Any waterfowl hunt begins with a strong dose of optimism, but sometimes pessimism creeps in, too, as though we are shielding ourselves from possible disappointment. How good could a late-season Midwest hunt be for birds that had been shot at four-plus months?
It was the first week in January, and know-it-all waterfowler buddies back home had told me we’d likely get frozen out in western Nebraska by that time of year. Worse (or so I thought) it had snowed heavy just a day or two prior, and now it was so cold I couldn’t keep my Lab’s water from freezing.
That had to move ‘em further south, right?
“Just show up,” Ricky Hart of Lucky Duck and “The Grind” TV show had said. “Warm water sloughs, the river…they always have birds.”
I’d made the long drive to join them and now things just felt right. Moans and clucks were floating on the early morning air, coming off a nearby part of the North Platte River Valley.
“These guys have no idea what’s about to happen,” chuckled Ethan Kirk, owner of Angel Wing Outfitters, his voice coming from the bowels of the huge pit on the edge of the field where about a hundred full bodies and a few LD goose flappers were sprawled. Whether he was talking about us or the geese, I was not sure, but either way…
He’d made no grand promises the evening prior as guys were milling over beers back at the lodge, only assuring us snow was not a problem. That should have been a fun evening, but my little black dog Luna (Colmorg Kennels) was under a constant threat of being violated by the monster male Lab brought by Bill Willroth. The gorilla-sized male had so much pedigree everyone in camp was urging me to just let nature take its course, since Luna’d decided duck camp was the perfect place to go into heat. Willroth owns Dakota Decoys, and you can’t imagine the laughs as I tried to shield poor Luna from this alpha in full beast mode, along with a couple lesser Satellite males.
Eight hours later, one of the gnarliest stateside goose grinds I’d ever seen was about to unfold. Mallards and Canada geese pour into this area from the north to escape winter’s grip, but rarely go much further south.
Birds came off the nearby river, and from seemingly every direction, already good and low, and set their wings like feathered gliders without ever circling or even calling much, cruising straight toward the pit. Loners, doubles, groups of three to five all did it dirty, dying at ranges that made everyone look like a good shot.
You leave a hunt like this with some mental post cards. Most vivid was Willroth on one end of the pit wringing necks as fast as he could and trying to get his dog back in his hole because more birds were always, always coming. And often, they didn’t care about the dog or much else. In fact, the pit was fairly open, and we hardly got down, because they were coming in so low, like diver ducks on the saltwater, and not circling.
Also unusual, I was watching geese land and guys not bothering to jump them for the usual long shot at the edge of the spread; too many more were always coming. One great moment of levity happened when a pair came in, one bit the dust, and the other goes flying straight up the left side with so much gunfire it sounded like microwave popcorn, without the bird losing a feather. Hart swung last and killed the bird.
Standing at the truck and trailer on the edge of the field after limiting out, we watched in disbelief as more honkers flew right overhead off the river, toward the field, just 20 yards above us. I was in awe, realizing I could have just stood there with a 20-gauge and killed a limit in 15 minutes, with several Quill Lakes white-breasted Canadas in the mix! It had been over for us by 8 a.m. with five honkers each. Another group of five hunters was rotated into the pit while we watched, and they were done in under a half hour.
Madness. A much slower evening duck hunt on a warm slough was almost a relief. Overcast clouds had hurt our chances a bit but flocks still cruised past and we nipped away at them.
“This is one of Nebraska’s hidden gems,” Ethan said, talking as we drove along about the warm slough that never freezes and is often jammed with ducks. He revealed his intensity a bit, saying earlier, “If they don’t show up I am going to war with the ducks” and planning a field hunt later. Steam rose off the slough in the bitter cold, yet you could still see where the water kept the snow melted off even the bank out of the water for a foot up the shoreline.
We’d shot over the new Lucky Duck waterproof mallard spinners, tipping one of the new ones completely in the water, and smiling as it just kept on going. A long day; we estimated with the ducks and geese combined we were at close to a hundred birds for the camp on the first day.
Ethan’s an interesting fellow. Likeable and loud-ish but with a laid-back exterior, he’s a family man with a West Coast chill in his speech cadence, a bit baby-faced in his big white hoody. But Ethan is anything but laid-back at heart. A young father, he is sleepless, hardworking and a self-made man, who took out a bank loan to launch his business of chasing birds. Growing up hunting the area with his grandpa, he realized quickly exactly what the area has. He is now a railroad engineer who mixes some farm work in and is a good decision-maker in the field. One day we moved the duck blind three times and when the birds went wide he was annoyed but didn’t show it and took off scouting, later telling me “I could not sit there and watch them do that. We will get revenge in the corn.”
One of his guides chimed in on the radio: “We got a big duck feed…oh no wait, it’s only a few thousand.”
He has done this for four years but taken hunters out since age 14. “I can’t remember hunting without taking guys,” he said.
Kirk knows birds, and cursed the melting snow as it finally warmed a bit. The snow I’d worried would kill our hunt, it turns out, is key: The smoking hot goose field where we’d had the wild shoot, only works like that in the snow, the birds dispersing when it melts.
It’s strange country, in some sense, semi-arid and desert-like in places mixed with croplands. You’ll see black flocks of mallards following the cattle like starlings, tornadoing above feedlots when the snow is around.
And often, there is very little wind —an anomaly in Nebraska, especially so close to Wyoming. Unfortunately, there’s not much for public land in this immediate area, though Nebraska has a fair amount in other areas.
“I’d rather hunt here than about anywhere,” cameraman Sean Weaver, “The Grind” producer, told me as we lay in the corn the next morning. “There are probably places more scenic and maybe with more birds, but it is just how you hunt them here. You can hunt them about any way you can imagine, and they’re concentrated. You hunt them on warm water creeks, in the fields, on lakes…it’s a 20-mile stretch of river valley they have to stick to. They have food so they don’t leave.”
That last morning saw flocks of ducks appear seemingly straight out of the blue sky, becoming black clouds as they circled, then flashing impossibly white in the sunlight directly overhead. They no-showed until around 10 a.m., then arrived in groups of hundreds. The Avian X A-frame blinds worked well with snow covers despite no wind and some clouds. Intermittent geese appeared and we downed 19 honkers to go with the growing greenhead pile. A remarkable day, and I’d discovered first hand a part of the U.S. that could match about anything Canada has to offer. I set a goal of coming here every other year or so.