To start w/ let's not speculate on where I went. That is not really so important, even though I know many of you'd love to go too. Let's suffice it to say it is indeed a special spot and leave it at that. This was a much needed mental health day, one I've tried to accomplish for several weeks now. I finally managed to pull it off, and can put away my duck gear happy knowing my season ended on the note that I needed. As for photos, I took a few w/ my wifes camera, but getting them onto this forum may take an act of God. We'll see what happens. Here goes:
The alarm sounded at O dark thirty. I don't sleep all that well these days, so when it startled me, I was surprised. Roca, the lab laying at me feet was not so impressed that it was time to hit the floor. Ever since her puppy days, she has been able to manage her bladder and loves to sleep in just as long as anybody cares to.
I rousted, heading downstairs to check the coffee. I did not need to enter the kitchen to smell it brewing so headed to the wood stove to crank it up a tad. Back upstairs I got dressed in my synthetic layers for a day outdoors. I looked at the camo shirt and grinned, knowing I would not be that undressed all day long. It did not matter if that 3rd layer was bright pink or flourescent orange as I'd be needing warmer gear over that for sure.
Back down we went together, me for coffee, her for breakfast and a quick jaunt to the woods to do her business. A few things more thrown in the mini cooler, and out the door we walked into the chill air to find the boat and truck covered in last nights snow. With the truck warming, the last of the gear was set in its proper place. A fresh cup of coffee, Roca on the back seat laid out like she was the one making truck payments, and off we went.
I called my brother in law from MI when I hit the highway to tell him of my winter adventure. He laughed and we caught up w/ him telling me about his 157 score, 13 point IL whitetail. He had just arrived back home from shopping, and as soon as his clothes came out of the dryer he was headed up to his farm in the thumb to start the shotgun season.
The roads were covered in snow the whole way and traffic was sparse. I drove carefully, but still made good time and arrived at the landing well before legal shooting. The first thing I do is dry start my old Johnson (pun intended) to be sure I don't have issues after launching the boat. With that done, I backed in, drove the boat off the trailer, and pulled up. Well, I tried to pull up. After laying down some sand on the ice I was able to get up and over the top of the ramp to park the truck. I knew I had some work to do when I got back.
The run downriver was cold, but not as bad as several years back when I launched at -22. I could have used my neoprene face gator but chose to just take the wind on my nose and chin. It felt really good to have that motor roaring in my ears, the cold on my cheeks, and my eyes watering. They weren't watering so bad that I couldn't see the first flock of 6 mallards come up off the water. Roca saw them too. Game on. We spotted several more small flocks, but I had to travel further than normal before I saw what I wanted. I won't say the sky darkened as the birds took wing, but it was a glorious sight to see birds in that number still around.
I picked a spot, and started hauling decoys and gear across a shallow water mud flat, across some pan ice stuck to the mud, and into a small open "creek" off the side of the river. Decoys out, Mojo set w/ the battery armed, gear stowed and it was back to the boat to run it up and out of sight. After parking the boat we hustled back down to the spread, almost making it before the first flock of 5 came in from across the river. They silently departed over the trees, spooked by our movement on the river's edge.
We made it simple, hunkering down behind alders and grass that were covered in snow. Roca sat off to me left under the bows of a larger spruce. She was already scanning the horizon before I had on my last layer of white and loaded the gun. The set looked good w/ 2 hen decoys 15 yards to my left, the Mojo 12 yards to my right, and 7 more drakes and hens just beyond that. I had an open area better than 25 yards long just in front of me. The channel was only 15' across, and beyond that was the pan ice, 150 yards long by 80 yards across covered in 3" of fresh snow. The wait began.
Things started out slow and I was startled out of my daydreams by my phone ringing. Too funny. Looking at the caller ID I saw it was my son (Labman) so I answered. We were talking about AR platforms and predator guns when I heard a drake. I couldn't see him, but I knew he was there. I told my son to hang on, set the phone down, hit the button on the remote to start the Mojo, picked up the shotgun, and gave one short call. Here he came, low, from downriver, banking in to the spread. At 25 yards I came up, swung the 11-87, and he fell on the ice 16 yards out. Roca marked him, not that she could have missed a dark bird on flat ice, and when I gave the command, dashed through the slough for the retrieve. I picked up the phone to hear my son telling me what a "jerk" I was, then laughing. Sorry I said.
I committed early to not shooting anything that did not have gear and flaps down. No pass shooting. If I was not good enought to get them to land, they got a pass. A flock of 6 came over, circling twice. I tried the hard sell, and the soft sell. They continued their flight on no worse for wear. The next 2 singles came from downriver. I spotted them far enough out to get the mojo moving and tried a few single hen calls. A chuckle or two didn't hurt the cause. At least they did not flair. Both were drakes, both dropped at the shot, one on the ice at 14 yards, the other on the water just beyond the left hand dekes.
During another slow period we went for a walk to warm up. Roca loves to bound and bounce. Walking to her is just about as good as shooting birds. We made it back to the set a bit after one lone drake flew over. Oh well, no harm done really.
A few mallards came in from upriver, surprising me. I finally got tuned in and was able to call to one hen who stayed with us after the shot. A bit later a group of 4 were coming over the trees from upriver on the other side. Mojo running, calls sounded good, and here they came, swinging hard into my bank then turning on final for the open water just my side of the left hand dekes and down came the gear. Up I came, noting that Roca was locked onto them. The birds started their flair and I started to shoot. The first landed at 12 yards on the ice, the second followed 6 yards or so later, and a third started a hard uphill pull just over my right shoulder. I swung through, slapped the trigger on my last shell, and she flew away. I watched her fly out of sight, watching for any anomoly in her flight to suggest she was carrying steel. I saw none, so can only hope it was a clean miss.
I lined Roca up on the furthest bird and sent her. Again, it is pretty easy for a dog to mark birds when she is on a bank slightly above the surface the birds are landing on, and the surface is completely flat. She grabbed that first bird, and on her return looked at the second. Good girl. She got back to me and flipped herself around in heel, almost throwing that first bird at me as if to say, "hurry up man, there is more work at hand". The line was given, she locked on like a missile, and was gone with a soft "back".
That ended the day of hunting. 6 mallards in winter plummage; 3 drakes and 3 hens. One miss, which sounds like I'm not satisfied w/ my shooting, but really I'm still thinking about that one hen that continued on. 5 of the hits were solid kills, one had to be finished, but had been hit hard, so I am happy about how I was hitting them all in all.
I stopped hunting about 15 minutes early as I did not want to fight dark getting back upriver. With the gear all picked up I started the trek back upriver, determined to haul it all in one load. I got to the boat huffing and puffing, Roca still racing around exploring all that she could find. I was pretty happy as I dumped everything in the boat and secured it. I was pretty happy right up until I hit the key to start the engine, and it did not even click. Not a sound, not a thing. Oh brother, and here I was parked on the wilderness side of the river w/ no way to walk home. A quick check showed me that all of the battery connections were tight. I had no idea why I had a problem as I had fully charged the motor before departure and my alternator had always kept it charged. With dark fast approaching, it was time to try to hand start that old 88 that had been sitting and getting cold since early morning. It was now 4pm. I spent fully 30 minutes removing spark plugs while standing in waist deep water, spraying starting fluid (a prayer sent in thanks for having not 1 but 2 cans in the tool box) and wrapping the hand cord around the flywheel. Every time I pulled I prayed. Sometimes she'd cough, sometimes she'd just grunt her disapproval. Prayers are answered, and she came to life, running solidly on all 4 cylinders. Now I had to go back and pull one wire off at a time to tighten up the spark plugs with a wrench as I had only been putting them back on finger tight. I only got shocked once.
The run upriver started about 4:45. It was dark, but I could see the water. What I could not see was the small floating pan ice or the weed choked shallows. I had no choice unless I really wanted to spend the night next to a fire w/ a tarp at my back. We made it without having to shut down even though I hit ice 3 times and ran through 2 spots shallow enough that my bow flattened down.
Getting the boat loaded was easy, getting off the ramp was not. Another hour was spent getting up on top. Remind me sometime why I ever thought that chains off of 16" tires would ever fit a 17" set up? Yeah, I was living the family motto, "Don't be stupid on purpose". Persistence does pay off though.
On the road I made my obligatory calls to my wife and friends to update my status. I did this trip alone because I needed to. I know the risks and weighed them. I set a trip plan in place, I knew the cell would reach in and out, once I got there I had updated my "safety contacts" and when I got out I did so again. My wife reminded me that I forgot the SPOT. If the phone had dropped in the water my options were limited. She's right, next time it gets added to the bag.
My mind is clearer now and my internal burden is gone. I did not have to go to kill, I had to go to be there; to see, smell, and feel the cold water. I needed to walk in the gravel, and struggle through the mud. I had to go, knowing that my time here is short. I leave for AZ end of November, and won't be back for 10 weeks. I was diagnosed w/ prostate cancer, and my time to fight that fight is near. No, that is not a "poor pitiful me" plea for sympathy. I'm going there to fight, not to die. Besides, I've got too much to do yet in my life to put one foot in a grave.
There will be more winter mallards to hunt with my dog. And one of these days, I hope my son is home again to go with me instead of talking to me on the phone while mallards work the decoys. Funny thing, while we were talking and that drake was coming, I was telling him to be quiet, get down, get ready. I finally realized that I need to put that darn phone down to be able to get that old Remington to my shoulder. See, even old guys get excited.