Platte River Flashback
November 03, 2010
A great day on a great river revisited.
Awake, but not yet fully alert, I hear the rustling of Tom and Dave Mangelsen from their beds in the one-room cabin along the banks of central Nebraska's Platte River. Their father, Harold, is brewing coffee for the thermos and barking out orders to his sons. Daypacks are soon loaded with lunch, shells and camera gear.
Dressing quickly, I take a moment to scan the cabin's interior, cluttered with animated Labradors, photographic memorabilia and a collection of hunting accoutrements. After a chance meeting with Tom Mangelsen along New Mexico's Rio Grande (where he was filming sandhill cranes for a National Geographic special) and getting an invitation to hunt with he and his family, I wasn't about to pass up a chance to visit one of North America's premier waterfowling locations.
Stepping out the cabin door, I was blasted by the biting chill of a 25mph north wind. A thermometer on the cabin wall read 28 degrees, making me glad that I had packed enough cold weather gear. Looking skyward, I could see the faint hint of a half moon through gossamer layers of clouds.
Excited Labs raced down a brush-lined, but well-worn trail to the Platte. Ahead, the startled whirring of wings and raucous cackle as Satan flushed a cock pheasant from his riverside roost.
A hint of the impending dawn was on the horizon as we load the gear into a canoe and begin our watery journey to the blind. Wading staffs help us keep our balance as we cross the meandering sub-channels of the river. Sand shifts under our feet and I feel the pressing rush of cold water against my chest waders. An occasional splash of icy water reminds one of the caution needed when wading large rivers. The dogs plunge ecstatically ahead, providing amazement at a Lab's inbred love of the frigid conditions so often associated with waterfowl hunting.
Geared up and ready for the afternoon hunt.
Crossing the final channel, I see the shape of decoys resting on shallow sandbars and riding atop the fast-flowing river currents. Over 200 goose and 120 duck decoys serve as artificial Judas' for the migrating flocks of waterfowl.
The eastern sky becomes ablaze with the fires of dawn. Moving quickly, we re-rig the stool to compensate for the overnight shift in wind direction. Harold, silhouetted against the reddish sky, surveys the spread with eyes sharpened by 35 years of Platte River hunting.
A pair of three-man pits is sunk into a grass-covered island. Harold is fanatical in his care of the island, using portions of silt-trapping wooden snow fence imbedded at the upstream point to maintain the island's integrity. A bulldozer is employed during the summer months to keep the river frontage clear of brush intrusion during the summer's low water period.
Upstream irrigation projects, complete with their associated dams, plus thousands of recently developed irrigation wells, have diminished the Platte's historic flow by over 50-percent. More important, the dams hold back the once-annual spring floods, which scoured the brush from river channels, producing a natural maintenance of the sandbars so necessary for waterfowl loafing areas.
Through Harold's yearly upkeep of the river, he perpetuates not only a natural river bottom for excellent waterfowl hunting, but the exposed sandbars also provide traditional roosting habitat for over 30,000 lesser sandhill cranes and countless number of ducks and geese during the spectacular spring migration period. The fate of more than 90-percent of the world's migratory sandhill crane population, plus 75-percent of the mid-continent's population of white-fronted geese, hinges upon the perpetuation of Platte River flows.
Directing traffic and making a plan.
Un-wise water management, plus the encroachment of the human element to the Platte River bottomlands, poses serious threats to Central Flyway waterfowl populations. A flock of mallards swings upriver, high, but looking for company. Three duck calls beckon the mallards as they fight the quartering northwest wind. Cautiously, for these mallards have flown the blind-studded Platte before, the flock passes high overhead, and then sweeps down wind.
The chorus of highballs, greeting calls and feeding chuckles produced by the artificial calls solicit a response from the leading hen. Suddenly she banks with set wings, bringing the flock with her.
Harold watches the birds through a clump of cord grass. Letting the front half of the flock pass, he gives the order to shoot. Shotguns poke skyward and the subsequent burst of shots brings three greenheads tumbling into the Platte's steel blue waters. Flaring into the strong wind, the flock seems to disappear in the cloud-covered sky.
Satan and Blackie, loosed from their camouflaged dog boxes, tear across the river channel for the retrieves. A wing-tipped drake paddles furiously ahead of Blackie, diving at just the right second. The Lab's persistence pays off and the bird is proudly brought back to the island.
Eyes continually search the river corridor. To the south, a flock of 15 mallards, high and a half-mile away, head to the cornfields. It seems impossible, but the three of us begin a series of long, drawn-out highballs.
Brunch...Platte River style.
Unbelievably, two ducks peel off and drop toward us. They work closer and I finally make out a drake and hen. Wings cupped, they drop quickly toward the decoy spread. The pair really wants down, thus escaping the punishing north wind. I've been elected to take the drake.
Suddenly, the mallards are over the closest decoys. As the unconsciously comes to my shoulder, I pick out the drake, wings set and orange-red legs dangling. Pulling a bit in front, I squeeze and watch the greenhead tumble unceremoniously into the river.
A lull hits the river, as we must now wait for the return flights of waterfowl. Come they will, searching out the Platte's water and sandbars to wash down and grind up the morning's golden bounty of Nebraska corn.
On the move, Satan plunges across the shallows for the retrieve. One can sense the lab's pride, as he high-steps across the ripples, posing briefly on the sandbar before delivering his prize to the blind.
Harold launches into the history of his waterfowling on the Platte. He began hunting the Platte in 1933, taking his annual vacation from a local mercantile store in two-hour increments. His blinds consisted of sunken 50-gallon lard barrels. He recounts unbelievable flights of ducks, including a 1938 hunt when six hunters killed 120 greenheads (the legal daily limit in those days).
A rewarding walk back to the blind.
He eventually constructed a permanent set of pits, one of which was half of a steel gasoline transport tank encased in 1200 pounds of concrete. The adjacent pit, installed as his boys grew old enough to hunt with him, consisted of a sunken cattle-watering trough. The east pit, located 150 yards down river, had its cement bags carried across the Platte on the backs of Shetland ponies during the low summer flows.
Annual grasses growing on the small island are supplemented with reams of prairie cord grass, gathered from road ditches. Lashed together in bundles and woven into weld-wire screens, the pits take on the natural appearance of a Platte River "towhead", or vegetated island. Harold's strict requirement that all hunters wear drab clothing only adds to the pits' effectiveness.
Even though the Platte's waterfowl flocks constantly turn over during the fall migration period, every trick in the waterfowler's book must be used to lure the heavily hunted birds into acceptable shooting range. Harold constantly strives to improve his decoy spread, using homemade decoys of various materials mixed in with mallard and Canada goose decoys. These decoys, made of resin-impregnated forming board, molded under high pressure and then glued together and covered with cloth gauze before painting, have long legs of steel rod, allowing them to be pushed deep into the Platte's sandy bottom.
Harold's pride and joy are nine full-bodied Canada goose decoys, made of burlap-covered straw that was given to him by an ex-market hunter over 30 years ago. The big honkers, pushed south from the frozen prairies, decoy un-erringly to these life-like decoys rigged on a sandbar or ice-hole in the river.
White-fronted goose decoys, faithfully hand-painted by Harold, also grace the spread. The spooky white-fronts are nearly impossible to pull in during the fall migration unless realistic decoys, coupled with good calling, are employed.
When the weather really turns bitter and decoy spreads must be picked up daily to escape permanent ice damage, true waterfowlers are separated from the amateur sky-busters. Those that can brave 30-below-zero windchills will always remember endless flocks of Canadas and mallards fighting for the open leads of life-giving water before moving south to more temperate conditions.
Tom interrupts the conversation and hands over an unexpected treat--a plate of steaming bacon and eggs and toasted pumpkin bread, prepared by Dave over a propane stove. A cup of coffee tops off the welcome meal. Purists would turn over in their grave at such niceties in a sport that must, by tradition, be tortuous, but dog-gone it, the breakfast was truly enjoyable!
A lone goose that eventually turns into an immature sand hill crane puts us on the alert. Tom, a professional cinema photographer who specializes in cranes, calls to the young bird. The youngster answers Tom, swings in and parachutes down, long legs outstretched. Settling amongst the goose decoys, 25 yards away, the crane looks the blind over, then begins to preen its feathers. Content to be with a group of seemingly un-worried Canada geese, the crane pays no mind to our constant conversations.
Ragged strings of mallards, high in the eastern sky, herald the return flight from the countless fields paralleling the river. A flock of 40 mallards heads our way, lured by the decoys and constant calling. The flock circles high, their chuckling feed calls incessant in the mid-morning air. Each circle brings the ducks lower, their brilliant colors almost aglow in the Nebraska sunshine.
Suddenly they lift, flaring into the wind as if fired upon. Looking toward the sun, I see the cause of the ducks' unexpected departure - an adult bald eagle soaring high above. A common wintertime predator on waterfowl flocks, the eagle, for the time being, has ruined a sure thing.
A frigid setup.
Additional action is not long in coming as a flock of seven mallards drops in low from the north. They circle the silhouette goose decoys 120 yards below us, then pick up and come toward the pleading duck calls. Switching to feed calls, and drake mallard quacks, we talk the mallards in.
Rising to clear the island, the mallards pose an easy target as Tom, Dave and Harold drop the three drakes with some fancy shooting. The hens, never purposely taken from Harold's pits, move rapidly up the river, flaring even higher as they are saluted by a volley from a blind full of sky-busting neighbors.
I get my chance on a lone drake that comes in during the course of another of Harold's Plate River history lessons. Instinctively freezing after hearing the whistle of wings, Dave gives a fast greeting call. As if on a string, the greenhead banks, sets his wings and angles into the decoys. He almost reached his destination!
Having to perform his daily supervisory chore of inspecting work progress on a new hunting cabin, Harold gathered up his wading stick and splashed his way ashore. The old cabin, a 1928 schoolhouse moved to its riverside location in 1950, was being replaced by a more modern retirement dwelling, complete with picture windows overlooking the blind island. The old cabin and its years of indelible history will remain as a guesthouse and perpetual legacy to better days on the Platte.
The main duck flight over, we settled into the pits to wait for the real trophies--a flock of Canada geese. Ensconced within the sunken pits and out of the north wind's main thrust, the mid-day sun lulled us into a near-stupor. The two blinds upriver had emptied out following the termination of the duck flights. Flocks of ring-billed gulls course the river, searching for any morsel of food, be it crippled waterfowl or fish scraps.
Subconsciously, I hear a distant honk, but dismiss the sound as a mid-day hallucination. Unknown instinct causes me to glance northward and there, 200 yards up with wings set are 25 Canadas. Don't move, they've seen the decoys!
Tom and Dave, both past Missouri Valley goose calling champions, use modified Faulk's calls to beckon the flock of lessers. Pushed by a north wind, yet trying to lose altitude, the flock sweeps overhead, answering the goose calls with a garrulous squawking. Now a mixture of calls as Tom produces an expert rendition of the white-fronted goose, a wavering three-note call captured only by the best of goose callers. Dave continues with his higher pitched call of the lesser Canada goose.
Swinging now, the flock begins its slow approach against the blustery wind. No doubt a migrant flock pushed south from the Missouri River, 200 miles away. Furiously, I drop 4's into the over and under, a lethal combination for decoying geese.
A handful is just what this waterfowler had in mind.
Onward they come, appearing closer than they really are. Sixty yards out, 20 yards up, my camera catches one side of the flock, black necks shining in the mid-day sun. Over the duck decoys now, then a slight lift to miss the natural island. Tom gives the verbal command and we rise from the grass-covered pits, eyes straining to pick a single bird from the flock that has begun to flare upwards.
The leader crumples and tumbles downward. Working on the right side of the flock, I pull feathers from a dark-breasted goose; watch him falter, then pull up into the wind. The second shot does the job and the goose slants downward into a towhead, 70 yards away. Dave also has a bird down on the grassy peninsula. As the dogs search for the geese, Tom retrieves the leader, a six-pounder, from the nearest group of decoys. I wondered if Harold had seen the flock work his excellent rig?
Excited, but yet a bit remorseful, we load the birds and gear into the canoe. Harold greets us at the riverbank and says he saw the action and wondered if there had been any cripples. Overall, the Platte River professor seemed pleased with our success. After a brief lunch, and change into shooting vests, Tom and I hit the corn stubble and adjacent river bottom cover for bobwhites and ring-necks.
Tom has his dogs, Pointer and Hap, both over 10 years old, but still anxious to hunt. The English pointer, glad to be out of his restrictive kennel, ranges too far ahead. Tom's whistle blasts through the cool air and Pointer swings back. The lab, tail constantly beating, works the corn stubble for that delicious scent of the ring-necked pheasant.
Ahead, a strip of cordgrass, bordering the cornfield, interests Pointer. A brief tail movement, then the frozen point. Tom and Hap step up and a rooster jumps, cackling furiously. Although climbing sharply, Tom's 20-gauge throws a load of 6s that catches the gaudy cock as he levels out. As if in slow motion, the bird crumples, then somersaults into the stubble, met by Hap who proudly retrieves Tom's bird.
Three large coveys of bobwhites, flushed throughout the wooded bottomland, etch memories of excellent dog work and perhaps less than excellent shooting. Lots of bark shots amongst the mature timber stands as the diminutive versions of ruffed grouse twist and turn in the maze of off-white tree trunks.
Later, at the cabin, Harold talks of a change in the weather, colder temperatures in the Dakotas and a chance for more migrating flocks. "Want to try it again in the morning?" he says.
Need he really ask?