The fair-weather, weekend warriors have long since packed it in. The dog now shivers from the freezing air, not just excitement.
But you know the rewards can be tremendous in the late, great season.
East to west across the country anywhere north-latitude of Amarillo, the Deep Freeze is gripping waterfowl-land as the heavy cold stretches its tentacles in all directions.
Road trips are dangerous, the highways now icy serpents in the headlights. Snowstorms lurk each night along with the threat of freeze-up.
Breaking through that crusty snow to dig your layout into shore along the only open water around, a moving river, or warm spring, you wonder if it's too much for the dog this time. Shivering in your layout, you soon ponder whether those electric warm jackets really work, and why your boot warmers never do.
The physical properties of everything have changed in the penetrating chill, from trailer tie-downs to boat plugs and combustion motors, few things work the same. Plastics snap, latches burst open and won't shut, rope is stiff as cable. Everything is brittle.
Yet as long as bitter winds lay off, even the icy lockup can become a sort of gentleman's hunt. Particularly on those sunny-but-10-below days, because nothing is going to move until mid-morning, it's just too cold. On those days, you can eat breakfast and set your spread at 10, because peak activity may be late morning or even midday.
There is an odd tranquility about everything in the deep freeze, if the wind dies, and even your firearm is quieter in the weight of the dense cold. Guns that go bang in October now extract empties with a sha-shunk sound because you didn't get all the oil out of the action. Thick smoke lingers at the muzzle from each shot, and sits resting in the air for you to breath. Sunlight brings no warmth, but becomes a psychological edge for your own endurance, not just a strategic field one. But you know if it is in the birds' eyes, it's a game-changer.
We scored big on a late-morning goose run in clear dry below-zero air on the upper Front Range, the guns making a strange muted popping sound in the dense air, at one point even landing a giant flock of Canadas at our feet. An incredible and noisy spectacle, we let them get nervous and take off without a shot fired, to avoid educating so many. Later, birds were piled piled amid crimson specks in the snow. Success.
Twenty-four hours later, after some white-knuckled late night ice-road-trucking, the crew turned around and rolled a donut — not a single shot fired — in the bitter damp Midwest winds of west Kansas. The skies held far more birds, but none would play ball. Here, there is a whole different painful kind of searing cold, and no clothing exists that keeps the bitterness at bay for long.
You know, that cold you can only take when setting up or taking down the spread, placing full-bodies that feel like they may shatter if dropped.
All sane Americans are home eating pumpkin pie and watching football games. Yet we'll do it again, year after year, as long as the back and knees will take it, and there are migrators in the air. Exactly why? We'd hate to have to explain.