When the Tide Rips, Rip the Tide

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I’ve had the t-shirt for years, a faded red Old Navy special that probably filched four to five dollars from my wallet. It’s suffered the extremes of landscaping, oil changes, baby spit-up, and still holds solid form.  A tribute to the insignia prominently displayed in its mid-section “when the tide rips, rip the tide”.  It echoes other synonymous proverbs, “Come hell or high water”, or “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, but this shirt is a tangible memento of the adventure I experienced in central Saskatchewan this past fall.

It was mid-September with the maple trees shining in brilliant oranges and reds, that my preparations would take place. I was slated to take this journey with my neighbor Andy and his business partner Mike.  Naïve in my experiences,  I had no idea the logistics of such a trip would be as arduous as they were.  Numerous forms and licenses (the processing takes weeks) needed to be procured in order to hunt in the province of Saskatchewan, and the planning for food and gear for a week long excursion took several email exchanges and conversations to lock down. In the wee hours of October 15th, we stored our supplies, hunting gear, and lovingly said goodbye to our families.

While trekking through the wind-blown pains of western Minnesota, my mind reached for images of what the terrain in North-Central Saskatchewan may bestow. Would it resemble the plains, potholes, and bluffs around Minot North Dakota where I had spent portions of other hunting seasons, or would it be forested and full of large lakes and small beaver ponds that my hometown of Aitkin Minnesota prominently held?  As we progressed towards the Canadian border, my mind continued to alter the result over and over again as the landscape shifted.  Tunneling rocky bluffs lined the twenty mile stretch on approach into Canada, with cattle farms and small homesteads present on the hills. It reminded me of the eastern approach into Denver Colorado with vast wide-spread ranches and rolling hills as far as the eye could see.  Surely this would not be the mainstay.  Even as Andy and Mike assured me the scenery would get “much better”, I had my concerns.

In the last 40-50 kilometers before we reached our destination, the land turned into what I had subconsciously hoped for, but had never registered fully in my mind. Bright, golden cut wheat fields for miles and miles, sloping ever-so slightly from horizon to horizon.  Moose cows and calves peaked through small stands of ash-gray timber, ready for their night feed in the miles of harvested agriculture.  On the flanks of the roads were streaks of white that span hundreds of yards in each direction.  Bobbing and walking in constant motion, these snow and blue geese numbered in the tens of thousands.   Just watching these flocks lift off in waves of hundreds against the setting Canadian sun was magnificent to behold as we made our last turn into the small town we were staying for the week.

With our gear unpacked and beer(s) in hand, Andy and Mike went through the scenarios of scouting this broad scape in the morning. With multiple rural municipality (County) maps strewn across the table, they poured over past memories and strategies they had exercised in the past fifteen years of hunting this untamed province.

In the morning we packed enough gear to do an improvised water hunt if we felt the conditions were right, and headed out on the dusty gravel roads that would be our bothersome companion for the next five days. I could barely contain my excitement, as countless hours in a truck the day before had caged muscles that were primed to haul decoys, wade through swamps, and retrieve the occasional bird that Mike’s dog Briar was too busy to get.

Unfortunately, two challenges presented themselves in incalculable form within the first few hours. As we assessed the surroundings, sloughs and small lakes that had been filled to the brim last year were either bone dry, or had small puddles remaining in the center.  This continued for fifty miles in each direction, as this area was in an unspeakably difficult drought.  As we spoke to more and more farmers and locals the message was visibly grim.  “Really, really dry” or “We haven’t had rain all year”.  Everyone in those rural areas depends on the multiple crop yields, and the spring planting season was looking more and more dire.

The second challenge that we encountered is a sweat inducing nightmare for almost any hunter. The local radio forecast was calling for temperatures in the low to mid 70’s for the five days that we were visiting.   Migration…halted.  Bird movement…barely existent.  The only stretches that we did find thousands of mallards and geese were the “watering holes”.  Almost an exact replica of what you would watch on an African documentary.  Alive with fluttering and commotion, every living creature was collapsed in and around large lakes whose shorelines had shrunk by 10-12 feet.  We even spotted coyotes slyly wadding through the cattails for a chance to grab an easy feast.

After a humbling twelve hours on the road, we set back for our base camp and ate uncertainty for dinner (Ok, it was actually sloppy joes). Luckily, our neighbor Lloyd came over for a cordial cocktail and lifted our spirits a little.  Lloyd is a retired farmer who was born, and spent his entire life in the small town in which we were staying.  He is also a wealth of information regarding tractors and farming, not to mention the nicest man you will probably ever meet.  However, when we inquired to him about the current state of the land, his weathered gray eyes dimmed and looked ominous as he spouted out “Driest I’ve seen it in 20-30 years, eh”. After Lloyd said his adieu for the evening I had decided, on the morrow I would wear the faded red shirt.

Lloyd with cocktails

The next morning we traveled an arduous fifty miles to a pocket-sized slough that was deep enough to hold knee-high water. We had talked to the friendly land owner the afternoon before, and smirked as he stated “mallards pour in there by the hundreds in the evening”. With excitement and coffee surging through our veins, we pitched a conservative decoy spread and awaited the dawn.  Just before daylight, a flurry of wings beat the air as ducks jumped from roost to pothole.  It wasn’t until I glanced back to the western horizon, that I knew our venture wouldn’t be as “lights-out” as we imagined.  Three hundred yards away, several flocks of 50-75 mallards were careening into another pond in the adjoining property (in which we did not have permission to hunt).  Devastating to our efforts, any duck with slight intuition would choose to land with several hundred live ducks to our paltry twelve phonies.  Through some out of practice effort, we managed to take three drake mallards in the course of the morning.  It’s funny to think back on the morning, as these potholes were situated at the bottom of a hill.  Every bird that did pay us a visit seemed to appear out of thin air, twisting and dropping 30-40 yards into our decoys.  A difficult shot to say the least.

To Be Continued…

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

Friends in Gold Places

Jeff-Goldeyes

Hunting diver ducks is one of the most exhilarating types of hunting that comes each year.   With frigid temperatures (both water and air) and fast working birds, it gets my heart pumping just thinking about the dodgy shenanigans.  Sure, my family and friends think I’m absolutely crazy and often worry about my safety, especially when I go it alone.  I usually rebut their concern with an invitation to join me, but my offer is often refused with quick concession.

Here in Minnesota we usually see the first of the diving ducks around the 3rd weekend in October, but they don’t usually adorn our skies in full mass until the 2nd or 3rd week in November.  Their bulldog companies of 15-20 are easy to spot for eyes that have only witnessed singles and pairs of wood ducks and mallards for over a month.  I often ponder how many millions of them make it down to Louisiana and Texas each year, as I watch flocks of hundreds fly sky high over our lakes with no intention of stopping over.

Fortunately for me, I’ve got three crazy comrades that enjoy chasing these birds just as much as I do. My friend Sean DeCent has joined my obsession with acquiring large quantities of decoys and tactical long lines.  It makes hunting together a little more time consuming, as it usually takes the better part of an hour to wrap and stow the obnoxious amount of gear.  My Brother Jase has taken after hunting canvasbacks and ring necks on Lake Christina, with his fourteen foot fishing boat and my Grandpa’s old foam decoys.  However, my buddy Jeff Westgard has taken a different approach.   With a style reminiscent of the old-time duck hunters, he honors the slough with the most functional gear that will pack into his twelve foot low-profile sneak boat.  This makes him the perfect scout with the ability to travel quickly, silently, and semi-unseen.

It was Jeff that had called me in the first week in November with uncontained excitement in his voice. “There are 25-30 goldeneyes out on Lake Putter!”  With the Indian summer that we had recently experienced in Minnesota (it had been 70 degrees the week before), I was more than a little skeptical.  I had half the mind to ask him if he was sure they were goldeneyes, and not the numerous coots that we had seen on Lake Putter a few weeks before.  He expanded on his original story of how he had seen two goldeneyes skirt his spread, and plopped down 50 yards to the northeast.  More and more goldeneyes joined their brethren until they had reached a sizable raft.

A quick ode to the Common Goldeneye

Although bountiful for some to hunt around coastal waters, these birds have been hard to target in Minnesota. They usually appear just as our lakes are freezing over, which gives us only a handful of days to pursue them.  Contrary to most ducks, I often hear Goldeneyes before I see them.  They have a distinct wing-whistle vibrato which turns my eyes to the skies when they approach.  I like to refer to Goldeneyes as the test-pilot duck.  If you are lucky enough to witness their crazy midair loop-d-loops and jet-fighter 4-G turns you’d understand.  They’re strong on the wing, and their compact frame makes them seemingly impervious to steel shot.

It’s no secret to any of my friends that I’ve been aiming for a goldeneye drake for years. I’ve been close, oh so close, so many times. From packing up my decoys too soon, to taking ill-timed shots at these bird bullets, the inkling that I would never bag a trophy bird was tugging at my heart-strings.  I checked with my wife Emily if I could chase these gold-eyed scoundrels in the morning.  Per usual, she half rolled her eyes, accepted, and the table was set.

I met Jeff at Lake Putter at 5 a.m., and we discussed our battle plan. With an easterly wind, we would set up on the NW corner of the north island.  A small stretch of water ran 100 yards to the northern shore, and with the wind blowing at 10-15 mph we decided the birds might want some shelter.

Jeff is always amazed at the amount of decoys that I’m able to procure from my 12’ carstens bluebill. Four dozen diver decoys, a diver spinner, and two higdon pulsators emerged from my boat, as well as my yellow lab Penny.  Making quick work of it, we set a long line of bluebills and ring necks in the direction of the wind, and placed our six goldeneye decoys closer to our position with a bluebill mojo in the center.  We decided if there were any puddle ducks around, we would set 6-10 avian-x surface feeders off to the right-shallow, and Jeff’s mallard spinner in the middle.

With our decoys placed in the darkness, we sipped coffee and traded stories from our current hunting season. It was 15 minutes after legal shooting time that we realized we were supposed to be hunting.  This epiphany came in the form of a streaking white and black blur that scooted across our spread.  “Goldeneye”, I whispered to Jeff.

As the sun rose further in the sky, the lake started to wake up. A drake mallard scanned our spread from 30 yards up, quacking ever so often for a friendly response.  We contemplated shooting this gorgeous greenhead, but resolved that the distance was an ethical issue.  As we spoke more about sales events that Jeff was working towards in January, two beautiful drake goldeneyes twirled in from the left and set their wings on fast approach to the decoys. The tailing goldeneye swung further to our right, and took its sweet time to enter the spread.  It was in this instant that I shouldered my Beretta and shouted “Take em!” to Jeff.   Jeff made a punishing shot from his Franchi, and his bird fell dead to rights.  My shot took the goldeneye from an inch off the water, and the bull quickly dove.  I waited five agonizing seconds and its white and black profile emerged from the depths.  One more well-aimed shot and my trophy lay tranquil on the water.

“Penny!” I called for the retrieve, and the saucy vixen answered. She grabbed the closest goldeneye and beautifully delivered my prize to hand.  I sent her again to fetch the duck that Jeff had downed.  By this time it had drifted 50-75 yards to the north, and Penny couldn’t mark it visually.  I took two steps out beyond the cattails and gave her a good hand line.  After swimming for two seconds she finally caught sight and beelined towards the drake.  When she returned, my mood was nothing but electric. There was no hiding the rush I was feeling in that moment.  I kept on saying “I can’t believe it!” and “finally!” We sat admiring our new prizes for the better part of ten minutes, inattentive to our surroundings.  The colors of these birds were bewitching to our eyes.  Jet black and brilliant white feather contrast, an iridescent green head, and a royal gold eye.

We continued the hunt for another 45 minutes and witnessed 20 other goldeneyes raft in the same location Jeff had observed 2-3 days prior. We took an oath to hunt that northeast point before the end of the season, but the wintery north winds blew and ice covered Lake Putter before we had a chance.

To have a beautiful drake goldeneye in my hand was a very exhilarating experience in my hunting career, but what made it even better was the shared experience with a close friend (who is admittedly almost as crazy about diver hunting than I am).

 

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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The Hook

The outdoors were not very important to me in my later years of high school. With two sports, a less than mediocre punk rock band, and a steady girlfriend, my priorities didn’t give me a lot of time to spend in the marsh or on the deer stand.  God bless my Grandpa Buck, for he tried his damndest to immerse me in the slough to experience the elation of water fowling that resides in his soul.   Memories often surface of my devoted grandfather taking me out duck hunting for late October ring neck ducks on weekday mornings.  A waking time of 5 a.m. is substantially too early for an already disengaged teen, and the cold, wind-whipping weather didn’t add a dime to the allure.  I managed to harvest a few fowl over the course of the years, but the wing shooting was arduous for a novice kid without sufficient practice, and the amount of birds to cross our path were few and far between.  The last time my grandpa brought me out to the lake resulted in frigid fingers and toes, and not a single duck adorned the sky.  My interest was minimal at best, and the gear was too expensive to procure.

Fast forward eight years. Newly married, steady job, and more free time on my hands, I asked my unemployed college-bound brother to take me out with him to the same lake that I had hunted with our Grandpa when I was younger.  All I really wanted was to spend time with my little brother Jase, and what transpired would morph into an obsession to the present day.

I took off a Friday from work, and we headed out with his twelve foot alumacraft and six horse evinrude. While I watched Jase pitch decoys and meticulously brush the blind, I honestly thought he had a few screws loose.  How could one person care so much about decoy placement and camouflage?  Little did I know that my own methods would someday transform into a mirror image (dare I say even more particular?).   We quietly took in the exquisite sunrise from the wooded northern island, and a few ducks buzzed by during the course of the morning.  What really amazed me were the calling chops of my brother.  Quick precise quacks, a low mallard chuckle, and perfectly timed hail calls.  I had tangible appreciation for his skill when he called a lone goose a few hundred yards away heading in a different direction. The gander took a sharp swing, and traveled directly to our two corroded goose decoys.   His haunting siren’s call brought it just on the edge of our range, and we both seemed to smack the bird with our two shot, but couldn’t bring the gargantuan to meet its maker.

It’s no secret to any water fowler, but packing up decoys is not fun. With the seemingly endless decoy cord that you have to wrap, and the realization that you may be going home without a bird in hand.  However, during our time in that frigid chest high water, we discovered a pristine jewel on the lake.  It was Jase that pointed it out, and my untrained eyes would have passed by and glazed over without any interest.  Hundreds of yards away along the entire shoreline of a southern island appeared a constant, star like twinkling that the sun’s disposition accentuated with each ray.   Jase produced his binoculars from his blind bag, and a look of astonishment quickly materialized on his face, along with the hushed words “oh wow”.  When I inquired of his discovery, he handed me his binoculars and my amazement quickly reached the level of my brothers.  What appeared to be twinkles were 400 bluebill ducks preening, diving, and stretching their wings.  We tossed the last of the decoys into the alumacraft, and slowly made our way back to the landing so that we could avoid spooking the smorgasbord of ducks.

In classic Hegman fashion, we slept well past our 5 a.m. alarm the next morning and hastily headed out the door to our new-found duck hunting holy land. As we approached the southern island, the sleepy sun started to poke through the tree line to the east.  We designated a spot in the center of the island where we had observed the ducks the day before, and began pitching our decoys.

Here it is, “the hook”. If you’ve never experienced a similar ecological euphoria of this world, I sincerely hope you do at one point in your lifetime.

As Jase and I were half way done setting up our 24 old foam diver decoys, the sound of stirring wings filled the air in the distance. The hum came swiftly closer and when it arrived, it was at the decibel of a fighter jet.  Flocks of 50-100 bluebills were flying six feet over our heads, twisting and whirling with amazing precision.   We both crouched motionless to watch the spectacle. When the awe induced paralytic wore-off and we had full control of our legs again, we sank down on the bank and let the parade continue.  It took no more than five minutes for the first group of 25 birds to descend perfectly into our decoys.  Jase and I managed to take three birds out of the flock, but one dove (to its apparent demise) and the other managed to swim away.  It was abundantly clear that these birds were ultra-tough, and it would take some very calculated shots to bring them down.  Through the first hour, I honestly think we had every one of those previously spotted 400 bluebills saunter over our spread.  We managed to pluck six hearty water-beasts from the air, but only mustered three to our hand.  The last blue bill that was amassed was the most memorable.  A flock of 30 perused our spread, and I winged a hen from 25 yards high.  The duck plummeted to the water with a smack, and began swimming in circles.  While I went to retrieve the boat, the charlatan bluebill gained its legs and began to swim away.  Jase’s gun was loaded with 3 ½ inch shells, and I was yelling at him (with echoes of Aragorn) “bring him down! Jase, bring him down!”  Jase’s final shot crumpled the bird from 35 yards away, and our blissful morning had come to an end.

Packing up our gear and heading home I was overcome with excitement. The rush of raw nature was flowing through my veins, and I was so grateful for the experience. I often think of that day with a grin on my face, thankful for my family, the water, and the opportunity to be fully immersed in God’s creation.

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Pre Season Scouting Tips

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Its that time of the year when the nights start to cool and early bow season starts to swim in our minds.  In honor of the upcoming season I decided to give a few tips for scouting pre season and early season whitetails.

  1. Find the pattern

The great part of pre season and early season whitetails is they are predictable. You can usually find the older, more mature whitetails feeding during the low light hours in the fields so take advantage of it. Spend some evenings after work glassing fields and figure out the pattern that the deer are using coming out on the field. This will help you narrow down the areas to hang game cameras. Pre season glassing is also a great way to learn see some of the deer in your area that aren’t even on your land.  This will help you get an idea of what you may have traveling over to your land during the rut when you have a hot doe run by.

  1. Hang some cameras

Once you have gotten an idea of the trails the deer are using to enter and exit the fields its time to slip in the area and hang some cameras.  Try and put a few cameras on the main trails that look heavily used and one or two on some trails that appear to have lighter deer traffic. Without getting coverage of these lighter areas you may never know a certain deer exists if they are loners and nocturnal. Remember big deer are old and big for a reason and every deer has its own personality.  Also keep an eye out for possible staging areas.  These areas are often overlooked and can be optimal places to harvest mature deer hanging back until dark before entering the field. . This portion is one of my favorite parts of scouting. Its like you turn into a kid on Christmas morning and you cant wait to open your present when you go to retrieve your SD card. Its like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

  1. Hang a stand

After getting an idea where the deer trails are that you will possibly want to hunt Its time to hang a stand.  Stand placement is often not thought of carefully enough when it comes to branches for cover and wind direction.  Its nice to be able to look back in kept journals or past weather history to see what direction the prevailing winds have been out of during the first two weeks of season and determine your set by these findings. I like to find a tree where I will be within shooting distance of a heavily used trail and this tree should give me a clear view of the field I am hunting for the first few days of season.  This will give you the ability to see what you may have missed during pre season glassing and further your patterning of a possible shooter.

  1.  Be ready for change

Although pre season is a great time to pattern a deer you’re after there is always the chance he will change patterns before season arrives.  Make sure to scout hard close to opening day to make sure you don’t miss something. If or when the deer of your dreams tries to throw you for a loop be ready with your own game plan. I recommend having a game plan in mind for likely scenarios and have my equipment ready for it. The Lone Wolf Assault tree stand and Lone Wolf climbing sticks are my go to set up for this.  I am able to get everything set up and be ready to hunt in 10 minutes and am able to do so quietly.  If there are no decent trees around don’t be afraid to try ground hunting. When giving ground hunting a shot make sure to pick a well concealed area that gives you the ability to get an arrow through without a deflection. Finding this ideal area is often harder than it sounds but will be worth the effort when the one you’re after comes by and you are undetected.

  1. Not a lot of deer sign? Give it a shot

There are times when you may be hunting a piece of property that is new to you for the first time and you might not have enough time to glass the fields.  Heck maybe there aren’t any fields to glass and you have to rely on your cameras.  In these situations it can sometimes be hard to find active deer sign. Don’t lose hope just yet. Certain areas in the woods may have a lack of telling grasses or weeds that show the deer trails that we are used to seeing.  Use your noggin and look for natural deer funnels and likely deer usage areas and hang your cameras. You will often be surprised by the number of deer using these areas and the quality of the animals. If you are struggling to find decent areas look for some standing barbed wire. Some of my favorite hunting areas have old barbed wire fencing that is still hanging.  Follow the line of barbed wire until you find a low spot or an area that is all the way to the ground.  This will be almost a guaranteed funnel that will give you the perfect pinch point.

Hopefully a few of these tips will be useful for you in the upcoming scouting and early season.  Remember to have fun while you’re out there even if the mosquitos are about to carry you away.

Summer Scouting!

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When summer rolls around in Minnesota, my mind immediately turns to weekends at the lake. Beer, boating, and barbeque, what else could a man ask for?  It’s these activities that take the edge off life for a while, especially when we’re reminded of the countless hours we’ve been cooped up in our homes from January to March.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to realize that this time of the year is also great for exploring new public hunting areas. Sure, you’re usually battling mosquitoes, unrelenting sweat, and a blazing sun, but these short jaunts can pay big dividends in the fall.  While I reflect on the public hunting locations that I frequent, I can only think of a handful that I didn’t survey in the summer prior.  The birds are usually in a different seasonal cycle than in the fall, but the numbers of ducks and geese usually don’t fade.  If a breeding population is present in July or August, chances are that a large number of these waterfowl will stick around for the first part of the season.

Other than surveying duck numbers, the other reason I will scout a body of water is to learn the landscape. My friend Jeff and I were recently discussing a scouting expedition that he conducted in the northeast Minneapolis metro.  From first glance he knew it would be an impeccable waterfowl hunting location.   Off the beaten path, cattails span the entirety of the marsh and he could make-out pockets of ducks and geese feeding throughout.  As he began to look for a location to set up in the fall, he was at a loss.  Each time he stuck his paddle in the muck, it would sink down 1-2 feet deep.  He continued to paddle the entirety of the shore, and never found an ample location to stand.  Having surveyed the lake, he now has a rudimentary strategy to try lay-out hunting in his twelve foot kayak.

Being I hunt in the Central part of Minnesota, one of the new strategies I’ve developed is scouting around the wild rice harvest. The harvest usually takes place in first part of September, which is also 2-3 weeks ahead of duck season.  These bodies of water usually hold significant numbers of waterfowl due to the ample forage.  If you’re having a hard time locating lakes with wild rice present, there is good news.  The DNR has already mapped it for you! (link below)

http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/wildlife/shallowlakes/wildrice.html

Sorry for the picture Jase.  I couldn’t resist.

A day of remembering, A day of reflection

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Over the Memorial Day weekend I was able to venture out into my nearby pocket of euphoria known as the Bloomington National Wildlife Refuge. A rare gem in the southern twin cities of Minnesota, the rugged trail is fantastic for introducing youngsters to the great outdoors, with the added benefit of stretching your legs whilst taking in God’s creation. I often make the two-block pilgrimage to the refuge to watch both the southward and northward migration of waterfowl. I can easily survey the swarms of ring-necks and red head ducks that pool up on the shallow stop-over area.  Large pockets of majestic trumpeter swans feed on the west end of the pond, sticking out like ball of fire in the night.  A beautiful spectacle to say the least.

On Memorial Day, my neighbor Andy texted me that he was going for a hike, and I jumped at the chance to forsake some home landscaping for the morning. With our young boys in tow, we tediously tread the grooved paths that make up the historic trail/river system.   Every time I take the jaunt down the steep hill that precludes, I feel like I’m entering different world.  A world that I often travel hundreds of miles to enjoy in north central Minnesota.

What struck me like a brick to the head on this particular trip was the obnoxious amount of trash and litter that had been dumped by lazy patrons. Gallon size ice tea bottles, carp bait containers, and smashed beer bottles on the bank of the river.  The exhilaration I had first experienced soon turned to a spiteful taste in my mouth.  This is not the first time that I’ve experienced this type of indifference, nor will it be the last.  I’ve often come across similar scenes while picking out a duck blind, or on the winter ice searching for crappies.

Three questions immediately came to me.

How has it come to this? Why is it so hard to carry trash back to your car and dispose/recycle it in the proper way?  What are we teaching out youngsters about the way we treat the environment?

In all my life, I’ve never pretended to be a green-party member, but I do believe strongly in respect for the outdoors, and especially for my fellow outdoorsmen/women. The little things that we do in the field like picking up our spent shells, empty beer/pop cans, and making sure that our site was as clean (or cleaner) than when we found it, can go a long way.  This seems to be an easy message for most of us, but there will always be some ‘yahoos’ (Jase loves this term), who will spoil it for us.  Let’s keep giving hunters and outdoorsmen a good name, and foster an attitude of respect and gratitude for what we most hold dear.