November 03, 2010
By Jack Hirt
A Kentucky hunting club goes above and beyond.
By Jack Hirt
High Ground greencaps.
With the stars fast-fading in the clear night sky, I followed big Rick Krohn through a maze of Bigfoot Canada decoys toward Tug's pit, a massive, bi-level, underground affair of heavy-duty steel construction that comfortably shoots up to seven hunters, and which is named after Rick's oft-decorated, but retired champion retriever. On our heels were Jack Strassweg with his athletic, young black Lab, Gus, and Clifford Romain, with Rick's current black dog, another top-level hunt-tester named Cody.
As we approached the hole, being kept ice free by a series of electric-powered agitators, ducks began to boil off the water. It was something we expected after having watched several hundred mallards, along with a sprinkling of blacks, gadwall, and wigeon had put on for us as we watched from the distance late the previous afternoon. But when Rick waved his arms and let out a couple coyote-like barks, our world exploded into a furry of blurred wings. It was anybody's guess as to how many birds took to the air in rolling waves.
With the dogs situated in their own pit-type boxes, we hustled into the blind, pushed open the shooting doors, and just stood there taking in the spectacle. This was well worth the price of admission alone. Most of the ducks departed toward the sanctuary of the Sloughs Wildlife Management Area to the northeast. But hundreds circled back, wheeling and banking, reluctant to leave the bounty of the flooded, but ice-tight cornfield that edged the open water 45 yards in front of us.
It was shooting time, but none of my three new acquaintances so much as reached for their gun, much less loaded them. They suggested I might. But even with singles, pairs, and a few small flocks working up close and personal, I was reluctant. As their guest I wanted to gun with these guys. And besides, given the scene we'd just witnessed, no one, obviously, felt a sense of urgency. To a man, we were content to just let the hunt unfold.
But the brilliant sunrise flipped a switch, abruptly shutting the floodgate on the duck flight. With high skies, and only the slightest drift of an occasional shifting breeze, it was a beautiful January day in Kentucky to be sure. Though I kept my thoughts to myself, I began to wonder about the hunt.
As if he read my mind, Jack offered reassuringly, "Not to worry. Some of our best shooting occurs between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The birds have likely fed all night, and given the bluebird weather, most of them will be content to sit out the day on the refuge. But there's always a few that get hungry early, anxious to return to the table we've set for them. Until then," he suggested, "how 'bout we jump into the Ranger and take a little tour of the place."
While I would come to learn that The Three Amigos (Jack, Rick, and Clifford; High Ground's original founders) are passionate about their waterfowling, it's nothing compared to the fire I saw in Jack's eyes as he spoke of Highground's past, present, and future. Each stop on our route featured a blind or pit. And whether it was Kate's, The Cathedral, Arkansas, Romain's, or Coon's slough, there was a story to go with the naming of each one. Though cliché, it's only accurate to explain that High Ground is a true labor of love for these guys.
A couple gun blasts from Tug's, the day's first, ended our sojourn. Back to the hunt it was.
Habitat created by High Ground Hunt Club.
Clifford and Cody had just finished recovering the boys' second greencap as Jack and I slid back into the pit. I looked at my watch. It was 10, straight up.
Only moments later Rick hissed between calling sequences, "Watch 'um!" I was ready. We all were. When Rick (The Gate Keeper) pulled the master pin, the heavy, expanded metal shooting doors dropped with a resounding thud, and guns spoke. All but mine, that is. It wasn't until the smoke cleared that I asked, "Geez guys, was it something I said?" Only then did they realize we'd never unlocked the safety pin on my lid. Cliff and Jack were falling over, but needlessly straight-faced apologetic. Fun-lovin' Ricky, who readily admits to occasional "Chucky-like" tendencies, was laughing out loud, finding the situation as humorous as it truly was.
With that ice-breaker relieving any tensions, the four of us, joined for a time by club manager Will Hagan, enjoyed what proved to be a good, old fashioned duck hunt. Coming in flocks of one, two, and three, we were never covered up with ducks as our predawn experience might have predicted. But throughout those magic midday hours, right up until the club-mandated 2 p.m. shooting time closure, there seemed to always be something in the air.
Being totally concealed in the basically flush-mounted pit, I fully expected the 20-yard and under gunning Jack predicted. And though we did have some candy, the terribly pleasant conditions, in concert with the well-educated, late season birds meant Rick (who, with all kidding aside, has the toughest job in the pit) would have to call some wider, longer shots. At first glance I thought it would have been easy.
It took a few clumsy tries, but I finally got with the program. Capping my morning was a single, wide-swinging greenhead I stoned. When Gus returned with the bird, it was a pleasant surprise to find I had jewelry.
The rest of the casually-hunted day passed in a blur as we mixed a good, old-fashioned bull session with the sporadic shooting opportunities. But lunch was worthy of mention. Hot dogs are the house specialty at Tug's. Prepared on an old, mini mart-style broiler, and served, lathered in horse radish and pickle relish on crumbly, day old buns.
We ended that first day with 19 ducks, and a solitary, Kamikaze goose, under still high skies suddenly filling with ducks that knew it was two o'clock. The action had been slow by High Ground's standards, but discounting the pair of ducks Will accounted for in the short time he was with us; we still exceeded Jack's professed goal of averaging four birds/gun/day. While that made him (The Boss) happy; it's fair to say I was impressed.
Ont the second day, it was back to Tug's. But it was soon obvious things were going to be different. The skies were high, but thinly overcast. Instead of clouds of overnighting mallards, we kicked not more than a couple hundred out of the hole in our pre-dawn advance. The previous day's thaw and mild evening temps had apparently provided the bird
s a lot more open water roosting options than they'd had the night before. Given the circumstances, it was agreed by all to get with the program from shooting time on.
Where's the ducks?
Though we passed on none other than Susies, our shots proved few and far between in the early going. A situation that was hard on itchy trigger fingers and anxious dogs, but one that provided a chance to learn more about Henderson County, Kentucky's rich waterfowling tradition in general. It was explained that this land near the confluence of the Wabash and Ohio rivers has long been a ducking hotspot, providing endless backwater options to mobile, properly-equipped, hard-working hunters. Then there is the state-operated Slough's WMA that offers limited-entry hunting out of its pits and blinds on a draw, then first come/first served basis. Sloughs has always held ducks, and had long been a major wintering ground for thousands of MVP Canadas. But beginning in the mid to late '90s, during a series of mild winters, it, along with similar refuges on the same latitude in Illinois, lost the majority of its geese to more northern climes. Surrounding Sloughs and throughout Henderson County, and those that abutt it, are a number of private hunt clubs. But unlike High Ground's 3000 plus-acre, multiple blind operation, most are only one or two pit affairs loosely supported by a handful of partners/members.
Clifford was quick to point out that this was shaping up to be their best goose season in years. Likely as a result of the more severe winter in the Great White North in '07/'08, Sloughs was once again holding geese in huntable numbers. Then, barely clearing the trees, there they were, a dozen honkers winging low, headed our way. The boys broke loose with their short reeds, but to no avail. But then there came another flight, closely followed by two more, and even more after that.
But these were tough birds. After an hours worth of mounting frustration Clifford insisted, "We're goin' to have to take 'em on the swing. It's our only chance." We did just that on the next flock. It produced a pair of wing-broken birds that crashed into the corn stubble 100 yards off. Skeet, Clifford's gloden had, got the call, making short work of the cripples.
The Canadas continued to string our way. And when we had the chance, we chipped away at 'em. As we did it was interesting to note the change in Clifford's demeanor. Probably the most laid back of the bunch when it came to ducks, he had turned up the wick, tearing into the geese like he was mad at 'em. Suddenly set-jawed, even the slim, signature stogie ever-clenched in his teeth, took a beating. When I noted as much out loud he readily volunteered, "Oh yeah, I love gunnin' them big honkers!" A man after my own heart to be sure.
We managed but a couple limits of ducks that second day. But taking what High Ground and the Red Gods would give us, we filled out on geese with a pair apiece. While it had been another fine, late-season day in Kentucky, little did we know that the next would be a classic.
Northwestern Kentucky had been blanketed by a wet, heavy, three-inch snowfall overnight. Being a Wisconsinite, it was only natural I felt right at home as Jack, Gus, and I sloshed our way toward the Arkansas pit that last morning. Though soggy and bone-chilled, we warmed to the spectacle and accompanying racket that was swarm after thundering swarm of ducks blasting out of our hole, then mystically evaporating into the treetop-hugging scud so suddenly that in only minutes we were left wondering if what we'd seen and heard had really happened.
Makin' waves, belly-up.
As we settled into this more Spartan, basic steel pit sunk into a dike separating two cells of reclaimed wetlands, Gus took up his perch at one end. Able to see out of this dog box, his at-attention posture spoke volumes of the hunt to come.
Daylight had to fight its way into our gray and white surroundings. Though it was shooting time, it was still too dark to tell the boys from the girls when the day's first customers materialized out of the low ceilings, hanging on tightly-cupped wings, then splashing comfortably into the blocks.
"Aw, this is goin' to be good!" I not so brilliantly mentioned to The Boss who replied with a knowing, tolerant grin.
"Looks that way doesn't it?"
Our next visitors, two drakes chasing a solitary hen, appeared just as suddenly, but magically in the gathering light, this time in full color. I could see my host wasn't going to make the first move. So I obliged him, canning one of the greencaps.
We were so polite it was almost sickening. "Take 'em," one of us would offer. "Naw, you take 'em," would be the standard reply, while more often than not, neither of us would.
And so it went, each of us, almost grudgingly, taking turns. Aw, but this was High Ground; duck hunting at its finest! The likes of which would have served any Nash Buckingham tale well. Being where they wanted to be, there was no keeping the birds out of our setup.
Setting our guns aside we sat, watched, and quietly talked for a while as ducks continued to work our rig. It was a good time to get a couple questions answered.
"Given its immediate proximity to Sloughs, has High Ground been additive, or has it detracted from the WMA's effectiveness as a wintering ground?" I asked.
"I'm a little prejudiced naturally," Jack responded, "but there's little question that we've had a positive impact. This area is holding more ducks overall as a result of both the wetlands we've created and maintain, and the food we provide. And unlike other clubs, we keep our wetlands flooded, and therefore our food sources available, until the birds leave in Spring, sending them north in the best shape we can. And we produce our share of wood ducks too, adding and maintaining more nesting structures each year."
"And what about the hunting?" I followed. "How do Highground members score relative to other clubs and public opportunities in the area?"
"Much better, no doubt", Jack replied, adding, "And sure, we have our detractors. Those who are jealous of us for that. But our hunting€¦specifically, providing quality hunting€¦is in great part what we're all about. To our naysayers I'd offer, 'You get out of your hunting what you put into it. And we put an awful lot into ours, all year!'"
With our hunt all but wrapped up, Jack was anxious to check in on some of the other members hunting that morning. So he suggest
ed I finish my day with the boys back in Tug's.
When I got there I found quite the party goin' on. Clifford and Rick, along with club members Charley Porter and Brian Bulkly, and his guest, Giblet, were pretty much giving it to each other, their good-natured banter interrupted by shooting opportunities only. With jokes flowin', cigars puffin', and ducks flyin' like there was no tomorrow, they hunted casually, like they knew they were going to get it done.
And as they did, Clifford and his charge for the day, the black Lab, Kate, were kept plenty busy. Handling one tricky blind after another, Clifford's skills as a full time retriever trainer were clearly evident once again. Always straight-faced and ever the pro, going about his work in a matter-of-fact manner, but with a subtle gleam in his eye, it's not hard to see "The Dog Man" truly loves what he does.
Prime, late season greencaps dominated the shooting that last, great duck day; but there were enough bonus birds flying to keep us on our toes. In the end our full bag included gadwall, wigeon, ringnecks, a spoonie, and even a pair of woodies.
Along with the rest of the day's combatants, we were happily recapping its notable events back at Tin City, the club's headquarters, when Jack's cell rang. It was Gunner, Will Hagan's nine year old son, and the vanguard of High Ground's future generations, calling. The Boss held the phone out for me to listen in.
The High Ground Story
Established in 1997 with the original bottomland purchase of 250 acres, High Ground is best described as a modern day hunt club founded in the grand old tradition.
Let there be no doubt about it; when the season is in, High Ground is all about the hunting. But unlike traditional clubs of the past that were just about killing birds, High Ground is much more. This club was founded with the expressed intention of preserving the land and the hunting traditions it supports for the benefit of future generations.
To that end High Ground's owners employ modern game and land management practices; and make major annual investments of time and money to improve habitat and restore wetlands. Thankful for the gifts the land has provided, it is the club's way of giving back.
High Ground's membership is held to lofty standards by peer pressure alone. Only those who hunt ethically, and who seek a true quality experience qualify as members over the long run.
Though a members-only club, High Ground further promotes our sport by opening its facilities to sponsored youngsters during Kentucky's February youth hunt, and to handicapped hunters sponsored by owners or members anytime throughout the season.
In addition to the waterfowl program, High Ground's 3000-plus current, contiguous acres are managed as a trophy whitetail operation. Only bucks scoring 160 inches or better are allowed to be harvested by gun or muzzleloader, with 130 or better being the standard for bowhunters.
Though most reside in southwestern Indiana and northwestern Kentucky, High Ground does have members from as far away as Louisville and Atlanta. The club's present goal is to max out at 30 waterfowl members and 30 deer members annually. Still in the growth stage, High Ground has openings at this time.
"Didja' git yer limit today, Mr. Jack?" the lad asked hopefully.
"No, son," Jack replied with a wink and a grin, "I ran outa' time again!"
Being mentored by his father and The Three Amigos, I suspect the lad knows full well just what The Boss meant.