October 29, 2010
Camping near the duck blind brings special rewards.
The aesthetic rewards of setting up camp far from the comforts of home are worth the effort of roughing it.
The sun seemed to be smoldering as it dropped into the western end of the lake on a hazy mid-October evening. I pulled my 20 decoys in and let them sit on the sandy shoreline because I would be back in the early morning hours the next day.
Few ducks had been moving during the bluebird afternoon. I had only a blue-winged teal and a green-winged teal to show for my afternoon hunt, but it was a great day to be out. I had spent a few relaxing hours in my hide listening to gulls, watching a bass chase shad in the shallows and taking a couple of early-season migrators. With two more days to spend there, I was sure the morning would bring more action.
It was a long walk back to my pickup. When I reached it, I cleaned my ducks and prepared to settle back for the evening. No packing up or driving to a motel would be necessary. My pickup and topper, parked by a picnic table under a couple of cottonwood trees, would be my lodging for the next two days.
Many of us dream about hunts where a full spread of decoys is already set and the guide taxis the hunters to a spacious, fully equipped blind. As the morning passes, a hot meal cooks on a gas stove in the blind as game straps fill. Following the hunt, a happy group of hunters is shuttled back to a grand lodge containing satellite television, game rooms, prepared meals and all the creature comforts imaginable.
Then there are the private duck clubs that dot fowl-rich sites where exclusive rights are held to well-managed wetlands. Members can reserve comfortable blinds, and all the necessary equipment is stored at clubhouses.
For hunters without the means, especially during tough economic times, guided and club hunts are only a dream. Perhaps a trip or two can be afforded each season, but for those who like to hunt often or prefer to get back to basics, roughing it is an option.
Getting back to the opening hunt, after a sandwich, a can of pop and some fruit, I sat back and gazed at the onyx sky with a smearing of white -- the Milky Way. The closest stars were sparkling like diamonds on a black velvet canvas. A pack of coyotes sang a ragged chorus as I unrolled a foam mat and lightweight sleeping bag. It was early season and temperatures were mild, so it would be a comfortable night.
The next two mornings brought enough gadwalls, wigeon and teal to my decoys to provide good hunts. I spent afternoons exploring shorelines and caught a few white bass in a cove.
As with any hunt, scouting is important, but other preparations are necessary as well. If you plan to hunt public lakes, check beforehand for any restrictions and requirements. Some might have open camping throughout the lake so you can camp as close as possible to your chosen hunting area. Some state park areas require a permit and even limit areas where camping and hunting are allowed.
Camping areas are often as basic as a parking lot. Hunters must bring essential items such as a cookstove, lantern, coolers, bedding and clean water for washing dishes.
A couple of lakes I regularly hunt have open hunting areas in some of the state parks, as well as non-park or wildlife areas. Some areas are simply places to park. They might contain picnic tables, there might be a picnic shelter, and electric and water hook-ups might also be available. It comes down to what is available where you want to hunt and how primitive and adventurous you feel.
Early in the season, when leaves are still clinging to the trees, I have parked and set up camp as close as 100 yards from my hunting spot. The foliage from the cottonwoods and willows hide my pickup from working ducks. As the season progresses and the trees become barren, I usually move my pickup farther away.
During the early season, less equipment is necessary. Because few mallards have arrived, I try to tailor my decoys to the ducks that are around. Eighteen to 24 decoys, with a mix of teal, wigeon, pintails and mallards, seem to work well. If water levels are low and there are bare shorelines, I usually include a few shell decoys to emulate loafing birds. As the season progresses, I will add a few divers, as well as goose decoys.
When hunting and camping out for several days, a small camping stove is handy. Along with a skillet, it works great for cooking a few duck breasts. If you can add a few freshly caught fish, it can make a meal to rival any. Don't forget a large jug of water for cleaning ducks, dishes and yourself after a long day. Some public camping areas have shower houses and faucets, but many close as freezing temperatures near.
Some marshes and wetland areas also allow camping. Those that do usually are nothing more than graveled parking lots with no other amenities. It is the true meaning of roughing it. If you plan to stay at a place like this, a small foldout table is handy for setting a cook stove on. I have also often used a 5-gallon bucket or the tailgate of my pickup to place the cook stove on. Always use caution when cooking out. After a few hard frosts, there will be a lot of dry grass and weeds, and though you can easily control the flame on a stove, days of high wind could cause potential problems.
The author derives a sense of accomplishment from a successful hunt during camping trips to hunt public wildlife areas.
When hunting and camping on marshes and wetlands, an afternoon of fishing probably won't be an option, but when upland bird season is open, pheasants and quail can be added to the daily bag.
A few years ago, I camped at a large wetlands area during the opening week of pheasant season. The first morning, the duck flight was slow but steady. The wind was just strong enough to put some life into my decoys. Just before noon, I completed a nice mixed bag of pintail, gadwalls, wigeon and green-winged teal. After cleaning birds and putting a couple in the cooler, I cooked the others under a bright blue sky as I wat
ched ducks trade back and forth across the waters. I spent the late-afternoon hours at the edge of the marsh, watching with binoculars to get ideas on other possible setup sites.
The following morning, I woke as stars were brightly sprinkled across the heavens above me. The morning hunt was another fine assortment, as my game strap was filled with another mix of gadwall, green-wings and a mallard.
I cooked a few more ducks over the stove for dinner and then prepared to hunt pheasants. I had heard a few roosters cackling that morning, so I wanted to try for the gaudy, long-tailed birds. With so much cover available, I limited my walk to the weedy edge of a field. After a quarter of a mile, I had flushed three buff-colored hens, but the brightly colored roosters were a no-show. About a mile-and-a-half later, as the sun's slanting shadows grew longer, a burst of wings and a raucous cackle startled me. The big rooster was trying to make its getaway, but a string of No. 4 steel brought it back down to earth.
Although nearly two hours of shooting time remained, I was satisfied with the long-tailed bird I held in my hand. I wanted to get back to camp to watch the evening flight of ducks in the day's fading light. The following day, a five-duck limit of five different species plus a white-fronted goose topped off a great three days of roughing it.
A couple of years later, I was in another parking area on the same wetlands unit for a two-day mid-season hunt. The first day dawned clear and cool with no wind, so the flight was slow. By mid-morning, I had a greenhead, drake ring-necked duck and drake redhead lying beside me. After a short break for lunch, I was settled back at my setup, a warm sun shining over my shoulder. It wasn't long before a bluewing and greenwing finished up my limit.
It was late afternoon by the time the ducks were in the cooler and my waders were hanging to dry, so I prepared my lodging for the night. I was eating a sandwich and watching ducks feed out on the marsh as a golden sun edged toward the western horizon when a rooster pheasant glided past my pickup, settling in to roost just 75 yards away. I quickly on pulled a pair of boots and grabbed my shotgun and a handful of 3-inch No. 4s. Loading my gun as I pushed through the heavy weeds, my senses were alert for a flurry of wings. Suddenly, the bird burst from cover to my left, and my gun came to my cheek. The pheasant folded at the report, but I lost sight of it in the sun. Shaking weeds gave the bird away as it flopped in the heavy cover. In a few minutes, it too was in the cooler.
As the season wears late, the conditions might not be nearly as comfortable, but I have spent a lot of cold nights camped out during multi-day hunts. Fishing was no longer an option if I had limited out in the morning, but scouting, upland hunting or just exploring filled my afternoon hours.
Roughing it and camping out is not limited to public areas. I have often camped on private farms where I had permission to goose hunt. Mowed, grassy drives make good parking spots. I did, of course, ask the farmer about camping.
During the Canada goose season, I usually limit the camping to include an afternoon hunt, followed by a morning hunt the next day. Because some of the best goose hunting is late in the season during really cold and possibly snowy weather, I don't usually camp on those nights. It is too uncomfortable to stay out. And when it is cold, the Canada geese don't normally move during the morning or early afternoon hours anyway.
I have also camped during spring snow goose season. As daylight hours grow longer and shooting hours extend past sunset, the nights are short to drive home and back, anyway. Every other day, I'll still head home to finish up birds, restock my cooler and take care of other details.
Because of the long days in the snow goose fields, I don't worry about cooking fresh goose on the camp stove, either. Evening sandwiches of precooked barbecue goose are fine. Out in the open air of the fowling world, any sandwich can seem a gourmet meal after a long day.
Roughing it isn't for everyone. Even for me, as the years wear on, I occasionally find reasons to not camp as often, especially during the late season.
But I still try to stay out there as often as I can. There is a special feeling as the darkness in the sky deepens, highlighted by a full moon rising over a lake or marsh. A cozy sleeping bag awaits me as I think about the ducks that will be hovering over my decoys the following morning. And how could I not revel in the sounds so close at hand to my camp: late-feeding geese returning to roost waters under cover of darkness calling to one another, ducks conversing through the stillness of the night across the waters and northbound snows barking throughout the night when their migration is in full swing. Add the cries of killdeer, the great-horned owls asking who else is about and a lonely coyote howling to the moon, and you have even more reasons to get back to simple times of waterfowling and roughing it.
Ron Peach starts his waterfowl hunting excursions from Kansas City, Mo.</