February 12, 2015
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“I Hope It’s Colder Next Time…”
70 degrees and sunny is normally perfect vacation weather for me, except when that vacation is a waterfowl hunt. As any waterfowler knows, the worse the weather, the better the hunting (at least that is the theory). So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in North Dakota wearing a t-shirt for my first hunt as part of an annual October trip for a group of friends. The northeastern part of the state is dotted with potholes surrounded with cattails, with every other square acre covered in either beans, wheat, or barley fields. This gives waterfowl an almost endless number of places to be at any given time. So the first afternoon in camp, our group of seven hunters and two dogs split up with three of us hunting the first decent pothole we saw and the other four scouting to find the morning field hunt.
As we started towards our spot, one of the hunters in our group known as “Gute” was not excited to find out that the rest of us decided we were going to wade across the pothole to get where a group of ducks had been before we pushed them off. After his third or fourth dive into the mud and water, I affectionately named our new found hunting spot “Gute Falls” even though the most abrupt change in elevation for miles was likely the wader prints we made on our walk in. After we got set up and Gute drained the water out of his shotgun, we started to see some green-winged teal flying around and, once we determined that none of us were greenhead purists, we started shooting. The weather did not seem to be a problem as we continued to get teal bombing into this little hole. Like most hunts, we made some good shots, and we missed some easy ones.
My hunting partners’ also learned quickly that I was a very obedient hunter after a teal zipped by my head before landing 60 yards to my left. As other birds were circling, the caller whispered to me “why didn’t you take him? You could have hit him with your barrel” I calmly whispered back “because you didn’t say take ‘em.” The swimming teal must have heard me whisper those two dreaded words and jumped up quickly. This time I didn’t wait for his call and took him down with one shot. The green-wing ended up being in full fall color and will soon adorn my office wall.
Like many hunters, watching a good hunting dog work is my favorite part of any bird hunt. This trip was the first North Dakota hunt for Josie, the 18-month old black lab with us, and she was making water retrieves like it was what she was born to do, which of course, she was. Single retrieves, double retrieves, blind retrieves, she was getting practice at all of them this first night and besides the occasional early break, she was nailing her first real test.
That night we enjoyed a fantastic cabin dinner, a bottle of single-batch bourbon, and each other’s company. At some point in the evening conversation I mentioned that I don’t do anything in the morning without a shower and a cup of coffee. The next morning I awoke when I heard Kirk, the patriarch of our hunting party, shuffling around the kitchen. Since this was my first time in camp and I wanted to be invited back, I was determined not to be the last one in the truck, and pulled myself out of bed to hit the shower. After I cleared the sleep from my eyes, I noticed the small clock in the room read 3:30. I have definitely been up this early to go duck hunting before, but something seemed off since shooting time was around 7:30 and the field we settled on was only 5 minutes away. I thought maybe this group takes as long to put on their hunting clothes and face paint as my wife does getting ready for a night out. I walked out to find Kirk making a fresh pot of coffee to insure that we didn’t forget it in the hustle and bustle of 7 guys getting ready for the day’s hunt. I certainly appreciated the coffee and was just glad that I hadn’t hit the shower before seeing the clock, or I would have been waiting around a couple of hours for everyone else to wake up.
That day’s hunt was not as fast-paced as the night before but we still had some shots on greenheads coming into the fields. Seeing a big drake mallard drop a level before nearly suspending in midair with cupped wings is as exciting as wingshooting can be for me. For this hunt we had both dogs with us and we found out that Buck, the old male, would much rather spend his time hunting than playing around with Josie, the young female, despite her persistence. I imagine there are plenty of old men out there in the field that have learned that same lesson. Although when birds were in the air or on the ground, it was all business for Josie and she wasn’t about to get shown up by an old man. I imagine there are plenty of young women in the field that feel the same way.
The rest of the week was spent trying to pin down where the birds really wanted to be both day and night, which by the last day we figured out was wherever we weren’t. With the weather as nice as it was, I guess these birds decided there was no reason to head any farther south and by this point they probably had the license plates of all the local farmers memorized and knew to stay away from anyone “not from around here.” We did try our luck at shooting some more teal, although the wind had picked up significantly later in the week. Pass shooting teal with a 20-mph wind will test any hunter’s shooting skills and a dog’s patience. On one particularly bad shooting display, Josie turned and loudly barked back at the shooters in frustration. I have heard the guilt trip dog whine before, but Josie figured that wasn’t enough to display her disappointment in our shooting skills that day.
When we weren’t failing to outsmart birds, or shooting lead into the air, we were eating more great meals, drinking more bourbon, and swapping more good stories. I have already been invited back for next fall, and I couldn’t accept fast enough. I’ll enjoy it either way, but I hope it’s colder the next time I go on vacation in North Dakota.
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