that’s all I want, one duck, one canvasback from here. And we saw some other species, we shot some other species, but I would say most of what we saw today was canvasback.
Scott Stephens: It was the dominant species, which you must be living right, because that surprised me. I expected this time of the year as we’re closer to freeze up, there’s usually a shift and the cans move out and it’s dominated by bluebill, scaup, that’s what I expected. So to see predominantly cans and we shot a ring neck, I’m not sure we saw scaup today, which is unusual, but in this part of the world, every year is different.
Ramsey Russell: You bring up a good point about not being sure because somebody that prides himself on waterfowl identification, not just in North America but worldwide, I know a southern Pochard or a Red-crested Pochard or a Garganey when I see it, man, I have not done enough diver hunting this time of year. In fact, this is really the first big diver hunt, yeah, it’s the first diver hunt I’ve ever done, real diver hunt I’ve done in Canada, this time of year. And especially with gray like it is, that gray scale in the cloud in back, I was struggling, I was guessing, sometimes wrong on what I was seeing.
Scott Stephens: I mean, you’re looking at silhouettes, right? That’s what you’re doing. So, cans have a pretty distinct profile, they’re pretty easy to tell and then –
Ramsey Russell: When they’re close, but they’re not colored up, they’re still molting right now, it was daunting, it was educational, it was daunting, it was fun. But I want to back up a minute, how long ago would you guess – now, the Delta Marsh is 45,000 acres, this property is a part of the Delta Marsh complex. How long ago did they ban the use of outboard and motorized during duck season?
Scott Stephens: That’s a good question.
Ramsey Russell: Decades ago I’m guessing, it wasn’t like last year.
Scott Stephens: No, I was up to hunt here because I had come and worked at Delta Marsh the year I graduated with my undergraduate degree and I came back after being here, came back in the fall and hunted and it was that way then, so that was the mid-90s.
Ramsey Russell: Okay. And it’s probably always been that way.
Scott Stephens: And maybe it’s always been that way. Maybe they said no, we’re not going to have any motors, but I suspect there was some time where motors came on the scene and they were allowed at first and probably created a problem. I mean, in a marsh like this, that would be a lot of disturbance if everybody was running motors.
Ramsey Russell: Well, back when the Eaton’s owned this, we had a conversation somewhere along the way that they had staff that they just walk down to the boat and he ordered it.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, I mean, the tradition around here is, we’re not very far from the small community of Saint Ambroise and it’s a community that’s mostly Métis people and those folks have been the historic guides here for the Bell Family that was part of Delta Waterfowl Foundation and creating that. So, those guides, there’s the famous decoys, that we’ve talked about, made by Duncan Ducharme, a guy from the Saint Ambroise area, Métis fella, he was one of the guides, but the history and the tradition here was Métis guides oring folks out in boats, then you hunt and they ore you back and you think about 45,000 acres of marsh you can ore for a while, you can go for a 2 hour ore to get way back in some of those places.
Ramsey Russell: Looking at this map, looking out at this glass door at the point on the north end upon the south end of the nearest pond, it’s a half mile and it’s 30 honest minutes of two men, not huffing and puffing, but just paddling to get out there and you ain’t cold when you get there.
Scott Stephens: That’s right, you got to dress right, got to dress for a little warm up on the paddling.
Ramsey Russell: Yesterday evening that brisk wind, I was like, come on Scott, I’ve really start paddling to warm up a little bit. And I love, it reminds me of home. We push the boats up, we put a couple of marsh seeds, we get off in the cattails and we hunt. Let the long lines, you’ve made some Ducharme like decoys, which I think it is the most perfect style of canvasback decoy on earth, it looks so stately and so good laying out there on that water.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, that profile is just right.
Ramsey Russell: It’s canvasback all the way.
The Impact of Delta Waterfowl
…every single waterfowl biologist I’ve ever met has passed through this area, every professor, every researcher, every state and federal biologist worked and saw, every single one of them has done his time up here at Delta Waterfowl.
Scott Stephens: Yeah. So, the history of those that my understanding is that, that style decoy came from Heron Lake in Minnesota was developed there and the Bell family, James Ford Bell who hunted Heron Lake and then I think the shooting was declining there probably due to challenges like Carp and –
Ramsey Russell: This would have been back in the 1900s or back in a pre-Migratory Bird Treaty Act, I mean, it’s a while ago.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, back then, he was one of the founders and helped establish Delta Waterfowl that would have been in the 40s or 50s kind of thing, so mid-1900s kind of thing. But my understanding is that, they were shooting at Heron Lake in Minnesota, things had begin to decline there and then they had heard about fantastic shooting up here, so came up, brought that same style decoy and had some of the local Métis folks carve those decoys for them of that same style. So the ones that came from this Saint Ambroise area, famous carver Duncan Ducharme produce those here. And now they’ve sort of are associated with Delta Marsh, that Heron Lake style.
Ramsey Russell: And about 18 miles, I’m guessing looking at the map, 18 miles across the marsh is the Delta Waterfowl Research Center.
Scott Stephens: That’s right, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: And did Ford have something to do with it?
Scott Stephens: He did, yeah. I think when he made the move here, he was interested in getting some science understanding how to make sure things stayed healthy here and so was involved in some of the early days of Delta.
Ramsey Russell: And that spawned Delta Waterfowl. Who was initially a research organization.
Scott Stephens: That’s right, yeah, focused on research.
Ramsey Russell: And it’s amazing to me, Scott, it didn’t surprise me one bit although I did not know that you had done some work up here, it didn’t surprise me a bit because every single waterfowl biologist I’ve ever met has passed through this area, every professor, every researcher, every state and federal biologist worked and saw, every single one of them has done his time up here at Delta Waterfowl.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, for me it was in the early 90s. I had just graduated with my undergraduate degree in Missouri at Northwest Missouri State and I’d applied with them, was eat up with interest in waterfowl at that point in time and I applied with them and my graduation date was later than most of the schools, so they were like, oh, that’s a little late, we’re not sure we need people earlier. And I was like, hey, I got nothing else, I’ll volunteer. So I drove up here from my home in Iowa to work at Delta for the summer in 1992 for a per diem per day, I can’t remember what it was, $10 or $15 Canadian per day and I thought I was king of the world, right?
Ramsey Russell: Don’t blow it all in one place.
Scott Stephens: And most of my time I was out at Mendoza, they have a research station out there and dragging for nest and finding duck nests and doing all that stuff, it was like –
Ramsey Russell: Was it mostly divers?
Scott Stephens: No, lots of dabbling ducks out there too and there was a crew that worked to find canvasback nest that was put on a pair of waiters and beat your way through cattails, you could eat whatever you wanted if you were on that crew because you were burning plenty of calories that was much harder than dragging the chain with ATVs to find dabbling duck nest.
Ramsey Russell: And how did you find your way from Mississippi State, graduated and went up here, how did you find your way back to Canada? How did an Iowa boy that has been to Mississippi State find his way back to Canada and you keep your office, I just happened to be over in the neighborhood and I texted you, you said, oh, if you’re hunting over there, come by and see me and I had just been through Oak Hammock Marsh up a little nickel tour and that’s where your office is and we’re going to talk about that in a minute. But how did you end up back up here?
Ducks Unlimited Canada: A Success in Waterfowl Conservation
We use that research to make good habitat decisions and conservation decisions.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, good question. So, I spent time here right after I graduated my undergraduate degree at Delta and as a waterfowl student, you quickly learn, okay, breeding areas are pretty darn important, what happens there, habitat, that’s pretty important. So, from when I worked here, I ended up at grad school where we met at Mississippi State was looking for that opportunity, finished there and then I came back to Canada and worked for Ducks Unlimited Canada on this Prairie Habitat assessment project that was putting radio transmitters on tens of thousands of mallards and following them around and learning all about where they were being successful in raising young and habitat characteristics associated with those areas and where they were not. And then I had a colleague who I had worked with at Delta for the summer, who was an intern with Ducks Unlimited in Memphis, it was kind of a year term for students who were fresh out of a degree and looking for experience. So an intern position and she said, oh, you ought to apply for that, you ought to come to Memphis. So I applied and they said, okay, yeah, we’ll take you and I remember, I showed up in Memphis, I think I got paid 1000 Grouse a month and fortunately, my wife was trained as a nurse, so she got a job in Memphis and was able to support us. But once again, I felt like I had the dream job, right? I got to be at the headquarters office, I got to interact with folks who were legends in my mind like Bruce Batt and others there, got to work with those folks. And at that point had decided I was really looking to go back and do a PhD somewhere and they said, well, you can have this intern position, they then sort of upped the ante and said, well, we’ll give you a full time position till you find something. And then, finally, the offer I got that was too good to pass up was, they said, well, if you wanted to actually do your research on something that tied to DU’s habitat work, maybe we’d keep you on staff while you did your PhD. And I said, well, that’s too good a deal to pass up. So, got to sort of develop a project that focused on understanding things on breeding areas in the Prairies and do my graduate work and after that, I went to work in Bismarck, North Dakota and was a research guy and then a conservation planning guy, how do we use that research to make good habitat decisions and conservation decisions? And then, I had interacted with the staff up here, we had lots of forums where there were DU Canada staff that I interacted with and they were always bright folks and then there was a position opened up here to be in charge of the work across the prairies and it’s like, okay, I know that’s an important area of the Prairie Pothole region, about 2/3rd of it is in Canada about a third in the US and that seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up, so I applied for the job. I remember when I came for the interview, it was at Oak Hammock Marsh and it was in September. So, the place was slam full of ducks and geese and I show up there to interview, and there are birds pouring in from all over and I just thought, wow.
Ramsey Russell: I bet you were smiling outside your face.
Scott Stephens: That’s right. I felt like, please don’t throw me in the briar patch, right? Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: What did you think that winter was -50 one day? I know it snows in Iowa, but –
Scott Stephens: Yeah. Well, I had pretty good training for that while we were in North Dakota for 8 years, the weather wasn’t too much different, moving from Bismarck to north of Winnipeg and Stonewall, so that wasn’t much of a transition. Now, my wife sort of wondered, at first she said, oh, yeah, go ahead and apply and then she was like, oh, crap, you might actually get this and we might need to move to another country. But it’s worked out good. Yeah, we’ve enjoyed our time here, the work’s been great, I get to work with good people, I still get to interact with lots of people from the US. But the habitat work that we’re doing here, I believe it’s some of the most important that’s going on anywhere on the continent. So it’s fulfilling for me to get to work on something that I know is important to a resource that I care about.
Ramsey Russell: We drove by Oak Hammock Marsh one day myself and my buddy Troy, he wanted me to show it because it’s where a lot of birds come from, it’s a sanctuary, big sanctuary. And I just thought of maybe like a Fish & Wildlife refuge, that’s what I envisioned it being and there was a big Ducks Unlimited sign would come in, that’s a Ducks Unlimited success story. Is it one of the first landmark projects up here that Ducks Unlimited did? Because it’s a big project, that’s really provided generations of benefits to that Interlake region.
Scott Stephens: Yeah. And it was a joint venture between Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Province of Manitoba, so it was a bit controversial at the time because they built the building right on the edge of the marsh, did all the restoration on the marsh and half of the building is this big interpretive center, so it allows the public to come in, school kids are always coming in, school kids from all over the region and with Winnipeg 30 minutes away, the biggest population center in the province is nearby but provides access to educate, kids and adults and it’s a renowned international tourist spot, people come from all over the world.
Ramsey Russell: I looked at the guest book, it’s unbelievable.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, to visit Oak Hammock. So, it’s really a great location and then it’s served as the headquarter office for Ducks Unlimited Canada operations.
Ramsey Russell: What’s the history of that property? Because it used to be – what was going on there that Ducks Unlimited Canada teamed up with Manitoba to resolve and restore, what was going on, I read a little bit.
Scott Stephens: Yeah. So historically, like we have Delta Marsh here at the south end of Lake Manitoba, there was a lot of wet marshy areas south of Lake Winnipeg, which is kind of where Oak Hammock is. So historically would have been very low areas with soils that were used to being in wet, what would have been marsh historically. Now, it was attempted to be drained and I know during one of the world wars that served as a bombing range, they have bombs that were recovered out there. So, it was at a time where society –
Ramsey Russell: It was just a nasty swamp wetland, why not drop a bomb in it?
Scott Stephens: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, it was a time when society didn’t understand all the values that wetlands provide. So tried to drain it, get rid of it, turn it into agriculture, use it as a bombing range, all those things and then, for agriculture, it didn’t work well, much of the land was low and wet. So, I don’t know all of the history but it was used to create – went back to crown land and when Ducks Unlimited was involved, big restoration project where that’s the kind of work that we do across Canada is wetland restoration worked with the province to put in levees and dikes and kind of restore the hydrology and return it to functioning wetland. And like happens most places we do that, the birds respond and it’s a huge staging area right now, big tourist location with the interpretive center there –
Ramsey Russell: A lot of Churchill stage there, a lot of mallards and both of them showed up in a – I mean, I got to be there a few weeks ago when the big push turned on. And it’s amazing to me how being on the wintering ground down south, how quickly – you come back 15 days later and man, the Canada geese pretty much played out, they’re in a whole different mood and a lot of them moved on. But then bam here comes the cacklers, the little baffin geese boom and here comes a bunch of mallards that haven’t been there and it’s just like 15 days. And another 15 days, there’s a lot of big nothing here.
Scott Stephens: Be a skating rink where we are. So, yeah, that’s right. Fall goes fast up here and you’re right that those transitions, things are always happening. But I too noticed the same thing, it’s like, wow, we’ve got a bunch of Canada geese here now and then I happen to be out hunting same time as you were and we shot a few banded birds and they were banded when too young to fly in Churchill, Manitoba. So those birds had just made the hop down here.
Ramsey Russell: It’s very important for them, isn’t it?
Scott Stephens: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: How does it tie into Delta Marsh? I mean, this is much bigger, but they’re both very important to holding them birds in this staging area, aren’t they?
Scott Stephens: Yeah. And I guess my interpretation would be Oak Hammock has become sort of a traditional area for the geese and for dabbling ducks and Delta Marsh is more of a real important diving staging area. I mean, there are dabbling ducks around here too, early in September we have teal, we have all the dabbling ducks and some birds breed here. But it’s really staging for divers that it’s known for and probably the most important habitat value I would argue is for diving ducks for staging.
Ramsey Russell: You spent some time in Montana apparently.
Scott Stephens: I did.
Ramsey Russell: Because you got that Rick Flair/Jerry Clower Swan hoop down that was one of the highlights this morning, just the biggest surprises I’ve ever seen was in between the volley – No, I guess the volley was starting to get further apart, it was getting later in the morning and I was doing something and I heard like 4 B52s low on the deck and you started hooping and man, those son of a guns turned on a dime and it was Trumpeter swans.
I was doing something and I heard like 4 B52s low on the deck and you started hooping and man, those son of a guns turned on a dime and it was Trumpeter swans.
Scott Stephens: It was Trumpeter swans, yeah. Yeah, I had chased Tundra swans when I was in Montana in grad school and then when I ended up in North Dakota, sort of figured out, bought decoys, figured out how to hunt them. I had a swan call for a while and then lost the guts to it out doing something and just started calling them with my mouth, you can sort of hoot and make noise. And as soon as I saw those locked up, I started doing that and boy, the four came right in. We had out two swan decoys that I put out, when we’re hunting diving ducks because it’s big white birds, they show up well on the water and it’s common to see them mixed in, they’re eating same kind of food –
Ramsey Russell: If it catches their eye and they see it, they’re liable to just see the decoys too.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, that’s right. So, it’s sort of a confidence decoy for divers, but it was a cool experience to have four Trumpeter Swans, cup up, descend from way up there and –
Ramsey Russell: Come right on top of us.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, and right into the decoys.
Ramsey Russell: And the other big surprise of this morning was the flock of Gadwall that come out of nowhere low on the deck into the decoys and decoying to canvasbacks. And I think we talk about how it made sense to me because I’ve seen Gadwalls and Coots collect around redheads and scaup that are diving in the Deep South and rooting up in the bottom because all that vegetation will float up and they get to kind of rob them a little bit.
Scott Stephens: That’s right. When I would hunt swans, I would put out swan decoys, but I would also put out, canvasbacks and Wigeons and Coots because that’s sort of the community of birds that you see taking advantage of primarily Sago pond wheat. And the swans are reaching down deep, but they’re Uprooting stuff and it’s floating around and those Wigeons and Coots and canvasbacks are picking up some of that. So you see sort of that community of bird using the same type of habitat this time of year.
Ramsey Russell: You’re talking about Oak Hammock, we’ve been talking about Delta Marsh, but as a part of the Ducks Unlimited Canada team, you’re responsible for conservation in the entire Western Canada Prairie and Boreal Forest, that’s a big old area, man.
Scott Stephens: Yeah. So, that’s the job that I moved here to do in 2010 was – actually to start with, it was just the Prairies, which I knew was clearly an important geography and then a few years later I picked up some responsibility for the Boreal forest, the other big continental breeding area in North America. The differences would be prairies, mostly dabbling ducks, some diving ducks like canvasbacks, but the Boreal really critical for Scaup, core breeding range for Scaup, green wing teal in the Boreal, lots of cool sea ducks, Scoters, those kind of things breed in the Boreal too. So, yeah, two important areas, really big difference in the kind of work that we do in those areas, in the prairies, there’s lots of work with landowners on private land, Boreal Forest, mostly crown land, lots of land that’s under ownership by indigenous communities, working with those communities to help support them in setting up protections and how they plan to use their land. So we’re kind of a technical support for them. So, yeah, it’s been fun to work in those different areas and really support my teams that do the work and understand that and learn about how things work and how we can work with the different players in those different landscapes to be successful in keeping wetlands on the ground.
Important Conservation Projects in Canada
Well, I would boil them down to being, sort of job one is keeping the wetlands that you have, wetlands and upland cover.
Ramsey Russell: What are some of the big projects you all are working on? What are some of the important habitat issues you all are working on right now?
Scott Stephens: Yeah. Well, I would boil them down to being, sort of job one is keeping the wetlands that you have, wetlands and upland cover. So in the prairies, we have a big focus with conservation easements which you pay the landowner, sort of a fraction of the fee tidal value and you’re purchasing the right to ever cultivate or drain the wetlands. So, with easements, they always talk about landowners have a bundle of sticks, they’re selling Ducks Unlimited Canada, in this case, the right to cultivate and to drain wetlands and so then that’s attached to the title of the property, so when it’s sold those restrictions go with it. So, in recent years, we’ve been able to ramp up the number of acres that we’re doing and really scale that to where we’ve done 35,000 to 40,000 acres of perpetual conservation easements a year across the prairies. So, when I got here, I think we were doing about 5,000 acres, so now we’re doing 35,000 to 40,000, so we’ve really seen a massive increase in the sort of scale of that work and how many acres we’re able to impact on an annual basis.
Ramsey Russell: I learned over Oak Hammock Marsh reading some of the interpretive museum signs because you may remember, my whole context for many years coming up to Canada is the TransCanada Highway. That’s my whole – I think of Manitoba, I think of this area down here, it goes way on up, it goes all the way up to North Pole, way up, top of it. And it’s big, but it’s unbelievable how Canada account for about 1/4th of the world’s wetlands, that’s amazing and yet we’re in – last time you were on the show, we talked about the drought, there was a drought, now, it’s the worst drought, Manitoba is not drought. Scott, you go just over to western Manitoba from there, clear on into most of Alberta, just like a lot of the United States, almost the entire United States is in a drought right now and by drought, I mean, I saw parts of Saskatchewan, I felt like, if I dropped my phone and it went one of them cracks and bounce off China, if Char dog was running and she break a leg on of them cracks, I’ve never seen it so dry. There were hour stretches, hour and a half stretches, I never saw a drop of water, I’ve never seen anything like this. But what I did see was farmers dropping disks and disking up those low line areas, you can see the cattail, see the wet type plants, it had been wet in the past couple of years and they dropped that disk and what? Okay, so I get that. But I’m thinking to myself, I’ve been to wet areas in Argentina that drought comes, they turn the cattle loose, all the material grass is gone, the tule and then it rains again and water starts to build up and here they come again, it restores itself. But what I didn’t imagine is that I’d see dirt pans pulling off a hot spot and filling into low spots. And so there’s a pretty big chance a lot of wetlands are not coming back.
Scott Stephens: Yeah. And really probably the most challenging thing that we see is, like you described either a ditch goes in to drain the basin and runs it to along the road. So, that we would call wetland drainage, surface drainage, there’s also tile going in some locations and –
Ramsey Russell: I’ve heard about both of those. Somebody just at breakfast the other morning was saying a lot of the farmers are tiling something about the alkalinity, it reduces the alkalinity by pulling and I don’t understand what he – but it was important to them, they’re pulling that water off. And we were talking about this out there this afternoon, epic drought last year, the entire United States, most of Prairie Canada drought for the west you go the worse it gets and I’m just going to keep saying it’s unbelievable that in the biggest drought I’ve seen or heard of in the last 20 years that in the spring, the Mississippi River hits flood stage to gauge that makes no freaking sense. But it does because it’s these tiles and this wetlands draining off in dry years even and hitting us flood stage. And so as somebody that sometimes asked himself where the heck are the ducks, I’ve just come to the conclusion, that since you and I were in school together hunting a lot of public land down South, Scott, it’s been a long time since you were there, there ain’t quite the ducks there were back in those days and it’s not because somebody’s miscounting or somebody’s mismanaging, it’s because we’ve lost a lot of wetland habitat, we’ve lost a lot of nesting habitat and we’ve lost a lot of wintering habitat, we’ve lost a lot of habitat in between, to farming, to civilization, to parking lots, to society, I mean, just the list goes on and on and it’s not that we need – I can remember one of the former presidents back when I was in college saying no net loss wetlands, no, we need more wetlands, we don’t need no net loss, we need more.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, we need net gains. That’s right. Yeah. So that is the challenge that we have before us right now. And I think last time we talked, we talked a bit about that, I see some hope on that front because there’s recognition of more of those societal values that wetlands deliver. Now, they’re recognized as important sinks for carbon, when you drain those wetlands, those soils have been saturated and stored in carbon for a long time and all that blows off, so when that drainage ditch goes in, you’re releasing lots of carbon. So, I’m a little bit optimistic that we have an opportunity to say, hey, there’s high ecological societal values to these things, let’s figure out how to work with agriculture, how to work with folks who are concerned about climate change and carbon to keep wetlands around. And that’s really what we have to do is, we have to make the case to society that these are important enough to invest in, to keep around either through public policy changes or through investment of the things like that we do where we pay landowners for a conservation easement to make sure that habitat stays in place.
Projects for Positive Carbon Impacts
So there’s carbon benefits, there’s huge wildlife benefits because we’re going from crop land where there isn’t nesting habitat, restoring that grassland provides nesting habitat for the birds.
Ramsey Russell: You were saying you all were building some partnerships along those lines with some of the people like Cargill, what does that involve?
Scott Stephens: Yeah. Well, so some of those folks, we have a new partnership recently with Cargill and McDonald’s, Canada and it was focused on, they wanted to be involved in projects that had positive carbon impacts, so one of the ones that pieces of work that we do with landowners across the prairies is we enroll them in a program where they can convert crop land back to grassland, it’s typically in hay land, so planted alfalfa species, but those plants are pulling carbon out of the air and storing it in the soil. So there’s carbon benefits, there’s huge wildlife benefits because we’re going from crop land where there isn’t nesting habitat, restoring that grassland provides nesting habitat for the birds. And then, in many cases, if there are wetland restoration opportunities on those properties, we have incentives to work with landowners to restore wetlands too. So that’s an example of, what we’re seeing that more and more of that is, these food companies, these agricultural companies are being pushed by consumers to be more sustainable. How are you operating sustainably? How are you thinking about the environment, all of these things and we can partner with them to do that, we bring some credibility on that front. So, I’m optimistic about that, we still need duck hunters, they’ve been with us all along, we still need their investment. But if we can bring other folks to the table and sort of leverage the money that the duck hunters bring with, people who want to have impacts on carbon and those things, it just scales our work to the level that we can start to see maybe net gains at some point in time in wetlands, right? That’s what I think about is, that’s the game is to figure out how do we scale up, restoration of wetlands and protection of wetlands because in the past, we were losing ground there was net loss. So, how do we turn the table? And I think maybe there’s opportunity with some of these new partnerships.
Ramsey Russell: I’m glad to hear it, I really am, I’m terribly glad to hear it. Have you ever heard the possibility that the Boreal forest which historically does the goldeneyes and stuff like that, that as these prairies are dry trapping has seized, there’s more beavers, there’s more shallow water impoundments, have you heard or seen any ideas or research that maybe a lot of these birds are smart, they got wings that they’re flying and availing themselves with the wetlands up there now?
Scott Stephens: Well, we definitely know, when we go through drought, we see overfly of the prairies and some of the species especially are quick to go to the Boreal, some of them go straight there even when the prairies are wet, right? Like Scaup and Green wing teal, those kind of things. But yeah, one of my mentors Bruce Batt had that theory and has talked about, maybe we’re seeing expansion of beaver across the Boreal, create more pond areas and most of the Boreal is wetlands of one type or another. So it’s possible, we don’t have surveys across all of the Boreal, we have waterfowl surveys that figured –
Ramsey Russell: It would be difficult to aerial survey those wetlands.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, it’s more challenging. So, we have survey coverage but it’s not to the extent that we have in the prairies. So, we definitely think of the Boreal and the prairies as interconnected systems and the best bet to maintaining healthy populations of waterfowl is keep both of them intact. So, I don’t think we ever want to think about well choosing and saving one and not the other, we got to have them both if we’re going to have healthy waterfowl populations. But, yeah, it’s an interesting idea that, as we see changes then, birds will definitely take advantage of new habitat, you’re bang on with, they got wings, ducks won’t sit around if habitat is crappy for breeding or in wintertime, they’re going to pick up and they’re going to explore.
Ramsey Russell: They have wings and it’s exciting to me, like, just today we were talking about that, radio transmitter Pintail that our buddy Paul Link put on that ended up in Russia. I mean, down in Louisiana when he gets a transmitter put on him now, he’s in Russia, how cool is that?
Scott Stephens: Yeah, that’s cool. I mean, and you’ve seen this stuff too. Birds, I know when we were in grad school, it was back in the day, it wasn’t satellite transmitters or those kind of things, but people were putting radio transmitters on and there would be Pintails in Louisiana and it would rain in the Mississippi Delta and those birds would be up there overnight, taking advantage of new habitat.
Ramsey Russell: How do they know? I’ve been in Australia and it rained 300 miles away and all the ducks in southern Australia moved to Victoria Province. How do they know?
Scott Stephens: Yeah. I wonder, they are set up to detect changes in pressure. So, I wonder if there’s some queue in big changes in pressure as some of those systems go through that they go, oh. But maybe the other factor is they got wings, so flying 300 miles is not that big a deal to some of them, pick up and let’s go check it out.
Ducharme Style Canvasback Decoys
Ramsey Russell: You have any plans to make more Ducharme decoys?
Scott Stephens: I would like to do that. I had done a little bit of carving earlier in my life, but during the pandemic it was one of those things that had always been on the, to do list and I never found time to do so, we were all kind of locked in, weren’t traveling, so I had cork and I made 9 Ducharme style canvasback decoys and we hunted over 7 of them today, it turned out during or just before the pandemic, I had 2 colleagues retire that had worked for Ducks Unlimited, one of them for 43 years in service and the other over 30 and so I gave each of them one of my Ducharme style canvasback decoys. So I’ve got 7 left, but yeah, I enjoy making them and I enjoy hunting over them where – hunting over your own birds that you’ve carved and see birds decoy to those, it’s just an added dimension to hunting that I guess I appreciate more as I mature and get a little older.
Ramsey Russell: Well, seriously, I know you lived in North Dakota, you’re from Iowa, but seriously, is that kind of like a winter project? Is that what you do just to keep from going stir crazy? Is that the kind of like – I know you also trap for Martins.
Scott Stephens: Martin. Yeah, winter is a good time to carve. I mean, but when you live at this latitude, you figure out things to do in the winter, like the Martin trapping is a good excuse for exercise. I get out and hike around the woods, check my Martin traps and –
Ramsey Russell: How far are you walking that trap line?
Scott Stephens: Yeah, I mean, I drive to a few stops but I’m probably walking 2 or 3 miles, when I do it in part of a day for, if I have all the traps out, it probably takes me 4 or 5 hours to run them all and good exercise. In the right conditions you have to use snow shoes, sometimes once I break the trail, I’m just doing it in my boots and going down the trail then. But yeah, it keeps me out of trouble.
Ramsey Russell: And this year you made Blue winged teal decoys.
Scott Stephens: I did.
Ramsey Russell: Was that a winter project?
Scott Stephens: I had the cork too, let me think about. Well, that was kind of a summer project this year. Yeah, because I had that on the list, bought some more cork, got that going and wanted to have them in time to hunt Blue winged teal, which started September 1st. So I just barely got them done in time to go out on opening day. Blue wings have become probably one of my favorites ducks.
Ramsey Russell: We talked about that. I will say it’s probably my favorite North American duck species anymore, I don’t know why, but it is. And it excites me, that when they’re still here, that’s what you target, you go out and you don’t target the mallards, you’re targeting the Blue wings while they’re here.
Scott Stephens: In early September, I will exclusively focus on teal, that’s what I’m looking for.
Ramsey Russell: What is their habitat like up here? What is their habitat like?
Scott Stephens: Real shallow habitat, 6 inches deep it’s almost perfect for teal. There are some bigger marsh areas, well, I shoot them here at Delta Marsh, but I go to the southwestern part of the province and there are some staging marshes there that they sort of build up on and stage and so shoot them down there too. But looking for real shallow habitat.
Ramsey Russell: Man, there’s so much diversity in the waterfowl world because we’re out here hunting waist deep water for canvasbacks, I’ve been hunting field for Mallards and you’re targeting Blue wings, a little 6 inch wetlands right up here in the same little circle.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, I find that one of the cool things about waterfowl too. You can chase the same species in different places across the continent, it’s totally different, right? So that’s the cool thing about waterfowls.
Ramsey Russell: Because all those little shallow ponds that you might see blue wings, I would think that’s where I see a lot of Gadwall, when I see small ponds, especially with a lot of submerged aquatic, lots of Gadwalls. But you get down south, I think of them as big open marsh birds or cypress timber. It’s just crazy.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, it is cool, all that diversity.
Ramsey Russell: Finish up. I want to talk about, I want to end this conversation where we started about Delta Marsh and getting up in the morning it was 23° to 25° feel like and get suited up, walk down, shove off a grooming –
Scott Stephens: Grumman sport canoe.
Ramsey Russell: Grumman sport canoe. And I was proud that it wasn’t a canoe, canoe because I could step in and out of without flipping a boat over and we start paddling and it’s like, 45,000 acres of paddle only access. And you look at this map up here behind us and it’s like, some of these bodies of water from the closest access, you might have to pack a lunch. God help you if you’re out there and a 30 mile an hour wind kicks up, you still got to get across that big body of water to get back where you come from. I mean, you might be stuck.
Scott Stephens: I have walked the canoe back out of this marsh before.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I can see it and I can see some of these far region. But on the other hand, I mean, it’s like on the one hand, you’d have to really want your 8 ducks to paddle for 2 or 3 hours to get back into an area. But then as I was grilling those steaks, I was thinking how many people want it that bad. I mean, you’re liable in this day and age, if you’re willing to – got that fortitude to do it, you’re liable to stumble into a little nook and cranny over here that somebody may not have hunted in years and I guarantee the ducks know it.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, the ducks find those spots pretty quickly.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, that’s crazy.
Scott Stephens: We’ve talked about it, ducks don’t like getting shot, that’s one of the truisms.
The Three Rules of Duck Hunting
3 rules, don’t disturb them, be very well hidden and don’t miss, I think those 3 rules to live by if you want to kill ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Somebody asked me recently, I was down in Texas eating dinner with some folks and one of them say, man, like they want me to talk, I’m like, well, you got to ask a question, I can’t just talk, after a couple of beers on the spot and he said, well, man, what would you give some pointers, give some pointers for killing ducks to guys like us. I said, 3 rules, don’t disturb them, be very well hidden and don’t miss, I think those 3 rules to live by if you want to kill ducks. And they all wrinkled their face and I said, what you mean, don’t disturb them? I said, easy in, easy out, don’t disturb them. And the contrast of virtually every single public land that I’ve hunted in forever in the United States since we’re in college outboard now, mud motors and ATVs and this day and age there’s still folks who want to drive ATVs right up into the duck hole versus 20 minutes into our afternoon hunt today, we paddle around a curve, we’re going through the open water and there’s a pair of canvasback about 7 yards away, there’s something over here the ducks are just completely relaxed and we’re talking having a conversation, but we’re paddling and those ducks just swim a little far away. But they’re not leaving for the next county, they’re just right there with us. I think it makes a huge difference.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, that limiting disturbance is important, absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: I think it’s very important. If you ever figure out who or when they came up with that rule for this area, I’d love to know more background I think it’s very forward thinking.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, it is. Yeah, I think so too because, yeah, it would be a different place, you’re right. And we talked about, can you imagine that? Now, some folks will think we’re crazy, but I was sort of imagining. It’s like, can you imagine if there were public areas in Arkansas where they said? Yeah, it’s going to be paddle access only.
Ramsey Russell: Walk in or paddle access only, it’d be a game changer. It would be a way to mitigate hunting pressure, mitigate disturbance, mitigate overcrowding. I mean, it would really work.
Scott Stephens: Yeah. Well, I played those games, when I was in Mississippi in grad school because it was limited to public land, we sure weren’t buying any leases at that point in time. So we’d look at the map and say, okay, where’s the most inaccessible hole we can think of on Delta National Forest, right? And we played games like we put pirogues on carts with wheels and rolled them down trails and in the forest and then dumped them into Cypress Tupelo Brakes. But you found spots where the pressure was low and birds had found those, right? So, that’s exactly what we’re talking about here. We’re saying, okay, limiting the way you can access and I recognize, it’s good, there are other places that you can have motorized access for some people might not be able to do that. So, having a bit of both probably makes sense.
Delicious Goose Recipes
Ramsey Russell: I wonder if any public land manager would ever have the testicular veracity to pass a rule like that and the political support. Because hunters want more ducks, they want better hunts, but would we hunters collectively commit ourselves to this? Personally, I’ve enjoyed it. My shoulders are tired, I’m going to sleep good tonight, my appetite hadn’t been hitting a miss or missing a beat. Hey, I got one last question for you. Last night, you said I’m cooking soup I’m not a huge soup fan, I’ll admit it. Oh, I eat soup but I mean, that’s not a meal, soup is just something to sip on before you grill a steak or something, that was a hell of a soup.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, it is pretty good.
Ramsey Russell: That was a hell of a soup. And it was so simple is what I liked about it. What was the name of that soup?
Scott Stephens: So, it’s a knockoff on the soup that Olive Garden serves, so it’s called Zuppa Toscana. So, I think in the recipe they say that roughly translated into Tuscan soup, which evidently it’s not really a Tuscan kind of soup, so maybe a misnomer. But it’s made with spicy Italian sausage and what I used was ground spicy Italian that I make out of goose meat. So we had that in there.
Ramsey Russell: You have an abundance of goose meat up here.
Scott Stephens: That’s right, an abundance of goose meat. I have some of it made into spicy Italian sausage and the rest of it I have made into Jalapeno cheddar smokies, they call it here. Folks in Wisconsin would say broth, but yeah, those are what I have my goose made into. So we use the Spicy Italian and some onions, some potatoes, some heavy cream –
Ramsey Russell: We browned onions and we brown the sausage, pulled it out, brown the onions and bacon and added a carton of chicken stock –
Scott Stephens: Potatoes.
Ramsey Russell: Added those little old beautiful yellow potatoes till they started getting tender, boiled a little bit, added a meat back, red pepper flakes –
Scott Stephens: And little kale.
Ramsey Russell: Little kale, I think that’s just for color. And then a carton of heavy cream.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, you could not go wrong with heavy cream, bacon and potatoes, right?
Ramsey Russell: And it was unbelievable. And we were sitting out there and I did start getting a little chilly by about 10 o’clock. Because the ambient temperature at 25 really wasn’t too terribly. You put your hand down that water, it’s like, oh, there’s going to be ice for long.
Scott Stephens: And stand in the water in waders, even if you’re wearing stuff underneath, stand in the water for a while and yeah, you cool right down.
Ramsey Russell: And we knocked that soup out last night and had one bowl left over and you said, you were going to scramble some eggs and all I could think of, I bet that make a damn good gravy on top of them eggs and it did, that was a good breakfast.
Scott Stephens: That warmed us up.
Ramsey Russell: Had a good time, thank you very much, Scott. And thank you for being on here. I’m looking forward in the morning, I think, the wind flipping entirely different, going to be 10, 12 miles an hour enough to steer ducks and all the birds we’ve been seeing come into that little body of water were coming from the north, do you think those little birds rafting out on Lake Manitoba, you think?
Scott Stephens: Some of them could be doing that and then they could come into the marsh to feed.
Ramsey Russell: Come into the marsh to feed and lay up loaf. And so I really kind of like the set up for tomorrow with us being on the south and on the south point looking to the north with the wind, as they’re coming into us, they’ll catch those decoys, but the sun’s going to be in our favor.
Scott Stephens: We’re going to have sun tomorrow, which is the first time we’ll have had that. And I think –
Ramsey Russell: But we got wind.
Scott Stephens: Yeah, those are my two key ingredients for killing any kind of ducks. But I also predict your ID skills are going to go way up, I’m picking these out when we get some light on them that you can, they’re not just a silhouette.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, thank you, Scott. Thank you very much. Thank you for all you do with Ducks Unlimited habitat. And thank you for helping me scratch a bucket list hunt off my list. I mean, I got to hunt Delta Marsh and I got to kill a canvasback here and I finally got to hunt divers in Canada and that was all just a treat on all fronts. And folks, thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere from Manitoba, Mr. Scott Stevens Ducks Unlimited Canada, we’ll see you next time.