When the Tide Rips, Rip the Tide (Day 3 Continued)

 

Bull moose

Four Bull Moose just hanging out

After we packed up our gear we headed back to town for breakfast. Our mission for the afternoon was to pay a visit to the field we had scouted on the previous day.  We borrowed a trailer chalk full of field duck and goose decoys from our gracious host Pete (who actually owns the duck camp), and headed out on the road.  On approach to our field, we noticed over a hundred mallards loafing on a nearby pond and instantly new these were the birds gorging themselves on the wheat field the evening before.  With high seventy degree temperatures and hurricane level winds, we sweat and struggled as we stuffed our blinds full of wheat stubble.  The dust stuck to our faces, and stung our eyes.  The wind continued to be a nuisance as we set our decoys in a vertical large group.  Each full body goose decoy that we placed was susceptible to being knocked over by the wind, so we chose to limit our spread and use mainly those attached by stakes planted firmly in the ground.  A handful of minutes after we jumped into our blinds, ducks and geese arose from the north and began flying above the field.

Like a slow-cruising locomotive they stacked in waves approaching our spread. A line of fifty mallards approached first, followed by two waves of white-fronted geese and cacklers, (numbering in the hundreds).  Andy had gone back to the truck to secure a random piece of gear, so Mike and I steadied our nerves in anticipation for the swell of waterfowl crashing in our direction.   Flying high and circling our decoys in great care, the sprightly mallards swung for what looked like a landing approach.  I bellowed “Take em!” to Mike as the lead mallard discovered our deception, and peeled off to the right at a high thirty-five yards.  The result was disastrous.  By far the worst decision I made on the trip was calling a shot on those maleficent mallards.  Mike managed to take an admirable drake out of the flock, but hundreds of geese were rapidly on decent into our spread.  Once they heard the shooting, they tucked tail and hastily traveled away. With a red face full of embarrassment and wind burn, I burrowed further in my blind and cursed for my indiscretion.

The afternoon was full of frustration and success, trial and error. As the last hours of daylight presented themselves, more and more geese began surging in from the east.  Having purchased a Yellow River WMD goose call during the Minnesota game fair, I was more than ecstatic with my success calling in singles and pairs of geese to our spread.   The soft lows and belting highs of the call were like a sirens song in the Canadian prairie.  This made the distance advantageous to our 12 gauges, as the big honkers struggled to softly set into the middle of our spread.  However, in the last hour our success would come to a screeching halt.  A large group of 30-40 honkers soared across the eastern horizon and made a beeline for our decoys.  We feverishly called to get their attention, and sat back as they made their approach.  With fifty yards left to trek, they suddenly turned sharply against the wind, and landed 150 yards away to feed.  With live birds on the ground a short distance away, we didn’t stand a chance to attract the inexperienced geese that were searching for comforting companions to dine with.  We watched in sorrow as small flocks of Canada geese joined their brethren in mass.

The sun billowed down in the west, and the harsh wind slowed to a warm breeze against our skin.  As we nonchalantly packed up our gear, the scene was picturesque.  A cow moose and her calf trotted across our field within sixty yards, and we all stood stone still with decoys in hand to take in the marvel.  Thousands of white-fronted geese sailed from their feeding grounds to the frail roosting water.  Regularly calling to each other in the classic “V” formation, their silhouettes showed iridescent in the last brilliance of the sun.  It’s these moments that I wish I could stop time, and spend hours basking the beauty of the world God has provided.

Briar in Honker fieldSunset over honker field2

After getting back to base camp, we prepared the infamous dish of duck ramaki. A simple dish with big flavor rewards.  Andy would scorn me for giving out the recipe, but I will anyway…

  1. Thin strips of duck or goose marinated overnight in Italian dressing
  2. Water chestnuts, Olives, Pickles (Pick your favorite(s))
  3. Bacon or better known as “Natures Candy”
  4. Instructions: Wrap the chestnuts in the thin strips of duck, and then wrap in strips of bacon. Secure with a toothpick through the middle, and cook over medium low indirect heat for 30 minutes on the grill. Enjoy with cold beer or your favorite adult beverage. Best served outdoors (huddling around the grill for warmth).

When the Tide Rips, Rip the Tide (Day 3)

Sunrise over breeze lake

The next day was a whirlwind. Not only pertaining to the madness of the day, but the wind was blowing a continual 40 miles per hour with gusts up to 60-65 mph.  Sure, I’ve felt helpless against Mother Nature before.  Whether it was paddling my Alumacraft ducker feverishly against a good squall, or having my long line drift before I could even set a decoy, but this wind was a cruel demon of the ancient world.    To make the most of the morning, we traveled back to the far northeast to try our luck on a slough holding enough water to hopefully attract some ducks.  When we approached the edge of the slough, I knew this was going to be a logistically tough excursion.   With 75 pounds of gear in tow, I sunk down to my knees in heavy mud.  Working my boots out slowly and methodically, I was able to set the decoys down on the crusty surface and make my way back to the solid ground.  When I apprised Andy and Mike of the situation, we devised a quick plan to get as many decoys as possible with minimal effort.  I would trudge out 15-20 yards with a walking stick to help my progress, and Mike would toss me decoys to set in the three inches of water.  Constantly wiggling my boots to free them from their wicked captor, my tired calves and quads begged for relief.  After turning on the last lucky duck, I tussled with the wind and mud to get back to the makeshift blind on the shore.   Even though it was 45 degrees in the morning, it felt like 20 with the wind chill scrapping at our backs.  I grasped my gloves that I had yet to wear on the trip, and nuzzled into the cattails.

The strong winds ended up being a blessing and a curse. Ducks that did not want to land in our previous hunt, were keen to find refuge in our spread today.  The problem was the heavy wind slowly pushed their flight backwards, and they spun to find an easier landing locale.  The other drawback that we encountered was the strong gusts of wind were tossing my heavy Dakota decoys on their sides.  Already emerged in shallow water and muck, I brainstormed new ways to keep them upright.  I ended up rooting a few of them in the solid mud, with the keels firmly locked into position.  We were going strong with three mallards and a gadwall in hand, when an unusual pair skirted our spread. A larger duck lead the way, while a tiny friend followed closely behind.  I shot the gadwall out front, and winged the green-wing teal behind.  This little teal ended up being my Achilles heel for the week, as I exhausted over an entire box of shells just trying to harvest the saucy minx.  When I  had expended the last shell I was willing to risk on the seemingly immortal teal, it slowly faded into the brush in the northeast corner of the slough.  Mike and Briar made the trek to the area, as he had dropped a drake mallard in the same location earlier in the hunt.   When Mike and Briar pushed through the edge of the cattails, the scene was hysterical.  Both the drake mallard and green wing teal quickly skirted out of hiding place.  They slapped the water with their wings, pushed feverishly with their feet, and set off a quacking bonanza that echoed across the marsh.  Briar was apparently turned off by the muck and darting ducks, and stopped half way in the water.  Mike fired one shot bringing the drake to a standstill, and the green-wing headed  my direction.  It stopped short and sat in a heap on the water, obviously exhausted by the shenanigans we were conducting.  I waded out through the wet-concrete muck and retrieved her.  The morning ended with one of the most bizarre encounters that we experienced on the trip.  While Andy and I discussed the movement of birds and what our next strategy should be, two brilliant black and white drake bluebills rocketed across the water skimming our spread.  Completely shocked by the ghost-rider flyby, we didn’t have time to grab our guns and chance a shot.   They slickly sliced through the wind that had given puddle ducks trouble, and headed north to a larger body of water.

To be continued…

Windy slough hunt2

When the Tide Rips, Rip the Tide (Day 2)

Sunset over hill2

 

Ok Saskatchewan, challenge accepted.

During our after-hunt breakfast, we conferred that a more dedicated approach to field scouting was desperately needed. We had traveled over a thousand miles to get here, and would not give up so easily after one less than optimal water excursion.  The tricky part was that after hundreds of miles of scouting, we were unable to find any sign of ducks feeding in the crop-rich fields.  Sure, there were pockets of 50-100 Canada geese in outlying fields, but it was still too early in the trip to target such low numbers.  We ended up returning to square one for the afternoon and evening, and this one little square ended up being one of my favorite experiences of the trip.

Tucked in the middle of a rural municipality, we traversed the plot line road to the crest of the steep hill. What await at the summit was a breathtaking 360 degree view in every direction, until the horizon softly sloped into the edge of the earth.  Two sizable lakes lay in the outskirts of the hill, and we presumed that any waterfowl would make this area its roost for the evening.  It was at this vantage point that we were able to observe the movement of waterfowl within a ten mile radius.  Feeling the warm wind against our skin, we soaked up every minute of the breathtaking sunset.  Countless low lying clouds of snow, cackler, and Canada geese flew across the tree lines in groups of hundreds and thousands.  Even though they were a stunning parade, we waited and watched for the mallard flocks in which we were pursuing.  As the tip of the sun sluggishly vanished in the west, our feathered friends would pay us a visit.  Roaring in from the north, large flocks of mallards adorn the sky.  Twisting and dropping into the lakes at the bottom of the hill, they dazzled us with their grace, and their soft feeding chuckles were music to our ears.  As we sipped the last few drops of our five dollar beers (Canadian alcohol tax is a crime), we all knew what the plan was in the morning.  North.

Revved up by renewed optimism in the morning, we literally hit a dusty trail. Venturing back to the same area in which we had spotted the mallards the evening before, we traveled north to watch the birds rocket from the roost.  I felt like a storm chaser as we zipped down county roads, barking directions to the driver from the RM map.  We pursued the larger flocks of ducks until they disappeared on the horizon, and the real expedition began.  We must have spent three hours on those back-country roads looking for any sign of fields laden with feeding mallards, but to no avail.  Like a cheap magicians trick, they had vanished in smoke (or in our case dust).  Frustrated doesn’t begin to depict the mood in the truck. I think Mike’s dog Briar was even a little peeved by the happenings of the morning.  By the afternoon, our weariness broke as we finally came across our field spot for the next day.  In a large wheat field with distant oil rigs slowly rocking up and down, 500 ducks, Canada geese, and cacklers vigorously fed on the wheat trimmings left by the combine.  After we received permission from the landowner, we had our first field hunt set for the next afternoon.

Briar Boy

To be Continued…

When the Tide Rips, Rip the Tide

Morning over prairie2

I’ve had the t-shirt for years, a faded red Old Navy special that probably filched four to five dollars from my wallet. It’s suffered the extremes of landscaping, oil changes, baby spit-up, and still holds solid form.  A tribute to the insignia prominently displayed in its mid-section “when the tide rips, rip the tide”.  It echoes other synonymous proverbs, “Come hell or high water”, or “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, but this shirt is a tangible memento of the adventure I experienced in central Saskatchewan this past fall.

It was mid-September with the maple trees shining in brilliant oranges and reds, that my preparations would take place. I was slated to take this journey with my neighbor Andy and his business partner Mike.  Naïve in my experiences,  I had no idea the logistics of such a trip would be as arduous as they were.  Numerous forms and licenses (the processing takes weeks) needed to be procured in order to hunt in the province of Saskatchewan, and the planning for food and gear for a week long excursion took several email exchanges and conversations to lock down. In the wee hours of October 15th, we stored our supplies, hunting gear, and lovingly said goodbye to our families.

While trekking through the wind-blown pains of western Minnesota, my mind reached for images of what the terrain in North-Central Saskatchewan may bestow. Would it resemble the plains, potholes, and bluffs around Minot North Dakota where I had spent portions of other hunting seasons, or would it be forested and full of large lakes and small beaver ponds that my hometown of Aitkin Minnesota prominently held?  As we progressed towards the Canadian border, my mind continued to alter the result over and over again as the landscape shifted.  Tunneling rocky bluffs lined the twenty mile stretch on approach into Canada, with cattle farms and small homesteads present on the hills. It reminded me of the eastern approach into Denver Colorado with vast wide-spread ranches and rolling hills as far as the eye could see.  Surely this would not be the mainstay.  Even as Andy and Mike assured me the scenery would get “much better”, I had my concerns.

In the last 40-50 kilometers before we reached our destination, the land turned into what I had subconsciously hoped for, but had never registered fully in my mind. Bright, golden cut wheat fields for miles and miles, sloping ever-so slightly from horizon to horizon.  Moose cows and calves peaked through small stands of ash-gray timber, ready for their night feed in the miles of harvested agriculture.  On the flanks of the roads were streaks of white that span hundreds of yards in each direction.  Bobbing and walking in constant motion, these snow and blue geese numbered in the tens of thousands.   Just watching these flocks lift off in waves of hundreds against the setting Canadian sun was magnificent to behold as we made our last turn into the small town we were staying for the week.

With our gear unpacked and beer(s) in hand, Andy and Mike went through the scenarios of scouting this broad scape in the morning. With multiple rural municipality (County) maps strewn across the table, they poured over past memories and strategies they had exercised in the past fifteen years of hunting this untamed province.

In the morning we packed enough gear to do an improvised water hunt if we felt the conditions were right, and headed out on the dusty gravel roads that would be our bothersome companion for the next five days. I could barely contain my excitement, as countless hours in a truck the day before had caged muscles that were primed to haul decoys, wade through swamps, and retrieve the occasional bird that Mike’s dog Briar was too busy to get.

Unfortunately, two challenges presented themselves in incalculable form within the first few hours. As we assessed the surroundings, sloughs and small lakes that had been filled to the brim last year were either bone dry, or had small puddles remaining in the center.  This continued for fifty miles in each direction, as this area was in an unspeakably difficult drought.  As we spoke to more and more farmers and locals the message was visibly grim.  “Really, really dry” or “We haven’t had rain all year”.  Everyone in those rural areas depends on the multiple crop yields, and the spring planting season was looking more and more dire.

The second challenge that we encountered is a sweat inducing nightmare for almost any hunter. The local radio forecast was calling for temperatures in the low to mid 70’s for the five days that we were visiting.   Migration…halted.  Bird movement…barely existent.  The only stretches that we did find thousands of mallards and geese were the “watering holes”.  Almost an exact replica of what you would watch on an African documentary.  Alive with fluttering and commotion, every living creature was collapsed in and around large lakes whose shorelines had shrunk by 10-12 feet.  We even spotted coyotes slyly wadding through the cattails for a chance to grab an easy feast.

After a humbling twelve hours on the road, we set back for our base camp and ate uncertainty for dinner (Ok, it was actually sloppy joes). Luckily, our neighbor Lloyd came over for a cordial cocktail and lifted our spirits a little.  Lloyd is a retired farmer who was born, and spent his entire life in the small town in which we were staying.  He is also a wealth of information regarding tractors and farming, not to mention the nicest man you will probably ever meet.  However, when we inquired to him about the current state of the land, his weathered gray eyes dimmed and looked ominous as he spouted out “Driest I’ve seen it in 20-30 years, eh”. After Lloyd said his adieu for the evening I had decided, on the morrow I would wear the faded red shirt.

Lloyd with cocktails

The next morning we traveled an arduous fifty miles to a pocket-sized slough that was deep enough to hold knee-high water. We had talked to the friendly land owner the afternoon before, and smirked as he stated “mallards pour in there by the hundreds in the evening”. With excitement and coffee surging through our veins, we pitched a conservative decoy spread and awaited the dawn.  Just before daylight, a flurry of wings beat the air as ducks jumped from roost to pothole.  It wasn’t until I glanced back to the western horizon, that I knew our venture wouldn’t be as “lights-out” as we imagined.  Three hundred yards away, several flocks of 50-75 mallards were careening into another pond in the adjoining property (in which we did not have permission to hunt).  Devastating to our efforts, any duck with slight intuition would choose to land with several hundred live ducks to our paltry twelve phonies.  Through some out of practice effort, we managed to take three drake mallards in the course of the morning.  It’s funny to think back on the morning, as these potholes were situated at the bottom of a hill.  Every bird that did pay us a visit seemed to appear out of thin air, twisting and dropping 30-40 yards into our decoys.  A difficult shot to say the least.

To Be Continued…

What Constitutes a Tragic Hunt?

IMG_1171

What constitutes a tragic duck hunt? Forgetting your waders, your calls, or your toilet paper? I’ve forgotten all of those things in the past, but the most memorable misplacement for me was when I forgot the boat plug for my Carstens Bluebill on an exceptionally snowy morning in late November.  It’s this time of year where the stinging pain of forgetting a crucial item is suffered to the utmost.  The waterfowl migration is in full swing, and unsullied birds are pushing down every day to say hello.  The caveat in this scenario is that four inches of heavy white snow had dropped over the evening, and when I packed my truck in the morning it had slowed to a flurry.  To say that I’m infatuated with these types of days is an understatement.  I’ve often stewed in green envy over chronicles that my Grandfather and Uncle have shared from legacy hunts.  The most notable being the story of my grandfather adjusting decoys in blowing wind and snow, while dozens of bluebills landed right next to his boat.  The old adage rings hauntingly true, “If the snow is flying, ducks are dying”.

I greeted my friend Jeff Westgard at the launch in the early-early morning, and we hastily unpacked our gear in anticipation for undesirable competition on this public St. Paul-Minneapolis metro lake. With adrenaline running through my veins, I feverishly hauled dozens of diver and puddle duck decoys down to my bluebill which was parked on the bank facing out towards the slight brook that runs into Lake Putter.  When I pushed off aggressively with my left foot, I instantly knew something was wrong.  Water gushed in through the back like a burst pipe, and the entire deck was covered in an inch of water almost instantaneously.   I quickly foraged for my paddle, and moved back to the landing as fast as my arms could swing.

With one infuriated pull, I yanked my skiff up on the bank and somberly watched as water slowly trickled out of the void were my plug should have been. I sulked in misery and cursed under my breath. Every ounce of my frame felt the rush of numbness that only rears its head when you realize that things have gone terribly awry. I could see that Jeff was about to push off of the bank, and his eyes glanced my direction with intuition that something was amiss.  Jeff calmly asked me “what’s wrong”?  With self-loathing feelings still setting in, I explained the ugly tale that had transpired.  Without a hitch, he removed his front foot from his skiff, and said “you know what? I think I might have something that will help”.  He nonchalantly walked to his truck, and from the glove box he procured a small package.  He half-ran back to the shore, and while the small package sailed through air in my direction, he said “here you go, I think this might work”.  What landed in my hands was a small tube with the words “JB-Weld Water Putty”.  I gazed at the package for a few confused seconds, and asked “what’s this”?  Jeff explained that he bought it for his own boat in case he smacked a rock and put a hole in the hull.  I opened the package, and followed the instructions to roll it in my hands for a minute, and then apply to the designated area.  I worked the putty into my bluebill boat, and told Jeff to get set up around the first opening while it cured.

After I had waited twenty minutes or so, I gingerly pushed by bluebill back into the shallow channel and prayed for a watertight hull. To my surprise, not a drop of water leaked through.  I joined Jeff at the end of the channel, and gave him a big grin when I approached.  “Any issues?” Jeff asked.  “Absolutely none, this stuff is amazing” was my reply.  I pushed my skiff into the weeds, and the sneaking suspicion that my boat was taking on water was tugging at my conscience.  As we chatted and waited in the lowlight of the morning, I periodically checked the level of water in the bottom of the boat.  To my surprise, not a drop of water had made its way through!  Over the course of the morning we managed to bag a drake wood duck loner (who had apparently forgotten his route to Tennessee), and a large drake mallard with a brilliant green iridescent head.  Although we couldn’t get to the northern point of Lake Putter to pursue the divers we so adamantly love, I still count the trip a success.  Make no mistake.  I will keep a tube of water putty in my glove box for the rest of my hunting career.

-Jake

Friends in Gold Places

Jeff-Goldeyes

Hunting diver ducks is one of the most exhilarating types of hunting that comes each year.   With frigid temperatures (both water and air) and fast working birds, it gets my heart pumping just thinking about the dodgy shenanigans.  Sure, my family and friends think I’m absolutely crazy and often worry about my safety, especially when I go it alone.  I usually rebut their concern with an invitation to join me, but my offer is often refused with quick concession.

Here in Minnesota we usually see the first of the diving ducks around the 3rd weekend in October, but they don’t usually adorn our skies in full mass until the 2nd or 3rd week in November.  Their bulldog companies of 15-20 are easy to spot for eyes that have only witnessed singles and pairs of wood ducks and mallards for over a month.  I often ponder how many millions of them make it down to Louisiana and Texas each year, as I watch flocks of hundreds fly sky high over our lakes with no intention of stopping over.

Fortunately for me, I’ve got three crazy comrades that enjoy chasing these birds just as much as I do. My friend Sean DeCent has joined my obsession with acquiring large quantities of decoys and tactical long lines.  It makes hunting together a little more time consuming, as it usually takes the better part of an hour to wrap and stow the obnoxious amount of gear.  My Brother Jase has taken after hunting canvasbacks and ring necks on Lake Christina, with his fourteen foot fishing boat and my Grandpa’s old foam decoys.  However, my buddy Jeff Westgard has taken a different approach.   With a style reminiscent of the old-time duck hunters, he honors the slough with the most functional gear that will pack into his twelve foot low-profile sneak boat.  This makes him the perfect scout with the ability to travel quickly, silently, and semi-unseen.

It was Jeff that had called me in the first week in November with uncontained excitement in his voice. “There are 25-30 goldeneyes out on Lake Putter!”  With the Indian summer that we had recently experienced in Minnesota (it had been 70 degrees the week before), I was more than a little skeptical.  I had half the mind to ask him if he was sure they were goldeneyes, and not the numerous coots that we had seen on Lake Putter a few weeks before.  He expanded on his original story of how he had seen two goldeneyes skirt his spread, and plopped down 50 yards to the northeast.  More and more goldeneyes joined their brethren until they had reached a sizable raft.

A quick ode to the Common Goldeneye

Although bountiful for some to hunt around coastal waters, these birds have been hard to target in Minnesota. They usually appear just as our lakes are freezing over, which gives us only a handful of days to pursue them.  Contrary to most ducks, I often hear Goldeneyes before I see them.  They have a distinct wing-whistle vibrato which turns my eyes to the skies when they approach.  I like to refer to Goldeneyes as the test-pilot duck.  If you are lucky enough to witness their crazy midair loop-d-loops and jet-fighter 4-G turns you’d understand.  They’re strong on the wing, and their compact frame makes them seemingly impervious to steel shot.

It’s no secret to any of my friends that I’ve been aiming for a goldeneye drake for years. I’ve been close, oh so close, so many times. From packing up my decoys too soon, to taking ill-timed shots at these bird bullets, the inkling that I would never bag a trophy bird was tugging at my heart-strings.  I checked with my wife Emily if I could chase these gold-eyed scoundrels in the morning.  Per usual, she half rolled her eyes, accepted, and the table was set.

I met Jeff at Lake Putter at 5 a.m., and we discussed our battle plan. With an easterly wind, we would set up on the NW corner of the north island.  A small stretch of water ran 100 yards to the northern shore, and with the wind blowing at 10-15 mph we decided the birds might want some shelter.

Jeff is always amazed at the amount of decoys that I’m able to procure from my 12’ carstens bluebill. Four dozen diver decoys, a diver spinner, and two higdon pulsators emerged from my boat, as well as my yellow lab Penny.  Making quick work of it, we set a long line of bluebills and ring necks in the direction of the wind, and placed our six goldeneye decoys closer to our position with a bluebill mojo in the center.  We decided if there were any puddle ducks around, we would set 6-10 avian-x surface feeders off to the right-shallow, and Jeff’s mallard spinner in the middle.

With our decoys placed in the darkness, we sipped coffee and traded stories from our current hunting season. It was 15 minutes after legal shooting time that we realized we were supposed to be hunting.  This epiphany came in the form of a streaking white and black blur that scooted across our spread.  “Goldeneye”, I whispered to Jeff.

As the sun rose further in the sky, the lake started to wake up. A drake mallard scanned our spread from 30 yards up, quacking ever so often for a friendly response.  We contemplated shooting this gorgeous greenhead, but resolved that the distance was an ethical issue.  As we spoke more about sales events that Jeff was working towards in January, two beautiful drake goldeneyes twirled in from the left and set their wings on fast approach to the decoys. The tailing goldeneye swung further to our right, and took its sweet time to enter the spread.  It was in this instant that I shouldered my Beretta and shouted “Take em!” to Jeff.   Jeff made a punishing shot from his Franchi, and his bird fell dead to rights.  My shot took the goldeneye from an inch off the water, and the bull quickly dove.  I waited five agonizing seconds and its white and black profile emerged from the depths.  One more well-aimed shot and my trophy lay tranquil on the water.

“Penny!” I called for the retrieve, and the saucy vixen answered. She grabbed the closest goldeneye and beautifully delivered my prize to hand.  I sent her again to fetch the duck that Jeff had downed.  By this time it had drifted 50-75 yards to the north, and Penny couldn’t mark it visually.  I took two steps out beyond the cattails and gave her a good hand line.  After swimming for two seconds she finally caught sight and beelined towards the drake.  When she returned, my mood was nothing but electric. There was no hiding the rush I was feeling in that moment.  I kept on saying “I can’t believe it!” and “finally!” We sat admiring our new prizes for the better part of ten minutes, inattentive to our surroundings.  The colors of these birds were bewitching to our eyes.  Jet black and brilliant white feather contrast, an iridescent green head, and a royal gold eye.

We continued the hunt for another 45 minutes and witnessed 20 other goldeneyes raft in the same location Jeff had observed 2-3 days prior. We took an oath to hunt that northeast point before the end of the season, but the wintery north winds blew and ice covered Lake Putter before we had a chance.

To have a beautiful drake goldeneye in my hand was a very exhilarating experience in my hunting career, but what made it even better was the shared experience with a close friend (who is admittedly almost as crazy about diver hunting than I am).

 

Generations

In my last post I wrote about my Grandfather and how he shaped my earlier career in duck hunting as an unruly teenager. At 88 years of age he’s almost ready to hang up his duck hunting career (I don’t think he’ll ever retire from it completely).  However, it’s been over 10 years now since he’s graced the slough with his presence, and I’m sure the slough misses him like the sun misses the flower (that one’s for you Paul Staats).  Almost every time I visit his house I find myself in the den behind his workshop, immersed in the collection of waterfowl and deer hunting gear and memorabilia. With healthy amounts of freshly hewn pine percolating in from the workshop, it’s a place where a man could lose himself in for a while.  Meanwhile, the gear in his garage is enough to make any duck weak in the wings.  Several bags of seasoned carry-lite diver and puddler decoys are stacked in the corner, directly beneath a fiberglass model of an old alumacraft ducker.  I can’t even imagine the magnitude of mallards and ring-neck ducks that met their end over those decoys in several decades of intense hunting.

Ever since my “hook” back into duck hunting, I’ve invited my Grandpa to go on my escapades of attempted water fowling. To my delight, he finally accepted my invitation to go to my good friend Sean Decent’s property on opening weekend last fall.  With ample forest to our back, Sean’s pond provides a great refuge for early season wood ducks, teal, Canada geese and the occasional flock of mallards. My Grandpa clearly informed me that he would be an active participant, but wouldn’t hold a gun.  He just wanted to be out in the slough again, and experience the thrill of early morning flights.  After a few words (no more than 10), were exchanged on the meeting time and place, I went to bed in anticipation for the following morning.

Dedication, that’s one word my Grandpa has embedded in his heart. It’s a value that never seems to fade with age. As I passed the corner on the highway leading up to Sean’s house, my Grandpa’s Tahoe was sitting on the side of the road ready to follow us into the property.  Ten years away from duck hunting and he still was chomping at the bit to wake up early, and ready for a morning in the slough.  We adorned our waders and light camo jackets, and made the third mile trek through the sparse woods to the duck pond.  It was a little slow-going, and walking in unfamiliar woods can be troublesome. However, we made it to the muddy water in one piece.  As Sean pitched decoys, I gave my grandpa a steadying-arm as we waded through the three inch muck to the location we had elected.  I pushed passed some cattails and tucked my grandpa in right next to me on the right.

Talking with him about his history of water fowling was one of the most emotive experiences that I’ve ever had with him. He elated that stepping into that little pond brought him back to hundreds of wistful memories, and “most of them were good”.  I had to chuckle, as I’ve heard a few of his tales of hunting partners taking a splash in the frigid water, or my grandfather going hunting without any pants on (now that’s dedication).   As dawn cracked to the east, we observed a few wood ducks careening across the north end of the pond.  I glanced at my Grandpa while the birds were working.  With weathered grayish-blue eyes working against the marsh line, it was a lesson in the making.  Such focus, a testament to 50 years of perfecting this practice.

Of course he was the first one to point out two wood ducks slicing in from the east ten yards above the water. Two shots rang out from Sean’s 870, and a hen fell with a splash to the tranquil water below.  It turned out to be a relatively uneventful morning, as few ducks skirted the slough.  It wasn’t until I folded a wood duck drake that fell into deep cattails, that I truly appreciated my Grandpa’s presence in the blind.  “How are you going to find that?”  He asked with an experienced quip.  My rash pride took over and I said “oh, I can find it”.  After probing for 10-15 minutes trudging through thigh-high water, thick weeds, and cattails that span over my head, I begrudgingly gave up searching.  The grizzled veteran knew exactly what shots to take, and which ones to avoid.  I’m deducing that during his career he had dropped many a bird in the same circumstances, only to come up empty handed.

The morning ended early (with plenty of time to get to church), and we were only able to produce the lone wood-duck hen from our whimsical wing-shooting. Sean and my grandpa headed out early, and I sat for ten minutes to pack up and take in the last few minutes of the beautiful September morning.  In classic duck hunting fashion as I stepped out to pick up the wood duck decoys (absent of my gun), a flock of three drakes and two hens plopped down in the middle of our spread.  I somberly watched as they took one glance at my 6’2” frame and set their wings to the next destination.

My Grandpa called me later that day and profusely thanked Sean and I for taking him out in the marsh that morning. He said that he hadn’t had that much fun in years, and the memories that it brought back were a blessing.  However, I think that I received the better end of the deal.  The lessons I learned while hunting with my Grandpa were extremely valuable, but the hours spent with him in that foggy pond are irreplaceable.

Grandpa Buck, In all his glory.

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