April 23, 2015
Hard Core's honky tonk tour bus pulled through the gates and we stepped off just in time to bear witness to one of the most amazing sights in all of duckdom.
Thousands of white and dark geese — and mallards too — poured out of a small lake over a tree line into a winter wheat field not 50 yards from the water's edge.
Our group stood around an early December campfire in stunned silence, deafened by the cacophony of snows, Ross's, specklebellies and all manner of Canada subspecies.
Then the man who built this treasure, grinned, took a sip of his favorite cocktail and said it: "Welcome to Monday at Hooray, boys."
Eric Dunn owns Hooray Ranch and teamed with Hard Core, putting their products to the test every day of the season. The HC guys film videos and hold launch events in this fowler's paradise, keeping things stateside and simple in a place they now like hunting more than venturing to Canada.
It's easy to see why.
Owner really isn't the right title for Dunn, the former electrician turned outfitter. He's more like a big brother, cracking you up over the biggest steak you've ever tried to eat one minute, then filling your coffee cup the next, making sure you're all squared away.
Hooray is in the middle of Kansas west of Wichita. If you drove through, it would be hard to believe this is one of the best places to kill waterfowl in all of North America.
I don't say that just because Dunn has the ducks. He does. Kansas does. In fact the state is packed with DIY and public opportunities. But more on that later.
We limited on greenheads the first morning on one of his many impoundments in 25 minutes and were eating Brookies, these wonderfully delightful brownie, chocolate chip cookie, caramel artery-clogging combinations, before 8 a.m.
What makes Hooray great is what makes anyplace great: the people.
Yes, Hooray is expensive and elite, but it is not elitist. Dunn grew up here and was on the same side of the fence you and I find ourselves on most days, until he wasn't. And it's probably the only place on earth you'll see a millionaire mopping the lodge floor every morning, because it "beats the hell out of sitting in a cubicle."
Always the worker, Dunn also saw an opportunity while busting his ass for someone else. He split from his employer and became a contractor, but not like you think.
He ended up going after the infrastructure contracts for one of the biggest coffee joints in the known world. You know the one on every street corner in every metropolis in America. Selling a portion of that business, he made his millions.
The land he had scouted growing up was within reach, and Dunn started buying it piece by piece, acquiring water rights as well, which in the drought-stricken West are more valuable than any stretch of farmland.
The result is over 11,000 acres (and counting) of thriving waterfowl habitat, where hundreds of thousands of birds roost and loaf on waters from tapped wells.
To describe the amount of ducks and geese on these properties is frankly impossible. The sheer numbers left me speechless more than once.
I'll put it to you this way: There's a guy at every duck club who pipes up and says "that's nothing," when a guest sees a massive wad of birds for the first time. Take that guy to Hooray and shut him up.
Randy Hill of Hard Core needed more shells. Someone passed him a box of Speed Ball and was rebuffed "That 'aint enough. I need the whole case."
You know that cliche' when someone gets angry "they see red." Well, I think Randall had seen green, black and white; as in mallards, specks, Canadas and snows, and he NEEDED more ammo.
We were in a make-shift stick blind on the edge of a 50-acre lake, kneeling or sitting on small folding chairs meant for high school cheerleaders. I took a second to look around as the biggest mega wad of geese most of us ever laid eyes on tornadoed over 500 dark and white HC floaters and field full-bodies.
Every man had a call or a fist just away from his lips, muttering between clucks and groans. "Oh my God, this is the biggest flock, oh my God, let's shoot them, Oh. My. God..."
It was a late start. Daylight had long come by the time Randy pulled us into a desolate field off another one of rural Kansas' infamous sand back roads.
Apparently since human populations are so sparse west of Wichita, the expense of pavement is considered a luxury. "These guys ever heard a black top?" Randy chided as we Tokyo drifted like a sprint car through the gate.
Hill and I began jabbering about how backwards we thought Kansas waterfowling was. Both of us are from Illinois, where there's big rivers and deep water-filled rock quarries and heated ponds from nuclear plants that keep the birds content in the harshest of winters. Lots of water.
But in central Kansas, you might see a small pothole amongst the wheat, beans, corn and now cotton. It's supremely odd to anyone who grew up shooting ducks on the river. A lot of the hunting is done in fields because of a lack of water access.
So we tooled around to the back of this property past rusted out cars and the remnants of what used to be a pair of small homes. The lake looked like an Oreo cookie. Canadas and specks on either end, snows in the cream-filled middle.
It suddenly dawned on me: This was a roost! My hunting buddies back home would never speak to me again if they found out about this. But in Kansas, where water is at a premium, hunting the roost is OK...if it's done right.
The first thing you have to do is let all the birds leave of there own volition, don't push them off. Since there were upwards of 80,000 on this little 50-acre lake, that took a while, even though we didn't show up 'til 9 a.m.
Then you set up as fast as you can and wait for birds to return, picking them off in small groups, which is how our morning started — specks, lesser Canadas and a few greenheads, some snows and Rossies later in the day.
After an hour or two, I moved out of the permanent blind into the stick hide along the sandy shore. A few larger groups had started to cup in and Eric called us over as they were finishing to our right. That's when the muttering started.
A huge, huge group of geese led by a 747 honker spiraled in like a giant flock of snows. Now in most cases, you let this many birds land not to educate them. But this particular lake was one of the largest bodies of water in the area, outside of a reservoir, so the geese have to come back to it eventually.
And since Hooray has other impoundments, this water could be rested more than a week easily.
At 20 yards the front of the group splayed their feet out in front them, almost like a giant reclining goose Barcalounger. The kill'em cry was more like a death cry, something right out of a Crusades battle.
Ten guns rose and 20-plus birds splashed the water, dogs were everywhere. More waves came, more geese hit the deck. We pulled zip ties out and started stringing limits together: "six Canadas, two specks, OK you're done on dark geese, now we need the snows."
After one of the last flocks came in and repeated the same scenario, Eric grinned and called out, "what kind of day is it at Hooray?"
Just another Wednesday.
You Can DIY
Not everyone can afford Hooray but Dunn and his guides, who are like the Yankees of calling and killing, have duck hunted all over Kansas, a good mix of public land and door-knocking.
To be honest, the state is seeing more and more guys show up in pickups and trailers, but the benefits are undeniable if you time it right.
First the area directly west of Wichita is rife with birds. You're going to have to do a ton of scouting if you're not from the area, but look at Google Earth, find the water sources, sit next to them and then follow the birds to the fields so you can set up on them the next morning.
Dunn said some farmers are asking guys to pay to play, but it's usually no more than $100 per gun, less than most outfitters will charge for a day afield, and few can put you on the type of shoot you will find in central Kansas.
While you're driving around scouting the big flocks look for small potholes, most of them have a few limits of greenheads on them, especially if you're there in December and January (if there's open water).
When we were driving back from our morning mallard shoot, guide Randy Young (a door-knocking specialist if there ever was one) saw such spot. "I'll probably try and get permission on that," he said.
Situations like these are exactly what you should be looking for. It doesn't get any easier; a couple floaters, motion decoy, jerk string and you're in business. Hunting water in this region is advantageous because there's so little of it and the birds want in.
If you're striking out on private land, just head over to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts as many as 2 million birds during the fall migration, or Cheyenne Bottoms, which also holds hundreds of thousands of waterfowl.
Both are open to hunting and most Kansas public locales have a lengthy amount of helpful information for hunters. For example, before heading to Hooray I did some research and went to Kansas' DNR site.
Having hunted public land in Illinois, where you can't even get an updated map of the stake sites, I was shocked to find such extensive reports. I clicked on Cheyenne Bottoms and there was even a newsletter that detailed how many teal were shot during the early season broken down by pool, so you could see the best places to hunt!
Locals must hate that this information is made public, but take advantage of it. By the way, the 2014 teal season harvest was over 10,000 birds at Cheyenne — a 4.32 bird per hunter ratio.
There's also a bevy of upland habitat (prairie chickens, quail and pheasants), turkeys, whitetail, dove fields and more. You just have to check out the DNR site for a list of fee-to-hunt controlled shooting areas (CSAs). The landowner's name and number are listed.
Kansas also has a convenient smartphone app called iSportsman, which allows you to purchase hunting permits, sign in and out and register your harvests electronically without the hassle of calling in or driving to a check station.
And if you go during deer season, look up the Hunter Referral Program — it puts hunters in touch with landowners looking to control their deer population.
Back at Hooray, the majesty of the trip was soaking in: the birds, games on the big screens, steaks the size of the 'Ol 96er and late-night longnecks with friends, new and old.
Since it was nothing like I had ever experienced — hunting or otherwise — there's difficulty in finding the right words to explain how grandiose the place is.
The last morning Dunn shook my hand and asked: "Well, what did you think?"
I paused and stuttered, "It...it was so awesome I don't know how to describe it."
He just smiled and slapped me on the shoulder, "That's what Hooray is all about."