Dream Hunts

Forget empty skies, uncooperative birds, or leaky waders. These four stories capture the unforgettable thrill of waterfowling when you're in the right spot, the conditions are perfect, and everything goes according to plan

© Gary Palmer

Illustrations by Gary Palmer

OF BLACK DUCKS AND WILDERNESS

By Michael Furtman

"Boys, we're not gonna make it."

We had just finished crossing our first portage and, under the glow of a flashlight, my finger traced a line on the map showing the remaining distance to our destination. The river gurgled and splashed in the blackness to our west. Overhead the Milky Way's skein shined brightly.

Calculating how long it would take to move our small mountain of gear over the next two portages, plus additional paddling, it was clear that our plan to reach a remote wild rice lake before sunrise was overly optimistic. I offered a backup. "See this wide spot where the two rivers join? It has a fair amount of rice. I think we should set up for our first hunt there," I suggested.

My buddies agreed.

This trip was the marriage of two passions. When I was a boy, our family would camp in northern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a million acres of Boreal Forest containing a thousand undeveloped lakes, accessible only by canoe and foot. On one trip we camped along a frothy river, and there, in eddies behind boulders, were ducks. Some were common mergansers, but there was also a brood of black ducks. On a whim, I tossed blueberries into the foam and was delighted to watch the ducklings gobble them up with enthusiasm. I was already in love with the wilderness, but it was then that I became enamored with black ducks.

Thirty years later my wife and I took a late-summer canoe trip to the Boundary Waters. Along our paddling route we discovered a pretty lake choked with wild rice. I knew that lake would be a magnet for ducks come autumn. And among them, I hoped, would be black ducks.

When duck season arrived, three friends—Sam, Dan, and Bill—joined me for a return trip to that lake. After leaving home and driving through the night, we finally stood in the silent blackness only wilderness can provide. Too excited to feel the lack of sleep, we loaded piles of decoys, guns, camping gear, and food into two canoes and shoved off into the dark. Gypsy, my black Lab, squeezed in between my knees.

We did set up at the confluence of the rivers, and we did shoot a couple ducks that first morning. But it was a brief hunt, for we still had miles to go to reach the wild rice lake that held so much promise. We fueled up with a hot breakfast and steaming cups of cowboy coffee from a wood fire and reached our destination by afternoon. Minnesota prohibits evening hunts, and we were fine with that. We had plenty to keep us busy once we arrived—setting up camp, gathering firewood, scouting the lake, and building brush blinds. Once we had everything ready, we returned to camp to cook a venison dinner. Then, with brandies in hand and the setting sun painting the wild rice amber, we gazed out over the lake as magic happened.

Some came in big flocks. Some in small bunches. Puddlers whistled over the rice. Divers ripped the air. They came from the north. They came from the west. None circled the lake more than once before plunging into the tall rice, thick as a spaniel's hair. We sat silent in the glow of the fire. Gypsy perched on a high rock outcrop and stared until the night was as black as her coat. We listened to the ducks chortle and quack as they flew or fed, the only other sound the crackling of the fire. And then we finally crawled into the tents, eager for the dawn.

In the moment that fatigue swallowed my consciousness, I heard what I thought was the quacking of a mallard hen.

But it also could have been a black duck.
 
How do you brew up some coffee, fix something to eat, and paddle out to your spot when you know that if you make noise or create light, the ducks will flee? We hid the single-burner stove behind a rock outcrop to brew coffee and ate a cold breakfast. We stumbled without flashlights to the canoes, wisely loaded with gear the evening before, whispering if we talked at all. Finally, we paddled under the glow of stars to the spot we'd chosen, careful not to bang a paddle against a hull.

Memory fails me as to who shot the first duck, but when he did, the lake erupted with squalling waterfowl. Some left for good. Others circled before returning to the rice. It was one of those circling flocks that came spraddle-legged into our decoys, wings cupped and committed. Both Sam and I shot, and two birds splashed into the rice. When Gypsy delivered the first bird to me, I smiled.

"Here's your black duck, Sam," I said as I handed him his bird.

When Gypsy delivered mine, I laid it on my lap, spread its wings, and admired the purple speculum. The wilderness I love had given me the black duck I prized. And I grinned like the blueberry-tossing boy I once was.

STUTTGART ON THE THAW

By Tom Fulgham

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With nightly lows in the single digits in Memphis, attendance at work seemed unusually high for early January. Ice had besieged the flooded rice fields of Arkansas, denying access to restless hunters and hungry ducks. Both eagerly awaited the thaw.

The freeze had started Sunday night. When good friend and colleague Jim West appeared in my office doorway Thursday afternoon, I knew why he was smiling. The thaw was imminent.

"Tomorrow's the day," he said. "High of 55. Fields should start thawing by midday. Let's go to Stuttgart. We can leave at nine and be hunting by noon. We'll stay at the duck club, hunt Saturday morning, and then drive home. I have a good feeling about tomorrow."
Stuttgart on the thaw. I was all in at "high of 55." As I gathered my gear that evening, my wife seemed puzzled.

"Thought your field was frozen," she said.

"Tomorrow's the thaw," I explained. "I'm going to Stuttgart with Jim. It could be good, maybe epic."

She shot me her best heard-that-before look. "You do realize you say that before almost every hunt," she quipped. "North wind, could be epic. Cold front, epic. Sunshine, epic. Well, you and Jim have an epic time and please bring back a mallard or two for the grill."

On the drive to Stuttgart, fulfilling her request seemed less than a certainty as we saw only frozen fields and empty, overcast skies. "It'll thaw this afternoon," Jim reassured. "Our club leases two properties. The one I plan to hunt is a bit south of Stuttgart, but the other is only a few miles from town and just ahead. We'll take a quick look and then head south."

What we saw as we approached the back of the farmyard instantly changed our plans. Twenty mallards were circling a pit blind in a nearby rice field. As they pitched, another dozen dropped hard and lit. Pairs and singles were bombing into the decoys without circling.

"Told ya," Jim said with a grin. "Get your boots on. We've hit it just right."

As we crossed the rice field, we could see why it was among the first to thaw. Before the freeze, the water had been only a couple of inches deep. We were witnessing the first-to-freeze, first-to-thaw phenomenon at work.

A hundred ducks flushed as we neared the pit. Within minutes, we were ready to shoot, and the wait wasn't long. A mallard pair sailed over the pit, cut back into the southeast wind, and glided over Jim's corner. He dropped the drake. Two minutes later, I folded a single greenhead off my corner. When we picked up our birds, we saw ducks in all directions cruising in search of open fields.

"Let's take turns on the mallards," Jim suggested as we hurried back to the pit. "And let's shoot all drakes."

That afternoon Stuttgart lived up to its storied reputation. Mallards and gadwalls streamed over, some low, some high, all eager to find an open rice field. When we called aggressively, birds would often lock up and start dropping to the decoys.

An hour after our first shots, each of our straps held four greenheads, plus a pintail drake from a flock that worked the edge of the spread. Anytime, anywhere, a limit of four greenheads and two pintail drakes is a dream hunt, so we decided to hold out for pintails.

Mallards and gadwalls continued to sweep through the decoys, and when a dozen specklebellies worked to our calls, we each shot a barred-up adult. By four o'clock, we were debating whether to shoot the next flock of gadwalls when six pintails circled the spread cautiously before pitching to the decoys. We shot simultaneously, and two drakes fell in unison, the perfect ending to an amazing hunt.

Unbelievably, the next morning was a continuation of the previous afternoon. Another club member and his daughter joined us in the pit, and by 9:30, three of us had limits of ducks and specks. Then the west wind started gusting to 25, and the specks put on a show, gliding by the pit mere feet above the water. We cheered when the young girl was able to shoot her first goose.

On the drive home, Jim and I reflected on an unforgettable trip. It had been a dream hunt in one of North America's classic waterfowling locations, even though it had required little more than an overnight bag, a short drive, the company of a good friend, and impeccable timing.

Back home, I placed my birds neatly on the garage floor: eight greenheads, three pintail drakes, a gadwall drake, and three specks. "Check this out," I yelled through the kitchen door. When my wife appeared in the doorway, I smiled and simply said, "epic."

POTHOLE REUNION

By Ron Spomer

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I often think about the freelance hunts of my youth in the Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas. "Footloose and fancy free" doesn't begin to capture the feeling of being young and passionate in a landscape as wide as one's imagination and free for the hunting.

This gently rolling country rests on the bones of a continental glacier that inched its way across the bed of an ancient sea some 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. Today, thousands of natural wetlands, tiny to vast, are scattered among moraines and eskers layered with 10,000 years of carbon-rich, black, dead prairie grasses. Surrounding the wetlands, when not already plowed into memory, is living grass.

When I was a teenager, it seemed like ducks and geese splashed, quacked, honked, and flew everywhere in this unique landscape. Not by the millions, but easily by the thousands, sometimes tens of thousands when the right mix of weather nudged them into the area and held them there, awaiting developments. At those times, usually the middle of November, swarming flocks of freshly feathered mallards, gadwalls, wigeon, redheads, and scaup swirled down from the north, just ahead of a storm and searching for the perfect open pothole to call their own. And I joined them.

The hunting back then was inexpensive and simple. You coughed up $10 for rubber waders, $30 for a gunny sack of decoys, $100 for a 12-gauge pump, and $3 for a box of 2 3/4-inch 4 shot. Your barn coat sufficed for keeping the cold at bay as long as you chose your location wisely and shot well. Sometimes I did. Usually when all alone.

I remember running my muskrat traps one afternoon when the November migration hit. It was like a DU film—skeins and flocks and tornadoes of ducks whirling through gray skies over the wetlands. Snow was coming. Pick a pothole and sit.
I already had the pothole, so when I saw the mallards trying to get in, I splashed my last bucket of muskrats to the truck and traded my traps for a 12-gauge. Then I took further advantage of the rodent resource by sitting astride one of their cattail huts, a half dozen mallard decoys bobbing in a hole surrounded by bulrushes out front.

The greenheads weren't long in coming. They began as a compact bunch in the north, black silhouettes against the gray sky. They came fast, purposefully, already shedding altitude, clearly happy to see this silvery lake with its wind-blocking rim of reeds and rushes, its many muskrat huts free for preening.

I hailed them. They passed, wind rushing, swung around to the south, and glided down to my bobbing decoys on wings barely flickering. Then cupping, backpedaling, green heads and russet breasts now visible, orange bills like hot clothespins of color on the lush brown hens. With one drake already sitting on the water wiggling its tail and three more on the deck, orange feet splayed for landing, I sat up and pointed the pump gun. The first bird never saw it coming. I took the second by swinging past it as it banked right, just before the rest of the flock caught the wind and blew back, climbing.

Oh, it was sweet. One bird lay wing-splayed on its belly, dead in the waves, little silver beads of water decorating its iridescent green head like ornaments on a Christmas tree, two tail feathers curled up tight and black. The other lay white belly up, orange feet curled, rocking in the waves my waders pushed forward.

I should have left them to drift against the far reeds, where they would be easier to retrieve, but I had to claim them, touch them, stroke their plush, perfect feathers as they lay on the muskrat-clipped cattails beside me. And here came the next flock ... 

The crazy thing is that you can still do this hunt. Maybe not the $10 waders and $3 shells. But the wetlands and muskrats and mallards? They're still there. Despite 45 more years of "progress," the heart of the prairie pothole duck factory is still there. Thanks to Ducks Unlimited, duck hunters, duck stamp dollars, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, tens of thousands of glacial potholes and bordering grasslands have been saved or restored and made available for public hunting. Federal Waterfowl Production Areas, state Game Production Areas, and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program private acres are open to hunting. It's all there. Free for the finding. Free for the hunting. No reservations needed. No jacket or tie required.

I'm about to gear up, cruise over to the prairies, break out the binoculars, and scan some potholes. I'm guessing I'll find yellow-rimmed bowls of blue or gray water dotted with ducks. And in the northern sky, black silhouettes arrowing toward them, curving, banking, cupping, dropping into what could be my next dream hunt realized.

I guess you can go home again. With better waders, better insulation, better decoys, and a better shotgun. The gear has changed, but the ducks haven't. Our prairie potholes remain a waterfowl paradise. 

GOOSE BUMPS

By Doug Larsen

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Growing up in the upper Midwest in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I spent my youth duck hunting on small farm ponds and marshes near home. When I became a teenager, driving increased my mobility, but I didn't stray from the familiar, because I thought farm pond duck hunting was duck hunting. I put six decoys on a pond the size of a swimming pool and waited for the ducks. Eventually I was swayed by the magazine advertising of the day and the recurring memory of an old episode of The American Sportsman that featured Andy Griffith in a white snow goose spread. Friends and I scrimped and saved until we had enough money to pack the truck and point it toward Texas. It was our first out-of-state hunt.

This was well before the conservation season on light geese and at a time when the Texas prairie was the unchallenged snow goose capital of the world. El Campo and Wharton and Eagle Lake were to the goose hunter what Augusta and Pebble Beach are to the serial golfer. The landscape was a mix of rice fields, cattle ranches, and oil patch. Goose-picking houses anchored small-town corners while all-night gas stations sold coffee, donuts, and three-inch BB loads. Hunters and guides wore white ball caps and white jackets, and long-legged Labs rode in open beds of pickups, all signs that these folks had spent the morning in a rag spread. The white-goose culture was part of the region's identity.

I recall my first morning in that Texas rice field like it happened yesterday. I had planned this trip for months, and I did all the research I could on how the hunting might go. But this was long before websites and online videos. My research consisted of collecting trifold brochures at sport shows and reading outdoor magazines and Grits Gresham books in the school library. I was young and excited, and I wanted to be prepared.

It turns out that I was prepared for almost everything. Except for the noise. In the dark of that first morning we lay in the muddy rice field surrounded by hundreds of windsock decoys and rags. It was shirtsleeve warm and humid, and on the horizon little oil rigs bobbed up and down like birds pecking at a feeder. When the roost of snow geese lifted off just after sunrise, the noise raised the hair on my neck in a way that bordered on frightening. As a kid who thought he had seen some things (after all, I had shot plenty of pond ducks and even a couple of Canada geese) I was dumbstruck by a horizon-wide flock of geese and the deafening sounds they made. As the geese went over us high in an orange morning sky there were so many, and it was so loud, that it seemed more like a weather event than a feeding flight. In that moment of riotous and deafening honking and barking and squeaking I completely forgot about hunting. The absolute pure spectacle of those geese was a life-altering experience, and at that moment I knew I would spend the rest of my life going places where waterfowl can be found. I knew that I could no longer be content hunting only at home. Those wintering prairie geese opened my eyes to a life beyond the small ponds of the family farm.

While that moment was truly transformative, the weather proved less than cooperative. For two mornings we scratched out just a few gray juvenile geese. So when I poked my head out of the door of the mobile home at four o'clock on our last morning, I was dejected to find that a heavy fog covered the landscape like a blue-gray cloak. I assumed the morning was about to be a bust, but our guide told me that it would probably get "pretty interesting."

In the dark, we draped rags over tall rice stubble and placed them a bit closer together than we had the previous morning, hoping to show more contrast to geese that might be looking through the fog. Soon we heard the birds lift from the roost. Thousands and thousands of geese passed noisily out of sight above us. I was shocked when a group of almost a hundred appeared silently out of the dense fog, their salmon-pink feet hanging over the decoys, huge white wings outstretched. We kneeled in the mud and shot decoying geese over the next couple hours. I felt like I was living inside a John Cowan painting. Later, muddy and smiling, we posed for photos taken with an instamatic camera. In the years that have followed I have hunted ducks and geese in many states and many countries, but the excitement of those geese on the Texas prairie always reminds me why they are called "goose bumps."