June 22, 2021
Ideally, hitting the highway to chase feathers for a few days with a good friend doesn’t include dodging 18-wheeler crashes, or your guide’s truck bursting into flames, or folks rushing home because of family getting hit with COVID-19. But not much about the 2020 “it”-show was ideal, and it seemed the most difficult of years would push its nefarious intentions to the bitter end.
In mid-December, Sure Shot Game Calls owner Charlie Holder started firing texts announcing an Oklahoma duck and goose hunt, with his usual notice. A week later, right before Christmas, we rolled out in a rental truck, and I was gleeful, having just lost out on a dream trip to Mexico due to a Corona eruption there. At my side was Keith Buswell, an adventure photographer whose day job is a cyber security specialist. He’d dropped everything to make it and the former pheasant hunter badly wanted a Christmas goose for his mother-in-law.
I’d heard about the sandhill crane hunting in the Panhandle, but had only turkey hunted Oklahoma. This border area near Waurika is lovely rolling country, like an extension of north Texas. From Colorado we’d trucked down through Amarillo and crossed into Oklahoma, barely dodging a massive semi-truck wreck that had just sprayed dirt all over the highway but had somehow piled up entirely in the median. The police were not there yet, so we picked our way around what would no doubt become a huge traffic jam.
Once at camp, time slowed down in the pleasant way hunting trips do, and throughout the sojourn I could not shake the feeling that I was hunting in Texas. From the familiar seed pods on the ground to the hog tracks and cactus everywhere, the oak tree hammocks and cattle all over, the feeling is pure Lone Star. Cowboys with giant hats and long spurs clomping through the restaurants.
First Come, First Served
At first light we hit a stock pond in this classic cattle country, which holds many such honey holes tucked between ag fields broken by patches of brush and simply teeming with game. In the hour before dawn, we popped up a brushed-up Avian X A-frame on the steep edge of the pond. Funny how with some setups you see the birds coming from a distance, others they are suddenly in your lap. These came out of nowhere. Wigeon, gadwall, one greenhead, a ringer, and a few spoonies and pintails paid the price. A couple dozen decoys to each side squared the ducks up front and center as they came winging in from the far side, no circling, straight to the decoys. As we started shooting, they would flare almost straight up like teal on the opener at perfect range. We let the Savage Renegauge autoloaders, Briley chokes and BOSS #5s go to work. A lethal combo. It was over quickly, a typical calm-weather hunt, but we made the most of the half-hour flurry. A simple and perfect hunt. No spinners, just jerk cords, and the she-Lab, Sage, killing it on long retrieves. Classy dog—she resisted rolling on the huge dead armadillo laying in the grass behind the blind. That Texas feeling, again.
Charlie has run with Dakota and Summer Stowers of North Texas Outfitters for a few years now, a favorite outfit of the late icon Mike Morgan of MOJO fame. “They are the hardest working young people we know in the business. From Dakota’s wife, Summer, playing the role as cook, maid, and Uber driver… and she also has to dress Dakota each morning. She told me that the long hours Dakota keeps are so taxing, he wakes up EVERY morning and asks her where his clothes are! Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Dakota always has a steady eye on the sky and fields, scouting again every day after the hunt is over. They make the perfect team. It doesn’t take long being around them to see how their hospitality keeps them booked up over a year in advance.”
That evening, we arrived at Bill’s Fish House west of town. We had to take their word about the name—there was no sign in front of the little low-slung plain white building. They don’t need one. There were 50 pickup trucks in the parking lot, and we gorged on catfish, crispy, juicy frog legs, devil crab-stuffed shrimp, and $2 Coronas. Even the sad little iceberg “salad” reminded me of Texas. Impossible not to have fun with friends at a spot like that.
December 19 would live in infamy. A metal buckle from a ratchet strap lay glowing across the terminals of a lithium battery under Dakota’s back seat, doing the devil’s work. Keith and I took off to follow our guide’s truck at oh-dark-thirty, when I saw big flames in the distance on the side of the road.
“Got any marshmallows,” I joked. “Looks like a car-becue.” As we got close I thought it was a tractor, a cage-like metal frame looming silhouetted in front of the growing flames. I started to make out that it was in fact a UTV on a trailer behind a burning pickup when Keith said, “Oh no, that’s our guys,” and that hot panic set in, disbelief, and hoping everyone was safe. Vehicle fires are a different kind of hot. Ammunition was exploding, cops arriving and yelling at everyone to back away, while Dakota wanted to save his UTV. Two fire trucks pulled up and poured water on the Ford for about two minutes before there was any noticeable difference, molten aluminum dripping to the ground.
Dakota had been driving along, when he saw a wisp of smoke snake toward the cracked open window. He pulled over, hopped out and opened the rear door. WHOOM, the oxygen hit, and the truck went up. Like any true duck hunter, he saved the dog first as his 2019 diesel super-duty melted, like, well, a marshmallow. A tough break for a young outfitter family. He took it surprisingly well, more concerned that we make it to the duck hole he’d scouted. “It’s packed,” he said. “You guys should hunt. We have another truck.” We told him to handle his business and spent the day lounging. The lithium batteries, it turned out, were for deer feeders. He guides for huge whitetails as well.
The trip felt over before it started, with just a few hours left the next morning, as we rode in the darkness to arrive at a beautiful ranch spread surrounded by 20 or so acres of brown winter grass and terrain scattered with oaks. At a pond edge, we set up with no choice but to face into the morning sun. Another violent, short flurry of ducks, then silence. “The geese will come, we just gotta wait them out,” Dakota said.
A Slow Burn
I’d planned to hit the road early that day but with goose droppings all over the ground and tracks from big black feet everywhere in the mud and grass, I would be staying as long as it took. Honkers can be late and lazy, and the visualization of all these big boys that made all that shoreline mess coming back over the tree line and seeing those B-52 wings stop pedaling as they swung close, ready to splash down in the water…it was powerful motivation.
By 9 a.m. everyone was restless and stepping out of the blind, warming up in the sun, shooting photos, and of course we got busted by a fighter squadron of wigeon that came from nowhere. I prayed the geese would give us some warning clucks, though honkers often don’t. We agreed to give it until 10. The breeze picked up and right as we started to call it, big shadows flitted across the water’s surface on the south end of the pond.
“Everybody get down,” Dakota urged from inside the blind. From inside, where he was, and we were not. We were all caught behind the blind on our knees and without guns…amateurs! I stuck my head around the corner and hissed, “gun, gun, we need a gun!”
A shotgun barrel followed by the rest of a Savage Renegauge poked around the corner and I grabbed it and said, “pass this to Keith!” He barely had it in his hands and the shooting started. He jumped up and took it to the plug. Three or so whopper honkers collapsed or were chased down. The BOSS #5s were a little light at the long edge of goose range, but got it done. Keith had his Christmas goose. This happened three times and we would all leave this adventure with goose meat and a little bit in love with Oklahoma. Duck hunting a new state is always a thrill, an immersion. The ongoing jokes and anecdotes, like Holder, from Houston, talking about greeting an older woman back home with “How’s your day going?” And her classic deep south response: “Why it’s a great day, Charlie, started out perfectly. Biscuits and squirrel brains for breakfast.”
One for the Memory Bank
Waterfowler Courtney Nicolson, Savage ambassador, won’t forget the trip. "There are hunts where the outfitter is a big organization, but there's something special about a small family-run guide business. We showed up at our digs, an old farmer's house in the middle of nowhere. It had a history, a story. Our young guide Dakota was burning boot soles scouting, so Summer greeted us with their adorable smiley newborn, who probably knew how to blow a duck call. They took us to their favorite breakfast joint and let us in on a secret off-the-menu breakfast quesadilla. We were locals for the weekend, part of the family. As someone who is always the youngest hunter in camp, and usually the only woman, I appreciate hunting with outfitters like these; young, hungry, passionate, and where hunting is a family affair."
Back home in Colorado, I swung by Keith’s house the next day. He was plucking and cleaning his geese, and had breasted one already, skin on, the right way, figuring it out. “Just like filleting a walleye,” he said. A week later, our friends at MOJO reported they had a group hunting in Oklahoma that had really torn up the greenheads. The Sooner state is a sleeper state. As for Dakota? We are happy to report the insurance company came correct on the claim for that gorgeous truck of his.