North Dakota Bound

The cold October air brushed my face with an electric velocity, awaking me from my slight slumber to a picturesque red-hued sunset.  My friend Jeff sat in the driver’s seat with a sheepish smile, elated to display our current surroundings.  I begrudgingly lifted the lever to raise my seat and say a few choice words to my friend, but stopped short when I glanced out my window.  We were driving directly through the Hobart Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and the scene was exhilarating.   Thousands of ducks fed lackadaisically in the shallow water, as hundreds of their kin buzzed above looking for a seat at the table.  I felt like a kid in a candy store, as beautiful pintails and widgeon, teal and gadwalls were a mere 25 yards away.  With a sly smile Jeff said, “Welcome to North Dakota”.  I had heard the tales, the myths, the legends, but this was my first time trekking to the Bison state in pursuit of waterfowl, and my first taste was invigorating to say the least.  

We pulled into our hotel parking lot in rash fashion, eager to connect with our contact for the next morning’s excursion.  Kevin, a good-humored, laidback farmer whose passion for hunting waterfowl was easy to discern over the phone, greeted us with a promising proposal.  “I watched a thousand greenheads feeding on my wheat field tonight”.  We both grinned ear to ear, but having driven through dismal rain in the last hour of our drive, we placed some concern on similar weather for the morning.  “Oh man, I hope this continues” was his reply.  Apprehensive about his confidence, we agreed on the place and time to meet and put in for the night.  

We awoke to the same steady rain that had soaked our bags the night before, and trudged tiredly north to the field.  The windshield wipers screeched over the damp glass, as we were blindingly greeted by the 10,000 lumen display of Kevin’s trailer, a bright beacon in the dark landscape.  After quick introductions, we began the ominous task of placing several hundred snow geese and mallard decoys in the short wheat stubble.  Luckily, Kevin had invited another four hunters to join our party, and we set the field to his liking in seemingly a matter of minutes.  

I sunk into my layout blind, relishing the relief it partially provided from the dismal droplets of icy water.  We sat in the gray-hued darkness for nearly thirty minutes, when I heard whispers off to my left, “two greenies just dropped in”.  My eyes quickly prodded for the shape of duck heads intermixed in the decoys, when a yell and a barrage of gun fire snatched my attention.  Four dark shapes plummeted to the ground, and twenty more silhouettes darted away from our location in desperate fashion.  “We’re on them today boys”, came a quick statement from Kevin as he raced out to grab the fallen ducks.  As he picked up the last bird, another wave of thirty mallards were careening from the north horizon.  

As the first ten mallards set their wings, I waited for the call to fire.  “Take em!” Kevin shouted from my left. Bam! Bam! A hen mallard fell with my second shot, and a drake pintail sailed over my head.  I quickly spun around my position and surprisingly fell the pintail with my last shot.  I ran to the downed drake like a kid running downstairs on Christmas morning looking for the haul of presents (being from North-Central Minnesota, I had never seen a pintail in the wild or much less a drake).  I carefully carried my prize back to my blind and tried to tell Jeff about the pintail.  I didn’t get more than two words in, when his eyes were immediately drawn upward to the front the decoys.  More ducks were streaming down in groups of twenty to thirty, eager for a seat at the wheat scrap table.  The action came so fast, that I had to remind myself to continue to load my gun.  On numerous occasions, I heard the unmistakable “click” of a dry fire from not only myself, but of my companions to the left and right of me as well.  

After an hour, the action had not slowed down, and I was patiently waiting the next wave of twenty to thirty ducks to dip into shooting range.  “Pack it up boys”, Kevin shouted from the left.  Jeff and I both started laughing, but then we realized he was serious.  As he turned off the motorized decoys in the middle, drake mallards were still landing in our spread, avoiding Kevin as they touched down.  It was then that I understood why he wanted us to end our hunt early.  At first, I couldn’t believe my eyes, as I wiped the rain off of my hat and took a second look.  Directly above me, there were 500 mallards that had formed a cyclone and were circling down to our location to feed.  “Don’t want to educate those guys”, Kevin said as he pointed up.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that I would be stopping a hunt because there were too many ducks coming into the decoys.  I must have spent twenty minutes watching those magnificent creatures curve ad sail above us.

After we packed up the decoys, we traded pats on the backs and kudos for certain shots during the course of the morning.  We profusely thanked Kevin for taking us out that morning, and all he said was “don’t worry about it, I was hoping they’d do that this morning”.  As Jeff and I left the field with our share of the morning’s success, we couldn’t contain our excitement as our first day in North Dakota was a smashing success.  I realize that these days don’t happen every day, or even every year for that matter, but it makes the next trip so much more exciting, knowing that anything can happen in North Dakota.  The state, the myth, the legend…

Mille Lacs Layout Madness

Mille Lacs Layout 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mille Lacs Layout 1