by Gary Koehler
Jerry Cox is manning the outboard tiller as we motor into the black timber abyss before daylight. Rick Dunn is trying his best to maintain a steady hand while focusing a flashlight beam on a narrow hint of trail that snakes between trees. The rest of us dodge wayward buckbrush branches perfectly placed to sting cheeks, ears, and unprotected noses.
Hank, a slightly built black Lab, is seated to my left. Five minutes into our early morning voyage, his tail happily thumps the gunwale. Moments later, he is standing on the johnboat's front deck, presumably having assumed guide chores. Considering his Master Hunter status, he's been proven capable.
Sure enough, the trees begin thinning out, if only slightly. The faint outlines of decoys dot the murky water ahead of us. Whereabouts of the rumored 20-foot-long floating blind remain shrouded in hazy mystery.
"Hank knows exactly where he is," says Jim Byrd, who will handle the seven-year-old dog on this crisp December morning. "He's been here enough, that's for sure. He knows where we are headed."
Chances are, however, Hank is still getting acclimated to the water depth in this private timber hole. In past years, Dunn and partners have sometimes hiked in. The water is typically knee-high. Not this season.
Raft Creek Bottoms began flooding during record-breaking October rains, and the water has not receded since. There is nine feet of water under the boat, making the tethered pontoon blind a necessity. Extra-long anchor lines are required to secure more than a hundred decoys.
"It's a little more work when the water is up like this," Dunn says. "But I don't think it bothers the ducks much."
Puddle ducks have been wintering in this region for eons. Steve N. Wilson/Raft Creek Bottoms and Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake wildlife management areas (WMAs) are located nearby and provide thousands of acres of waterfowl wintering habitat. Raft Creek, they say, assumed that name because of the extraordinary numbers of rafting ducks recorded at this site.