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.

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