I was battling the onset of a head cold and felt the pressure and fullness of it growing around my eyes and nose. The barometer was playing see-saw and my sinuses and ears were alternating between drained and bursting for the duration of the three hour tour up to the camp. I gnawed on jalapeno beef jerky and sipped fresh orange juice (a flavor sensation if there ever was one!) before stopping in to have a friend’s wife trim what meager hair I have remaining. I sat and had a visit with them and their two children, before I stole my friend from his home and made my way to the cabin with him.
The cabin was raucous with the sounds of over twenty grown men laughing and telling stories, all shouting to be heard and trading innocuous verbal jabs at one another’s flaws, spouses, jobs, education, and hunting abilities. The remains of what was once a few pizzas sat on a table while the rest of the spread consisted of chips and dip. We shared drinks, cigars, stories, jokes, and remembrances, and we eventually devised the plans for the morning hunt. Everywhere you looked there was wide-eyed joy and anticipation, good times, and that vague generalization known as “male bonding”. I had been unable to attend last year and as I stood with one of my fellow hunters, each with a heavy arm around the other’s shoulder I was asked “Did you miss this?!” My answer?
“Absolutely…but I won’t miss it again.”
5am arrived much too quickly and as my alarm hummed low, I shrugged on my hunting clothes and drove to the pre-determined meeting place. I was to join the group with the layout blinds in the same fields we had hunted two weeks before. The rain had stopped overnight but now low clouds promised a dim, grey start to this part of the waterfowl season. We began to setup the blinds under clammy, cool skies and looked to get settled in. The slightest hint of a south wind was blowing, and we expected the geese to swing in from the north. What we did not expect was the pair of geese to come dropping in while we stood there grassing the blinds. We dove into the blinds (my shotgun was not even loaded) and watched as the birds glided into the pocket. One flared off and the other decided to leave as soon as his feet touched terra-firma. As he climbed up out of the decoy spread, my cousin Dane’s shotgun barked once and the goose fell to the field, dead in the air. We exercised a bit more haste in camouflaging the blinds and before long a single goose began to work the spread. Again, Dane made a clean, single-shot kill as the bird circled to his left. Shortly after that a group of four began to make for the spread. Rory and I were in the central positions with Dane and Lucas hunting the ends of the line, and Rory and I scratched down three of the four birds. Then, miraculously, the sun came out. It was a good sign for the weekend’s weather to come, but a bad sign for the rest of the morning hunt. As the sun’s strength grew and the clouds that had greeted the morning were chased off, large flocks of birds began to make wide swings away from our setup. We called and flagged and called some more, but birds would circle high, showing lots of desire to be in the field, but also craning their necks from side to side and eyeing up the whole decoy spread before sliding off to other pastures. We presumed that even though the blinds were reasonably well camouflaged, we could not hide the increasingly long shadows that the profiles of the blinds were casting into the decoy spread. I find it no coincidence that all the birds were finishing perfectly under an overcast sky and circling high and flaring away in the sunshine. One more group came just a little too close and we took one more bird from that group. Coffee and a warm breakfast were calling so we packed up the gear and made for Mom’s Restaurant.
|Saturday Morning's Take (L-R: Rory, myself, Dane)|
We reconnoitered at Mom’s over home fries, eggs, bacon, sausages, and French toast, where we heard the stories from one group of our guys that had gone to hunt a fence line ditch nearby had managed two geese, while another small group that had gone to hunt a local creek and had taken in four mallards. Not a stellar morning by any stretch, but still a good haul considering every group had made a run for breakfast by 8:30am. Breakfast, as usual, was delicious and peppered with more laughter and tall tales. Many of the breakfast laughs seem to be at my expense, but when you are as handsome and talented as I, you expect the jealous barbs of the less fortunate.
In the afternoon, after we had dressed out the morning’s take and done a bit of camp clean up, we decided to check out a couple of local ponds and creeks to see if any mallards were loitering around in them. At our first stop we found a group of about ten milling about and we managed to bring six of them to hand, after Levi made his first water retrieves of his fledgling hunting career. Of the four that escaped, we tracked their progress to a small pond just across the road, where we managed a further two. That was plenty for us, which was good because we didn’t find any other ducks on that tour of the countryside. A stop at a local cornfield brought interesting news as well. The farmer had cut a sixty yard swath of corn out of the middle of the field and it had turned into a veritable runway/landing strip for geese and ducks. At least 300 birds packed the length and width of the open area. It was a spot ripe for a standing corn hunt.
|The fruits of pond-jumping on Saturday afternoon|
Back at the camp we cleaned out the ducks and I was tasked with their preparation for a late lunch. Seasoned with salt, pepper, and steak seasoning before being generously pan seared, the freshest ducks imaginable made their transition from swimming in ponds to swimming in our bellies in a little less than two hours. That is about as real “organic” as you can come by in my humble opinion. We washed those birds down with some homemade chili from a large pot that Lucas Hunter had brought before calling the landowner, obtaining permission to hunt the cornfield (others had also asked to hunt there as well so in his own words, “first come, first served”) and then saddled up early for the afternoon hunt. We wanted to make sure we got there first as it looked a very promising spot. We did arrive first and set up a pretty nice spread of decoys before we lined up inside the standing corn, all facing north, with the wind at our backs.
|Saturday Evening's Set-up|
For an hour or so nothing was flying. But soon enough the birds began to work. The first couple of groups of geese swung out to the south before making a wide swoop and coming in from the north. We got a couple from the early flocks, and didn’t exactly cover ourselves in glory on a single that was gliding in before he decided at the last minute that he’d go elsewhere. The video is below.
Hastings and Rory went over to a nearby pond and kicked up a large flock of ducks and they began working our spread, circling five or six times (as ducks are apt to do) before swooping in to land. We got five or six from that group, with a couple of guys making some pretty heroic shots. Another goose or two came to hand and during a lull in the action I experienced two things that I had never seen before.
The first was when a hawk tried to dive bomb a pair of geese that were working their way towards our spread. The hawk (of indeterminate species) had been cruising around the top of the corn rows for some time and as the pair of geese circled and began their final approach the bird of prey lunged up at the trailing goose, which expertly shed altitude to avoid the strike. The hawk gave a short pursuit as the geese went into full acceleration, but the raptor gave up in seconds. Of course this predatory action put the geese off the spread and we couldn’t plead them back.
The other thing that happened left me in awe, and is one of those stories that sounds like it is completely made up. A single drake mallard came bombing into the spread at a speed that I’d never seen a duck attain. I heard the bird first as it came in literally two feet over my head (and inches above the top of the corn) as the wind riffling through the drake’s wings made a sound that a surface to air missile. I swear that as long as I’m living I won’t forget that sound. It actually, genuinely scared me. By the time I regained composure and made the target, it was beyond the outer edge of the spread. It obviously startled a few of the guys too because no one could make a killing shot on it. No one that is, except Tack’s dad Doug. As the bird climbed and sped away from the spread Doug made a perfect shot to fold the bird up stone dead on the climb. A chorus of cheers and congrats rained down on Doug and he quietly and reverently picked up the bird before slipping casually back into the corn rows.
More groups came in and we shot and we shot. I ran out of shells; did I mention I had cracked a new box of 25 Kent Fasteel BB’s that morning? Well I had. With a half hour still to go until shooting light closed we called it an evening. We had some immediate laughs and storytelling as we took some photos and packed up once more; dinner was waiting in the form of the morning’s haul of goose meat already cut into strips, with some marinating in Italian salad dressing and the remainder soaking a mesquite barbecue sauce. These were all waiting to be rolled in thick cut, apple-smoked, peppercorn crusted bacon. There was also some coleslaw, some French fries, and the remainder of the chili. And maybe a beverage or two.
|Yours truly watching the northern sky on Satruday afternoon|
|Donavon with a mallard on Saturday afternoon|
We made our way back to the camp, and while some did the butchering others prepared the food. Stillness descended over the camp once the food came out, and hungry men filled their bellies. The evening was more subdued than the prior night, with an air of satisfied calm at the great day of hunting dominating. Hunters said their piece and slowly shuffled off to bed, but not before we resolved to send a skeleton crew back to the same field in the morning. As I drifted off to bed I could still hear the honks of geese and the reports of shotguns in the back of my mind; I love it when those are my last thoughts before falling into a slumber borne of an early morning and all-day hunting. The weather could not have been any better, the birds had flown well, and the shooting had been above average; it was truly one of our best days of hunting as a group.
Sunday morning was a non-event. Not much was flying and we had the sense that we’d shot enough geese and ducks for the weekend. The day broke foggy with a great sunrise, but by 8am we had one goose to show for our efforts.
|A foggy morning's walk into the field|
No one was upset. We’d achieved everything we had set out to do; we’d had some laughs, spent time together as friends, and had a hunt that was one of the best we’d had for a Double Opener Weekend. Camp clean up chores followed fast on the heels of another epic Mom’s Restaurant breakfast. There were high fives and handshakes all around before we put down the bear mats and closed up camp. By mid-afternoon on Sunday I was back on the road to Cambridge in need of a nap, a shave, and a car wash. In a year’s time we’ll be back at it again; I hope the future can only hold a hunting weekend as good.
I might be overstretching my anticipations by hoping for a better one.
**All photos and video courtesy of Lucas Hunter**