I guess this is where it gets good for those readers who enjoy some duck killing. The day is Sunday, October 21, 2012. The day prior was my first full day in North Dakota. I spent it scouting for ducks, which didn't take long to do. My plans after my Sunday morning hut was to travel north and west in the hill country of North Dakota to look for ducks and water. Afterwards, I was to drive north and east, to the Devils Lake area to my cabin rental that I would now share with only myself. The plan involved a least 6 hours of driving on Sunday afternoon, with little time to look for ducks. But first, I had the matter of interrpting the motherlode as it came to feed on the 10 acre pothole I had discovered no les than three miles from any evidence of modern civilization. North Dakota freelancing is truly a wilderness experience and doing it alone is for the strong of mind and not the weak of heart.
The Saturday night before, I busied myself for a second night at the Jamestown Inn. I ate supper at McDonalds, which in itself is a rare-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. I toko advantage of the free wi-fi to do a last minute check of the weather and to put my newly recorded GPS units on my Google Earth and GPS programs. I also wanted to see an aerial view of the pothole. When scouting ducks, it's best not to get to close when you find a wad of them. Earlier on that Saturday, the motherlode I discovered was primarily teal and blackheads, but there was the scant mallard, wigeon, gadwall, and ringneck spotting. The pond was privately owned, but not posted, and was surrounded by federally owned and legal-to-hunt Waterfowl Production Areas. Scaring these birds away would give them plenty of options. And the earlier potholes I had glassed, sent ducks scattering. I suppose they had been jumpshot a lot the prior week, even though the prior week was the state pheasant opener - a state holiday, it seems. Nevertheless, after locating the motherlode, I went to a local greasy spoon restaurant, at a hamburger steak in honor of my father, and then hit the road back to the Jamestown Inn. A nap, McDonald's, and a fuel fill-up left me with a strong headache and nothing to do other than to watch the Alabama-Tennessee game on television. I set my alarm for 5 am and drowsed off. On no less than three occassions, I woke up in the night because of my headache. I finally got out of bed, did my obligatory push-ups, swallowed coffee, and took a hot shower. I guess that's what produced the vomiting that ensued. At roughly 5:45, 2 hours before legal shooting light, I wondered if the motherlode was meant to be. I took a 30 minute nap and woke up as if nothing had ever been the matter. God works things out if you trust more and try less, I guess.
I swiftly loaded my car, checked out of the hotel, stopped for a donut and drove the hour I needed to arrive at my motherlode. The morning sky was beginning to blister in the east, but the buzz of waterfowl wings was the most noteworthy of the entire ocassion. I parked my Jeep, crested the hill, and spied the pothole. Even in the twilight, the pond was clearly alive, as was the sky. I'll never forget the walk up that hill. It was a corn field two weeks prior. Two eons prior, it was covered in a glacier, because the dirt was littered with 200 pound boulders, just like my driveway is littered with chert gravel. Upon cresting the hill, I began the slow descent to the area I had elected to hunt. I soon found out what a badger hole was, as I fell into it, banged my 2 dozen decoys to the ground, and muddied my gun. Slightly confused and highly agitated I put myself upright, and walked much more cautiously. The 1/4 mile walk to the pothole left me slightly sweaty, but the frosty air moderated me. As I reached the pothole, I began looking for a place to hide in the cattails. The drought had left a 20 foot moat of marsh mud between open water and cattails. This presented an interesting conundrum, as I had immediately added a great level of difficulty to both walking to set out decoys and shooting. And I still had no idea how deep these potholes were. The marsh mud crossing was an arduous ordeal, but the mud succumbed before I did. Light slowly crept towards the eastern hilltop, and I was in a hurry. I cast my decoys out in the best pattern I could before scrambling mack to the cattails. I had set up my decoys with 30 seconds prior to shooting light. And since none of the decoys floated away in the deliberate breeze, I assumed the water was less than three feet deep. Retrieving the ducks I was about to shoot would be a cinch, even if the wind was at my back.
As the legal shooting time threshold crossed, two teal joined my spread. I elected to let them swim, because I wanted to shoot the big ducks I had seen in the magazines. That's when a ringneck crossed my line of sight. I don't know about you, but a ringneck seems to me that when he swoops over your rig, he's daring you and your skill to take him down. Big ducks be damned, I shot him. The right barrel of my side by side put him on the water and the left barrel ended his thrashing. The teal, unphased, remained. Doing Darwinism a favor, I flushed them both, and ended them both. In 15 seconds, I was halfway to my limit, and then I realized I had zero "trophy" ducks to call my own.
For the next 5 to 6 minutes, I passed on the ringnecks and teal. A blackhead decoyed, and I shot him. I love blackheads. They aren't intimidated by hunters or guns. They carry the mail when they fly, and in a hurry. I had two ducks to go, and I wanted, I mean WANTED, one of the pintails that had chirped all morning over head. Thinking of the pintails, I just-beyond-eclipse greenheaded mallarded dropped from the 10th story and into my decoys. Postcard perfect, I promise. I sent him up with a couple of four letter words about his lineage, and then returned him to the water with the left barrel after the right barrel failed to apparently cut a feather. I had 5 ducks on the water, one a big North Dakota mallard, and the rest were birds that I commonly shot in North Carolina. I shot very little, but when I did, it scared birds. They would always return but became much warier with each shot. And finally, it happened.
I had chirped way on my Allen Bliven Calls whistle all morning, pleading to the pintails. They were hesitant to commit, but the quiet lull between the last shot and official sunrise was enough to secure the setting for them. Four drakes dropped in. Backlit by the sun, I was easy to pick out the boy in the group with the longest sprig. Two shots later he was mine, and I was done. Six ducks on the water, that I picked and chose from were dead without spending 10 shells.
For a little bit, I just sat there and reflected on the accomplishment. I had come to North Dakota, all alone other than supplies, prayer, and a dream, and did it. I found my own ducks to shoot, way off in God's country. I shot them and killed them and now they were mine. The mystery of migration swept over me and I tried to imagine were these ducks on their way somewhere, or were they gifts from above, solely intended for me. Then the geese started honking.
What was sublime turned to silly as I shot at specklebellies, snows, and Canadas, but it was all for naught. They were close, but fast. I stopped after 10 rounds. I didn't come here to shoot geese. I wanted to be a part of my surroundings, not an intruder in it. The erratic shooting cleared those potholes and the ducks that left them went to no-telling where. Some left in such a hurry, I can only assume Mexico would be their next stop.
I waded out to pick up my birds. Several had drifted out a great distance. Water lapped at the top of my waders, and some water entered. All retrieves were easy, save for the big pintail drake. I pulled out my decoy retrieving device, which is merely a lead ball with 200 feet of string on it and cast it over his back. After several attempts, I was able to drag him to hand. He was the most beautiful of all. I put them on a leather gamestrap I made the month prior. I loaded the ducks, the decoys, and gun on my shoulders. It was the happiest heavy I had ever felt. And it was barely sun-up. The heft of the ducks actually caused one of the wet leather straps to break. Undeterred, I put the duck in my mouth and traveled on. It was my day.
Afte the hunt I loaded up and left town. I headed west into what was a constant bombardment for the waterfowler's senses. Geese, ducks, swans, and cranes were everywhere along the interestate. I found my next exit and headed north towards White Horse Lake. I drove 30 miles of wide open dirt roads and saw beautiful lands, beautiful potholes, but nary a duck. The geese, though, were crowding the fields by thousands. Only the "Posted" signs seemed more numerous.
According to my highway map, the bridge over White Horse Lake would lead me into the Couteau area, and from there only about 100 miles until Devils Lake. Unfortunately, the map was wrong and the bridge was underwater. The "Road Closed" sign even looked like it had been flooded on several occasssions. Long story short, I backtracked for two hours before getting on the right path to Devils Lake. Once I got withing 50 miles of Devils Lake, ducks started appearing with regularity. I walked into 3 different Waterfowl Production areas, a grand total of 15 miles walk/jogged, to find them empty, though. Daylight was fading, but my cabin was reportedly unlocked and ready - so I could scout until dark. I went through Minnewauken and scouted the fields north of Devils Lake. I scouted the ponds. No Motherlode. Despair had become my traveling partner. I finally walked 2 miles into what is called Pelican Lake, or something right next to it. After surviving the jack rabbit attack, I fond a hidden pocket that held shovelers and pintails. I love shovelers. I elected to return here in the morning, and did very little other scouting of the area. I just new that there were few areas to hide, but shooting quick and early would be no trouble and being perfectly hidden wasn't necessary. I finally made it to my cabin, and after introductions, I immediately knew that I wouldn't like my cabin so much. It was much tinier than advertised. Even the door was small. Nevertheless, I filled the cabin with supplies, went to clean my ducks, and ate 6 donuts for supper. I set my alarm, read several pages of an Albert Hochbaum book, and fell asleep.