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?

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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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The Hook

The outdoors were not very important to me in my later years of high school. With two sports, a less than mediocre punk rock band, and a steady girlfriend, my priorities didn’t give me a lot of time to spend in the marsh or on the deer stand.  God bless my Grandpa Buck, for he tried his damndest to immerse me in the slough to experience the elation of water fowling that resides in his soul.   Memories often surface of my devoted grandfather taking me out duck hunting for late October ring neck ducks on weekday mornings.  A waking time of 5 a.m. is substantially too early for an already disengaged teen, and the cold, wind-whipping weather didn’t add a dime to the allure.  I managed to harvest a few fowl over the course of the years, but the wing shooting was arduous for a novice kid without sufficient practice, and the amount of birds to cross our path were few and far between.  The last time my grandpa brought me out to the lake resulted in frigid fingers and toes, and not a single duck adorned the sky.  My interest was minimal at best, and the gear was too expensive to procure.

Fast forward eight years. Newly married, steady job, and more free time on my hands, I asked my unemployed college-bound brother to take me out with him to the same lake that I had hunted with our Grandpa when I was younger.  All I really wanted was to spend time with my little brother Jase, and what transpired would morph into an obsession to the present day.

I took off a Friday from work, and we headed out with his twelve foot alumacraft and six horse evinrude. While I watched Jase pitch decoys and meticulously brush the blind, I honestly thought he had a few screws loose.  How could one person care so much about decoy placement and camouflage?  Little did I know that my own methods would someday transform into a mirror image (dare I say even more particular?).   We quietly took in the exquisite sunrise from the wooded northern island, and a few ducks buzzed by during the course of the morning.  What really amazed me were the calling chops of my brother.  Quick precise quacks, a low mallard chuckle, and perfectly timed hail calls.  I had tangible appreciation for his skill when he called a lone goose a few hundred yards away heading in a different direction. The gander took a sharp swing, and traveled directly to our two corroded goose decoys.   His haunting siren’s call brought it just on the edge of our range, and we both seemed to smack the bird with our two shot, but couldn’t bring the gargantuan to meet its maker.

It’s no secret to any water fowler, but packing up decoys is not fun. With the seemingly endless decoy cord that you have to wrap, and the realization that you may be going home without a bird in hand.  However, during our time in that frigid chest high water, we discovered a pristine jewel on the lake.  It was Jase that pointed it out, and my untrained eyes would have passed by and glazed over without any interest.  Hundreds of yards away along the entire shoreline of a southern island appeared a constant, star like twinkling that the sun’s disposition accentuated with each ray.   Jase produced his binoculars from his blind bag, and a look of astonishment quickly materialized on his face, along with the hushed words “oh wow”.  When I inquired of his discovery, he handed me his binoculars and my amazement quickly reached the level of my brothers.  What appeared to be twinkles were 400 bluebill ducks preening, diving, and stretching their wings.  We tossed the last of the decoys into the alumacraft, and slowly made our way back to the landing so that we could avoid spooking the smorgasbord of ducks.

In classic Hegman fashion, we slept well past our 5 a.m. alarm the next morning and hastily headed out the door to our new-found duck hunting holy land. As we approached the southern island, the sleepy sun started to poke through the tree line to the east.  We designated a spot in the center of the island where we had observed the ducks the day before, and began pitching our decoys.

Here it is, “the hook”. If you’ve never experienced a similar ecological euphoria of this world, I sincerely hope you do at one point in your lifetime.

As Jase and I were half way done setting up our 24 old foam diver decoys, the sound of stirring wings filled the air in the distance. The hum came swiftly closer and when it arrived, it was at the decibel of a fighter jet.  Flocks of 50-100 bluebills were flying six feet over our heads, twisting and whirling with amazing precision.   We both crouched motionless to watch the spectacle. When the awe induced paralytic wore-off and we had full control of our legs again, we sank down on the bank and let the parade continue.  It took no more than five minutes for the first group of 25 birds to descend perfectly into our decoys.  Jase and I managed to take three birds out of the flock, but one dove (to its apparent demise) and the other managed to swim away.  It was abundantly clear that these birds were ultra-tough, and it would take some very calculated shots to bring them down.  Through the first hour, I honestly think we had every one of those previously spotted 400 bluebills saunter over our spread.  We managed to pluck six hearty water-beasts from the air, but only mustered three to our hand.  The last blue bill that was amassed was the most memorable.  A flock of 30 perused our spread, and I winged a hen from 25 yards high.  The duck plummeted to the water with a smack, and began swimming in circles.  While I went to retrieve the boat, the charlatan bluebill gained its legs and began to swim away.  Jase’s gun was loaded with 3 ½ inch shells, and I was yelling at him (with echoes of Aragorn) “bring him down! Jase, bring him down!”  Jase’s final shot crumpled the bird from 35 yards away, and our blissful morning had come to an end.

Packing up our gear and heading home I was overcome with excitement. The rush of raw nature was flowing through my veins, and I was so grateful for the experience. I often think of that day with a grin on my face, thankful for my family, the water, and the opportunity to be fully immersed in God’s creation.

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Summer Scouting!

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When summer rolls around in Minnesota, my mind immediately turns to weekends at the lake. Beer, boating, and barbeque, what else could a man ask for?  It’s these activities that take the edge off life for a while, especially when we’re reminded of the countless hours we’ve been cooped up in our homes from January to March.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to realize that this time of the year is also great for exploring new public hunting areas. Sure, you’re usually battling mosquitoes, unrelenting sweat, and a blazing sun, but these short jaunts can pay big dividends in the fall.  While I reflect on the public hunting locations that I frequent, I can only think of a handful that I didn’t survey in the summer prior.  The birds are usually in a different seasonal cycle than in the fall, but the numbers of ducks and geese usually don’t fade.  If a breeding population is present in July or August, chances are that a large number of these waterfowl will stick around for the first part of the season.

Other than surveying duck numbers, the other reason I will scout a body of water is to learn the landscape. My friend Jeff and I were recently discussing a scouting expedition that he conducted in the northeast Minneapolis metro.  From first glance he knew it would be an impeccable waterfowl hunting location.   Off the beaten path, cattails span the entirety of the marsh and he could make-out pockets of ducks and geese feeding throughout.  As he began to look for a location to set up in the fall, he was at a loss.  Each time he stuck his paddle in the muck, it would sink down 1-2 feet deep.  He continued to paddle the entirety of the shore, and never found an ample location to stand.  Having surveyed the lake, he now has a rudimentary strategy to try lay-out hunting in his twelve foot kayak.

Being I hunt in the Central part of Minnesota, one of the new strategies I’ve developed is scouting around the wild rice harvest. The harvest usually takes place in first part of September, which is also 2-3 weeks ahead of duck season.  These bodies of water usually hold significant numbers of waterfowl due to the ample forage.  If you’re having a hard time locating lakes with wild rice present, there is good news.  The DNR has already mapped it for you! (link below)

http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/wildlife/shallowlakes/wildrice.html

Sorry for the picture Jase.  I couldn’t resist.

A day of remembering, A day of reflection

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Over the Memorial Day weekend I was able to venture out into my nearby pocket of euphoria known as the Bloomington National Wildlife Refuge. A rare gem in the southern twin cities of Minnesota, the rugged trail is fantastic for introducing youngsters to the great outdoors, with the added benefit of stretching your legs whilst taking in God’s creation. I often make the two-block pilgrimage to the refuge to watch both the southward and northward migration of waterfowl. I can easily survey the swarms of ring-necks and red head ducks that pool up on the shallow stop-over area.  Large pockets of majestic trumpeter swans feed on the west end of the pond, sticking out like ball of fire in the night.  A beautiful spectacle to say the least.

On Memorial Day, my neighbor Andy texted me that he was going for a hike, and I jumped at the chance to forsake some home landscaping for the morning. With our young boys in tow, we tediously tread the grooved paths that make up the historic trail/river system.   Every time I take the jaunt down the steep hill that precludes, I feel like I’m entering different world.  A world that I often travel hundreds of miles to enjoy in north central Minnesota.

What struck me like a brick to the head on this particular trip was the obnoxious amount of trash and litter that had been dumped by lazy patrons. Gallon size ice tea bottles, carp bait containers, and smashed beer bottles on the bank of the river.  The exhilaration I had first experienced soon turned to a spiteful taste in my mouth.  This is not the first time that I’ve experienced this type of indifference, nor will it be the last.  I’ve often come across similar scenes while picking out a duck blind, or on the winter ice searching for crappies.

Three questions immediately came to me.

How has it come to this? Why is it so hard to carry trash back to your car and dispose/recycle it in the proper way?  What are we teaching out youngsters about the way we treat the environment?

In all my life, I’ve never pretended to be a green-party member, but I do believe strongly in respect for the outdoors, and especially for my fellow outdoorsmen/women. The little things that we do in the field like picking up our spent shells, empty beer/pop cans, and making sure that our site was as clean (or cleaner) than when we found it, can go a long way.  This seems to be an easy message for most of us, but there will always be some ‘yahoos’ (Jase loves this term), who will spoil it for us.  Let’s keep giving hunters and outdoorsmen a good name, and foster an attitude of respect and gratitude for what we most hold dear.

Adaptation Doesn’t Always Come Easy (Day 3 of 3)

The Last Hurrah.

The morning of day three started much like the other mornings. Billy’s boot, gear check, and kwik trip donuts and coffee. The only exception to the day’s excursion was the steady rain that we would face throughout the morning.  While approaching the registration station at the pool, it appeared that we were the only blockheads to venture out for waterfowl that day.

Strolling down the level quarter mile path to the walk in pool where we had spotted the mallards the evening before, my recovering muscles seemed to be thankful for not submitting them to the same death march that they had endured on the first day. Picking a site on the slightly sloped bank where we were somewhat concealed, we gathered as many short weeds, sticks, and brambles as we could muster. Billy later referred to our blinds as “mini forts”, as they appeared to vanish from our sight when we were busy tossing out the decoy assortment for the day.  We tried to mimic what we had seen the day before with a dozen field mallards lining the bank, and eight floaters 10-15 yards beyond.

A gloomy light poked through the clouds 20 minutes before legal shooting time as we reclined in our drenched blinds. Water that had slowly trickled down our back at first became a consistent frigid menace well before our triggers could be pulled.  The rapid fluttering of silhouettes began right before legal shooting time, and the game was afoot.  Within the first 15 minutes, a flock of 25 mallards came barreling straight in front, and swiftly peeled off as Billy and Jase started their barrage.  Billy managed to procure one of the greenheads, and the survivors moved on to the next destination.  The bothersome rain turned into a pour, and what seemed like a solid start turned sharply miserable.  The mallards working our spread had little interest in what we had to offer, and adapting was unavoidable in the first 45 minutes.

The breaking point. The realization that all may be lost and the journey home would be long, wet, and ominous. However, the hard-working northern stock of my counterparts would not give in so easily.  Billy decided that he was weary of decoy shy birds (his words were a little different), and devised a plan to stalk a pocket of 50 mallards nestled on the far east corner of the second pool.  Jase and I observed from our over-saturated blinds, as he edged ever so carefully along the dike. While skirting the blind-side of the unsuspecting targets, he soon disappeared into the mist and gloom of the marsh as it engulfed the rest his faint silhouette.

Bang! Bang! Two distinctive gun-shots sent the flock soaring and winging just outside of Jase and I’s range of fire. We looked at each other in amazement, as we never thought Billy would get close enough to these wary pros to fire a volley.  A few minutes passed, and Jase decided to leave our wet abodes to try his fortune pursuing the same method that Billy had chosen.  We had elected that I would stay near the decoys in case freshly stirred mallards were desperate for an inviting place to land.  Soon more shots rang out in both directions.  Jase’s figure appeared to my left, and I quickly went out to meet him.  Jase had spoken to Billy, and I was shocked to learn that he had harvested two more mallards and a green wing teal without the use of decoys or a blind. Billy’s stern message was to come quick and bring lots of ammunition.  What transpired in the following hour is difficult to convey in words.

As Jase and I walked briskly down the dike to meet our partner in crime, we observed a camo clad figure down on a knee. The sky around him was filled with flocks of teal and mallards zipping through the brush lined corner of the pool.  I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was if these professional decoy detectives were now oblivious to his presence.  Decoy-less, blind-less, we were on the X.  An astounding X.  Then, paralyzed with awe, my eyes drifted toward the east horizon.  I don’t want to sound over-dramatic, but something spiritual washed over me like a dam that had just given way.  In waves of hundreds, thousands of ducks and geese began to fly directly over our position.  Mallards, pintails, teal, gadwall, they were all channeling through in overwhelming abundance. The majesty of God’s creation was on full display at that place in Missouri, and I wish I had a front row seat every day.

Completely removing me from the moment, a group of 40 teal flew directly over my head, and the wing-shooter in me took charge. With one pull of the trigger, my first drake green wing teal was sent spiraling to the ground.  I ecstatically retrieved my prize, and gathered with Jase and Billy to discuss the chaos that had ensued.  Billy retreated back to the blinds to grab his blind bag and ammunition, and Jase and I stayed to take our chance in this duck-infused gauntlet.

Watching the patterning of the birds, we picked an area next to the brush line to lay low. Ducks appeared to be dropping lower to apparently land on the pool directly behind us.  We each took a knee twenty yards apart and crouched down in the sparse brush for cover.  A group of twelve lesser geese quietly approached from the left at 25 yards, and I pulled up to shoot.  “No, save your shots for the ducks” Jase said to me in a hushed voice.  It was the first time anyone had ever directed me not to take a great shot at a goose.  I was taken aback, but he turned out to be right on point. The mallards above were descending lower and lower, making this a prime opportunity to select the best specimens.  Against the gray sky the dark green of the drake’s heads were easy to spot, and before I realized it, I had three lying next to me.

Teal, those magnificent flying bastards. With every twirling close pass they seemed to dare and ridicule me at the same time.  Ignoring Jase’s sage wisdom to save my ammunition, I took every close shot that I could muster towards those tricksters. Almost immediately I filled my daily limit, and stood stunned with one extra shell in my hand that was quickly transferred back to Billy.  I watched my counterparts follow suit and promptly fill their quota by kneeling in the brush and taking prideful shots.  We were on a time crunch to get back to Minnesota, so the majority of the latter harvested birds were the sporty green-wing teal drakes that we had sworn off in the beginning of the sortie.  With hundreds of ducks yet cascading over the sacred point, we packed up our gear in a champion esc fashion and took in the glorious scene one last time.

The takeaway:

Adaptation is hard, very hard.  In my experience in the show-me state, I discovered that stubbornness can be the key to going home empty handed. On the other hand, if you’re willing to go outside your comfort zone and put in some hard work, the journey can be exhilarating.

-Jake

Adaptation Doesn’t Always Come Easy (Day 2 of 3)

ND sunset

The next morning I awoke to a half asleep Billy goring me in the side with an unlaced boot, along with a few expletives to “wake up”. We gathered our gear again, and strategized on conducting the day’s operations from Billy’s john boat.  We headed down to a well-known and well visited duck lake in east-central Missouri.  Headlights lined the landing like twinkling Christmas lights as we approached, and we backed up Billy’s boat into the next adventure.

Crowded, busy, over-pressured. Take your pick of a descriptor in this scenario.  Without a working knowledge of the lake, we picked a decent looking spot on the GPS and brushed in Billy’s boat with the same short grass that we had become accustomed to the day before.  6:20 a.m., 20 minutes before shooting time.  We’ve all had it happen to us.  Joe Gander strolls up with his roaring 24 horse beavertail mud motor and pulls within 70 yards of our spot that we had secured hours before.  Fortunately for us this time, Joe meandered further to the north and was out of our personal space.

The morning show was more spectacular than the one before. Thousands of ducks arose from their sheltered roosts and flew upward, upward, and away towards nearby refuge.  The population that remained followed suit with the previous day’s motions.   Decoy, mojo, and boat shy, these birds seemed to have run this drill millions of times before.  Jase managed to secure the only drake mallard who was interested in decoying in a 20 mile radius.  A few congratulations were exchanged, but the tune of the morning sustained a minor key while the birds showed little interest in our mallard dense spread.

At 11 o’clock, we decided to pack it up, and relocated to another destination where pools were assigned to hunters in the morning through a lottery. Having never attempted this venture in Minnesota, we were curious to see what the process entailed. We headed to the draw headquarters which was adorned with beautiful waterfowl mounts of old, and met with an experienced worker who gave us the lay of the land.  We scoped out a larger public pool where the duck harvest numbers were statistically in our favor, and grabbed a greasy lunch before the afternoon/evening hunt.

We took Billy’s coveted boat through a shallow channel and narrowly missed sunken trees and logs that lay inches below the dark unforgiving surface. Occasionally, the hair on Jase’s and my neck would stand up straight as loud clunks sounded on the hull.  Shockingly, or not so shockingly (if you know him), Billy seemed to be having the time of his life.  We scouted the entirety of the flowage, and found a few dozen mallards hunkered down in the southeast corner.  The real win while scouting the southeast corner was discovering a larger pocket of a hundred mallards that were feeding on the other side of a six foot dike, where the only access was by foot.  We decided that this might be a perfect spot for the next morning’s hunt, as we needed to bring less gear for the trip home.

The cover for the location we selected in the afternoon was nonexistent. Trying to cover ourselves was reminiscent of being on an episode of “naked and afraid”. We found a few pathetic dead branches and logs to gild the boat, and settled into the hunt.  Few birds passed in the afternoon, but they all swiftly shifted away from our set-up as if we were creepy Uncle Larry at family Christmas gathering.

Three mallards, two snow geese, and an unlucky teal. The bounty for 18 hours of hunting in the perceived holy land of waterfowl did not seem like nearly enough.  With one last hunt before the long trip home, our expectations were minimal at best.

Adaptation Doesn’t Always Come Easy (Day 1 of 3)

Missouri. Where the beer flows like wine.  Where beautiful greenheads flock like the salmon of Capistrano.

This mythical state had been on my mind ever since the last goldeneyes had made their way through Minnesota, and all that remained in December were the hearty local mallards and geese that winter on the ever-turbulent water of the Minnesota River.

Fortunately for me my season had been extended. My brother Jase had moved to south Kansas City, and had shared new tales of unadulterated mallards filling the sky and descending into flooded timber. After convincing my very patient wife of a long weekend away, I was in like a dirty shirt.  Jase’s friend Billy Cluff from Clear the Sky Waterfowl stepped right up for the opportunity to chase greenheads with me in an unfamiliar land, and we headed off on the 6.5 hour road trip.

If you’ve never been to Kansas City, you must. The barbeque is like looking into the face of the almighty, and him telling you that you are his most wonderful creation.  Burnt ends, Susie Q potatoes, and home-style baked beans that make bush’s beans taste like regurgitated baby food.  Missouri is also a very economical trip (unguided) for a hunter with a young family.  The fuel is quite a bit cheaper and the license fees for an out of state hunter are $11 a day.  Much cheaper than the $129 license that I paid for a long weekend in North Dakota.

Gear, gear, and more gear. That is what a waterfowler loves.  The insatiable void that comes every off-season to empty your coffers on new gadgets and unscathed shiny decoys that are guaranteed to suck in more ducks.  Billy and I had brought enough to fully stock his entire F150 and seventeen foot mod-v john boat.  Without knowing what to expect, we somehow convinced my Missou-experienced brother that we needed to bring the farm. On day one we brought three mojos, two higdon pulsators, and a dozen Dakota mallards on a two mile walk-in location.  Needless to say, this was a mistake.  Hauling a 100+ pound game cart over mud ridden corn and bean stubble was not ideal in the least.  Beads of sweat were flowing off my wool laden crown like a mountain stream in the spring.

After selecting a location near a ditch that Jase had watched mallards diving into the evening before, we set out our gear in the dark and meticulously brushed out our blinds on the bank. This was definitely a new experience for me, as the landscape was much different than Minnesota. I can’t think of a single time where we even saw, let alone set up our spread around cattails during the entire trip.  Briars and thin-short grasses were the abundant vegetation, and this made setting up a little cumbersome.

As we waited in our freshly brushed blinds, my mind was continually wandering into thoughts of either going home empty-handed or proudly displaying twelve magnificent mallards on the back of Billy’s truck. When the first hews of sunlight poked through the clouds, it didn’t take long for my thoughts to turn towards the adventure at hand.  Far off to the west, the first few black silhouettes began to appear in the sky.  Jase loudly whispered that these birds were coming off of a nearby refuge and were coming to our area to feed and loaf for the day.  Excitement always fills my heart watching ducks work.  If that euphoric feeling ever gets tiresome, I would sell all of my gear, guns, and decoy carving equipment to the lowest bidder.

After the first few flights sailed off to new destinations, the main act commenced. Like rain on the mountain, wind in the meadow, new birds poured in by the hundreds.  A surreal experience for any hunter from Minnesota I’m sure.  With guns at the ready we watched and waited, waited and watched.  Flocks of twenty at a time would loosely circle just low enough that they would skirt the outside of our range of fire.  It felt like this must have occurred fifteen times in the first half hour.  This was honestly my first experience where hundreds of ducks were taking our waterfowl-loving souls, and torturing them like a wicked ex-girlfriend.  The only bounty we had received in the first hour was an unlucky green wing teal that buzzed by Billy’s dead-eye sights from the right.  Being used to hunting fairly new birds, we were at a loss.

I’d like to think of myself as a master adapter. Given my score on the  strengths finder test, being a Father of two little kids, and working in a fast paced corporate environment, I’ve got plenty of experience.  However, when it comes to luring and hunting ducks, I usually stick to my tried and true methods.  Experimentation was really not in our repertoire, but we had to give it a shot. We changed the spread, turned the mojo’s and higdons off, but to no avail. Being in ankle deep water, I decided to take a 100 yard hike to a spot where I spotted pairs of mallards settle.  Maybe the solution was as simple as location.  If so, the dreams of greenheads lining the truck bed would certainly come true.  The newly tramped site merely produced a spectacular view of a flock of 400 snow geese coasting right over the spot that I had just abdicated.  Jase and Billy took two out of the obnoxiously noisy flock, and my spirits were lifted a little.

Around eleven O’clock, we decided to try our luck at a location where we observed a half dozen mallard’s drop in to in the midst of the morning. When we approached, it seemed to be a picturesque setup. A horse shoe inlet that had a ditch running parallel (a natural safety cove for ducks).  We made no mistake on shrouding ourselves this time.  After treading through chest high waters (I ruined an iPhone in my front pocket in the process), we brushed our blinds significantly better than the morning hunt, and the waiting game was on.  We first tried a mojo-less spread, guessing that the birds had been given a college education through the Mississippi fly-away.  This tactic worked for one drake, but the larger groups were still as cautious as old swamp-buck.  The pattern continued and we put our baby mojos back in the spread, but this time they were 25 yards out and were positioned so that they appeared to be landing in the shallow flooded grass where no human could hide.  This brought the singles in a little closer, and we managed another drake by the end of the day.

Tired, hungry, and downtrodden, we slowly trudged out of the WMA at nightfall. Our legs were heavy, but our hearts were heavier still.  What else could we do to get these winged charlatans to decoy? We literally tried every decoy combination we could think of and changed locations three times. Fortunately, there was a silver lining at the end of the day.  We drowned our sorrows in cheap beer, and barbeque that will make you consider listing your house.

I will be posting the day 2 story tomorrow…..