We watched the weather and the forecast and tried to time it for low clouds and snow, but there were stars above us when we set the decoys. That meant the birds would fly high and we'd have to hope that some would respond to the calls.
The sun came up, the decoys bobbed in the current and blue sky reflected in the icy water.
From downstream, a lone bird came fast and bank-high and dropped into the river just upstream from the decoys. It was a Barrow's goldeneye and it was nervous.
With us on her first duck hunt was Renata Thommen, bundled against the cold. She took her borrowed shotgun and stalked out of the blind to get a better angle. When the bird flushed, when its feet had cleared the water and it was gaining full speed, she swung with it and we watched the front of the pattern clip the back half of the bird, watched it somersault to a stop. Drago, the black Lab, sprung from his hide in front of the blind and splashed in to make the retrieve.
That lone Barrow's goldeneye was her trophy and it wasn't long before she was making plans to take it to the taxidermist. It was as difficult a day for a duck hunter as the stars had foretold. We saw swans pass by the stratosphere, geese as high as jet planes and small flocks of mallards at mach speed.
My longtime friend, Sykes Mitchell, of Duck Creek Outfitters, told stories and cooked breakfast in the Camp Chef oven and warmed coffee on the stove, while my hunting partners leaned out of the blind and scanned the skies.
I looked at their faces and reflected back on duck hunts from around the world: Mexico, Alaska, South Africa and remembered friends I've made in duck blinds all over the world. I've seen yellowbills blast across a field of maize in Africa and teal jinking out of the sun above a salty marsh. For some of the people I've shared a blind with, we didn't even share a common language, but the hunt and the habitat connected us.
We all come to duck hunting from different places, but I think the birds draw us in first. Each has a signature wing beat, a distinctive call. We learn the most when we hunt with a guide a few times then go on our own.
My first duck taken on a solo hunt is the one I remember the most. I didn't have a dog to retrieve it so I waded out in the lake and picked it up, a mallard drake, still warm, its feathers brilliant in the morning sun.
For some people, the hunt is about the dog. Often, it is a retriever, a Labrador or a Chesapeake, or one of the versatile breeds. On this hunt, it was about Drago, his total dedication no matter how cold the water or thick the ice.
I like the dog work, but I love to see a new hunter take his or her first bird. When Drago laid the Barrow's goldeneye at her feet, Renata beamed. I thought about the kids I'd hunted with earlier in the season, Lindsay (15) and Callan (13), when each of them took their first birds, when we had to leave the blind and jump-shoot the river upstream.
For some hunters, it's tradition. They hunt the same blinds on the same days, year after year. Maybe it's about opening morning, or a Christmas or New Year's ritual. Whatever it is, the tradition is more important than how many ducks are bagged. The guns play into this. Some friends of mine wouldn't think of hunting with any other shotgun than the one handed down from their grandfathers. It's their link to the past.
For many, it's about the cooking, the meal made from the day's bag. On one hunt with a bunch of teenagers on the Yakima Indian Reservation, we ate our bag barbecued on hamburger buns, sloppy Joe-style, barely an hour after we'd taken the birds.
In the blind
Inside the blind, it's a whirlwind of activity when the birds are sighted. We hold our breath, we watch the wing beats, we pray the birds drop down through the wind column. Then in between flights we attend to the housekeeping.
We pick up empty brass that might get underfoot or that landed outside the blind where it can spook suspicious birds. If the dog needs to be dried off, it gets a rubdown with a microfiber towel from McNett Tactical. We hang Gruntline up above the window from which we can hang items that would otherwise get in the way. I wrap my friend's shotgun with Camo Form Kryptek. And then birds are on the horizon.
Back in the moment
Sykes saw a small flock, seven birds, they lit on the river downstream and when they didn't fly away, we made our plan. We'd stalk the field, well away from the bank, then cut in out of the stubble, through the rough stuff and jump the birds off the water.
Renata, Sykes and I set off through the fields, eased through the barbed wire and then, hunched over, guns at the ready, crested the top of the bank.
Widgeons, seven of them, scattered to the wind and I picked one out. I rolled my bird, watched it careen into the bank and Drago sprint to make the retrieve. I turned to Renata. "I forgot to take the safety off," she confessed.
For me the reward is in the moment. We watch the weather, we make our plans, we meet for doughnuts well before first light, then set the decoys in the dark and crawl into the blind as the sun lights the tops of the mountains. Way off in the east a flock appears. The birds turn to the call and cup their wings, dropping down from 13 stories up, now 20 yards out, their wings cupped over the decoys.
Gary Lewis can be reached at www.garylewisoutdoors.com
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Originally Published: Dec 14, 2014