Friday, January 19, 2018

Late Season on the Pond

It had been a couple years since I'd journeyed down to 'The Pond'. 'The Pond' sits next to the Snake River and is perhaps my most consistent duck producing spot. The weather had been unseasonably warm lately, telling me there was a chance the pond was ice free. It was also early January, meaning that a lot of migrating mallards would be in the area. If I was right about those 2 things, Thursday would be an awesome hunt. 

By 6:30 am, we were making the almost 1 mile hike into the pond. We stopped short a few hundred yards and listened.
"Trevor, listen." I said, haulting and holding my hand into the air.
Trevor looked over at me with wide eyes as a mischievous smile spread across his face.
The sound of hundreds of mallards and geese could be heard. They were on the pond and had likely spent the entire night there.
"That means the pond is probably open. However, lots of birds on the pond in the morning doesn't always equate to great hunting. Sometimes they just leave and never come back," I explained.

We picked our spot according to the wind direction, built a make-shift blind, set up a 9 decoy spread and sat back, waiting for legal shooting light. The birds on the pond got up and flew directly over us as well as hundreds upon hundreds of others that had been roosting nearby on the river.
"Wow, that's a lot of ducks! This is going to be good, Ryan!" Trevor exclaimed, hardly containing himself.
"Gosh there's got to be a couple thousand mallards in the sky!" I marveled, amazed at the number of birds headed out to feed.  
Of course, when shooting light finally rolled around, the skies were nearly empty. We scanned the skies intently looking for dark shapes with cupped wings hoping to meet their fate, but as the skies became lighter, so did the number of birds. That's when we heard them.
"Trevor, I think there are geese on the pond." I whispered, pointing to one end of the pond where we could now hear them honking.
"Should we sneak over there and try to get them?" 
"I think we'd be crazy if we didn't at least try. You should go over there and I'll stay here in case they fly this direction."
"Okay, wish me luck!"
Trevor took off, making a wide circle through the desert, trying to avoid detection and get close enough for a shot.
Meanwhile, a few more ducks started flying, including 2 green heads that looked very interested. They circled twice before dropping right into the decoys. Dang, that's 2 guaranteed birds right there! Trevor better get some geese. The mallards swam around for about 1 minute before flying off. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! I looked over just in time to watch a goose fall from the sky and splash into the water. The rest of the flock flew away. Well at least he got one. I walked down the pond to help him retrieve his bird. I was pleased to see him trudging through the water with a bird in hand and in pursuit of another. I waded out in the pond to help him retrieve the second goose, which was currently still swimming. A shot to the head ended the swimming and we were on the board with 2 geese! Bonus birds for the pond.
We sat back in the blind ready for action, but there just wasn't much flying. Like I had mentioned earlier to Trevor, a bunch of birds at first light doesn't always mean great action. It was looking like this was the case. Even when we would see a duck, it would give us the cold wing and keep flying. Fom precious experience, however, I knew to be patient. Many times those birds that leave early to feed have to return to water later. 
At about 9 am, a lone duck came cruising into the decoys for a fly by. Trevor quickly rose and shot, bringing the fast flyer down. I didn't even know what it was, but I suspected a drake diver of some kind. Trevor trudged through the mud and retrieved it.

"Good job, Trev. A drake ring-necked duck." I said as Trevor admired the beautiful specimen.
"He's going to be our mascot!" Trevor said triumphantly while I chuckled.

Once again, few birds in the air made for slow passing of the time. Trevor went for a walk while I sat silently in the blind. A single green head came cruising in and I rose, making a clean shot.

Trevor returned empty handed and once again we sat staring at the empty skies. Forty-five minutes passed before a pair of ducks came low over the reeds. The white crest on the drake told me these were wigeons. The pair cruised into 20 yards with feet down. Just before they landed I called the shot. BOOM! BOOM! Both birds laid motionless on the water as Trevor went to retrieve them. The drake was a gorgeous representation of the species.

Although the action hadn't been fast and furious, we were slowly building a pile of miscellaneous ducks and geese. At 11 am, Trevor went for another walk, this time to another pond. I soon heard a couple gunshots and I looked to see a lot of ducks headed my direction from where Trevor was. A single gadwal came cruising in and I shot it.

"What did you get, Ryan?" Trevor implored, returning empty handed.
"A female gadwal!" I replied, holding up the pretty little lady.
By noon I was looking at my watch, wondering how long we should stick it out.
"Ryan, I think we should keep hunting. We are getting ducks every now and then. I still think we are going to get our limits!" Trevor said confidently.
"Ok. Hopefully all those mallards will return soon," I replied.

At 12:30 we saw our next prospects. Three puddle ducks took a hard look at our spread and began to circle. We were crouched and ready, my duck call working it's magic as the birds circled. That's when we saw them. From the left, dropping out of the sky, were 20 ducks, locked and loaded, coming right into the decoys. 
"Trev, on the left. Get ready." I whispered. "Take 'em!"
We rose and shot. Dropping 4 ducks from the group.
"Sweet! Those guys just snuck in." I grinned.
"Should we go retrieve them?" Trevor asked.
"No, there are more birds starting to fly. Let's let the wind blow them in." I replied, pointing to the south bank of the pond. 

An abundance of mallards were now flying and it didn't take long before the next big group began to circle. More and more ducks began to join them and soon we had ducks flying all over the place. I waited until the largest group came straight for us with feet down. At 25 yards I called the shot. Three green heads were left floating belly up on the water. Trevor and I quickly went into action retrieving birds. I went to the south bank to grab the previous birds while Trevor retrieved the recent ones floating amongst the decoys. I looked up just in time to see a single green head begin to circle our spread. I was out of range but Trevor was already back in the blind. I crouched motionless next to my pile of ducks until I heard Trevor shoot. I looked to see the green head drop from the sky.

"Ryan, the last bird is yours." Trevor said, referring to the one bird left to reach our 14 bird, 2-man limit.
"As long as someone gets him." I replied. "Gosh I'm glad we stuck it out. At noon I was seriously thinking about packing it up. I really should have known better with all those ducks flying early on in the morning. They have to come back to water at some point."
I felt the crop of one of the mallards.
"Feel this Trev...corn." I said, handing Trevor a fat mallard.
"Wow, there's a lot in there." Trevor said, as corn kernels began to fall out of the duck's mouth.
"This is why they have to come back to water. They need to digest their meal."

It only took 15 minutes before we had our next potential victim. A lone duck began to circle. On his 3rd approach, he came low over the desert with locked wings. He cruised into shotgun range and right over the top of the decoys, slowing as he scanned the decoys below him for signs of danger. He hung in the wind almost motionless directly in front of the blind at 15 yards high. I slowly rose, placed the bead of my shotgun sight on his beak and pulled the trigger. Splash! Bird number 14, a drake mallard, lay on the water, completing our limit.
"We did it, Ryan!" Trevor yelled.
"You didn't have a doubt in your mind all day, did you?" I said as we high-fived. 
Trevor shrugged his shoulders. "That was awesome!" 

We retrieved the mallard and assembled the birds for pictures.

Now it was time for the real work. 14 ducks and 2 geese would be no easy pack out. We crammed as many birds into the decoy bag as possible. The rest would have to be carried by hand. 

This hunt reminded me how important it was to stay later in the day during the late season. Not only are birds more active throughout the day, but if you have a bunch of birds leave early in the morning to feed, they will have to come back to the water to get a drink. The almost one mile hike back was long and brutal, but we kept smiles on our faces the whole time.

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