By John Pollman
It’s been more than two months since the end of my duck season in South Dakota and the last time my five dozen Texas-rigged mallard and pintail decoys have seen water, but they remain in their place of convenience hanging in my garage rather than out of the way somewhere in storage. I suppose I could say that I don’t mind squeezing through the gap between the decoys and my truck every time I need to walk through the garage, but the truth is I enjoy seeing them every day. I need to see them every day.
The end of the waterfowl season is tough; it’s a deflating realization that months will have to pass before another opening morning comes around again. I have found ways to cope, and part of that process is taking my sweet time putting my hunting gear away after the season’s closing bell. Much to my family’s delight, I have managed to move a few things out of the garage and into storage this off-season, mainly in the days after returning from a trip in January to the Mississippi River Delta in Arkansas. My coat, waders, blind bag and partially used boxes of shells are now all in my basement, while my lanyard remains a little more accessible. This process takes time in part because before each piece of gear is stowed away, there is a bit of a pause. In the hands of a stranger, they would be nothing more than tools of the trade, but in my hands there are an instant connection to past hunts. I’ve found that making it through the off-season is a little easier if I’m able to relive the past. Like most waterfowl hunters, I place a high value on memories.
I’m a music teacher by trade and a firm disciple of the strength of an individual’s musical memory, which is considered to be one of the strongest mental functions a person possesses and one that doesn’t fade even at the end of life. As a waterfowl hunter, I like to think that the portion of the brain that stores memories of a hunt is an awful close second. If the music that accompanies us from day to day becomes an ever-expanding, always-present soundtrack to our lives, then over a lifetime a waterfowl hunter scribes a mental chronicle of days in the field, with each season becoming a new chapter.
The pages we write are always there in the back of our minds, brought into the light by a visit with a hunting partner or a glance at a photo on our smartphone. The very first chapter is as easy to recall as those pages from the most recent season. Just the sight of an aluminum johnboat today has me back on the water with my brother almost 30 years ago, riding away from the rustling, yellowing leaves of the cottonwoods towering above the launch on my first duck hunt. And every time I see the worn, faded facemask in my blind bag, I’m transported back to my first solo hunt as a teenager on a Waterfowl Production Area not far from my home. I still feel the pride of shooting a three-bird limit of blue-winged teal and gadwall that morning while leaning against a muskrat hut in chest deep water in the middle of the slough. I learned a lot on that hunt—the importance of being where the ducks want to be, how hard a decoying teal can be to shoot, and the value of a facemask when the cover is sparse. The ink on those pages hardly seems dry.
For some waterfowl hunters, the seasons never really come to a close, extended by dog training sessions and blind repairs or work on a hunting property. Living in the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region and the breadbasket of duck production, my season is extended by the birds themselves, which arrive back on the prairie on the first warm winds of spring.
Canada geese are the first to return, often showing up in pairs before all the snow has melted to scout out nesting locations. Snow geese and white-fronted geese begin to arrive as the ice and snow continue to recede, and on their heels come the mallards and pintails and then the divers, gadwalls, shovelers and more in a rush of energy that is the spring migration. For the next several months I’m blessed to be able to observe this part of their annual lifecycle, from courtship displays to the first broods on the water to the first flocks of mallards or wood ducks working harvested wheat fields at the end of the summer. It all adds to my story as a waterfowl hunter and serves as a build-up to the fall.
Even today, months away from opening day and with snow drifts outside piled as high as a basketball hoop, I can feel the anticipation for the coming season. A lifetime of memories allows me to close my eyes and see the silhouettes of birds working the decoys before shooting light; I can see the face of my dog, his muzzle wet from the dew on the grass, his ears perked and his eyes scanning the sky; I can hear the marsh coming to life and smell the coffee in my thermos cup. It is the day that I will look forward to until it arrives and I can once again turn the page and start writing another glorious new chapter.