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

The Reward of Youth Mentoring

Mentor pic year 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mentor pic #2

Completely Committed

Jake with Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

Friends in Gold Places


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).