Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Who Said Hunting Never Pays

Those of you who are regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that waterfowling is my favorite of all hunting pursuits. I try to write balanced posts about an array of hunting and fishing adventures, but I know my bias ultimately shines through. I love duck hunting. I love to prepare duck. And I love to eat duck more than anything else...besides The Wife and The Kids of course (she’s sitting next to me and I just received an elbow to the ribs).

I’ve had the privilege of hunting ducks for 27 years, and besides that making me sound really OLD, it has provided me an opportunity to hunt with some amazing people in some amazing places with some amazing dogs.

But I have to say that every year, around opening day, I get just as excited as that first hunt with The Dad and Brother when I was 12 years old. It’s a lot like Christmas as a child. This year was no different, in fact, it held more anticipation than usual. As I wrote previously, The Hunting Partner purchased a new mud boat over the summer and we planned to use it this weekend. We had done the scouting and identified where we wanted hunt; all that was left was for opening day to arrive.

We planned to hunt different public areas on Saturday and Sunday mornings, both with good promise of plenty of birds. As it turned out, Saturday proved to be a bit challenging with lots of other hunters - who had obviously done their own scouting and also invested in the latest boat craft - crowding into the same general area.

The result was predictable. Lots of birds that otherwise would have worked into our decoys ending up being stopped short by other hunters or being flared by surrounding gunfire. We enjoyed our time hanging out, working the dog, and made the most of the shots that presented themselves. We ended with nine birds between the two of us: six mallards, a pintail and two teal. A very nice start to the season indeed.

Sunday would prove to be a different setting. The place we hunted was approximately a 45-minute boat ride with another 30-minute walk; close to the area I harvested my Golden Eye last year. We met The Hunting Partner’s Uncle at the boat dock at 3:30am, which meant we left the house at 2:30am, which meant we woke up at 2:00am. Yeah, ouch.

As we headed down the slough we could sense that the breeze that met us at the dock had turned upwards into about a 10mph wind. Good news indeed on an otherwise mostly clear morning. We exited the boat and began the long footed journey to our final destination. The walk this year was more difficult; with higher than normal waist-high water and an underwater fern bloom that tangled your legs with every step forward.

After 30 minutes of thigh-burning walking, we reached our destination and found that we had beat the rush. We were able to set up in the pond we had scouted, and in fact, no one was around which was a bit of surprise being that it was Sunday of opening weekend. Perhaps they drew discouraged with an experience like ours the day prior.

Having arrived and set up decoys a full two hours before shoot time left plenty of time for pregame warm ups and strategy discussions. Actually, we were just sitting around B.S.ing and drinking coffee, but good fellowship nonetheless.

An hour before shoot time we saw a bright light in the distance and knew it was headed our way. Sure enough, two fellas in a small boat (why didn’t WE think of that!) showed up and were visibly disappointed that their chosen location was occupied. They were courteous and moved on to the next pond downwind from us.

As shoot time approached, we shook hands, wished one another straight shooting, and separated into the tree line about 60 yards apart around one-third of the pot hole. With the wind sustained at roughly 15 mph, we knew exactly how the ducks would set up coming into the unsuspecting lair.

At shoot time, the Good Lord must have sounded nature's alarm bell because the skies lit up with ducks in various-sized pods flying everywhere. Our calling commenced and as a single drake mallard floated in feet down toward the decoys, The Hunting Partner’s gun reported and the beautiful specimen fell motionless into the pond. One shot, first duck down. This is a good sign.

The next few groups that entered the flight path met the same fate and soon we realized that this was going to be a special morning. Fifteen minutes into shoot time we finally had a chance to catch our breath and talk early results with one another. Come to find out that all three of us had only harvested drake mallards up to this point and it was at that point that we decided we would go for the perfect strap – three limits of greenheads or bust.

Now please don’t get me wrong. The Hunting Partner, his Uncle and I aren’t trophy hunters. We hunt for enjoyment and for meat. We appreciate whatever birds are presented to us and that we are fortunate enough to harvest. But today was shaping up to be something very special. Nearly every group that set up over the dekes were mallards, so making the decision to focus on the drakes was an easy one. In the Pacific Flyway this year you are limited to one hen so our fate was nearly determined for us.

The next group that came in was a flock of five - three drakes and two hens. They swung wide around the tree line out of reach of The Hunting Partner and his Uncle but then locked on the right side of the pond, setting in directly toward my location. As the birds approached it was easy to see the color difference between drakes and hens, and as they floated over the top of me, I stood, placed my bead on the lead drake and pulled the trigger. The bird fell lifeless and in that split second my instinct kicked in and I let my barrel follow through to another drake and again squeezed off one of my Kent Fasteel #3’s.

Same result.

Wow, what a treat. A double on drake mallards. The Dog was elsewhere retrieving downed birds so I hustled out my two birds and picked them up marveling at their exceptional colors. It was at the moment that I noticed something else. One of the drakes was banded. “Holy Crap!” I yelled as my fellow gents peered in my direction.

I retreated to my shanty blind between two dead willows and began assisting my partners with calling in a large group of eight birds that spied our locale. As soon as we hit the calls they set their wings and immediately began a rapid descent to our location. This flock set up different than the last, with the birds splitting off into a couple smaller groups as they approached.

They came gliding in over The Hunter Partner and Uncle’s side of the pond, and at once, I heard their guns bark at the incoming opportunity. Birds down with the Dog hot on the tail of a winged drake mallard trying to escape. With the Dog occupied, the hunting partner walked out, retrieved his own drake mallard, and quickly exclaimed – “I got a band too. No, wait, I got a double band!”.

I could hardly believe it. Legends have been told about double-banded birds but never have I seen such a sight in person. I hollered back and asked what color the second band was, to which he replied it was green. Something in my memory came rushing forward and I immediately recalled that the US Fish and Wildlife Service conducted reward band programs as a means to increase hunter band reporting rates.

I rushed over to The Hunting Partner’s side and at that moment I read, “REWARD $100” on the green band. “Holly Crap!” was again the first thing out of my mouth. BTW – I really do have a larger vocabulary than that, but these two instances seemingly warranted that same general response.

We quickly finished out our morning exactly one hour after shoot time began with three wonderful limits of ducks including 19 drake mallards and 2 wigeon – for which I will not let The Hunting Partner nor his Uncle forget for a long, long time.

We stood around recalling the light speed at which the morning had passed, the abundance of birds, and how appreciative we were of this special place and time. Any hunt in my book is the perfect hunt simply by virtue of being provided the means and opportunity to be out with friends, nature, and the dog doing what I love best. But today quickly became uniquely qualified as one for the books.

It is moments like these why I hunt, eat, and live!


NorCal Cazadora said...

Great hunt, great story!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great day and a great hunt. I never knew there was a reward for the bands, so I learned something new today.

Editor said...

good story, got your link up

Anonymous said...

I don't hunt (because I am too focused on fishing), but, sure like to read good stories. I will be back some more hunting and fishing stories.

Terry Scoville said...

Wow Jon, a money band! Geeze, can't wait to hear where it was banded at. Please do a follow up and let us know! Did you think about having it mounted with the bands in place? What a great story!

Blessed said...

for some reason my rss feed to your blog broke - I'm fixing that now :)

Great story! It doesn't look like I'll get to hunt this year so I'm enjoying all the stories!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Oh, Blessed, this is making me so sad!

Tom Sorenson said...

So you're still in the blog world - I haven't seen you in my Reader, so will update the RSS feed.

Great story - and that's a lot of ducks. That many ducks should start adding up when it comes grill time.