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.

Public Land Whitetails

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No private land? No problem!

As soon as I heard the words Kansas City come out of my wife’s mouth I started to think about the upcoming hunting season which was only four months away. Knowing we would be living in a large metro area I felt as if the world was collapsing around me.  How was I going to hunt in the city? How was I going to find private land in 4 months where thousands of other hunters had already asked? After pouting for a few days I realized that if I was to hunt the area I would have to do what I promised myself I would never do, and that was hunt public land.  I had conjured up this idea of public land being a dangerous baron wasteland full of moronic hunters and lack of game.  “Why waste your time and risk your safety!” I thought to myself as I started digging into the state of Missouri’s website reviewing the options of public land near me.  I began seeing that the Show Me States’s Conservation Department was on to something.  They appeared to have certain pieces of land dedicated to bow hunting only methods.  I found a public tract of land approximately 6000 acres in size not more than 45 minutes from Kansas City with this same restriction.  I figured land that close to the big city will be absolutely pounded with weekend warriors.  I decided to try and get permission to hunt private land with little success.  It was now mid October and I still didn’t have a game plan on what I was going to do.

Keeping an open mind

After doing some research on Google Maps I found a decent funnel on the dreaded public land.  I spoke with a hunting buddy of mine from work who stated that he had been down on this tract of land for waterfowl before and said it was worth a try.  I finally was pushed over the edge.  What did I have to lose other than a weekend?  I headed down to the land with a heavy heart.  How many people would be at the landings? How many guys will I have to deal with out here? I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived.  I found myself alone with my thoughts.  After a short walk I found that all my worries and doubts would be washed away.  I found a soy bean field around 100 acres in size surrounded by woods with deer tracks all over the road that I was walking.  “Did I walk into an outfitters land?” I thought as I continued the long walk through this deer mecca.  I found a small strip of trees that separated a thin strip of corn from the larger part of the field that looked like a perfect funnel so I hung a stand. In the mile and a half of walking to this location, I saw one other deer stand that appeared to have been there for quite some time.  “How was this possible?” I thought to myself. I started wondering if I would have just kept an open mind earlier in the year what opportunities I could have had on more patternable deer.

Spotting and stocking works

One day in early November I decided to take a walk to where my deer stand was located  on this same public land to check for scrapes before making the 9 1/2 hour drive back to MN for the rifle opener.  I decided I better grab my bow because there were turkeys in the area and figured I may get lucky and find the group.  I headed off in my blue jeans and camo shirt to check out the area.  After finding some scrapes on the edge of the field where my stand was, I decided I would do some exploring.  I saw a trail that crossed a creek and decided I better go and see where the trail led.  I felt the wind in my face and figured I better knock an arrow in case I get lucky and surprise a deer.  I continued up the trail until I reached another landing area for hunters to park.  I put my arrow back in the quiver and continued down the trail back from where I came.  I just happened to see a small sapling off of the trail that appeared to have just been torn to shreds as it was still green and wet.  I decided I better continue down the deer trail and see what I find.  “It was like follow bread crumbs” I thought as I looked down the trail and saw rub after rub, fresher than the next.  I continued following the trail with the wind in my face.  I saw something brown in some brush off of the trail which appeared to be some old farm equipment left by the previous owners of the property.  I took one more step and that piece of equipment picked its head up and looked right at me.  It was a mature 10 point that was responsible for the destruction of the many young saplings I had followed and it was no more than 40 yards from me. I was toast. I was caught with my legs crossed over each other and no arrow knocked, wearing blue jeans and a camo shirt.  I figured I would be busted in a matter of seconds but the deer continued staring.  I agonizingly reached for my arrow in the quiver and was somehow able to knock the arrow with this monarch staring at me.  I could see him moving his head up and down and licking his nose trying to wind me and figure out what I was.  He was unsuccessful as I felt that breeze right in my face.  The staring competition lasted around 5 minutes and when I thought I couldn’t hold the position I was in any longer he twitched his tail and started walking forward.  I was able to draw and found an opening through some saplings that separated him and I from each other.  That was my only shot.  He entered the foot gap and I let the arrow fly.  I watched the fletchings disappear behind his shoulder and watched him run off.

Easy dragging

I figured there was no way that what just happened was real.  I raised my hands up and looked around to see if anyone else just saw what took place.  I just took the biggest buck of my life by stocking.  I looked to see where I was in relation to the landing area and looked up the hill to see it less than 70 yards away. I found my arrow and looked into the brush where the deer ran. He was dead no more than 20 yards away.   Use your head and play the wind and you will be successful.

 

 

Adaptation Doesn’t Always Come Easy (Day 3 of 3)

The Last Hurrah.

The morning of day three started much like the other mornings. Billy’s boot, gear check, and kwik trip donuts and coffee. The only exception to the day’s excursion was the steady rain that we would face throughout the morning.  While approaching the registration station at the pool, it appeared that we were the only blockheads to venture out for waterfowl that day.

Strolling down the level quarter mile path to the walk in pool where we had spotted the mallards the evening before, my recovering muscles seemed to be thankful for not submitting them to the same death march that they had endured on the first day. Picking a site on the slightly sloped bank where we were somewhat concealed, we gathered as many short weeds, sticks, and brambles as we could muster. Billy later referred to our blinds as “mini forts”, as they appeared to vanish from our sight when we were busy tossing out the decoy assortment for the day.  We tried to mimic what we had seen the day before with a dozen field mallards lining the bank, and eight floaters 10-15 yards beyond.

A gloomy light poked through the clouds 20 minutes before legal shooting time as we reclined in our drenched blinds. Water that had slowly trickled down our back at first became a consistent frigid menace well before our triggers could be pulled.  The rapid fluttering of silhouettes began right before legal shooting time, and the game was afoot.  Within the first 15 minutes, a flock of 25 mallards came barreling straight in front, and swiftly peeled off as Billy and Jase started their barrage.  Billy managed to procure one of the greenheads, and the survivors moved on to the next destination.  The bothersome rain turned into a pour, and what seemed like a solid start turned sharply miserable.  The mallards working our spread had little interest in what we had to offer, and adapting was unavoidable in the first 45 minutes.

The breaking point. The realization that all may be lost and the journey home would be long, wet, and ominous. However, the hard-working northern stock of my counterparts would not give in so easily.  Billy decided that he was weary of decoy shy birds (his words were a little different), and devised a plan to stalk a pocket of 50 mallards nestled on the far east corner of the second pool.  Jase and I observed from our over-saturated blinds, as he edged ever so carefully along the dike. While skirting the blind-side of the unsuspecting targets, he soon disappeared into the mist and gloom of the marsh as it engulfed the rest his faint silhouette.

Bang! Bang! Two distinctive gun-shots sent the flock soaring and winging just outside of Jase and I’s range of fire. We looked at each other in amazement, as we never thought Billy would get close enough to these wary pros to fire a volley.  A few minutes passed, and Jase decided to leave our wet abodes to try his fortune pursuing the same method that Billy had chosen.  We had elected that I would stay near the decoys in case freshly stirred mallards were desperate for an inviting place to land.  Soon more shots rang out in both directions.  Jase’s figure appeared to my left, and I quickly went out to meet him.  Jase had spoken to Billy, and I was shocked to learn that he had harvested two more mallards and a green wing teal without the use of decoys or a blind. Billy’s stern message was to come quick and bring lots of ammunition.  What transpired in the following hour is difficult to convey in words.

As Jase and I walked briskly down the dike to meet our partner in crime, we observed a camo clad figure down on a knee. The sky around him was filled with flocks of teal and mallards zipping through the brush lined corner of the pool.  I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was if these professional decoy detectives were now oblivious to his presence.  Decoy-less, blind-less, we were on the X.  An astounding X.  Then, paralyzed with awe, my eyes drifted toward the east horizon.  I don’t want to sound over-dramatic, but something spiritual washed over me like a dam that had just given way.  In waves of hundreds, thousands of ducks and geese began to fly directly over our position.  Mallards, pintails, teal, gadwall, they were all channeling through in overwhelming abundance. The majesty of God’s creation was on full display at that place in Missouri, and I wish I had a front row seat every day.

Completely removing me from the moment, a group of 40 teal flew directly over my head, and the wing-shooter in me took charge. With one pull of the trigger, my first drake green wing teal was sent spiraling to the ground.  I ecstatically retrieved my prize, and gathered with Jase and Billy to discuss the chaos that had ensued.  Billy retreated back to the blinds to grab his blind bag and ammunition, and Jase and I stayed to take our chance in this duck-infused gauntlet.

Watching the patterning of the birds, we picked an area next to the brush line to lay low. Ducks appeared to be dropping lower to apparently land on the pool directly behind us.  We each took a knee twenty yards apart and crouched down in the sparse brush for cover.  A group of twelve lesser geese quietly approached from the left at 25 yards, and I pulled up to shoot.  “No, save your shots for the ducks” Jase said to me in a hushed voice.  It was the first time anyone had ever directed me not to take a great shot at a goose.  I was taken aback, but he turned out to be right on point. The mallards above were descending lower and lower, making this a prime opportunity to select the best specimens.  Against the gray sky the dark green of the drake’s heads were easy to spot, and before I realized it, I had three lying next to me.

Teal, those magnificent flying bastards. With every twirling close pass they seemed to dare and ridicule me at the same time.  Ignoring Jase’s sage wisdom to save my ammunition, I took every close shot that I could muster towards those tricksters. Almost immediately I filled my daily limit, and stood stunned with one extra shell in my hand that was quickly transferred back to Billy.  I watched my counterparts follow suit and promptly fill their quota by kneeling in the brush and taking prideful shots.  We were on a time crunch to get back to Minnesota, so the majority of the latter harvested birds were the sporty green-wing teal drakes that we had sworn off in the beginning of the sortie.  With hundreds of ducks yet cascading over the sacred point, we packed up our gear in a champion esc fashion and took in the glorious scene one last time.

The takeaway:

Adaptation is hard, very hard.  In my experience in the show-me state, I discovered that stubbornness can be the key to going home empty handed. On the other hand, if you’re willing to go outside your comfort zone and put in some hard work, the journey can be exhilarating.

-Jake

Adaptation Doesn’t Always Come Easy (Day 2 of 3)

ND sunset

The next morning I awoke to a half asleep Billy goring me in the side with an unlaced boot, along with a few expletives to “wake up”. We gathered our gear again, and strategized on conducting the day’s operations from Billy’s john boat.  We headed down to a well-known and well visited duck lake in east-central Missouri.  Headlights lined the landing like twinkling Christmas lights as we approached, and we backed up Billy’s boat into the next adventure.

Crowded, busy, over-pressured. Take your pick of a descriptor in this scenario.  Without a working knowledge of the lake, we picked a decent looking spot on the GPS and brushed in Billy’s boat with the same short grass that we had become accustomed to the day before.  6:20 a.m., 20 minutes before shooting time.  We’ve all had it happen to us.  Joe Gander strolls up with his roaring 24 horse beavertail mud motor and pulls within 70 yards of our spot that we had secured hours before.  Fortunately for us this time, Joe meandered further to the north and was out of our personal space.

The morning show was more spectacular than the one before. Thousands of ducks arose from their sheltered roosts and flew upward, upward, and away towards nearby refuge.  The population that remained followed suit with the previous day’s motions.   Decoy, mojo, and boat shy, these birds seemed to have run this drill millions of times before.  Jase managed to secure the only drake mallard who was interested in decoying in a 20 mile radius.  A few congratulations were exchanged, but the tune of the morning sustained a minor key while the birds showed little interest in our mallard dense spread.

At 11 o’clock, we decided to pack it up, and relocated to another destination where pools were assigned to hunters in the morning through a lottery. Having never attempted this venture in Minnesota, we were curious to see what the process entailed. We headed to the draw headquarters which was adorned with beautiful waterfowl mounts of old, and met with an experienced worker who gave us the lay of the land.  We scoped out a larger public pool where the duck harvest numbers were statistically in our favor, and grabbed a greasy lunch before the afternoon/evening hunt.

We took Billy’s coveted boat through a shallow channel and narrowly missed sunken trees and logs that lay inches below the dark unforgiving surface. Occasionally, the hair on Jase’s and my neck would stand up straight as loud clunks sounded on the hull.  Shockingly, or not so shockingly (if you know him), Billy seemed to be having the time of his life.  We scouted the entirety of the flowage, and found a few dozen mallards hunkered down in the southeast corner.  The real win while scouting the southeast corner was discovering a larger pocket of a hundred mallards that were feeding on the other side of a six foot dike, where the only access was by foot.  We decided that this might be a perfect spot for the next morning’s hunt, as we needed to bring less gear for the trip home.

The cover for the location we selected in the afternoon was nonexistent. Trying to cover ourselves was reminiscent of being on an episode of “naked and afraid”. We found a few pathetic dead branches and logs to gild the boat, and settled into the hunt.  Few birds passed in the afternoon, but they all swiftly shifted away from our set-up as if we were creepy Uncle Larry at family Christmas gathering.

Three mallards, two snow geese, and an unlucky teal. The bounty for 18 hours of hunting in the perceived holy land of waterfowl did not seem like nearly enough.  With one last hunt before the long trip home, our expectations were minimal at best.

Adaptation Doesn’t Always Come Easy (Day 1 of 3)

Missouri. Where the beer flows like wine.  Where beautiful greenheads flock like the salmon of Capistrano.

This mythical state had been on my mind ever since the last goldeneyes had made their way through Minnesota, and all that remained in December were the hearty local mallards and geese that winter on the ever-turbulent water of the Minnesota River.

Fortunately for me my season had been extended. My brother Jase had moved to south Kansas City, and had shared new tales of unadulterated mallards filling the sky and descending into flooded timber. After convincing my very patient wife of a long weekend away, I was in like a dirty shirt.  Jase’s friend Billy Cluff from Clear the Sky Waterfowl stepped right up for the opportunity to chase greenheads with me in an unfamiliar land, and we headed off on the 6.5 hour road trip.

If you’ve never been to Kansas City, you must. The barbeque is like looking into the face of the almighty, and him telling you that you are his most wonderful creation.  Burnt ends, Susie Q potatoes, and home-style baked beans that make bush’s beans taste like regurgitated baby food.  Missouri is also a very economical trip (unguided) for a hunter with a young family.  The fuel is quite a bit cheaper and the license fees for an out of state hunter are $11 a day.  Much cheaper than the $129 license that I paid for a long weekend in North Dakota.

Gear, gear, and more gear. That is what a waterfowler loves.  The insatiable void that comes every off-season to empty your coffers on new gadgets and unscathed shiny decoys that are guaranteed to suck in more ducks.  Billy and I had brought enough to fully stock his entire F150 and seventeen foot mod-v john boat.  Without knowing what to expect, we somehow convinced my Missou-experienced brother that we needed to bring the farm. On day one we brought three mojos, two higdon pulsators, and a dozen Dakota mallards on a two mile walk-in location.  Needless to say, this was a mistake.  Hauling a 100+ pound game cart over mud ridden corn and bean stubble was not ideal in the least.  Beads of sweat were flowing off my wool laden crown like a mountain stream in the spring.

After selecting a location near a ditch that Jase had watched mallards diving into the evening before, we set out our gear in the dark and meticulously brushed out our blinds on the bank. This was definitely a new experience for me, as the landscape was much different than Minnesota. I can’t think of a single time where we even saw, let alone set up our spread around cattails during the entire trip.  Briars and thin-short grasses were the abundant vegetation, and this made setting up a little cumbersome.

As we waited in our freshly brushed blinds, my mind was continually wandering into thoughts of either going home empty-handed or proudly displaying twelve magnificent mallards on the back of Billy’s truck. When the first hews of sunlight poked through the clouds, it didn’t take long for my thoughts to turn towards the adventure at hand.  Far off to the west, the first few black silhouettes began to appear in the sky.  Jase loudly whispered that these birds were coming off of a nearby refuge and were coming to our area to feed and loaf for the day.  Excitement always fills my heart watching ducks work.  If that euphoric feeling ever gets tiresome, I would sell all of my gear, guns, and decoy carving equipment to the lowest bidder.

After the first few flights sailed off to new destinations, the main act commenced. Like rain on the mountain, wind in the meadow, new birds poured in by the hundreds.  A surreal experience for any hunter from Minnesota I’m sure.  With guns at the ready we watched and waited, waited and watched.  Flocks of twenty at a time would loosely circle just low enough that they would skirt the outside of our range of fire.  It felt like this must have occurred fifteen times in the first half hour.  This was honestly my first experience where hundreds of ducks were taking our waterfowl-loving souls, and torturing them like a wicked ex-girlfriend.  The only bounty we had received in the first hour was an unlucky green wing teal that buzzed by Billy’s dead-eye sights from the right.  Being used to hunting fairly new birds, we were at a loss.

I’d like to think of myself as a master adapter. Given my score on the  strengths finder test, being a Father of two little kids, and working in a fast paced corporate environment, I’ve got plenty of experience.  However, when it comes to luring and hunting ducks, I usually stick to my tried and true methods.  Experimentation was really not in our repertoire, but we had to give it a shot. We changed the spread, turned the mojo’s and higdons off, but to no avail. Being in ankle deep water, I decided to take a 100 yard hike to a spot where I spotted pairs of mallards settle.  Maybe the solution was as simple as location.  If so, the dreams of greenheads lining the truck bed would certainly come true.  The newly tramped site merely produced a spectacular view of a flock of 400 snow geese coasting right over the spot that I had just abdicated.  Jase and Billy took two out of the obnoxiously noisy flock, and my spirits were lifted a little.

Around eleven O’clock, we decided to try our luck at a location where we observed a half dozen mallard’s drop in to in the midst of the morning. When we approached, it seemed to be a picturesque setup. A horse shoe inlet that had a ditch running parallel (a natural safety cove for ducks).  We made no mistake on shrouding ourselves this time.  After treading through chest high waters (I ruined an iPhone in my front pocket in the process), we brushed our blinds significantly better than the morning hunt, and the waiting game was on.  We first tried a mojo-less spread, guessing that the birds had been given a college education through the Mississippi fly-away.  This tactic worked for one drake, but the larger groups were still as cautious as old swamp-buck.  The pattern continued and we put our baby mojos back in the spread, but this time they were 25 yards out and were positioned so that they appeared to be landing in the shallow flooded grass where no human could hide.  This brought the singles in a little closer, and we managed another drake by the end of the day.

Tired, hungry, and downtrodden, we slowly trudged out of the WMA at nightfall. Our legs were heavy, but our hearts were heavier still.  What else could we do to get these winged charlatans to decoy? We literally tried every decoy combination we could think of and changed locations three times. Fortunately, there was a silver lining at the end of the day.  We drowned our sorrows in cheap beer, and barbeque that will make you consider listing your house.

I will be posting the day 2 story tomorrow…..