Mid-Season Waterfowl: A Tale of Ice and Fire

Fire

“Snap”. The last picture of a respectable hunt on opening waterfowl weekend was taken.  Two Canada geese, two wood ducks, and one blue-winged teal adorned my friend’s game strap.  Standing at the edge of green-stalked cattails, he attempted to mask a proud smile as he squinted through the blinding mid-morning sun.  Yet with that final flash of a camera, I had the uneasy feeling that our adventures would be shifting as we edged towards the poignant purgatory that is mid-season ducking hunting in Minnesota.

With the winter winds still clinging to the Arctic Circle and the abundance of fodder in Canadian water and fields, northern waterfowl are hesitant to move far from their nesting grounds to our lakes and marshes. In turn, we begrudgingly hunt resident fowl that have earned doctorate degrees in identifying decoy spreads and treacherous shorelines.   Over the course of a morning on the water, I will usually see 20-30 ducks and a handful of geese making their way from their roost to a loafing pond or lake.  No amount of calling or jerk-cord pulling will sway their cold hearts, and I’m left with a few fruitless passing shots.

While commiserating with my brother after one demoralizing hunt several years ago, he told me that the best memory of early-October duck hunting wasn’t holding a strap of waterfowl on his shoulder, but a grainy video of one of his friends attempting a cartwheel in his waders, and promptly falling flat on his face.  Listening to his humorous story, I could feel the grit in my bones come to life.  Call it stubbornness, or foolishness, but I tend to never back away from a challenge, and early October my friends, can be a challenge.The ultimatum in my mind is to take foolhardy chances, instead of sticking with my routine.

As a third generation waterfowler, I subconsciously pick my hunting locales based on nostalgia.   There is a picturesque rice-lined oak island that I will continue to hunt year after year, as my grandfather and uncle have hunted the same island for forty years before me.  On this hallowed island, there has been feast and famine, blustering-cold winds and sunny-calm, but I continue to drop my decoys in that revered water nonetheless.  As of late, I’ve had to employ new methods, as too few puddle ducks skim my predictable hotspots in mid-season.

Overtly conscious about camouflage and depth when it comes to my style of hunting, I acquired a layout boat allowing me to hide well in little aquatic vegetation. Hoping to attach the tops of grass or cattails to the boat, I screwed u-loops into the hull, and ran a bungie cord around the perimeter.  Fully outfitted, the boat looks like a combination of two muskrat huts built-up close together. This approach allows me to get to the edge of a wild rice or cattail stand, closer to where the ducks or geese want to be.

The next approach that I take is to focus directly on one type of waterfowl. The ring-neck duck or “blackjack” has been a focus of mine since I was a kid. My grandfather proudly displayed his drake ring-neck mounts in our family cabin, and I spent my childhood summers walking under their splendor.  As an adult, I’ve been enamored by their fast flight patterns and eagerness to decoy, so I’ve purchased a number of ring-neck decoys to lure them to my locale.

The first time I tested my combined approach, a fresh inch of snow had fallen during the night, and the early October wind blew stubbornly cold from the northwest. Laboring to paddle across the lake to where I had previously witnessed puddle ducks loafing during the day, I found a small patch of green reeds to set my boat for the morning.  With my line of decoys set firmly with anchors, I slunk into my shallow boat for the morning show.

Not surprising, the early daylight flight was relatively quiet. A few teal zipped across the adjoining shoreline, and set off to new destinations without chancing a look in my direction.  Waiting for over an hour, I decided to pour myself a cup of coffee and warm up my chilled hands.  As I opened my thermos to pour the hot brew, a loud thunder of wings roared above me.  My eyes froze as they rose toward the sky, and witnessed a flock of over 100 ring-necks twisting and dropping down to my spread.   Awestruck, I intently watched them push away from my location and traverse to the south portion of the lake.  My heart raced as a group of 20 broke off from the main group and swayed back low in my direction.   Laying low in the boat, I gripped the gritty fore-end of my berretta, and waited until the first drake dropped his webbed feet on the water.  Three shots rang out in the quiet snow-scape and two drake ring-necks lay on the water.

Over the course of the morning, a few more small groups of ring-necks skirted by and I was able to procure two more birds through quick shooting. Paddling back to the launch, I felt surreal feeling of triumph over mid-October.

I chuckle to myself when thinking back to some of my crazy strategies that have emphatically failed over the years, but when the preparation and conditions come together in a testing time of year, there’s no better feeling of accomplishment in the world.

On Duck Hunting Opener, Move Over to Make Friends

Sunrise over breeze lake (2)

It’s September 22nd, 2017, the eve of Minnesota’s duck hunting opener.  The soft glow of my phone illuminates the pine trimmed bedroom as I check the time, 10:24 p.m.  This will be by far, the longest night of my year.   As I scroll through the mental checklist of waterfowling gear I have lovingly and tediously placed in the bed of my truck, I toss.  When I ponder the locale I have chosen for the next morning, I turn.  Completely exasperated, I attempt the old-wives tale of counting sheep.  By some devious trick of the mind, the ewes evolve into whistling wood ducks and corrupt my last line of mental defense. This painful process continues into the wee hours of the morning, when at last my tired eyes close victoriously over my restless conscious.

A jazzy alarm jolts me awake at 2:00 a.m., and I begin my pre-hunt morning ritual of sluggishly gathering coffee, camo, and ammo. As if I was shocked by an electric outlet, I suddenly remember that this morning is vastly different than the mornings over the last nine months.  A crisp duck-hunting season has finally begun, and the possibility of tenacious teal and gray gadwalls buzzing in the pale morning light instantaneously sends adrenaline coursing through my veins.  The cool autumn air and fire of my truck’s engine awaken my senses a little more, and I hit the spongy gravel road with my beloved gear in tow.  On the highway, I turn up the volume of the classic rock station to catch the first 30 seconds of the head-nodder “Slow Ride” by Foghat, a seemingly perfect anthem for the day’s activities.   The distorted melody gradually dissipates as duck opener memories of years past fill the front of my mind.

As the cerebral slideshow begins, a small smile forms at the corner of my mouth, indicative of the comical trials and tribulations I have experienced over a decade and a half of adventure.  From humble beginnings where two shoddy fleet farm mallard decoys were carefully stowed in a borrowed duck boat, to red cheeks full of embarrassment as my two year old lab carried a mouthful of lily pads back to my hand instead of the tranquil wood duck on the water.   I fondly remember the faded picture adorned in my basement, where a much younger version of me victoriously knelt next to three tiny blue wing teal during the fall when my son was born.

Although these building block remembrances cause me to me smile ear to ear, the deepest and most nostalgic memories have come from the family and friends that I’ve shared this day with. I vaguely recollect walking with my grandfather on crunchy maple leaves in the moonlight for my first duck hunt. The sound of his hushed instructions as I shouldered his Browning humpback still echo in my ears, as does his proud thunder of “nice shot” as I picked up my prized mallard.

Aside from my family, if it weren’t for the company of my closest friends, my decoys would probably be idle for the season opener. Some of the most personal and meaningful conversations I’ve had with friends have happened at 2:00 a.m., standing in thigh-high water and taking in the splendid night air.  Seemingly every year without fail, a shiver up my spine and a giddy dance halts the conversation, as an unaware muskrat brushes the outside of my leg, and a few nervous laughs are shared in the moonlight.

As with all of our memories, there are the good, and then there are the teeth grinding bad. I try not to dwell on them, but much like an annoying younger sibling, the harder you push them away, the harder they pester you again.   The worst of these waterfowling nightmares came in the fall of 2013.

My friend Jeff and I had found our prime hunting locale at 2 a.m., and settled in for a prolonged chat. As the hours to shooting time waned, our anticipation grew to a lofty level as two small flocks of teal settled into our decoy spread five minutes before legal shooting time.  Without warning, the boisterous roar of a large air-cooled engine sounded from the north, the teal blasted off the water like a bottle rocket, and our heads snapped to the direction of the sound.  Our eyes drawn by the obnoxious 3 million candlelight LEDs lining the gunnel, we both gawked in disbelief at the large UFO (unidentified floating object) that slowly cruised through the tip of our decoy spread.  When the paralytic of disbelief wore off, we desperately searched for our deeply stowed headlamps to indicate our position.  The behemoth of a boat idled its engine for a few seconds to observe our flashes of light, and then sailed into the weeds 30 yards to the left of us.   In passive-aggressive Minnesotan fashion, I stood up and scowled at the noisy newcomers.  I knew that since our spread of decoys was set to attract ducks flying from the south-west, there was no way we could safely make a shot in that direction, and would be forced to try pass shooting.

Over the course of the morning, every mallard or gander that flew our direction was promptly intercepted by the imposing crew, leaving us with a single passing shot at 35 yards. The boiling point came when we solemnly packed our gear and began to paddle back to our trucks.  Snide jeers came our direction from the group of rogues, as they mocked the speed in which we traveled.

Exhausted and fuming at the landing, we exchanged negative slander pertaining to the slighting we had just received. However, my faith in duck hunting humanity was quickly salvaged by a father and son who had paddled up to the launch behind us.  They indicated that they had arrived later in the morning, and stayed towards the landing in an effort to not ruin any hunts.  Low and behold, they managed to harvest three teal and mallard over the course of the hunt.  We shared old stories and laughs for a few minutes and respectfully parted ways.

Speaking with that father and son after the hunt renewed in me a sense of optimism for the future. Two men who were willing to move over on the most cherished day of the year, and made friends in the process.

What Lies Beneath

 

Dock Jump

Ten feet to go… The weathered decking creaks beneath your feet as you run feverishly with a head full of steam. One giant leap with the warm summer wind blowing against your sun-freckled frame. SPLASH!  You’ve emerged yourself in an aquatic world full of new treasures to discover.  With neon green goggles tugging uncomfortably at your freshly buzz-cut hair, and the August sun beating down on your back, the curiosities abound.  Packs of sunfish play a game of “nibble and dart” with your toes, and crayfish dance defensively on the sandy bottom.  Straining your neck upward, the scene instills complementary sensations of both fear and intrigue.  Long stems of broad leaf pondweeds mark the dark, motionless view into the deep abyss of the large Minnesota lake.

Aside from the title reference to an early 2000’s murder-thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, this experience was the pinnacle of my childhood. Instilling cherished memories of entire days devoted to the water.  Slowly and subconsciously marking a lifelong obsession to what lies beneath the surface.  Jacque Cousteau certainly spoke true when he said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever”.

Although my mom always referred to me as a “fish” when I was younger, I like to think my persona was closer to a deranged duck. Dabbling up and down in the clear water, emerging every twenty seconds for a gasp of air, I was perfectly content with my elementary exploration.  It wasn’t until adulthood, that I started paying attention to the entirety of sub-aquatic ecosystems.

While lackadaisically casting for dock-dwelling largemouth bass at my family’s cabin in north-central Minnesota, my attention is often drawn to the year’s brownish brood of mallards tipping downward to feed in the bulrushes to the east. I slowly wade from the shoreline into the lukewarm water to catch a glimpse of the fledgling’s vittles.  Giving time to let the swirling sandstorm settle at the bottom, my polarized sunglasses reveal an alien world beneath the surface.  Scanty invertebrate scuds cling to the narrow reeds, darting forward and back to avoid detection.   Bright green algae bubbles blanket the base of the reeds at the water line, holding incalculable microorganisms and the occasional freshwater snail.  Fine table fair for maturing mallards set to lift their wings towards Missouri in the fall.

As an outdoorsman who spends a majority of his free-time around the water, I believe that it’s crucial to understand the ecosystem of the body of water that I hunt, fish, or leisurely enjoy. As a fisherman, some basic information comes somewhat easily in today’s age of high tech sonar (of which I personally can’t afford).  Weed beds, sunken islands, and rock piles illuminate the translucent screen with amazing accuracy.  Side imaging sonar even allows the user to fully scope the size and position of a foraging fish beneath the bow.

Although these tools can make the sport more precise, but in my opinion, it’s intimacy with the water that pays dividends. When my brother Jase and I were boys, we would net silver shiner minnows from the shallow reeds, slide my grandpa’s twelve foot boat off of the sandy shore, and try our luck on the lake next to our cabin for walleye.  Barefoot and sun-burned, we tried every tactic our bantam brains could conjure over the summer.  Without sonar to establish depth, or sunglasses to block the glare off the water, we were figuratively and literally fishing blind.  It wasn’t until we attempted trolling over one section of the lake at dusk that our persistence would pay off.

Jase’s gray zebco reel zinged as the drag let out, and he managed to man-handle a fourteen inch walleye into the boat. Our youthful shouts of joy must have echoed for miles as our tiny trophy was fastened to our rusty stringer.  We continued to troll the same section of the lake, and it produced two more walleyes of equal size.  As the sun quickly set, we kicked the three-horse Evinrude into gear, and returned to the cabin with the hearts of champions.

It wasn’t until we cut a six foot hole in the ice for view-fishing winters later, that we realized why this area was so ideal for walleye. A shallow sunken island stood at the tip of a long finger of gravel, and to the northwest it dropped to twelve feet, and then sharply to a 60 foot bowl.  Bright lime-green cabbage filled our eyes in the heart of winter, and walleyes continued to peruse the ledge.  The evident key to our success lay in our exploration of the structure and vegetation beneath, and still stands as a hot-spot to this day.

When it comes to my favorite fall activity of water fowling, the investigative techniques are more corporeal in nature. Sonar can detect underwater structures and depth, but while scoping waterfowl food and behavior, your naked senses take the brunt of the work.  When a group of ducks congregate in one spot, my mind instantly begs the questions “What are they eating?” or “What makes them feel comfortable there?”  I can usually answer the question in one of two ways.

Working smarter not harder is usually my mantra, so I beeline to the grizzled veterans who have dominated these lakes for most of their lifetimes. Bringing a fresh beer is always a good conversation starter, and usually unties tongues to share tales and knowledge about bodies of water that I would have suffered years to obtain.  “There’s a bed of wild celery over there” or “I’ve consistently had luck with mallards in this cove”, are the priceless tidbits that can work to my advantage for years to come.

When the first method fails (which it rarely does), I dive back to my first love, the water. I’ve found that a two hour excursion in my twelve foot boat not only yields valuable information, it’s also a great way to spend time with my son or yellow Labrador Penny.  Banking the watercraft on the bank of an unexplored area gives me plenty of time to leisurely wade and discover the intricacies of that position, teach my son about the importance of an ecosystem, or practice pre-season retrieves with the dog.

Seemingly the split-second summer fades to fall, and I’m tucked in a duck blind watching the spectacle of waterfowl buzz above. My gaze takes me to tranquil water, where I know what lies beneath.

When the Tide Rips, Rip the Tide (Day 4)

Wheatfield Last day

Gear trailer in tow, we set out in the morning for a field hunt that we had scouted the day before.  During our travels the previous day, we found a wheat field surrounded by large stands of timber that showed stacks of mallards and large Canada geese loafing and feeding in the center.  We unloaded our rig and gave ourselves ample time to set up as we took in the soft moon glow and chilly air.  With the wind being a non-factor today, we didn’t have to worry about decoys sailing away.  We set two large groups of mallards and geese, with a gap to the north for a landing zone.  We strategically sat a little further back to the south to make sure that our cover would not be blown.  The morning flight was a sight to behold.  Thousands upon thousands of geese flew directly over our location to their feeding grounds.  The major dilemma was that few of them wanted to be where we were.  The groups that did peruse our locale flew directly from the south, and we were blind to their approach.  Playing a cruel game of Marco Polo, they twisted from behind us and circled in closer from the east where the sun was blinding our eyes.  Our equilibrium was jolted from their tactics, and the semi- reasonable shots we were able to take were terrible.  After the frustrating flocks flittered out of view,  we discussed where these birds might be heading.  Through our binoculars, we were able to ascertain that every duck and goose that crossed our path was traversing to a freshly planted winter wheat field. The field was a vivid green against the golden brown countryside.  The issue with these rich fields, is that farmers are often hesitant to allow access due to the wear on their field.  The bright spot of the morning was when Mike went a little crazy from the frustration of the morning.  With a group of snow geese dropping down low enough to take a shot, he yelled out like a blood hungry warrior as he fired two rounds and dropped a lone speckled belly goose from the flock.  Briar made the retrieve, I chuckled, and we managed to harvest one goose from the field.  When the sun lifter higher in the sky, we slowly packed our gear in solemnness after the anticlimactic end to our trip.

Briar with Spec

Relaxing in the truck on the return to the duck camp, our discussion turned to the mundane logistics of the journey home. Completely unsatisfied with the morning excursion being the end of our time abroad, I pressed Andy and Mike to drop me off at a flooded timber slough that we had come across a few days prior.  My plan was for them to drop me off with the bare essentials.  A bottle of water, my shotgun, six decoys, and desperation as a blanket.  This behavior is very uncharacteristic of me, as I would rather remain quite for hours versus stirring up a minute of turmoil amongst friends.  Following some diligent debate from my counterparts, they decided to join my fatuous crusade.  After a make-shift sandwich at base camp, we headed north to the marked location I had etched on the RM map days ago.  Traversing the back country roads, we made our way into a no-man’s land of sorts.  The landscape was so different than what we had seen previously in our scouting endeavors.  Laden with shallow marshes, leaf barren timber stands, and low plains, it was reminiscent of the land in which I was raised.  This instantly sent optimistic feelings to my core.   In the last mile heading to the marked location, we crossed a section of road that was innovative to say the least.  Due to the drought, a farmer had enough gumption to create a twelve foot wide road entirely of cattails, mud, and bramble to get his tractor to the other side of the property.  While we crossed this spongy land bridge, 30-40 feeding mallards caught our eye through the eerily dark flooded timber to our left.   We decided to move on to the flooded timber that I originally marked and witnessed a dozen edgy mallards loafing around the edges.   Andy came up with a hasty proposal to ride back to the flooded timber that we had previously bypassed and scare up the mallards in hope that they would promptly return to their vittles.  With Mike in the driver’s seat, Andy and I would ride on the tailgate with six decoys, a mojo, and our cased guns at the ready.  Finding the landowner on the RM map, we gained permission and made our way back to the timber.

Flooded timber hunt

If you look closely, you can see the twenty yards of muck/mud around the edge of the slough.

 

Dust filled our faces and eyes as we rode to the cattail road, (hanging on for dear life).   Just as we predicted, the mallards flew the instant the truck stopped and we edged through the labyrinth of dead alder trees, barb-wire fence, and muck to set our decoys.  Crouching low against the broader alders, we watched the mallards circle the far northwest corner of the slough before flying north and out of sight.  Although we were initially disheartened, neither Andy nor I dwelled on our circumstance for very long.  Tucked in the shade of the alders on a seventy degree day, our locale was impeccably relaxing after a week of toiling our tails off in pursuit of waterfowl.  My eyes didn’t have to wander far to take in the beauty of that place, it was already there in full view. Either by its own making or that of the dark timber, the tranquil water was a dark rust color and painted a majestic contrast against the bright blue sky.  The mild wind  blew against the thin leafless tree tops, rubbing the tips together and creating a soft audible lullaby.  Even the broken limbs of the alders lifelessly protruding from the water were a display of unblemished serenity.

While investigating moose tracks near my position, I caught a whirring noise coming from the north. Eight teal dropped speedily from the tree tops, flying ten yards off the water in their typical fighter-jet formation.  Neither Andy nor I were paying attention and were not rewarded for our day dreaming, as the teal flew hastily to the shallow cow pond 100 yards to the south.  Realizing our lazy quandary, we intently watched and waited, waited and watched. In the last hour of legal shooting time our newfound awareness would pay dividends.  While watching a bald eagle flying to the east side of the marsh, low guttural quacks filled our ears from the north, and we pulled our heads up to see a lone drake mallard dropping towards our spread.  The drake sharply pulled up to the right as we adjusted our guns, and began flying higher.  Andy began the barrage, and I followed suit with a single shot which sent the bird spiraling down to the water thirty yards to the east.  With an impeded view of its landing, I began to traverse the alder trees to retrieve my prize.  After reaching the area where I presumed it settled, I had an open view of the acre sized slough.  I initially expected to see one of two things.  The first being the bird floating lifeless on the water, the second being the bird quite alive and swimming away from me.  Unfortunately, I did not witness either.  There was relatively little concealment on the edges of the slough, but I looked feverishly through small brambles to see if I could find the stag cloaked by the camouflage.  Every nook and cranny I inspected was empty.  I spent fifteen minutes looking on the water with binoculars, and working the shoreline back and forth without anything to show.  Even when we sent Briar out to see if he could sniff out the bird from cover, we still failed to locate the downed bird.  Andy and I concluded that the only logical explanation was that the eagle we had witnessed pursuing our location grabbed the bird off the water while I was walking over to retrieve it.  A fitting end to our trip, we were again without a reward.  Standing next to the truck with our gear in disarray, we all shared a final moment as we took in the last gorgeous sunset on the Canadian prairie.

Last Hunt Sunset

It was a tough adventure, tougher than I could have ever imagined. It etched a memory in my heart and mind that I will never forget.  A memory full of lessons and errors. It also solidified my understanding of what it means to pursue waterfowl without reservation.  Even though Mother Nature had warped its heart against us, we whole-heartedly gave every last ounce of effort without abandon.  That my friends is worth journey.  So I’d encourage you.  Whatever your interest or passion. When the tide rips, rip the tide.

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

 

Bull moose

Four Bull Moose just hanging out

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

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

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

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

Briar in Honker fieldSunset over honker field2

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

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

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

Sunrise over breeze lake

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

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

To be continued…

Windy slough hunt2

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

The Beginning of Something New Pt.2

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After our first bird was down, our new mission was to get more quality shots at these birds before the season ended. Zeus and I decided we better kick off the New Year right and attempt to bring home some pheasants on the last day of the season (January 1st).  We packed up the truck with our gear after church and headed out.  I decided I would try a change of pace this last day, and try to get permission on some private land next to the Waterfowl Production Area I had been hunting.  I watched numerous birds fly into several sloughs that were on this parcel.  After tracking the owner down (via creeping the web), I gained permission to venture out on this haven.

I walked out onto the edge of the cornfield with Zeus and we began our trek into the cattails.  Zeus was acting like a seasoned guide dog now, running up in front of me into the wind fighting his way through the mangled mess.  20 yards into our walk we kick up our first bird.  A gorgeous rooster not more than 10 yards away, jumps into the sky and immediately falls back to the earth. The knock down power of 1500 fps steel had little mercy, as it sent shot ripping through its body.  Zeus watched the bird fall and handled the dying bird like a veteran with a beautiful retrieve.  “This is going to be a quick day” I thought to myself as we had our first bird in hand within 10 minutes of leaving the truck.  We continued pushing through the cluttered cattails, as this area was crawling with birds not more than a few days previous.  This proved to be a waste as not another bird emerged from this section.

We moved on to a fresh slough that also looked promising but was just a tease, as no birds came from this acreage either. As we started walking to the furthest slough, birds started rising from it like locust heading in every direction.  I watched a beautiful long tailed rooster head into the slough Zeus and I had just walked.  I mentally marked this bird to return to later.  We continued chasing the other birds into the WPA until we decided it was no longer worth it.  These birds were toying with us and they were winning.

Our next move was to go after the single rooster I had mentally marked from earlier.  No other bird had gone in that direction, and no bird had gotten up from that spot.  Zeus and I slowly reentered the same area we had just gone through not more than an hour or so before.  Slowly working through the cattails, I would often pause as this used to get nervous grouse to take flight in the North Woods of Aitkin. Sure enough it works for pheasants too.  As Zeus labored to my left, I heard the eruption of wings hitting cattails coming from his direction.  I swung over my Franchi and put the bead on the long tailed rooster and bang! Down goes our second bird of the day.  Another perfect retrieve from Zeus gave me all the more confidence that the light bulb had turned on for him, and that he had grasped his inherit purpose in life.  He had turned from a puppy to a bird-dog, and I was so ecstatic to be in that moment with him.

With time no longer on our side, I decided to make a big move and try an area I had not scouted.  We jumped in the truck, and made it there with an hour or so of shooting left for our season.  We hustled towards the cattails and started working the area. As I was walking towards the edge of the cattails I felt the dreaded plummet of my foot into ice cold water.  This time it was not just up to my knee.  After emerging out of the water, I was wet from the waist down, and unable to put weight on my other leg as I twisted my knee in an unfavorable direction.  This lasted a few minutes until I started to limp along. We pressed on and scant sign was found until the end of the push when 3 hens busted out of their nooks.  With shooting time fading we jumped back on the dirt road heading to the truck.  Figuring we were going home with 2 pheasants I was pleased, but in the back of my mind was really hoping we could wrap the season up with a limit.  That was when I saw it.  Like a beacon of light shining towards us.  A WPA sign across the road with a gorgeous slough in the middle, agriculture fields surrounding it.  Zeus and I hustled up and jumped into the cattails.

We immediately started seeing tracks all over the place.  Not more than 20 yards in the slough, the first hen jumped up 15 yards in front.  Two more steps another hen, before I could take another step, four more hens blew up in front of us all within 20 yards.  I looked at Zeus and he looked at me, both of us were in amazement.  This was the honey hole we had been looking for.  This was the place we were going to find the last rooster of the season.  We continued pushing on and hen after hen kept rising in front of us.  We hooked back around to head back into the slough and that’s when the prodigal rooster we had been waiting for got up in front of us.  Not wasting any time to allow the bird to get further away from us I fired.  The bird took a nose dive into the cattails, but appeared that it could still be alive when it hit the ground.  I started hustling towards the area it went down and continued calling for Zeus to find it.  As I continued forward, Zeus headed off to my right and behind me.  He disappeared into the cattails and I heard wings flapping.  A black head popped back up with a gorgeous rooster protruding from his mouth.  I yelled “Good boy!” as he proudly jogged back to my side and released the bird into my hand.  It was fitting that Zeus would surprise me further and find a blind retrieve to end the season on.

We were able to put a limit in the vest on the last day of the season. Something I thought may not be possible after our first day of hunting.  The idea of pheasant hunters being rich, stogie smoking, scotch drinking, uppity ups may be true in some cases, but not the case in real life- normal hunting.  I now have a new found respect and love for pheasants and the art of hunting these birds.

 

The Beginning of Something New pt. 1

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When I started researching the area my wife and I were moving to in rural mid-western Minnesota, I kept hearing that I was moving to an area that was good pheasant country. This slightly frightened me, as I know pheasants and how to hunt them about as well as I know how the female brain works. Throughout my childhood and young adult life I conjured up this idea that pheasant hunters are rich millionaires who smoke large stogies and drink scotch in their “log cabins” after a “long days hunt”. Granted this only took place after their hired out guides and dogs found the birds for them out on the thousands of acres of prime managed land they paid to hunt. This is something I am not, and refused to even think about pheasant hunting. I continued doing what I know and duck hunted and deer hunted until December.

After Christmas I started getting the itch to hunt some upland birds and I really wanted to get my 9 1/2 month old pup Zeus out into the field to get some exposure to live birds. Although Zeus has been along on some grouse hunts, he was still a novice with authentic bird-hunting.  I also needed to get some exercise after the Christmas feasts in which I had recently partook. Having my old grouse hunting stomping grounds more than 2 1/2 hours away, I only had one other bird to hunt.  Knowing absolutely nothing about these seemingly mystical birds that people had been raving about, I bought a pheasant stamp and a box of Federal Steel Waterfowl 4 shot (I was too cheap to purchase the 20 dollar pheasant loads). I loaded up the old grouse vest and gear into the truck along with the mildly lethargic Zeus and headed to an area where I had observed two pheasants fly into a waterfowl production area. I figured I might as well work with what I’ve got in my locale and try something new.

Only having a few hours to hunt the first day I decided to keep an open mind and start working cattails, as this was what I was told by a good friend Ryan Wahlund.  Ryan is a very knowledgeable well rounded hunter but is a specialist when it comes to pheasants and loves to hunt these birds.  I got a quick rundown on their behavior during late season and I was ready. With a nice crust on the snow, I was lucky enough to break through on every step I took, which made for some fun tramping.  I started heading to the area I saw the birds fly to a few days prior, and took my first step onto the slough that the cattails surrounded.  My foot immediately plummeted into the icy water below up to the knee.  “This is so much fun”, I thought to myself as Zeus stared at me like I was an idiot for bringing him out into this snowy wasteland.  I decided I would skirt the outside of the cattails so I would not fall through again as I tend to learn quickly.  I trekked 20 feet further, and that is when I heard the first bird flush.  It was behind some heavy brush that was between me and the cattails where I should have been, and then all hell broke loose.  Bird after bird got up out of the same area and I kept looking for that glint of color through the brush but it was just too thick.

When I arrived at the next section of WPA, pheasants started flying more than 200 yards away. This is what Ryan warned me about with late season pheasants.  Although easier to find with less cover, they have been bombarded for months and will fly at the sound of a mouse-fart.  Not forgetting about the cold plummet my foot took not more than an hour ago, I slowly crept out onto a new slough, and checked ice thickness the whole way around.  Continuing to creep forward, something blew up not more than three feet in front of me.  Two hen pheasants that were nestled in the cattails (before I disturbed them) ascended towards the skies.  Zeus looked at me, then back to the birds as I pulled up and identified my target. I could almost hear him ask me why I wasn’t shooting.  I told him they were hens and we headed to a new area to explore before dark.  This new section looked favorable, as pheasant tracks coursed all along a row of Cedars next to the road and on the other side were two large sloughs with cattails all around.  This would be my spot to start on tomorrow.

After waking up the next morning, I quickly realized that pheasant hunting may be a little more exhausting than I imagined, as my calves ached from the constant breaking through the crust of the snow.  With coffee in hand and a renewed energy, Zeus and I headed to our hopeful honey hole.  Zeus seemed to be more ambitious today, and was whimpering to get going as I loaded my Franchi Semi Auto.  After only taking a few steps into the crusty prairie I began to see birds lifting from the cattails, flying every direction just like the day before.   I picked out where most of the birds were landing and began traversing downwind of their terminus.  As Zeus and I started getting closer to the area they had landed in a beautiful sound took over, the sound of nothing. No birds were flying out of my range. As we continued our assault on the slough a hen emerged from the cattails around 20 yards out. I took another step through the cattails, and that’s when I saw what we had been after the past two days. Not more than 15 yards out a gorgeous rooster arose from the undergrowth into my sight.  I rose up on the cock and fired. I watched the bird fold and skip across the ice. I yelled with excitement “dead bird!” and called for Zeus to find it.  Zeus found the shell wad and continued to follow the scent of the bird and that’s when I was most proud of him.  Zeus hurdled into the cattails and popped back out with a gorgeous rooster in his mouth. He carried the bird to me and released to my hand.  Our first bird was down and in the bag.

I sat and admired the bird. Amazed at the colors, I couldn’t stop staring at it.  “So this is what all the fuss is about”, I thought to myself as Zeus stared at the bird with equal passion wanting so badly to take it from me. Luckily, he managed to contain his temperament.  I gave him a thorough praise and was able to get a few pictures with him and the rooster. This moment will forever live in my memory as our first rooster together and the start of a new passion.  There is no better feeling then seeing your pup work with you to find the game you’re after and then have a successful retrieve.

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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