Mallards and memories emerge from flooded corn.
It felt darn good to be on the road. We had finally pulled the trigger on a much-anticipated -- but never actually scheduled -- trip. The hunt had been in serious jeopardy because my partner, my son Bill, and I had so many "life happens" events last fall.
Already pushing mid-November, it was far later in the season than we'd have liked for a hunt on the northern prairies. But we had reason to be cautiously optimistic. The weather outlook called for unseasonably mild conditions, so freezeup wouldn't be a problem.
Reports from duck country detailed what amounted to a major portion of the migration short-stopped by a bounty of crop fields too wet to harvest. And my old Lab, normally content to snooze on the backseat of the pickup, didn't. Instead, Tanner sat up almost all day, his big head resting on the top of the front seat, his eyes fixed on the passing countryside -- scenery familiar to him after a charmed life of traveling to this, our favorite route to gunning adventure, dozens of times together.
At first, I thought he might be dreaming of all those good times past. But a Lab lives only for the moment. I took his anticipation as a good sign.
After the daylong power drive, we were greeted at our crossroads motel by an enthusiastic group of youngsters happily grilling duck breasts as they worked their way through a cooler of ice-chilled brew. I was tempted. And they surely sensed it. But I wasn't going to bite. I wasn't going to ask the obvious, "Where?" We all knew I wouldn't get a straight answer, anyway. That's how the game is played -- as it probably should be.
It was the last conversation we would have with any other hunters all week. We occasionally ran across another party in our daily travels. And one morning, we heard distant gunfire. But hunter competition was a non-factor.
A wet spot in the center of a cornfield provided prime mallard gunning.
Lay of the Land
We planned to spend our first day spotting and scouting. There was no urgency. We had all week -- if we chose to use it -- to kill our birds.
Up and out before dawn, daybreak found us slowly grinding southward on a muddy backroad. We had no sooner passed a politely waving "Farmer Jones" sitting at the end of his driveway with his cell phone in his ear, when I glanced eastward. I couldn't believe my eyes. There, above 80 acres of sopping-wet beans and corn backlit by a brightening but still blood-red sky, swirled a cloud of ducks numbering at least a thousand birds.
As I braked to a slip-sliding stop to get a better look with the glasses, I noticed our friendly farmer approaching in my side view mirror. I got out and flagged him down. After only a few minutes of conversation, we had permission. "Get out there and kill ya some!" were his parting words as he drove off with a smile at least as wide as ours.
Although certainly tempted, we kept our guns cased. By mid-morning, we had two more fields of dreams all tied up. Finding landowners, which can be agonizingly difficult during the height of the harvest, was easy on this trip because they couldn't work the saturated ground. Surprisingly, especially given the problematic circumstances they faced, all seemed in a particularly good mood and accommodating to anyone willing to gun the birds off their crops.
Packing decoys into muddy fields was a lot of work, but the results were worth the effort.
By noon, we couldn't take it any longer. Just being there to witness that amazing world of wildfowl, we had to hunt.
A couple of hours later, we tucked into our layout blinds at the water's edge of Farmer Jones' flooded beans overlooking a simple spread of a two-dozen floaters and a pair of spinners. Our initial volley had no sooner put Tanner and Maggie -- Bill's Lab -- to work than two white Labs burst onto the scene. The pair, it turned out, belonged to our friendly farmer. The dogs had free roam of the homestead, and they were anxious to join in the fun. Their fascination with our decoys, particularly the spinners, was never-ending.
But as a result, our afternoon hunt surely was.
No matter. We sensed better days were ahead.
A Throwback Hunt
After the doggy debacle, we had just enough daylight left to scout the next day's hunt, this one in a quarter section of beans and corn, a third of which was covered by various pockets of sheetwater.
Our plan was to set up on a 2-acre pond in the beans that we put to bed covered up with only Lord-knows-how-many mallards.
A wad of ducks, as expected, exploded from the hole in a thunderous roar as we approached in the pre-dawn darkness. After hastily throwing our basic rig, we settled in for what would surely be a fast and furious, slam-dunk shoot.
Man, were we wrong!
Daylight found us to be among ducks, all right. I mean, there had to be 2,500 ducks using the field. It was quite the spectacle as daylight found them happily trading, in flocks of one to several hundred birds, from one watery breakfast table to another.
But we were soon frustrated by the fact that only the odd bunch would give us even a wide-swinging look. While we were able to reach out and touch a pair of greenheads early on, it took us a bit to realize we couldn't compete with the numerous and massive spreads of the Real McCoys in the neighborhood.
After plenty of time studying their flight patterns, we huffed out to a mid-field, high-grounded, 10-acre patch of standing corn surrounded by a maze of puddle-sized sheetwater ponds. While Bill and Maggie guarded the northeast corner of the corn, Tanner and I settled on the southwest end. We proceeded to enjoy a pass shoot unlike any I'd seen for 25 years.
Classically painted in the bright sunlight against the bluest of deep-blue autumn skies, passing greenheads presented endless targets of opportunity. We picked our shots, letting larger flocks go, while conce
ntrating on the lowest-winging singles and pairs.
As we worked toward our limits that glorious morning, my thoughts drifted back to my introduction to pass-shooting on the firing line at eastern Wisconsin's Collins Marsh, now nearly a lifetime ago. Quickly finding its crowded, competitive-type gunning distasteful even back then, I have done everything I could ever since to avoid pass-shooting. But the morning re-taught the lesson that there is a time and place for a throwback-type of hunt that is pure fun and, arguably, the simplest form of waterfowling.
Like a Dream
Our next day's hunt proved the same chapter, but the second verse.
We were looking at yet another combination of flooded corn and soybeans, but the spot -- the X -- required a more distant hike. Looking at the long, muddy slog, the Old Guy decided we'd travel light, with the two spinners tucked into my young partner's backpack, comprising our entire decoy rig.
After the previous day's success, I'll admit to unabashedly thinking pass shoot all the way. But knowing there was no harm in at least trying it, we deployed the two mechanical wonders in a wet spot in the beans no more than 15 yards from the downwind edge of our cornfield hide.
It was soon apparent these birds had definitely not been hunted for a while. From first light through the first half-hour of shooting time, pintails and mallards swarmed our rig. It was at once spectacular and ridiculous.
"I guess we're all due for a day of days, Bill," I offered. "And the way it looks, this may be ours."
When the brilliant prairie sunrise fully colored the birds, we went to work, quickly cutting limits with in-your-face shooting. Not able to let go of that crazy, wild morning, we lingered. We moved several rows deeper into the corn to savor the show for two more hours before we retreated.
When we returned to our truck, the field was still alive with fowl.
"It's like we were never even out there, Dad," Bill muttered.
"Maybe we weren't. Could just have been a dream, eh?" I replied.
Only the duck rollups we grilled for supper proved the contrary.
We overslept that afternoon's nap, leaving little time to properly scout. So we hastily beat back to Day Two's field in time to find it was still holding a ton of ducks. To say we were confident going into the next morning's hunt is an understatement.
No matter how bountiful late-season birds are, they're still just that -- late-season birds.
After having been gunned for two months, you might be able to burn them once. But by going too quickly back to the well, the hunter is likely to be toasted. And it looked like that might happen to us on the gloomy morning.
Oh, the birds were there. They were not going to abandon the abundant chow. But without the benefit of sunshine and the shadows it generates, we were pretty easily detected, especially early on. But by mid-morning, we started to pick away at the decoyable singles and pairs that began to move about.
It took us all morning and a few barrel-stretching pokes to bag our birds. When we stopped by to thank the farmer, he took a keen interest in our ducks. Almost as an afterthought, I offered to clean a few up for him. Although we were surprised, he gratefully accepted. His reaction clarified just how much sharing the bounty of the hunt with a generous landowner has become a lost tradition.
Basic With a Bit of Luck
During that afternoon's scouting trip, Bill and I talked about our unbelievably good fortune. We agreed a lot more was going on than the red gods stacking the deck in our favor.
We were having a great time with a minimum of hassle, moving to the beat of only our drums, living and hunting pressure-free, with only ourselves to satisfy. We would have been satisfied even without the world-class gunning. But there was more to it.
Our spontaneous adventure was proving the value of a good-old simple, basic duck trip that doesn't require hours of planning and organizing. Successful hunts are not always dependent on an expensive trailer of goose decoys or the band of brothers needed to employ them. All a good duck trip requires is a like-minded buddy, a happy, cooperative pup or two, a basic decoy rig, time, energy and the attitude that simply having a good time is top priority. A little good luck is welcome, too.
All philosophy aside, we did finally get down to business on that afternoon's tour.
While weighing our options for the final day's hunt, we were suddenly halted by an impassably flooded section of prairie road. As we stepped out of the truck to survey the situation, the cornfield to our immediate left erupted, spewing ducks like a volcano spits ash. Wave after squawking wave of mallards took flight, as did several nice bunches of particularly long-necked pintails, while several squadrons of greenwings whirled beneath the main melee, strafing the cornstalks before promptly settling back into them.
Without any discussion, Bill was off on a recon run. And when he popped back out of the corn, his grin said it all. "This could be the honeyhole of all honeyholes!" He had found a 4-acre, weed-laced pocket 30 rows into the field, with its waters reaching all the way to the ears in several cornrows.
The field wasn't posted. But it is our policy to get permission no matter what, so we began to search. It took a while, but we finally located the landowner, one a neighbor told us would be unlikely to grant permission. After a polite inquiry, the man was more than happy to let us hunt.
Now, you'd think after a week's worth of playing outside, sleep would come easy. It didn't. Oh, we were fired up about the morning's prospects to be sure, but it was the nightlong, driving rain pounding on our door that kept Bill and I restless throughout the evening.
The downpour continued as we drove in almost depressed, dazed silence toward our ducky destination that morning. After suiting up, we were about ready to go in when, just as the weatherman had unbelievably predicted, the wind let off and the showers first lightened to a drizzle, then shut off completely.
We had no sooner begun our push through the soaked corn than the sk
ies opened up again. But this time, the thick, treetop-hugging scud rained ducks. They fell through the soup, first materializing in fuzzy-edged focus in the distance, and then closing to become crisp, black silhouettes as they dumped confidently into the hole.
After studying the first flights, we decided to muck around to the south end of the waterhole to take advantage of the only slightest drift of breeze from that same direction.
Once there, we quickly deployed our two-spinner rig and hunkered into the shorter stalks at water's edge.
When the gathering light finally allowed us to discern color, we had at 'em. Gunning one man, one greenhead at a time, with the dogs alternating retrieves, our trip wound down to its final moments. A handsome drake pintail apiece capped our limits.
The pair of sprig put an exclamation point on a once-in-a-lifetime week -- a duck trip that almost didn't happen.
Jack Hirt of Glenbeulah, Wis., travels to the prairies every year to hunt ducks and geese.