Mid-Season Waterfowl: A Tale of Ice and 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.