Opportunistic late-day hunts make fond memories.
The morning goose hunt had been a fine one. Sailing in confidently under the lid of a classically low-hanging scud, a nice mixture of snows and cacklers had found our rig, which we'd set in the wheat stubble exactly where they had fed until dark the evening before. But the ducks we expected to join them never came to play. So when a couple of our gang offered to handle the scouting for the following morning, my son Bill, hunting partner Mike Brookins and I opted to try for an afternoon duck shoot in a Manitoba pea field we knew was feeding some mallards.
My stars aligned. Tucked into the downwind edge of our spread of full-body honkers and field mallards, I quickly shot out on greencaps. I closed the lid on my blind and beat feet out of the field with my old Lab, Tanner, on my heels. Brookins, who'd been equally fortunate, soon followed. We left the uncluttered rig to Bill and his yellow sidekick, Maggie.
We watched the show through the windshield of my pickup as the pair deliberately went to work on a limit. While they did, the recollection of several special, but equally impromptu afternoon hunts enjoyed over my nearly 40 years of prairie wildfowling came flooding fondly back.
Now, prairie-borne waterfowling is for the most part about the morning hunt and everything involved in it. Scouting for the fields feeding huntable numbers of mallards and geese, securing landowner permission to hunt them, putting together the plan, and then executing it, requires nothing short of a ton of work and military maneuver-like precision. A good morning shoot is always satisfying, and a boatload of fun. Although the effort put into each one is similar, no two morning hunts are more alike than any two sunrises. All are equally special.
Still, those unplanned, opportunistic afternoon hunt -- bonuses really -- seem to steal the show.
Here are just a few that stand out in my mind.
Last Half-Hour Teal
Hunting partner Dave Kovacic, and my wife-to-be, Mary, had gone freelancing the Minnedosa pothole country early one October back in the 1970s. Our inept attempt to field hunt mallards that morning had been a bust, so in late afternoon, we cruised the countryside looking for a water hunt, the type we were far more familiar with. When we rolled past a three- or four-acre cattail-rimmed slough that had to be staging every blue-winged teal in Manitoba, we knew we had found that day's honeyhole.
At a farmstead a half-mile down the dusty road, it was our good fortune to find the landowner working in the yard. A bit perplexed by our request, he asked, "Why did you come so far just to shoot ducks?" followed by "Why did you bother to ask?"
With a curious smile, he quickly granted permission to hunt, but not before his white-aproned wife burst through the farmhouse door with a plateful of still-warm oatmeal cookies.
Although we were anxious to get on with the hunt, we couldn't refuse the obviously conversation-starved lady's offer. While the milk-and-cookie buffet admittedly hit the spot, we weren't able to excuse ourselves until less than an hour of shooting time remained.
It was a pleasantly warm, windy and sunny Indian summer afternoon as we finally waded into the edge of the wetland, only to be swallowed up in a world of whirling teal. It was a short and sweet pass shoot.
Sitting on the tailgate as darkness settled in and the pollution-free sky filled with stars so close we could reach out and touch them, we toasted our good fortune, as any hunter visiting the Canadian prairie might -- with an icy cold Blue.
Saskatchewan Mallard Attack
Mary and I traveled to the countryside nearby Luseland, Sask., in 1974 on our honeymoon. Thanks to a tip from an old shooting buddy, we'd found and had fair success with specklebellies. They were our stated goal, or at least our excuse for being there. But not unexpectedly, we found a whole lot more. Lord knows how many mallards pounded the freshly swathed barley field we came upon one sunny, breezy afternoon.
To the north, tucked behind a long row of weather-beaten granaries, stood an equally austere-looking farmhouse. A knock on its door produced the lady of the land, a husky, but pleasant woman dressed in the classic black-and-white garb of the Amish.
Upon my inquiry she gushed, "Oh my, yes. Please hunt. It will help save our crop."
We were quick to oblige.
Although she is a competent gunner on the skeet range, Mary wasn't and isn't a hunter.
But she enjoyed being there. So after suiting up my bride in her stylish, smelt seine poncho, we hustled out into the field and tucked comfortably into the ideal cover the fluffed swath provided.
I had no sooner stuffed Gramp's old humpback with Peters high-base No. 5s than Mary elbowed me sharply. I looked up to see what had to be a thousand bright orange feet paddling in colorful contrast to as many, silvery, flashing wings descending upon us from the late afternoon's darkening blue sky. It was like a scene from Hitchcock's "The Birds." Before I could think about shooting, the ducks were down, walking, chattering and feeding all around us.
Sitting up in the eye of the storm to experience the thunderous flush, I held fire, enjoying a spectacle -- a rush unlike any other I had ever seen or felt.
But then it was down to business. And business didn't take long to conduct. With a limit of grain fat greenheads on the stubble, we loitered until dark, becoming one with the world of the wild duck.
How many birds had we seen? I couldn't even imagine. But they were so thick we physically booted some off the crop as we walked out that evening.
Dogless in those days, I still kid Mary about how cute she looked while on retrieving duty that day with those mallards in her mouth.
I'll admit it was my mistake. For business purposes, I had invited a couple of, let's say, "non-conformers," along on our annual North Dakota waterfowling trip.
The rest of us, addicts every one, all sharing the same basic wildfowling values, had always gotten along fine, willing to gi
ve and take to make a group hunt a pleasant and successful experience. But tolerating this pair of ill-fitting, inexperienced newbies soon had us all at our wits' end.
I was at a loss about what to do with the situation. But it turned out the two knuckleheads took things into their own hands.
After yet another morning snow goose hunt during which the claiming pair actually shot nothing more than holes in the sky, we motored west out of Minot in search of an afternoon duck hunt. And it appeared we found it in the form of two lakes, one large, one small, separated by a good-sized hill. Both lakes were plastered with bluebills.
The plan was obvious: We would split into two groups of three gunners. Set up on both lakes to keep the birds moving, and enjoy what should have been a sure thing.
Which it proved to be for the two of us on the small lake, as well as for our two buddies on the big water.
But for our dynamic duo, it proved a far different story.
Deciding they had us covered for once -- that they knew better -- and in spite of our objections, they made a mad dash for a set of corner fence posts atop the hill, over which the trading birds were visibly scraping.
Out-of-the-way spots can provide outstanding afternoon hunts.
The show these guys put on proved an embarrassing comedy. Oh, they were set up on the bluebill highway alright. And they got more than their share of shooting. But that was about all. They took turns, like a pair of Keystone cops, running back to their truck for more ammunition all afternoon.
Finally ending their shoot with three or four birds between them, and their tails firmly planted between their legs, they packed up and headed home early the next day, claiming pressing business.
A Canvasback Moment
It was one of those rare years back in the day with an open season on canvasbacks. When we spotted a small bunch on the wind-driven prairie lake dotted with flocks of assorted other divers, we knew we had to try to hunt them.
Our small puddler rig seemed oddly out of place in the lee of the midlake point. But it was all we had to offer that variously gray-clouded, gusty, sporadically rain-splattered, just downright snotty afternoon. And it wasn't producing either. The few small knots of bluebills and butterballs on the wing gave it a wide berth.
Tucked deep into the hood of my parka, I caught a glimpse of a solitary, high bird cutting over our point from left to right at Mach 1. Reacting stiffly but instinctively, I rose and pulled a wide lead on the streaking target. A lucky poke if there ever was one, the totally stoned duck, still riding the wind-on-its-tail momentum, cannonballed the rolling surf 80 yards off shore.
My then veteran Lab, Shamus, a hundred pounds of solid, bird-crazed muscle, had the mark and was off, crushing each oncoming wave he faced with his massive chest.
Clamping down on the bobbing, belly-up duck with his big maw, the reddish-yellow dog ruddered hard right in a powerful turn, and with a whitecap breaking over his back, got lit up by a tubular shaft of sunshine lasering through the matted cloud deck not unlike a transporter beam in operation on the Starship Enterprise.
Only then, with its burnished head aglow in the momentary sunlight, could I see I had the trophy can I had hoped for.
Enemy in the Sun
We could see the tornado in the distance.
"Mallards. All mallards. Geez, it's the motherlode!" Steve effused excitedly while squinting into his binoculars.
Ducks, in flocks of hundreds, were pouring off the small, cottonwood-ringed lake that afternoon, then ganging up to roll across the prairie in smoke-like clouds, only to descend on a two-mile distant field of wheat stubble. A constant procession of low-flying, apparently well-fed and thirsty, but much smaller flocks winged from the wheat field to the water.
We were not efficient or well-rigged field hunters at that point in our budding prairie-hunting careers, so our obvious option involved the water. With a wind hauling at more than 20 mph from the east, we had no choice but to set up with the brightest of autumn suns in our eyes. Hunting from a driftwood hide just south of our rig gave us a small window in which to differentiate the decoying drakes from the hens.
While the birds worked almost constantly and put on a delightful show, every single, pair or flock came directly out of the sun, only to slide at the last second, into our window of opportunity.
The go/no-go decision was nothing short of gut wrenching. Never before in our wildfowling lives had we passed on so many shooting opportunities. But we stuck to our guns, literally. In the end, although several birds shy of our collective limit, we knew to a man, that we'd hunted as well as we ever had. And that really mattered.
Gone To Roost
It was a Manitoba duck lake like many others, holding a decent number of assorted puddlers. Three of us decided to give it a go during midday, intending to be picked up by the rest of our crew in time to join in the evening goose scout.
Taking them as they came, we had a great time popping a mixed bag of teal, wigeon and gadwall. We pulled our small rig by late afternoon, loafing lazily on the sunlit shore, waiting for our ride that never came.
With darkness settling in, we were getting more than a little concerned. But our worries were displaced.
The first flock of snows, 100 birds strong, winged in uncharacteristically low, only to promptly settle in the middle of the lake as if they owned it. Minutes later, two, three, four, then even more strings of whitey could be seen approaching what we then realized was their roost.
Barrel-rolling out of the night sky, the happy geese began to paint the calming waters white. Then all hell really broke loose as surely thousands of chaotically barking geese filled the air and water all around us. The noise was deafening, and the wash of air off their wings bathed our faces as the geese swirled within mere feet, oblivious to our presence.
Being an unabashed fan of snow geese, I had often wondered what it would be like to be in a snow goose roost. Now I know.
Apart from being indescribable, it was as special as special gets in our wonderful world of wildfowl.
These late-day hunts and countless others, I'm so fortunate to say, have provided some of the most wonderful times of my wildfowling life. But none have proved quite as special as that afternoon watching Bill and Maggie milk their hunt for all it was worth.
The satisfaction I felt seeing and knowing I'd successfully passed it -- the passion -- on, was afternoon delight to the nth degree.
Jack Hirt of Glenbeulah, Wis., is a frequent Wildfowl contributor.