January Morning on the River

January Morning on the River

 

“I think it is about cold enough for the river to be crowded with geese. Are you interested in a cold Wednesday on the river?”

 

“You missed an incredible day on the river in terms of cold, ice, ducks, and geese. The two of us limited on geese (I don’t get them to decoy that well very often) and ended up with 12 mallards.”

 

“So what is the best way to contact you should another waterfowl emergency occur?”

 

“I have a boat. I’ve got all the gear we’ll need. I know a place where the ducks and geese sometimes fall out of the sky like rain. And I have a yellow lab who wants to retrieve all of the ducks you may happen to shoot.”

 

That is the string of emails I received from friend Elrod over the last couple of weeks. He was persistent. He finally got my attention with the yellow lab part. Ever since the dozen years I spent with my old pal Buster, I have had a weak spot for yellow labs.

 

Now, I want to make it clear that I have never been really serious about this waterfowl hunting business. Yes, every year for the last forty or so, a group of us has gathered to mark the opening day of waterfowl season up in the Swan Valley. And there was a time when we all tried to be real serious about doing it all right, at least for that weekend.

 

We built blinds and put out decoys in arrangements that Homer and Erwin assured the rest of us would be most attractive to the real birds we hoped to lure in. We deferred to Homer and Erwin, and to Dr. Brooks and Dr.Demento in those early days when it came to the business of waterfowl strategy because they all came from the Midwest where everyone hunted waterfowl from cradle to grave. These days, Homer and Erwin are the ones who still put in a thoroughly professional opening day of hunting. I, on the other hand, have drifted away from waterfowl hunting.

 

Until I started receiving those emails from Elrod, I had not even thought about the fact that waterfowl season lingers deep into winter and after the New Year.

 

Then, all of a sudden I heard my alarm ring at an unusually early hour last weekend and a while later I was loading my gear into the back of Elrod’s truck which was already packed with stacks of decoys, and bags and buckets of other hunting paraphernalia. Kirby, the yellow lab, sat on the back seat of the extended cab, squirming and panting a little with excitement for the day ahead. It would take us an hour to drive to the spot where we would put the boat into the river. It had the feeling of whole new experience for me, like a kid on his first day at a new school.

 

Stepping out of the truck we were immediately greeted by the deep pure sounds of several owls signaling back and forth from upstream, downstream, and across the river.

 

“Barred owls,” Elrod said. And I assumed he was right, him being a wildlife biologist by trade, and all.

 

It was still dark and plenty cold when we slipped the boat, now piled high with gear, into the river. Once Elrod, Kirby, and I had settled in, we headed downriver, Elrod expertly guiding the boat without benefit of artificial light. He knew the channel.

 

Ducks and geese rose from the shadows as we moved past, gabbling and honking. We could make out their dark forms against the overcast sky that was just faintly beginning to lighten.

 

Fifteen or twenty minutes downriver Elrod guided the boat to shore where we disembarked and unloaded the entire cargo. Elrod had some clever portable blinds stashed in the brush a couple hundred yards away. The blinds were wire cylinders maybe three feet in diameter and five feet high with willows and other vegetation woven through the mesh. We carted those to the riverbank and installed them near enough to each other that we would be able to communicate with a stage whisper. Elrod provided a plastic bucked with a padded seat for each blind.

 

Next we set out decoys. I think there were two-dozen big goose decoys that we arranged in a row right along the edge of the water upstream of the blinds. Directly in front of the blind were another dozen floating goose decoys. Upstream a dozen mallard decoys bobbed along in the current. Elrod also located a robo-duck among the mallards mounted on a stake its wings churning away in response to Elrod’s remote control.

Too Good To Resist

Too Good To Resist

 

I was all set to go, but Elrod wasn’t quite done.

 

“In the bucket there is a camouflage net to put over the blind, and some camo for you, too.”

 

It hadn’t dawned on me that my regular old green and brown camo wouldn’t do the trick. The camo in the bucket for the blind and for me was mottled white and brown, like the snow on the ground.

 

Birds were already showing interest in the decoys be the time we were set up. It didn’t take long for groups of ducks to get a little too close to Elrod for their own good. When they did that, Elrod’s shooting was generally true. Yes, I had a few chances too. I consoled myself by deciding this was just a time do get in some practice.

 

Kirby was in lab heaven every time Elrod dropped a duck.

 

It was not a day when the ducks and geese fell like rain. But there were plenty of them in sight almost all day long, often teasing us by checking out our decoys closely then dropping into the river in a backwater a couple hundred yards upstream. When geese were in the air, Elrod produced another tool that I had not seen before. On an old casting rod he had mounted what looked like a black kite of some kind. He held high in the air an waved it in a way that made it appear to be the flapping wings of a Canada goose. And it worked!

 

Geese actually paid attention to it, though very few geese came within range during the day, there were many close calls. And there was one goose that came a little too close. Elrod insisted that mine had been the shot that knocked it down, but I was not so sure of that. And Kirby didn’t care who shot it. He took it straight back to Elrod.

 

Now it can get a little cold, sitting more or less motionless in a blind along a river on a January day, and after a while I noticed that I really could not feel my feet any longer. My insulated waders were still hanging on a nail in the garage up at Swan Lake, and I was wearing a pair of thin hip boots with a couple of extra layers of socks. By early afternoon, as near as I could tell, my feet had become blocks of ice.

 

Meanwhile, Elrod and I had been watching as what appeared to be hundreds of ducks and geese settled into some still water below a steep bank, perhaps a half-mile distant upstream.

 

“If your feet are cold, maybe you ought to walk up there and see if you can jump those birds. That might get the blood moving in your feet, and maybe you’ll get a shot or send them this way, at least, Elrod suggested.

 

I eagerly abandoned the blind and with little feeling in my feet began the task of post-holing my way through crusted, calf-deep snow a few yards back from the river bank and upstream toward the birds.

 

Slowly, the feeling came back to my feet, but every step seemed to echo across the water. Elrod later told me that he could still hear my crunching steps when I was a quarter-mile away. And the birds did, too. Even though I was out of sight behind a screen of trees and brush, I made enough of a racket to chase them all away. When I stepped out onto the bank above where the birds should have been on the river, they were long gone.

 

Back at the blind, things were quieting down. A few more birds came in. Elrod took a couple more. I got some much-needed practice. And Kirby earned his keep.

Kirby and Elrod  Waiting

Kirby and Elrod Waiting

 

When the time came to pick up the gear and head for home it came with great sense of satisfaction for a day well spent with good company, a fine dog, in a beautiful place.

 

I might just have to get serious about this waterfowl thing again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Sounds like a great day on the river. Thanks for reminding us of all there is to do even in the winter. Glad to see the picture of Kirby and Elrod, so we could see the portable blind.

  2. I do recognize this place…glad to run into you at the grocery store and learn of your blog.

  3. Hey there, glad you reminded me to sign up. I have dutifully and willingly done so and plan to continue to enjoy your writings for a long time to come. Best

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