Come Dawn on The Bighorn

Mornings, mallards, and mischief on a wintry Montana River

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Photo © BillKonway.com

By Chuck Petrie

"I think my eyeballs are freezing."

I glance sideways at the complainant, Bill Buckley, scrunched far inside his parka and huddled on the boat seat beside me. For a moment, I contemplate shouting "Whiner!" over the din of the motor, but I'm afraid that if I open my mouth, I'll frost my tonsils. Mid-December in Montana can be frigid, for sure, but when you're speeding down the Bighorn River in an open boat powered by a jet-drive outboard, approaching Mach II, concerns regarding frostbite loom in whole new dimensions.

I peek over the side of the racing boat and into the river. Clearly visible through the translucent water, the rock-strewn bottom streaks by, seemingly only inches beneath the craft's aluminum hull. That's because, I soon determine, the bottom is only inches below the hull. Looking back over my shoulder, I study Dave Egdorf standing at the tiller, reading the water ahead of us. He deftly weaves the shallow-draft boat between sand and gravel bars, around boulders and sweepers, never once letting off on the power of the huge, screaming outboard.

It's like a white-knuckle carnival ride with a spectacular view. To starboard, a 300-foot-tall cliff of gray-black sedimentary rock flanks the river. To port lies the floodplain, hidden behind river channels that disappear between islands studded with cottonwoods and enveloped in labyrinths of Russian olive brush; beyond the lush riverbank, an intermittent glimpse of pastureland. In the waxing predawn light, flock after flock of mallards takes wing, black silhouettes against a leaden morning sky. The place is alive with greenheads. Occasionally, we also flush a dozen or more Canadas that have roosted on a backwater channel for the night.

Dave finally backs off on the throttle. It feels like the temperature rises 30 degrees. Bill's head emerges from his camouflaged parka hood, not unlike a cautious turtle peeking out of its shell. "Are we there?" he inquires.

Indeed we are. We motor slowly to the left, off the main channel and into a backwater chute. The current here is much less than in the river proper, protected behind a spacious sandbar covered with tawny, chest-high grass. A hundred yards farther we pull into shore on a gravel bar that points downstream, creating a tranquil pond of backwater behind it. Dave's young yellow Lab, Jesse, and graying-in-the-muzzle black Lab, Muskie, pile out of the boat.

We quickly set up three Big Foot Canadas on the point of the gravel bar; two dozen mallard floaters go into the pond behind it. Dave heads a quarter mile downstream in the boat to hide it in streamside brush, and then walks back up to join us in the grassy cover.

The sun is just peeking over the bluff on the east side of the river when the first handful of mallards-four drakes and a hen, enticed by a series of raspy highball calls-cup their wings for what will become an event-filled landing.

Had I previously thought about loading my over-and-under, it would have been an even more memorable event, at least for me. Buckley rips off two shots with his battered Model 870, folding two greenheads that splash into the decoys. Dave politely waits for me to shoot, then mounts his trusty old Parker and rolls one of the two departing drakes out of the Montana ether and into the grass. Jesse hits the water, and Muskie starts snaking through the cover, looking for his boss' bird. Out of sight of the others, I sheepishly slide two shells into my gun, letting Bill and Dave know that, "It was such a pretty sight, I just wanted to watch the ducks work the decoys."

We're sitting five yards apart, invisible to one another in the thick cover but close enough to hear each other call out incoming birds. It's the beginning of a turkey shoot, and we trade shots as singles, doubles, and small flocks of mallards work the blocks. Drakes outnumber hens by a wide margin. I'll learn later from biologists that this lopsided sex ratio isn't unnatural in northern waters in winter. Drakes, being larger and heavier than hens, can sustain cold weather more easily, and thus don't need to migrate until absolute freeze-out forces them farther south.

It works for us, so we agree to shoot nothing but greenheads-and the limit here is six ducks per day, five of which can be drake mallards.

Except for our own, we hear no other shooting. On top of the towering clay bluff on the opposite side of the river, I occasionally see eagles launch themselves on morning thermals, then suspend, wings outstretched, high over the Bighorn, no doubt surveying the river for an easy trout breakfast or a crippled duck to swoop down upon and grab with their sharp black talons. The big birds get no help from us today.
"Geese!" Buckley alerts us. "Keep down." He trumpets a piercing HER-ONK on his goose call. HER-ONK. HER-ONK. Two big Canadas begin to circle us warily, eyeing their plastic brethren standing on the gravel bar. I didn't bring a goose call, nor did Dave, so we let Bill do a solo. He sounds pretty good, too, considering. Considering I was with him the year before when he bought the call in Texas, and then, when he first started to learn how to blow the thing, his calling sounded like someone slamming a cat's tail in a screen door.

Now, suddenly, he's double clucking like an old pro (a bachelor, he gets plenty of time to practice, without interruption, at home in Bozeman), and the geese are actually answering him as they circle lower.

"Let's take 'em next pass," Dave hisses through the cover.

The geese make one more circle, pass overhead, lower this time, and catch a deadly salvo. Three shots, one from each of us, bring them DOA into the river chute. Jesse and Muskie bound to the water to make a retrieve.

With whoops and hollers celebrating our shooting, we gather on the gravel bar to receive the birds from the happy Labs. Buckley points at the three Big Foot goose decoys. One has fallen over on its side. "No wonder they didn't come in to land," he says incredulously, as if his calling were really that good. Dave and I merely trade glances and wry smiles. Coffee time.

We break out thermoses and sit on the bank, chatting. Bill and I ask, and Dave tells us stories about his past life as a commercial pilot, a bush pilot and trapper in Alaska, and the salmon fishing camp he operated in that state for 14 years. For the past decade, he's made his home and livelihood here in Montana. His Last Stand Lodge & Oufitters, where Bill and I are staying, on the west bank on the Bighorn just south of Hardin, caters to big game, waterfowl, and upland bird hunters in fall, turkey hunters in spring, and trout anglers all through the year. Which is why, of course, he knows the river so well that he can run it full throttle in half-light. As Dave talks, we look toward the main channel of the Bighorn.


A young couple passes by in a drift boat, the boyish swain rowing, towing something over the gunwale on a short tether. A chilly, romantic, sightseeing excursion. The towed object, we now see, is a six-pack. Dave smiles at us. "Montana honeymoon cruise," he chuckles. "Let's get back to hunting."

"Wait a minute," Bill laments, looking down at his call lanyard. "The stopper of my goose call has fallen out of the barrel. Help me look for it."

Ducks are flying again, but we waste a good 30 minutes looking in the sand, gravel, and grass for the business end of the call. No luck. Buckley's whining like a sick puppy. It's an inexpensive commercial call, I tell him, and he can easily replace the whole thing. But he keeps on moping, like he's lost some sort of keepsake.

The loss doesn't affect his duck shooting, though, and by eleven o'clock we all fill out on greenheads.

We unload our guns, and Dave and the dogs head for the boat while Bill and I start picking up decoys. Walking out on the gravel bar, I look down and see something out of place among the stones. I pick it up, put it in my pocket, and immediately forget about it until I'm home in Memphis a few days later, unpacking my gear. (If he reads this and discovers it was his missing stopper that I rescued, Bill is really going to come unglued.)

That night, new guests show up at the lodge. Marc Pierce and Oran Richard, field hosts of The World of Ducks Unlimited, and their TV film crew arrive, chased by an oncoming cold front promising snow by tomorrow. We all sit down to a fabulous duck dinner (grilled mallard breasts with red currant sauce) prepared by Dave's wife, Kim, and plan strategy for the following morning. Being the good fellows that we are, Bill and I relinquish our hotspot of the day so that Marc and Oran can shoot there tomorrow. They'll head there with Dave and the film crew, and Bill and I will boat upriver with one of Dave's young guides, Ethan Johnson, who has also joined us for dinner tonight. Ethan's parting words as he leaves for the evening are: "Dress warm. The Hawk will be out in the morning."  

Ethan wasn't kidding. At 4 a.m., the thermometer reads just below freezing, so Bill and I pile on extra layers of clothing after breakfast. Walking down to the boat from the lodge, we see no stars through the overcast, but at least the snow has held off. So far. We load up the boat with decoys, Jesse, and our gear and head upstream.

An hour later we're set up just off the main channel in a backwater chute. There's no grass to hide in, so we lean against the bank, obscured from bird's-eye view by the Russian olive bushes that extend out over the water. Many small flocks of geese are moving in the high overcast, and hardly a moment goes by that we don't see mallards flying above the cottonwoods along the river. It's windy and cold, and we're waiting for more light to resume shooting. I've already inadvertently shot a hen mallard in the weak gray light, and Bill scored on a blue-winged teal, the only one we'll see here the entire trip.

I chat with Ethan in the meantime. A likeable chap, he's a Minnesota transplant to Montana. He's guided for Dave in Alaska as well as in Big Sky Country, and he loves his work. But, I discover his dark side: He's a Vikings fan. I tell him that he has to forget that Land-of-10,000-Lakes mentality, that eating too much lutefisk has probably warped his thinking, that the Green Bay Packers are the best team in the NFC central division, that- "They stink!" he replies. "We'll see," I tell him. "They play the Vikes on Monday night. Too bad I won't be here to rub it in and-" "Over the decoys. Look!" he whispers.

I glance back over the river. A flock of 30 mallards is cupped up and floating down toward the decoys. In the growing light, I see that they're almost all greenheads. The shotgun comes up, and I lock on to an incomer. I hear Bill's 870 boom down the bank as I pull the trigger and dust the drake, then swing up to take another as the flock makes a frantic, disorganized dash for altitude. I find another bird, hold above him, and pull the trigger again. The drake cartwheels all the way to the surface of the Bighorn.

The duck splashes down in the main channel, sending a small geyser into the air above it. Jesse is swimming, pumping hard to intercept the drake, which is swiftly floating downstream. The dog and duck disappear around a bend in the river. Ethan hoofs it downriver, too, along the bank, to follow the Lab, while Bill and I pick up the other birds in the quiet water surrounding the decoys.

Ethan and Jesse are back within 20 minutes, with the mallard. In the meantime, Bill and I have been performing yeomanly duties. Ducks have continued to descend on us from upriver and down, turning on our calls, pitching to the decoys with little hesitation. The action keeps up with Ethan's return, and we're done a short while later, having bagged five mallards each, Bill with the teal to fill his limit, and me with a gadwall that paid a price for keeping the wrong company. Like yesterday's hunt, Bill and I agree, this one will be firmly entrenched in our long-term memory banks.

Snow arrived late that Sunday afternoon. Bill and I started packing up, readying ourselves to leave for home-him to drive to Bozeman, me to fly to Memphis-the next morning. Peering outside the lodge windows at the wind-driven flakes, we knew that the duck hunting would be fabulous come dawn on the Bighorn. But schedules are schedules, and we'd already shared a couple of days of fantastic hunting. Could it get any better than that?

As it turned out, it could. I got home just in time to see the Packers lose to the Vikings on the Monday night game. I could hear Ethan chortling 1,200 miles away.



DU in Big Sky Country

Much of eastern Montana is included in the Prairie Pothole Region and is an important nesting area for prairie ducks such as mallards, northern pintails, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, wigeon, and gadwalls. DU and its partners have completed 203 habitat projects in the state, preserving, restoring, or enhancing more than 32,419 acres of wetlands and associated upland nesting cover. For additional information on DU activities in Montana or how to become involved in DU events there, contact State Chairman Keith Robinson, 7 Winchester Place, Glendive, MT 59330, or call 406-377-1000.

For additional information on Montana hunting and fishing opportunities, nonresident licenses, camping, lodging, and seasonal events, contact Travel Montana at 800-847-4868 or visit their Web site at www.visitmt.com.

Last Stand Lodge & Outfitters
Dave and Kim Egdorf can be contacted at P.O. Box 434, Hardin, MT 59034, or call them toll free at 888-765-5549 or 406-665-3489
e-mail info@laststandlodge.com
Web site: www.laststandlodge.com.