Mille Lacs Layout Madness

Mille Lacs Layout 2

Scrinck…crunch…scrunch, the echo of the sheet ice breaking before our bows tore through the November darkness in ghostly fashion.  The soft splash of the paddles in the frigid water behind made a haunting harmonic rhythm.  My brother stopped paddling ahead, his headlamp pointing down to the ash grey water below.  Heaving his anchor and line over the edge of his craft, his low voice echoed back “bout twelve feet”.  Peering back to the shadowy shoreline, I could tell that we had gone beyond what we originally had intended as our destination.  “Good enough”, I whispered back, and we began our preparations.  It was our second attempt to try layout hunting for diving ducks on Mille Lacs Lake, and the calm conditions were finally on our side, or so we thought.

In the predawn stillness, the soft resound of decoy bags could be heard from my friends, beginning their decoy deployment.  Carefully setting the long line anchor to the sandy bottom, I began to unfurl the gang rig drops from their decoy keels.  Finishing the clip on the twentieth decoy, I peered back to scrutinized the front of my line in disbelief.  The first two decoys were forcefully dipping under water, pulled down by the weight of the anchor.  Frantically paddling back to the front of the line, I snapped off a few of the sunken blocks and began testing the depth of the water.  My stomach promptly produced a knot.  With a twenty-five foot anchor rope, I could no longer detect the bottom of the lake.  With little to no wind, we had drifted over 100 yards from our original location in a matter of ten minutes.  “Evil Lake”, my brother said with his usual candor.  Painstakingly towing the lines back to a shallow depth, we set our back boat anchors to weight the lines and settled into our small crafts.

As we loaded our shotguns and made last preparations, I produced my canvas cloth to lie over my boat.  My brother peered in my direction and said, “Man, you really blend in with the water”.  In preparation for the endeavor, I had bought a cheap canvas cloth from a hardware store and streaked it with a darker battleship grey.  The results were astonishingly accurate, as I appeared to be a spot on match of the surroundings.  Unfortunately, we had forgotten the other canvas sheets at our lodging and decided the two camouflage boats may be low enough to the water to conceal our location.  Seconds after the admiring exchange, a faint whistle filled our ears.  Careening out of the western horizon, a flock of 25 goldeneyes dipped low to investigate the lines resembling their kin.  With twenty minutes before legal shooting time, we sat back and enjoyed the acrobatic display. “Eyes up boys”, my brother said with an excited tone.  I gradually turned my chin to the sky, and was amazed at what I witnessed.  Seemingly swinging through the air, large swaths of ducks pushed from east to west, and west to east across our view.  Common Mergansers, Goldeneyes, Bufflehead, and Canvasbacks showed their aerial ability amidst the desolate horizon.

Easily discernible, a group of tiny bufflehead suddenly winged to our decoys with the speed of an arrow.  The lead drake was met first by all three of our barrels, and a belting barrage left three hens still on the water.  Pulling up my anchor, I paddled quickly to retrieve our prizes.  Either by some devious trick of nature or the tumultuousness of this large lake, the drake bufflehead that we had all pummeled flipped from his back to his stomach and started to fly away from my steadily closing boat.  Utterly appalled, I quickly produced my shotgun and sent the bird to the water.  My brother followed suit, and hit the hearty water beast once again. Certain that we had dealt the final blow, I grabbed the first of the hens from the water.  I was stunned to hear a gunshot to my right.  Out of the corner of my eye I watched in disbelief as a drake bufflehead skimmed the water in flight across the pale water.  “Was that the same duck?”, I shouted back to my brother.  Shaking his head back and forth, I could barely hear him say, “Evil Lake”.

Over the course of the morning we had limited opportunities to add to our bag, as the unconcealed decks of the other boats sent birds flaring at an unethical distance.  After two hours, the northern wind sped across the shoreline, and our previously teetering boats began to bob on intimidating waves.  Post haste, anchors were drawn and long lines gathered.  Paddling with the ferocity of a Stanford rowing team, we traversed the stretch of water back to our access point.  The waves sprayed our faces with icy wrath, and the wind bit at our already numb fingers.  Landing on the powdery sand beach, we relished in the firm foundation, and all took a few minutes to gather ourselves.

Even though we were exhausted, I could still see the joy in my brother and friend’s eyes as we stowed our gear and examined our rewards.  It’s the adventure that grips us in our hearts and to our bones.  The intangible feeling of going against the grain to prove that we have what it takes, and to do so with the ones closest to us.

Mille Lacs Layout 1

The Reward of Youth Mentoring

Mentor pic year 1

The rising sun split through the ageless oaks, exposing the juvenile wood ducks softly setting their wings to the jade colored water below.  The hunter slowly and quietly rose from his stool to take in the scene, firmly securing the bantam twenty-gauge to his shoulder.  A fumbling for the location of the safety, a seemingly endless pause, and the young hen wood duck was sent skittering to a halt.  The joy, the pure joy on his illuminated 11 year old face was beyond rewarding. I beckoned my squirming yellow lab for the retrieve, and we packed up to quickly get the young hunter to Saturday morning football practice.

It had been two years since I first approached my neighbor Max and his parents about taking him afield to pursue waterfowl.  Coming from a non-hunting family, he had an unexpected interest in the array of decoys carefully stacked in my dusty garage, and traditional waterfowl prints pinned to the walls.  “Can I try that?”- he inquisitively asked one sizzling summer day- “sure, but we need to do a lot of preparation first”, I replied.   His eyes slowly lowered to the floor at the thought of dram, school-like homework. I informed him that one does not simply go duck hunting.  “There’s firearm safety, clay shooting practice, and duck identification lessons that we need to accomplish before we can go.”  His eyes dipped lower yet as he grabbed his left arm with his right hand, apparently less than ecstatic with the perceived toil that would go into such an endeavor.  His eyes shot right up, and he gave me a sheepish smile when I said “but, we’re going to do those things so that you have the best time of your life.”

Over the next few months I tried everything I could to make his pre-hunting training more enjoyable. I had an older duck call that I hadn’t used in a few seasons, so I had a plan to give it to Max to practice with.  I stood at his front door as his mom apprehensively accepted the proposal, and he promptly darted around his living room, echoing obtuse notes that I never imagined a duck call could produce.  For the next five minutes, I tried to show him the correct technique, and instructed him to listen to duck sounds and quacks on YouTube.  However, my first foolproof plan to engage Max in waterfowling came to an abrupt halt a day later when his mom walked over to my door, promptly handing me the duck call.  “I just can’t take it anymore.” were the only words she uttered with an emotionally exhausted frown on her face.

I then entered Max into the First Hunt program by Delta Waterfowl, who in turn sent him a mentee packet with a shadow grass camouflage ball cap, a waterfowl patch, and enough stickers to plaster the walls of his room.  His excitement was difficult to miss as I pulled into the driveway after work one day.  He ran full tilt in my direction with camo ball cap on backwards, and fists full of stickers, shouting, “It came! My duck stuff came!”  His enthusing elation caused me to reflect on how I must have looked after I received my first bluebill decoys in the mail, or harvested my first drake Goldeneye.

After we went through extensive firearms safety lessons, I made it a point to visit the clay range with zero pressure on Max to shoot.  Reviewing the safety procedures and mechanics of the gun once again with him, he felt more comfortable attempting a shot.  We worked on swinging, leading, and focusing down the barrel of the gun before the first clay was thrown.  As the July sun beat down heavily on our brows, I handed him shell after shell without a direct hit.  I could sense that his patience was wearing thin, as he humbly handed the shotgun back to me.  “Let’s try one more,” I said optimistically.  He begrudgingly took his position and made his safety checks. “Pull!” he shouted.  The clay was sent whirling straight out, and magnificently shattered with the crack of the shot.  We looked at each other with excitement in our eyes, and awe in our wide smiles.  I roared, “Nice shot!” and we gave each other a barrage of high fives.

In the blink of an eye, I was standing next to Max and his dad at 5 a.m., quickly loading gear into my truck before youth waterfowl opener.  As we made our way down the steep hillside to the lake, I noticed a nervous bounce in Max’s step.  He settled down into the high grass lining the edge of the lake, taking in the scene with eyes straining through the pre-dawn darkness.  We both were delighted watching the birds careen across the cotton-candy sunrise, cautiously awaiting their abrupt arrival.  Suddenly, a hen green wing teal plopped down into the decoy spread, softly quacking greetings to her new friends.  A shaky shotgun missed its target and the frightened fowl bolted to a new destination.  Over the course of the morning there was plenty of patience and practice, and we were unsuccessful in bringing a bird to hand.  I could tell that Max was a little disheartened by the missed opportunities, but he perked right up when I told him that he did really well for his first time afield.  “Wait, we get to do that again?” was the jubilant question he practically shouted back.  I smiled, patted him on the back and said “As many years as you want buddy.”

If you would have asked me three years ago if I thought of myself as mentor material, I would have chuckled and dismissed the idea all together.  However, during the time that I’ve spent teaching and encouraging Max to pursue waterfowl, I’ve found that I’ve learned far more than I taught.  As a mentor, you get to experience the troubles and triumphs of your youth in the outdoors again.  This time however, you get to be a positive imprint on the next generation of outdoorsmen and women.  If you’re considering being a mentor to a youth interested in the outdoors, I would encourage you to be actively engaged in their development and training.  The relationship between mentor and mentee grows stronger, and it makes the victories afield so much sweeter.

Mentor pic #2

Completely Committed

Jake with Birds

“I don’t know….” the somber words of my friend as he grasped the door of my salt blanketed truck.  Stationary at the top of the hill, we gazed into the pre-dawn darkness at the lake we had scouted the day before.  With nighttime temperatures dropping into the low teens in late-November, a sheet of ice had formed from the shoreline to 30 yards beyond.  “I think we can do it” I said in an energetic, albeit brave voice.

I hustled down to the shoreline to test the thickness.  The frosty north wind scraped at my face as my heavy frame floated above the ice for the first five feet, then CRASH! My feet plummeted through the ice and I stood on the sandy bottom with water to my knees.  “It’s only an inch out here!”  I hollered back to my friend through the bleak darkness.  Warily, he started unloading the gear, discerning through a lifetime of friendship he wouldn’t easily sway my decision to hunt waterfowl in these treacherous conditions. Oh, I can definitely see his hesitant point of view, but it’s these types of edgy excursions that I wish I could relive for the 275 days of the duck-hunting offseason.  Call me crazy, but one day of testing my mettle against the harsh elements for a chance at weary and desperate migrating waterfowl, sounds better than a week in tropical paradise.

With our cumbersome equipment down at water’s edge, we made quick work of the shoreline ice as we cleared a path with a sledge hammer and paddles.  I pushed beyond the edge of the ice with my small motorized boat and set forth to our destination.

Watching the surreptitious shadows of the trees on the south shoreline, my stomach dropped to the floor as my boat jolted left to right, and a loud crunch filled my ears.  I bent my torso low to neutralize the sway of my boat, and continued to crush the half inch ice beneath the fiberglass bow.  Straining my head upwards, I could now see that the middle of the lake was covered in another sheet of ice from north to south.

Cold sweat beaded down my head as I realized the dangerous predicament I was in.  If I tried to turn my boat sharply to the left or right, I would most certainly catch the edge of the ice, and flip into the icy water below.  At this point I was completely committed and knew the safest way to proceed was forward.  I began to feel a little more calm as I periodically turned back to see the headlamp of my friend following a distance behind me.  If I did tip, he could cruise through the path of my boat to give me a helping hand. I finally arrived at the point that we were headed, and to my delight, the ice had not formed as heavily around the edge, and we were able to set out our array of decoys with relative ease.

As the ruby hued dawn approached, we methodically concealed our boats and settled into the sheltering cattails.  I opened my coffee thermos, and drank in the hot black liquid as well as the blood orange sunrise before me.  In a matter of 15 minutes, the first few aerial silhouettes appeared in the sky.  Darting to and fro, north to south, they buzzed by with incredible speed, looking for friendship in an inhospitable landscape.

It didn’t take long for a hen ring-neck to pay a visit to our imitation.  “One on the board!” I pronounced, as I grabbed the boat to row out to our downed prize.  Over the course of the morning, we had flocks of mallards, ring-necks, and a gadwall cup their wings and careen into our spread without hesitation.  Desperation was their demeanor, and we were catering to their quandary.

The highlight of the morning came in the form of a flock of a dozen geese.  Flying south, they soared above our position with no inclination to land close by.  Having little luck with Canada geese over the water, we blew our calls fervently to gain their attention.  To our absolute astonishment, the lead goose sharply swung northward in our direction, and committed its loyal wings.  Our bodies were locked motionless in the moment, and we patiently let them hover above our spread before beginning our barrage.  Two ganders lay in the water, and my friend paddled victoriously to retrieve them.

In route to the access, my blazon trail was still visible across the entirety of the ice locked lake.  A testament to the dangerous venture we had taken the morning.  Following the open path, I breathed a deep sigh of relief when we both crossed through the end of the ice safely.

Although the risks were great and the outcome uncertain, we completely committed ourselves to the desperate journey, finding personal resolve in the deep cold waters of northern Minnesota.

Mid-Season Waterfowl: A Tale of Ice and Fire

Fire

“Snap”. The last picture of a respectable hunt on opening waterfowl weekend was taken.  Two Canada geese, two wood ducks, and one blue-winged teal adorned my friend’s game strap.  Standing at the edge of green-stalked cattails, he attempted to mask a proud smile as he squinted through the blinding mid-morning sun.  Yet with that final flash of a camera, I had the uneasy feeling that our adventures would be shifting as we edged towards the poignant purgatory that is mid-season ducking hunting in Minnesota.

With the winter winds still clinging to the Arctic Circle and the abundance of fodder in Canadian water and fields, northern waterfowl are hesitant to move far from their nesting grounds to our lakes and marshes. In turn, we begrudgingly hunt resident fowl that have earned doctorate degrees in identifying decoy spreads and treacherous shorelines.   Over the course of a morning on the water, I will usually see 20-30 ducks and a handful of geese making their way from their roost to a loafing pond or lake.  No amount of calling or jerk-cord pulling will sway their cold hearts, and I’m left with a few fruitless passing shots.

While commiserating with my brother after one demoralizing hunt several years ago, he told me that the best memory of early-October duck hunting wasn’t holding a strap of waterfowl on his shoulder, but a grainy video of one of his friends attempting a cartwheel in his waders, and promptly falling flat on his face.  Listening to his humorous story, I could feel the grit in my bones come to life.  Call it stubbornness, or foolishness, but I tend to never back away from a challenge, and early October my friends, can be a challenge.The ultimatum in my mind is to take foolhardy chances, instead of sticking with my routine.

As a third generation waterfowler, I subconsciously pick my hunting locales based on nostalgia.   There is a picturesque rice-lined oak island that I will continue to hunt year after year, as my grandfather and uncle have hunted the same island for forty years before me.  On this hallowed island, there has been feast and famine, blustering-cold winds and sunny-calm, but I continue to drop my decoys in that revered water nonetheless.  As of late, I’ve had to employ new methods, as too few puddle ducks skim my predictable hotspots in mid-season.

Overtly conscious about camouflage and depth when it comes to my style of hunting, I acquired a layout boat allowing me to hide well in little aquatic vegetation. Hoping to attach the tops of grass or cattails to the boat, I screwed u-loops into the hull, and ran a bungie cord around the perimeter.  Fully outfitted, the boat looks like a combination of two muskrat huts built-up close together. This approach allows me to get to the edge of a wild rice or cattail stand, closer to where the ducks or geese want to be.

The next approach that I take is to focus directly on one type of waterfowl. The ring-neck duck or “blackjack” has been a focus of mine since I was a kid. My grandfather proudly displayed his drake ring-neck mounts in our family cabin, and I spent my childhood summers walking under their splendor.  As an adult, I’ve been enamored by their fast flight patterns and eagerness to decoy, so I’ve purchased a number of ring-neck decoys to lure them to my locale.

The first time I tested my combined approach, a fresh inch of snow had fallen during the night, and the early October wind blew stubbornly cold from the northwest. Laboring to paddle across the lake to where I had previously witnessed puddle ducks loafing during the day, I found a small patch of green reeds to set my boat for the morning.  With my line of decoys set firmly with anchors, I slunk into my shallow boat for the morning show.

Not surprising, the early daylight flight was relatively quiet. A few teal zipped across the adjoining shoreline, and set off to new destinations without chancing a look in my direction.  Waiting for over an hour, I decided to pour myself a cup of coffee and warm up my chilled hands.  As I opened my thermos to pour the hot brew, a loud thunder of wings roared above me.  My eyes froze as they rose toward the sky, and witnessed a flock of over 100 ring-necks twisting and dropping down to my spread.   Awestruck, I intently watched them push away from my location and traverse to the south portion of the lake.  My heart raced as a group of 20 broke off from the main group and swayed back low in my direction.   Laying low in the boat, I gripped the gritty fore-end of my berretta, and waited until the first drake dropped his webbed feet on the water.  Three shots rang out in the quiet snow-scape and two drake ring-necks lay on the water.

Over the course of the morning, a few more small groups of ring-necks skirted by and I was able to procure two more birds through quick shooting. Paddling back to the launch, I felt surreal feeling of triumph over mid-October.

I chuckle to myself when thinking back to some of my crazy strategies that have emphatically failed over the years, but when the preparation and conditions come together in a testing time of year, there’s no better feeling of accomplishment in the world.

On Duck Hunting Opener, Move Over to Make Friends

Sunrise over breeze lake (2)

It’s September 22nd, 2017, the eve of Minnesota’s duck hunting opener.  The soft glow of my phone illuminates the pine trimmed bedroom as I check the time, 10:24 p.m.  This will be by far, the longest night of my year.   As I scroll through the mental checklist of waterfowling gear I have lovingly and tediously placed in the bed of my truck, I toss.  When I ponder the locale I have chosen for the next morning, I turn.  Completely exasperated, I attempt the old-wives tale of counting sheep.  By some devious trick of the mind, the ewes evolve into whistling wood ducks and corrupt my last line of mental defense. This painful process continues into the wee hours of the morning, when at last my tired eyes close victoriously over my restless conscious.

A jazzy alarm jolts me awake at 2:00 a.m., and I begin my pre-hunt morning ritual of sluggishly gathering coffee, camo, and ammo. As if I was shocked by an electric outlet, I suddenly remember that this morning is vastly different than the mornings over the last nine months.  A crisp duck-hunting season has finally begun, and the possibility of tenacious teal and gray gadwalls buzzing in the pale morning light instantaneously sends adrenaline coursing through my veins.  The cool autumn air and fire of my truck’s engine awaken my senses a little more, and I hit the spongy gravel road with my beloved gear in tow.  On the highway, I turn up the volume of the classic rock station to catch the first 30 seconds of the head-nodder “Slow Ride” by Foghat, a seemingly perfect anthem for the day’s activities.   The distorted melody gradually dissipates as duck opener memories of years past fill the front of my mind.

As the cerebral slideshow begins, a small smile forms at the corner of my mouth, indicative of the comical trials and tribulations I have experienced over a decade and a half of adventure.  From humble beginnings where two shoddy fleet farm mallard decoys were carefully stowed in a borrowed duck boat, to red cheeks full of embarrassment as my two year old lab carried a mouthful of lily pads back to my hand instead of the tranquil wood duck on the water.   I fondly remember the faded picture adorned in my basement, where a much younger version of me victoriously knelt next to three tiny blue wing teal during the fall when my son was born.

Although these building block remembrances cause me to me smile ear to ear, the deepest and most nostalgic memories have come from the family and friends that I’ve shared this day with. I vaguely recollect walking with my grandfather on crunchy maple leaves in the moonlight for my first duck hunt. The sound of his hushed instructions as I shouldered his Browning humpback still echo in my ears, as does his proud thunder of “nice shot” as I picked up my prized mallard.

Aside from my family, if it weren’t for the company of my closest friends, my decoys would probably be idle for the season opener. Some of the most personal and meaningful conversations I’ve had with friends have happened at 2:00 a.m., standing in thigh-high water and taking in the splendid night air.  Seemingly every year without fail, a shiver up my spine and a giddy dance halts the conversation, as an unaware muskrat brushes the outside of my leg, and a few nervous laughs are shared in the moonlight.

As with all of our memories, there are the good, and then there are the teeth grinding bad. I try not to dwell on them, but much like an annoying younger sibling, the harder you push them away, the harder they pester you again.   The worst of these waterfowling nightmares came in the fall of 2013.

My friend Jeff and I had found our prime hunting locale at 2 a.m., and settled in for a prolonged chat. As the hours to shooting time waned, our anticipation grew to a lofty level as two small flocks of teal settled into our decoy spread five minutes before legal shooting time.  Without warning, the boisterous roar of a large air-cooled engine sounded from the north, the teal blasted off the water like a bottle rocket, and our heads snapped to the direction of the sound.  Our eyes drawn by the obnoxious 3 million candlelight LEDs lining the gunnel, we both gawked in disbelief at the large UFO (unidentified floating object) that slowly cruised through the tip of our decoy spread.  When the paralytic of disbelief wore off, we desperately searched for our deeply stowed headlamps to indicate our position.  The behemoth of a boat idled its engine for a few seconds to observe our flashes of light, and then sailed into the weeds 30 yards to the left of us.   In passive-aggressive Minnesotan fashion, I stood up and scowled at the noisy newcomers.  I knew that since our spread of decoys was set to attract ducks flying from the south-west, there was no way we could safely make a shot in that direction, and would be forced to try pass shooting.

Over the course of the morning, every mallard or gander that flew our direction was promptly intercepted by the imposing crew, leaving us with a single passing shot at 35 yards. The boiling point came when we solemnly packed our gear and began to paddle back to our trucks.  Snide jeers came our direction from the group of rogues, as they mocked the speed in which we traveled.

Exhausted and fuming at the landing, we exchanged negative slander pertaining to the slighting we had just received. However, my faith in duck hunting humanity was quickly salvaged by a father and son who had paddled up to the launch behind us.  They indicated that they had arrived later in the morning, and stayed towards the landing in an effort to not ruin any hunts.  Low and behold, they managed to harvest three teal and mallard over the course of the hunt.  We shared old stories and laughs for a few minutes and respectfully parted ways.

Speaking with that father and son after the hunt renewed in me a sense of optimism for the future. Two men who were willing to move over on the most cherished day of the year, and made friends in the process.

What Lies Beneath

 

Dock Jump

Ten feet to go… The weathered decking creaks beneath your feet as you run feverishly with a head full of steam. One giant leap with the warm summer wind blowing against your sun-freckled frame. SPLASH!  You’ve emerged yourself in an aquatic world full of new treasures to discover.  With neon green goggles tugging uncomfortably at your freshly buzz-cut hair, and the August sun beating down on your back, the curiosities abound.  Packs of sunfish play a game of “nibble and dart” with your toes, and crayfish dance defensively on the sandy bottom.  Straining your neck upward, the scene instills complementary sensations of both fear and intrigue.  Long stems of broad leaf pondweeds mark the dark, motionless view into the deep abyss of the large Minnesota lake.

Aside from the title reference to an early 2000’s murder-thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, this experience was the pinnacle of my childhood. Instilling cherished memories of entire days devoted to the water.  Slowly and subconsciously marking a lifelong obsession to what lies beneath the surface.  Jacque Cousteau certainly spoke true when he said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever”.

Although my mom always referred to me as a “fish” when I was younger, I like to think my persona was closer to a deranged duck. Dabbling up and down in the clear water, emerging every twenty seconds for a gasp of air, I was perfectly content with my elementary exploration.  It wasn’t until adulthood, that I started paying attention to the entirety of sub-aquatic ecosystems.

While lackadaisically casting for dock-dwelling largemouth bass at my family’s cabin in north-central Minnesota, my attention is often drawn to the year’s brownish brood of mallards tipping downward to feed in the bulrushes to the east. I slowly wade from the shoreline into the lukewarm water to catch a glimpse of the fledgling’s vittles.  Giving time to let the swirling sandstorm settle at the bottom, my polarized sunglasses reveal an alien world beneath the surface.  Scanty invertebrate scuds cling to the narrow reeds, darting forward and back to avoid detection.   Bright green algae bubbles blanket the base of the reeds at the water line, holding incalculable microorganisms and the occasional freshwater snail.  Fine table fair for maturing mallards set to lift their wings towards Missouri in the fall.

As an outdoorsman who spends a majority of his free-time around the water, I believe that it’s crucial to understand the ecosystem of the body of water that I hunt, fish, or leisurely enjoy. As a fisherman, some basic information comes somewhat easily in today’s age of high tech sonar (of which I personally can’t afford).  Weed beds, sunken islands, and rock piles illuminate the translucent screen with amazing accuracy.  Side imaging sonar even allows the user to fully scope the size and position of a foraging fish beneath the bow.

Although these tools can make the sport more precise, but in my opinion, it’s intimacy with the water that pays dividends. When my brother Jase and I were boys, we would net silver shiner minnows from the shallow reeds, slide my grandpa’s twelve foot boat off of the sandy shore, and try our luck on the lake next to our cabin for walleye.  Barefoot and sun-burned, we tried every tactic our bantam brains could conjure over the summer.  Without sonar to establish depth, or sunglasses to block the glare off the water, we were figuratively and literally fishing blind.  It wasn’t until we attempted trolling over one section of the lake at dusk that our persistence would pay off.

Jase’s gray zebco reel zinged as the drag let out, and he managed to man-handle a fourteen inch walleye into the boat. Our youthful shouts of joy must have echoed for miles as our tiny trophy was fastened to our rusty stringer.  We continued to troll the same section of the lake, and it produced two more walleyes of equal size.  As the sun quickly set, we kicked the three-horse Evinrude into gear, and returned to the cabin with the hearts of champions.

It wasn’t until we cut a six foot hole in the ice for view-fishing winters later, that we realized why this area was so ideal for walleye. A shallow sunken island stood at the tip of a long finger of gravel, and to the northwest it dropped to twelve feet, and then sharply to a 60 foot bowl.  Bright lime-green cabbage filled our eyes in the heart of winter, and walleyes continued to peruse the ledge.  The evident key to our success lay in our exploration of the structure and vegetation beneath, and still stands as a hot-spot to this day.

When it comes to my favorite fall activity of water fowling, the investigative techniques are more corporeal in nature. Sonar can detect underwater structures and depth, but while scoping waterfowl food and behavior, your naked senses take the brunt of the work.  When a group of ducks congregate in one spot, my mind instantly begs the questions “What are they eating?” or “What makes them feel comfortable there?”  I can usually answer the question in one of two ways.

Working smarter not harder is usually my mantra, so I beeline to the grizzled veterans who have dominated these lakes for most of their lifetimes. Bringing a fresh beer is always a good conversation starter, and usually unties tongues to share tales and knowledge about bodies of water that I would have suffered years to obtain.  “There’s a bed of wild celery over there” or “I’ve consistently had luck with mallards in this cove”, are the priceless tidbits that can work to my advantage for years to come.

When the first method fails (which it rarely does), I dive back to my first love, the water. I’ve found that a two hour excursion in my twelve foot boat not only yields valuable information, it’s also a great way to spend time with my son or yellow Labrador Penny.  Banking the watercraft on the bank of an unexplored area gives me plenty of time to leisurely wade and discover the intricacies of that position, teach my son about the importance of an ecosystem, or practice pre-season retrieves with the dog.

Seemingly the split-second summer fades to fall, and I’m tucked in a duck blind watching the spectacle of waterfowl buzz above. My gaze takes me to tranquil water, where I know what lies beneath.

When the Tide Rips, Rip the Tide (Day 4)

Wheatfield Last day

Gear trailer in tow, we set out in the morning for a field hunt that we had scouted the day before.  During our travels the previous day, we found a wheat field surrounded by large stands of timber that showed stacks of mallards and large Canada geese loafing and feeding in the center.  We unloaded our rig and gave ourselves ample time to set up as we took in the soft moon glow and chilly air.  With the wind being a non-factor today, we didn’t have to worry about decoys sailing away.  We set two large groups of mallards and geese, with a gap to the north for a landing zone.  We strategically sat a little further back to the south to make sure that our cover would not be blown.  The morning flight was a sight to behold.  Thousands upon thousands of geese flew directly over our location to their feeding grounds.  The major dilemma was that few of them wanted to be where we were.  The groups that did peruse our locale flew directly from the south, and we were blind to their approach.  Playing a cruel game of Marco Polo, they twisted from behind us and circled in closer from the east where the sun was blinding our eyes.  Our equilibrium was jolted from their tactics, and the semi- reasonable shots we were able to take were terrible.  After the frustrating flocks flittered out of view,  we discussed where these birds might be heading.  Through our binoculars, we were able to ascertain that every duck and goose that crossed our path was traversing to a freshly planted winter wheat field. The field was a vivid green against the golden brown countryside.  The issue with these rich fields, is that farmers are often hesitant to allow access due to the wear on their field.  The bright spot of the morning was when Mike went a little crazy from the frustration of the morning.  With a group of snow geese dropping down low enough to take a shot, he yelled out like a blood hungry warrior as he fired two rounds and dropped a lone speckled belly goose from the flock.  Briar made the retrieve, I chuckled, and we managed to harvest one goose from the field.  When the sun lifter higher in the sky, we slowly packed our gear in solemnness after the anticlimactic end to our trip.

Briar with Spec

Relaxing in the truck on the return to the duck camp, our discussion turned to the mundane logistics of the journey home. Completely unsatisfied with the morning excursion being the end of our time abroad, I pressed Andy and Mike to drop me off at a flooded timber slough that we had come across a few days prior.  My plan was for them to drop me off with the bare essentials.  A bottle of water, my shotgun, six decoys, and desperation as a blanket.  This behavior is very uncharacteristic of me, as I would rather remain quite for hours versus stirring up a minute of turmoil amongst friends.  Following some diligent debate from my counterparts, they decided to join my fatuous crusade.  After a make-shift sandwich at base camp, we headed north to the marked location I had etched on the RM map days ago.  Traversing the back country roads, we made our way into a no-man’s land of sorts.  The landscape was so different than what we had seen previously in our scouting endeavors.  Laden with shallow marshes, leaf barren timber stands, and low plains, it was reminiscent of the land in which I was raised.  This instantly sent optimistic feelings to my core.   In the last mile heading to the marked location, we crossed a section of road that was innovative to say the least.  Due to the drought, a farmer had enough gumption to create a twelve foot wide road entirely of cattails, mud, and bramble to get his tractor to the other side of the property.  While we crossed this spongy land bridge, 30-40 feeding mallards caught our eye through the eerily dark flooded timber to our left.   We decided to move on to the flooded timber that I originally marked and witnessed a dozen edgy mallards loafing around the edges.   Andy came up with a hasty proposal to ride back to the flooded timber that we had previously bypassed and scare up the mallards in hope that they would promptly return to their vittles.  With Mike in the driver’s seat, Andy and I would ride on the tailgate with six decoys, a mojo, and our cased guns at the ready.  Finding the landowner on the RM map, we gained permission and made our way back to the timber.

Flooded timber hunt

If you look closely, you can see the twenty yards of muck/mud around the edge of the slough.

 

Dust filled our faces and eyes as we rode to the cattail road, (hanging on for dear life).   Just as we predicted, the mallards flew the instant the truck stopped and we edged through the labyrinth of dead alder trees, barb-wire fence, and muck to set our decoys.  Crouching low against the broader alders, we watched the mallards circle the far northwest corner of the slough before flying north and out of sight.  Although we were initially disheartened, neither Andy nor I dwelled on our circumstance for very long.  Tucked in the shade of the alders on a seventy degree day, our locale was impeccably relaxing after a week of toiling our tails off in pursuit of waterfowl.  My eyes didn’t have to wander far to take in the beauty of that place, it was already there in full view. Either by its own making or that of the dark timber, the tranquil water was a dark rust color and painted a majestic contrast against the bright blue sky.  The mild wind  blew against the thin leafless tree tops, rubbing the tips together and creating a soft audible lullaby.  Even the broken limbs of the alders lifelessly protruding from the water were a display of unblemished serenity.

While investigating moose tracks near my position, I caught a whirring noise coming from the north. Eight teal dropped speedily from the tree tops, flying ten yards off the water in their typical fighter-jet formation.  Neither Andy nor I were paying attention and were not rewarded for our day dreaming, as the teal flew hastily to the shallow cow pond 100 yards to the south.  Realizing our lazy quandary, we intently watched and waited, waited and watched. In the last hour of legal shooting time our newfound awareness would pay dividends.  While watching a bald eagle flying to the east side of the marsh, low guttural quacks filled our ears from the north, and we pulled our heads up to see a lone drake mallard dropping towards our spread.  The drake sharply pulled up to the right as we adjusted our guns, and began flying higher.  Andy began the barrage, and I followed suit with a single shot which sent the bird spiraling down to the water thirty yards to the east.  With an impeded view of its landing, I began to traverse the alder trees to retrieve my prize.  After reaching the area where I presumed it settled, I had an open view of the acre sized slough.  I initially expected to see one of two things.  The first being the bird floating lifeless on the water, the second being the bird quite alive and swimming away from me.  Unfortunately, I did not witness either.  There was relatively little concealment on the edges of the slough, but I looked feverishly through small brambles to see if I could find the stag cloaked by the camouflage.  Every nook and cranny I inspected was empty.  I spent fifteen minutes looking on the water with binoculars, and working the shoreline back and forth without anything to show.  Even when we sent Briar out to see if he could sniff out the bird from cover, we still failed to locate the downed bird.  Andy and I concluded that the only logical explanation was that the eagle we had witnessed pursuing our location grabbed the bird off the water while I was walking over to retrieve it.  A fitting end to our trip, we were again without a reward.  Standing next to the truck with our gear in disarray, we all shared a final moment as we took in the last gorgeous sunset on the Canadian prairie.

Last Hunt Sunset

It was a tough adventure, tougher than I could have ever imagined. It etched a memory in my heart and mind that I will never forget.  A memory full of lessons and errors. It also solidified my understanding of what it means to pursue waterfowl without reservation.  Even though Mother Nature had warped its heart against us, we whole-heartedly gave every last ounce of effort without abandon.  That my friends is worth journey.  So I’d encourage you.  Whatever your interest or passion. When the tide rips, rip the tide.