The Good Old Days

March 30, 2009 by  

By Perry Thorvig

The Nodak crew shot the greenheads big time again in this year’s duck opener. They celebrated the tenth anniversary of the breaking of the drought of the 1980s and early 90s. Ironically, we may be heading back into another drought cycle. But, there are still birds around and then can provide some great hunting such as we experienced in 1994.

The anticipation for the Nodak crew for the Greenskins Classic tournament on September 27 and 28 must have been similar to what I and my hunting partners experienced before the opener in 1994. And, we covered some of the same terrain.

We did not know exactly how good the hunting would be that fall in 1994, but there were signs that the lean years of the 80s and early 90s were about over. The CRP lands were just waiting for rain to produce ducks. Some lands received the waterfowlers blessing the year before. The area east of Devils Lake, North Dakota around Brocket had been virtually flooded by late summer rains in 1993. The ducks responded enthusiastically to the summer rain and produced a very successful late hatch of ducklings. For the first time in many years, the ponds and sloughs were again full of water and ducks.

My brother-in-law, Ken Carlson and I had rarely hunted the opener in North Dakota. We “fooled around” on the marshes of central Minnesota, along with hundreds of other nimrods. Our annual North Dakota prairie pilgrimage did not occur until the Columbus Day weekend. However, after too many years of fighting the crowds in Minnesota, Ken and I yearned for a good opener such as we had in 1986 when Ken went hunting for geese with me in North Dakota for the first time. I remembered the duck speckled wetlands from the fall of 1993 and just had to be in North Dakota on that first Saturday in October. We just could not let the ‘94 opener pass by hunting in Minnesota.

We were joined by Glen Foltz, a young Navy pilot, who had decided to give up his aircraft carrier flying duty in favor of a family in the Twin Cities. He was new to town and we got hooked up through our wives. Now, wives do not understand about hunting partners and compatibility in a duck blind, but Glen turned out to be a great hunting partner. He cut his hunting teeth on Iowa pheasants not far from Sioux Falls, South Dakota and after performing hundreds of landings on the deck of an aircraft carrier, he understood instantly how to set out goose and duck decoys with their heads into the wind. That’s a basic that some guys I’ve hunted with do not quite grasp until they have to turn 250 decoys around because the wind is blowing up the back side of a phony goose.

Our weekend hunt began in earnest when I suggested that we turn north off of U.S. 2 and begin some serious scouting. We were enticed by what we had seen along the highway between Michigan and Petersburg.

We no more than bumped over the railroad tracks and peeked over the first hill when the first slough full of ducks nearly caused us to drive into the ditch. The panorama was unbelievable. I had hunted North Dakota every year since 1975 but had never seen what lay before the three of us. The ducks sat on the road, in the ditches, on muskrat houses, sandbars, shoreline, and of course in the open water. No, they weren’t coots! These were honest to goodness mallards, pintails, redheads, and canvasbacks.

They were everywhere. The season had not opened yet. So, needless to say, the mallards were in no real hurry to even get off the road as we approached.

My heart began to pound with anticipation. “My god, what is it going to be like tomorrow?” I asked my hunting partners. We drove on for another ten miles. It had rained a lot that season and there was water that I had not seen in 20 years. Every, stretch of water had as many ducks as that first slough.

Glen said, “Where do we hunt?” That brought me out of my duck stupor. I then had to tell Glen that these birds were already 50 miles south of where we would likely be hunting the next morning. We would try to hunt geese and take any ducks that took a look at our decoys. Since the geese were up on the Canadian border, that’s where we were going.

Later that afternoon, we found a field with some feeding snow geese on the west side of the refuge and got permission to hunt about a half mile south of the farmer’s house.

Saturday morning was rich with anticipation. We were out in the field about two hours before sunrise. The wind was light from the east-southeast. This meant our backs would be toward the lake, the direction from which the birds would come. This setup almost never happens in North Dakota. It seems like the wind always blows from the northwest so that the hunter has to look directly into the rising sun. It not only burns your eyeballs, but it makes distinguishing drakes from hens very difficult.

The decoys were set out and our shallow trenches dug. We pulled on our white suits to blend in with the goose decoys. Finally, we took care of our last unfinished business, hunkered down and began the wait.

It wasn’t long! The first geese of the morning were already there even though the sun had not yet peeked over the clouds on the pink eastern horizon. We heard them before we saw them. It didn’t sound like a large flock. Then a group of three swung in from the south. The first birds of the morning made way directly for our decoys. About 250 yards out, they began to make their upwind approach. Glen imagined that the 65 yards of wheat stubble between our two strings of white goose decoys was the flight deck of a “flat top” and the geese were going to land right on the deck.

At about 100 yards out, the birds began to lose significant altitude by flipping over on their backs in mid-air. First to the right, then to the left. Glen whispered, “How do you hit something like that when they are bobbing and weaving all over the place?” I responded, “You mean you never had any live shots like that from your F-14. What kind of pilots does our Navy train? Welcome to North Dakota goose hunting! Just hope they flare as you raise your gun to shoot.” In another two seconds they were within range. Glen, Ken, and I raised, fired and welcomed the beginning of the 1994 hunting season with two dead snows.

We shot five more that morning and two mallards.

About eleven o’clock, I crawled over to Kenny’s blind and said, “Where did all the ducks go?” Kenny said, “I guess we drove by ’em all yesterday.” “Ya,” I said, “that was pretty disappointing for ducks. They gotta be around here someplace.”

By the time we got to town for lunch, it was sunny and warm for an October day in North Dakota. The buzz in the cafe at lunch time was about the lack of ducks. No one had much luck. Maybe they had all gone 50 miles south. Maybe we should just forget the goose hunting and head down south for the ducks we had seen the day before. Waterfowl hunting can sure be perplexing at times.

After lunch, we decided to stay in our hunting area rather than drive the 20 miles back home and then turn around and drive back for evening scouting. We jumped a few sloughs and shot a couple more ducks. That’s something that I normally don’t do, but in this case there were some very large flocks of birds on the potholes. They were rather irresistible, especially since we didn’t do much in the morning. Eventually, we found an old, white corner schoolhouse where we cleaned our morning shoot and took a nap on the grass under the warm autumn sun.

By 3:30 p.m., we were on the road again. Now, the dust from the dirt roads made great clouds as we traversed goose country to see if we could find the big concentration of feeding geese. Wherever there were clouds of dust on the road, it was likely to be other goose hunters out scouting. By early evening, we found ourselves on the east side of the refuge. We had followed several strings of geese as they lifted off their afternoon loafing spots and headed east for supper. About five miles out from the lake, we found an area where several flocks had landed and were feeding.

We stopped the car for a half hour on a hilltop and watched the flocks arrive from the lake. There did not appear to be any water around, but small flocks of ducks were buzzing fields on all sides of us. They flew by themselves and with the large flocks of geese.

We were far enough off the lake so that there were almost no hunters in our area. The whole time we were there, no one came by. We picked our primary field and our second and third choices in case the fields were occupied by hunters in the morning. Unfortunately, there were no farm places around. So we had no idea who owned the land. It wasn’t posted so we would have to take our chances with other hunters in the morning.

It was getting late, about a half hour before sunset. We left hoping that in the next half hour, “our” spot would not be discovered by other hunters. We were thinking mostly about the geese we saw and did not think much about the ducks that were swooping the wheat stubble. Little did we know that they would be tomorrow’s feature attraction.

We rose early on Sunday morning to make the 35 mile trip to our field. Not much was said in the dark car. Kirby, my young Golden Retriever, was in the back seat. Unfortunately for him, he was only along for the ride. I did not trust him enough to have him out in a stubble field. If he didn’t behave himself, he could really ruin a good hunt. (The next year he had his chance and performed like a real champ.)

We found our field in the darkness. Nobody was there.

It was cloudy with no moon. We jumped into the damp early morning air and began the drudgery of putting out 300 decoys. About a half hour into our work, two vehicles approached on the dirt road from the south. Sure enough, they pulled right into “our” field. Usually, this doesn’t happen, but the intruders drove right up to us. We already had half our decoys out so weren’t about to move. They said they had permission to hunt in the field and asked if they could set up about 300 yards to the southwest. I don’t know if they had permission or if they were just bluffing, but we said it was okay and just told them not to get too much down wind where they would intercept the birds that would be coming in about an hour.

On the way back from parking our car up on the road, I walked through their decoy spread and observed a helter-skelter deployment of rather crummy looking decoys. There were about six guys in a pretty small spread. Could these guys decoy any geese with this spread? You wouldn’t catch me in a spread like that!

All the time that we had been putting out the decoys, a flock of a hundred or more geese had been squawking about a half mile away. They had found some water in the field and stayed there all night. It could have been perfect. If small groups of birds broke off of the flock and came to us just as it was getting light, we could have some easy shooting. But, alas, we had no luck. At about 15 minutes before shooting time, the whole flock took to the wing and headed north. Not one straggler even peaked at our double line spread of decoys.

Then the prairie was suddenly quiet. Just the slightest breeze blew. Our windsocks hardly waggled. We were ready. In a few minutes the whistle of wings was heard above. No quacks, just the wing beat of mallards overhead. It wasn’t time yet. More mallards whistled in the half-light of dawn. A half dozen worked the slot between the two 100 yard strings of white decoys. At the open, upwind end of the geese were set four dozen duck decoys. Glen was sitting in the left string of goose decoys about 50 yards downwind from the duck decoys. Ken and I were sitting 60 yards across from Glen in the right string.

The mallards that had worked the slot so nicely disappeared. Kenny whispered, “They landed in our dekes.” Soon, it was time. A flock of 20 mallards circled and then came in on Glen’s side. He dropped one and the rest of the flock flared to Ken and me. We got another one after about five shots. “Reload Kenny, here comes another flock,” I said in a loud whisper. We both fumbled for shells as a big flock of 75 birds headed for us. At about 100 yards out, they flared and headed for the group of hunters in “our” field. The birds made one circle and then dropped a little altitude.

“Boom, boom, boom-boom-boom.” Shots rained from the other group as three birds dropped from the flock. In the mean time, a dozen birds from somewhere else headed for us. They came up Glen’s side again. Two fell to Glen-the-gunner. Ken and I got some more clean-up shots and dropped one. The birds seemed to like Glen’s side that morning.

Multiple flocks now came from the lake five miles to the west. We were only 10 minutes into the shooting day and I had burned up almost a half a box of shells and did not have much to show for it. The next flock came up our right side. Kenny and I had perfect shots. We emptied our guns. Nothing dropped. I guess I should have practiced before the opener, I thought. After about another dozen birds were missed, I shouted a not-so-mild curse. Who had to whisper? The ducks were coming so fast, we could almost stand up and wait for them. The sky was full of ducks. They were everywhere. We shot and shot. One box was emptied, then two. About one bird for every six shots fell from the sky. “Nice shooting, boys,” I yelled. Boy, we were bad!

The intruders in the other spread were blasting away at the same time we were. It was clear that the ducks preferred our spread, but didn’t shy away from them either. After we pounded a flock, they would go and visit the other guys. More flocks circled the field.

God, what time is it?, I thought. It seemed like we had been out there all morning. I looked at my watch. It was only 9:00 a.m. Finally, there was a little lull where we could count our birds. We were two short of our limit. We had just finished counting when it started to rain lightly. Maybe, it was good we got our shooting in early. The sky was dark and it looked real nasty.

Five minutes later we were being inspected by flocks of ducks and geese at the same time. Glen, who had been having trouble with geese that morning let the geese drift toward Ken and me. He took the ducks. Ken and I went for the geese just as Glen had finished the duck shooting for the day. Two geese pinwheeled and fell heavily into the stubble. “Now, that’s better,” I yelled.

The rain began to intensify. The other hunting group started to move around as if they were going to pick up. Suddenly, the skies were empty and the rain beat harder against the hoods of our rain parkas. We could have waited for more geese, but it really did not look like they wanted our field. Since we had our limit of ducks, we decided to pick up too.

The most incredible two hours of duck hunting I ever experienced had come to a quick, wet halt. I may never experience anything like our memorable 1994 opener again. Luck was with us. We picked the right field where the ducks wanted to be and had the right weather. We were also really lucky to get back home that day. With no gas stations open in the small town near our field, we drove 20 miles with the gas gauge on empty. Someone, not me, forgot to fill up the night before!


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