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