By Gary Koehler
The blue, plastic cup next to my bunk is capped with a half inch of ice. This is not a good thing at 4 o'clock in the morning, if only because in 15 minutes it will be time to crawl out of the toasty sleeping bag and dress for the day's hunt. But, I choose to ignore the ticking alarm clock and burrow down deep, pulling the plaid wool blanket over my head. A few more winks are to be savored before placing warm feet on the cold camper floor. Such is life in a mobile duck camp the first week of January.
If timing is everything, I will never be confused with a stopwatch. Take this assignment, for example. We were to use a pop-up camper to travel to a number of waterfowl hunting sites throughout the Mid-South and determine if a duck camp on wheels was a plausible idea. The start date was early December. The weather, unfortunately, did not cooperate.
What began as freezing rain turned into snow accompanied by temperatures that slipped into the teens. This went on for weeks. The cumulative effect was record-breaking in some parts of the region, and, at the very least, created a scheduling nightmare. Nearly every lake, pond, pothole, and flooded rice field was locked in ice-from Rieser, Missouri, to Big Sandy, Tennessee.
So, the first lesson learned was that this type of adventure is not something for everyone, particularly those who have limited time to pursue their duck and goose hunting passion. No matter how you cut it, weather conditions are definitely a factor; it helps to have the luxury of being able to adjust your schedule.
Generally, our part of the country is much more suitable for this type of outing because of milder overall temperatures. Early- to mid-autumn trips in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and other states sharing similar latitudes would likely be fine, but I shudder to think of tackling this expedition at the tail end of the season across the Great White North. Call it an aversion to freezer burn.
Still, for those tired of looking at the same old cattails, the same old marsh, the same old stretch of river, the mobile duck camp may prove to be a viable alternative to the status quo. You've got to be a tad adventurous, willing to rough it some, log a few miles on the pickup truck or SUV, and there is more than a little planning involved. But we're betting there are a number of exciting opportunities waiting for you down the highway. Jump aboard and come on along. Here's what we learned when we mustered up our best Willie Nelson imitation and went on the road again. And again, and again.
Fashion a Plan
You likely are familiar with a public waterfowl hunting area within reasonable driving distance in your home state or in a nearby state. Maybe you have read about the territory and have always wondered what it would be like to hunt there. The mobile duck camp allows you the option of traveling to the site without the hassle and expense involved with motels and restaurants. Not that there is anything wrong with those venues, but if you are on a budget, camping can save you money over the long haul.
First, determine where you want to go, when, and for how long. Recruit a friend. Check into regulations governing the hunting area. You will find that each site has its own set of hybrid rules: Some public hunting areas are restricted to a predetermined number of gunners; some are closed a couple of days a week; others work on a daily draw system, or advance registration may be required. Phone or write the area's management personnel ahead of time and inquire of all pertinent details, including license requirements, special stamps, and season dates.
Keep in mind, too, that this type of trip need not be restricted to public hunting lands. If you've got a friend living at the other end of the state, and he's got a place for you to park the camper and a spot to hunt-go for it. Private lands are fair game if you've got the contacts and permission. Heck, some clubs offering day shooting may even allow you to park a camper on their property. Ask first.
Contact the local chamber of commerce in the area you plan on visiting and find out if camping facilities are available. This can be at publicly owned parks or at private campgrounds. If necessary, make reservations at the campground to ensure having a place to set up. Inquire if electrical hookups, water, and other amenities are available.
A number of people asked why we chose to use a pop-up camper while on the road. The primary reason is that we felt this style of camper to be the most readily accessible to the average wildfowler. Simple as that. If you or your friends do not have a camper, these rigs can be rented for a reasonable price in many sections of the country.
Pop-up campers vary extensively in terms of size and equipment. Recognized primarily as three-season units, many pop-ups come with enough bells and whistles to keep you comfortable until the weather turns extremely cold. That's when warming the unit becomes an issue, particularly when you are far removed from a power source, which we were. (Ignorance does not necessarily translate into bliss.)
The new, indoor-use-safe space heaters are fine up to a point, but if there was one item I wish I would have been able to add to our gear it would have been a portable generator. They can be cumbersome, and they may make a racket, but the ice in my plastic cup could have been avoided.
If you have previously camped, you have a pretty good idea of what kind of equipment is required. The list can be lengthy, depending on how long you are planning to stay, whether you plan on eating out some or cooking all of your meals, weather conditions, and more. At the very least, you are going to need sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, a cooler, cooking utensils, a stove and fuel, lanterns, plates/cups, towels, can opener, garbage bags, fold-up chairs or stools, a table, foodstuffs, cutlery, batteries, matches, soap, road map, transistor radio, and bottled water. Yes, this type of exercise requires a lot of stuff. Pool your resources and you may be surprised at what is available. Hauling all the gear necessitates careful planning while packing your camper (which can accommodate a surprisingly large volume of items) and vehicle.
In addition to your camping paraphernalia, you and your buddy will also be carting along calls, guns, shells, boots, and clothes, at least. Depending on where you are going and on the type of hunting available (flooded timber vs. grain fields, for example), you are also going to need decoys, and maybe a boat of some sort. All of this gear takes up space. Luggage racks are available for both vehicles and campers.
- During the course of my travels, a number of little things surfaced that I had not anticipated. Here are some tips to file away before heading out on your own road trip.
- Take along a cell phone. I drove 121 miles in a driving rain (which turned to sleet) one afternoon, parked where I was scheduled to meet my host, sat there for more than two hours, then turned around and headed home. My friend, thinking that I was not going to show up because of the weather, had left 15 minutes before I arrived at the meeting place. He did not have a cell phone with him, so I could not contact him. I was not happy. And neither was he.
- If you've got a pop-up style camper, don't forget the crank handle. Yep, I'm embarrassed to admit, I forgot mine on one excursion. Thing was, I kept all manner of pots, pans, and such in a plastic tub-so all these items would be together. I put the crank handle in the plastic tub figuring I would not forget it. Guess what? I took the handle out for some unknown reason and left it in my garage.
- Keep dogs out of the camper. If a retriever is part of your hunt team, great. Take the dog along. But, either haul a cage of some sort where the animal can sleep, or plan on keeping the critter in your truck. Dogs with muddy paws (and that's almost inevitable) can make for a mess in a confined camper space. It's not worth the trouble.
- Buy, beg, or borrow a section of carpet. It need not be pristine. But, because duck hunting often involves water, and therefore mud, a piece of carpet placed outside the camper door will save you much frustration. Wipe your feet on the rug before entering. Better yet, leave all boots outside. Put on slippers or heavy socks while inside. Wet, muddy floors get tiresome real fast.
- If you absolutely, positively have to have a Thermos of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate in the field with you, set your alarm clock to go off 10 minutes earlier than usual. Remember, you are probably going to be heating this brew over a camp stove of some sort. And that may take a little longer than what you are used to.
- Check the fuel in your propane tank before leaving town. Although fuel sources can be found in many municipalities, who wants to be driving around parts unknown looking for a service station that sells propane? This is supposed to be relaxing.