Butterballs help hunters savor a Thanksgiving hunt.
Birthdays happen once a year. First hunts happen once in a lifetime. Most states have age restrictions on when a youngster can legally hunt. Ideally, the young hunter's birthday falls early in the year when preparations and plans can be made well in advance of the season to ensure a good experience and a memorable day. First hunts are best when the weather is mild and birds are naïve. But that's not always possible. Birthdays, and first hunts, fall where they may.
Such was the case with my son, Matt. Some years, we are carving the turkey on the same day as we celebrate Matt's birthday on Nov. 25. His 12th birthday coincided with Turkey Day.
Duck hunting that time of year can be hit or miss in Michigan. Late November or early December signals the end of the season during years waterfowlers are allowed a 60-day season. Some years, the season is closed by the time Thanksgiving rolls around. Thin-skinned ducks have long since disappeared. Wood ducks, wigeon, teal and local mallards of early season are gone.
Only the diehards remain, both in terms of ducks and duck hunters. Northern mallards and black ducks hang around until freeze-up forces them south. Even then, they'll search out the last vestiges of moving water or little oases that just don't freeze right away.
Rarely are these spots found somewhere you can hunt. And these battle-wise birds seem to know it.
Buffleheads and goldeneyes are the last to leave. Hardy birds with thick layers of fat to insulate them, seemingly impervious to cold and ice, the black-and-whites appear to relish cold weather. They don't even show up until most waterfowl are already long gone.
I was praying that some of these hardy birds had stuck around long enough to make Matt's day special.
The pre-hunt didn't start too well. Wanting to be on the water as early as possible the next morning, we tried to get Matt a license the day before his actual birthday. Armed with his hunter's safety certificate, we went to the local licensing agent only to find the computer licensing system wouldn't let him purchase a license until he was 12 years old ' not a day before. The next day was Thanksgiving. How many licensing agents would be open at 5 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning? Matt and I waited anxiously the next day until the local licensing agent opened at 7 a.m. to get his license.
I'd spotted a bunch of birds in one corner of the lake while scouting the day before. A predicted strong southwest wind for the following day made that corner of the lake an ideal place to hunt.
Flocks of buffleheads and a few whistlers pitter-pattered across the water on take-off as we approached the spot, only to wheel around the lake and land again a short distance away. Even though it was Matt's first hunt when he could actually take a gun, he had plenty of outings under his belt. He'd been going with me almost every weekend since he was 6 or 7 years old, so he was adept at setting decoys. He knew to gently place the decoys in the water to prevent ice from freezing on them, and then to throw the anchor upwind so the decoy stayed in place.
You don't need a lot of decoys for buffleheads or goldeneyes. They're used to traveling in small flocks, and readily decoy to a small set of their own kind. An effective decoy layout we use is to put out two-dozen bluebill decoys with a long line of six or eight decoys leading into the main group in a J-hook set, leaving plenty of room in the opening.
We then place six bufflehead decoys in the middle of the J.
The author's son, Matt, enjoyed a memorable first hunt.
The buffleheads were attracted by the bluebills, would catch the lead into the set and then home in on the bufflehead decoys when they see their brethren. Using bright, highly visible drake bufflehead decoys heightens the attraction.
Flocks, singles and doubles of buffleheads flashed through the decoy spread nonstop as Matt and I hurriedly tried to put up the boat blind. Many of them splashed down in the decoys, looking at their plastic neighbors only to realize their mistake and quickly sputter across the water to escape.
Excitement built as I finally instructed Matt to load his gun and check that the safety was on. It probably wasn't more the two minutes before I spied a handsome drake butterball catch the lead bluebill decoy, make a right turn and come boiling into the set.
"Right here Matt," I hissed. Matt raised his gun just as the bird began to flare. Nothing happened.
"Why didn't you shoot?" I queried.
"Too far," was Matt's matter-of-fact reply.
I had to respect his decision. He knew his limits and comfort level with the 20-gauge. He showed restraint far beyond his years by passing on the bird, and a knowing smile creased my face realizing all those years spent in the boat with me without a gun had paid off.
"No big deal. There'll be lots more. Just take 'em when you're ready," I instructed.
We hardly had time to sit down before another drake bufflehead chose the same route. I motioned to Matt about the incomer. He nodded. The duck buzzed down the line of bluebills until he saw the bufflehead decoys and the flaps came down.
At 30 yards I said, "Take 'em!" Matt stood and swung the barrel of his youth model 870.
The shot string showered the water and covered the bird. The drake bufflehead tumbled with a splash. The duck flipped over on its back, garish pink feet paddling the air.
"I got 'em! I got 'em!" Matt shouted.
"You sure did," I replied, giving him a high five.
Matt hoisted the anchor and we sped toward the trophy with Matt wielding a long handled fish net. He deftly scooped up the prize on the run like he'd done so many times before, and we quickly moved back to reset the boat. Matt turned the handsome bird from side to side, admiring the iridescent purple-blue-green head and stroked the contrasting black-and-white plumage. But there wasn't much time for fanfa
re. More buffleheads were headed our way.
This time, a pair came streaking in low across the water. When they were slip-sliding to set down, Matt cut loose. He missed with the first shot, but crumpled the hen on the second shot. With barely enough time to reload, another drake snuck in out of nowhere and Matt dumped him, too. The action was fast and furious, especially for an end-of-the-season hunt.
While we were rounding up the birds, Matt said, "Dad, why don't you shoot?"
"I'm having more fun watching you," I told him.
" Ya, but there's lots of ducks today," he said. "I want you to shoot too."
"OK," I said. "If we get a flock to come in I'll shoot, but if there's just a single or pair I'll let you shoot."
Another boat of hunters came roaring down the lake. Flocks of ducks that had been resting and feeding on the east and north sides of the lake jumped and started milling around. Hundreds of buffleheads were in the air and many were headed for our corner. A flock of a dozen butterballs came straight into the set. We let loose a volley. When the smoke cleared, four more buffleheads were on the water. One still had its head up and was swimming. Buffleheads are prolific divers, and wounded birds can quickly get out of range or dive and disappear. On the water, their small head and body makes a tough target. I keep some light No. 7 steel loads at the ready for cripples. A quick shot dispatched the bird. Matt and I again fired up the motor to round up the take.
Buffleheads often don't get the respect they deserve. Most hunters are more interested in harvesting more glamorous species. That's understandable, considering a big drake bufflehead weighs a little over a pound and their tendency to eat a lot of animal matter makes them less desirable on the table. You won't find a more handsome bird than a drake bufflehead.
What they lack in size and eating qualities, they make up for in abundance at a time of the year when other species aren't around, and they are challenging to shoot. They are deceptively speedy little targets. If you don't think so, watch where your shot string hits as they buzz your decoy spread, only to zoom down the lake unscathed. They aren't difficult birds to bring down, but the killing zone on a bufflehead is small. Good bufflehead medicine for hunters young and old is a 3-inch, 20-guage load of No. 4 steel shot and an improved-cylinder choke. The combo does a nice job on the little birds and doesn't punish young hunters.
While buffleheads are not as common as many other waterfowl species, they are certainly holding their own. They are one of the few duck species that have increased since the 1950s. They can be found from coast to coast and the Great Lakes region. They are predominately found throughout the boreal forest and aspen parklands of Canada and Alaska. In Michigan, buffleheads are the fourth most common duck harvested during many seasons. Buffleheads often frequent small ponds and lakes and respond readily to a modest spread of decoys.
The abundance of buffleheads is surprising considering their very specific breeding habitat. True cavity nesters, buffleheads nest almost exclusively in the abandoned nests of the northern flicker. They are rarely found far from aspen stands or coniferous forests mixed with poplars during the nesting season. Suitable nesting habitat must be abundant, because buffleheads are doing well.
A Holiday to Remember
We had just gotten settled again when a lone bufflehead came sailing over the spread about 35 yards up. Normally, buffleheads scream in, low to the water on a kamikaze-like strafing of the decoys, but this one was taking a high-altitude approach. I took aim, swung ahead of the duck and slowly squeezed the trigger. Bang! The butterball looked like it had ran into a brick wall.
"I got that one!" proclaimed Matt as he shucked another round into the pump gun. Grinning as I lowered my gun, I confirmed, "You sure did. You dropped him like a bad habit!"
We again exchanged high fives. I could only laugh at myself while thinking what a bufflehead-slaying monster I had created.
Butterballs had definitely made Thanksgiving special.
Mike Gnatkowski is an avid waterfowl hunter who now hails from Sidney, Neb.