Duck Hunters wear waders cause of the stories they tell.
For my Wisconsin duck hunting friends and myself, the almost-annual fall hunting trip to North Dakota really begins about ten miles down the hiway the previous year. 12 months earlier, we are already talking about “next year” and what we can do different and what we learned during this addition-no shortage of curriculum there at all. Being from a state that really isn’t known for high volume waterfowl traffic or emptying a lot of ammo boxes, my group of buddies look foreword to the wide open pot hole country and the opportunity to clean the cobwebs out of our 12 gauges.
All of us hail from the Wausau area originally and grew up in the woods, often at the end of the day streaking out of the doors of the high school, searching for coveys of grouse. Back then a couple of .20 gauge shotguns and tattered bird vests in the trunk in the school parking lot was no big deal. Close friend Mike lived on Lake Wausau, so he had duck hunting in his blood and I’d tagged along with my Grandpa Schutlz bagging a few mallards and Woodies when I was a kid. As all of us grew up, we made it a point to hit the woods and marshes together as often as we could. That’s all well and good, but we also wanted to experience what “real” hunting was like- out west….shooting box after box of shells at endless flights of ducks and pheasants. Chatting with a Neillsville neighbor one day, I learned of a farmer in North Dakota with tons of land and reasonable rates. Perfect opportunity. Some quick calls and consultations with the hunting buds and soon reservations were made for the following fall. It was a good decision back then-we’ve had good years and slow ones but never unsuccessful if one measures in number of laughs, stories and solid camaraderie.
Prepping for the trip may start in our minds right away the preceding year, but for the dogs, it really begins in earnest during the hottest months of summer. This year would be my 5 year old Black Lab Molly’s first out-west trip. She’s performed well on pheasants in state, but retrieving on big cold North Dakota water through a pile of decoys could be tougher. Several times a week, we’d head down the road and do drills in a small lake. She enjoyed this game immensely and even when I set a handful of decoys out off the beach, she managed to navigate though them to make the retrieves. I felt she was ready and couldn’t wait to see her hit the water,
The guys are scattered a bit now-Mike and Moe in Wausau, Dave in Ladysmith, Mikes son James (with a new dog Wally) near the cities and I’m in Neillsville. With a bit of coordination we all gathered and shoehorned gear, guns and dogs into two trucks and a trailer. I’d also be delivering a young golden retriever puppy to a new owner in ND as a favor and she was no problem during the 8 hour drive. At one time landowner Allen’s cash crop farm was over 5000 acres, but he’d downsized now and we had to work harder to find which potholes the birds were using. Pheasants suffered a huge downturn this past year, so we hunted those as incidentals as we jump shot marshes. Our intent was to try goose hunting as well, and no expense was spared getting deeks bought, painted and prepped-they never left the truck box. Crops were still standing and finding giant Canadians proved difficult. Snow geese would tease us, but are tough to hunt. We stuck to what we’d learned over the years-set decoys in the morning, jump shoot later, relax and catch the sun lengthening shadows late in the day.
We’ve hunted NoDak in about every conceivable kind of weather-from unseasonably warmth to breaking ice on ponds cold. No different this year. We arrived at 3:30 am and caught some zzzz’s in a gas station parking lot only to find snow blanketing everything an hour later. Typical North Dakota. Melting snow meant soils turn to black grease and the truck stayed in four wheel drive all week. Overcast and damp actually helped duck hunting as one would expect and we managed to get plenty of shooting opportunities the first 2 days. Bluebird skys and temps sliding up to the 60s seem to put the kabash on our waterfowl hunt later. We did get a few more, but they were tough to find-no cold front flights of northern birds would arrive this year. We managed a few rooster pheasants, but the hens outnumbered them 15 to 1 if we did find them. No matter, we still were in a beautiful place and away from work and for the dogs, it was nirvana every day.