Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Curse of the Gadwal

The waterfowl hunting season is perhaps the most anticipated time of year for me. Over the past 7 years I've developed quite the obsession with hunting ducks and geese. One season I hunted a total of 44 days; not sure how I passed my classes that semester, but I did. The excitement I feel when I see a group of ducks or geese locking their wings and dropping into the decoys can only be compared to watching a very large trout slowly come up and eat your dry fly. 
I had eagerly awaited my first duck hunt of the season. I have always done well at a certain spot early in the season. In fact, the last 3 years, those hunts there have ended in limits. I picked my day and invited my future father in law, Rick. Convincing him to wake up super early wasn't terribly easy, but he agreed to do it.  
4:40 AM came quickly, but I was ready. I sprung out of bed in anticipation of whistling wings and shotgun blasts. I met up with Rick, he threw his stuff into my rig and we were off!
The place we were headed was a pond on public land along the Snake River. This location receives a fair amount of hunting pressure on the weekends, but during the week, it's usually pretty easy to secure the pond. We pulled into the parking lot and a sickening feeling hit me like a ton of bricks. Someone had beaten us to the spot. I looked out in the distance and could see a headlamp moving about. Crap! There were other spots to set up nearby, but they weren't as good as the pond this early in the season.
We readied our gear, put on our waders and headed out into the darkness. We neared the river and decided to set up on a side channel. I started setting up the decoys and Rick began working on making a blind. With the decoys set up and a blind built, we were able to sit back and enjoy the sunrise. One of my favorite parts of duck hunting is watching the world wake up. 

As we sat and watched the sky turn from black to blue and then orange, the whistling of wings could be heard overhead. Excitement began to brew inside me. We looked out in front of the blind to see a group of ducks lock their wings as they made their descent into the decoys. I looked at Rick and he gave me an approving smile back. A group of 6 puddle ducks landed only a few yards away from us. We still had 15 minutes until we could legally shoot, but its always a good sign to see birds landing in the decoys. The ducks milled about for a little while before they realized their friends were plastic and they flew off.  

A few more minutes passed and it was nearly time. A single mallard flew over our heads, immediately locking its wings as I gave it a 5 note hen greeting with my duck call. The mallard hooked around and was headed straight for us, fully committed. The single duck began back-peddling its wings and lowered its orange feet as it plopped into the water in front of us. I looked at my watch and we still had 3 minutes until shooting light. The single mallard drake took off into the sunrise. 

Legal shooting light came around and we anxiously waited for a group of ducks to come near. Several minutes passed before we saw our first prospects. A group of a dozen or so ducks came our way. I watched as they approached our spread with critiquing eyes. They veered toward the pond and I hit them with the duck call. Their response wasn't what I was hoping for. The ducks locked their wings and began descending onto the pond. I called again, but it was clear they wanted to be on the pond. We watched until they disappeared from view. We waited for the sound we dreaded hearing. BANG.... BANG............BANG!
We watched as most of the ducks rose from the pond and flew back to the river.
"That could have been us." I said begrudgingly.

A few minutes later, a single duck appeared out of nowhere. It was headed straight for us and was flying quite low. The duck locked its wings and I told Rick to get ready. I identified the duck as a gadwall as it made its final approach. The gadwall began back-peddling and I told Rick to "take him!". Rick rose and made a clean shot, killing the duck. Splash! It landed in the water outside the decoys. The bird dog (me) went and retrieved it. I brought the duck back to the blind and handed it to Rick.

"Didn't we only get one gadwall the last time we went duck hunting?" Rick asked me.
"Yeah, you shot the only duck that day, and it was a gadwall." I said in reply.
"I hope this isn't a sign." Rick chuckled with a deeper concern in his eyes.
I'll explain what happened the last time I convinced Rick to go duck hunting with me. A friend and I had hunted a spot near Weiser and shot 2 limits of Greenheads (drake mallards). Two days later I invited Rick to hunt with me at the same spot. We drove all the way out there, only to find someone in our spot. We set up nearby in what looked like a decent location. Not long after shooting light, a single gadwall came in and Rick shot it. That was the last duck to come anywhere near our decoys the rest of the day. So you can understand our concern with the current situation.
As the morning progressed, it looked as though "The Curse of the Gadwall" may actually exist. The skies were empty of ducks. Every once in a while, some ducks would come near, but their interest was on the pond. We decided to grab a few of the decoys and set up on the river. It couldn't hurt our current situation.   

You can always tell when a duck hunt isn't going very well by a hunter's body language. For instance, first thing in the morning when anticipation and optimism is high, a duck hunter's head is on a swivel. He is crouched and hidden like a cat waiting to pounce. By late morning of a dismal duck hunt, you will likely find the duck hunter zoning out and becoming complacent. He often forgoes the need of complete concealment. Rick and I were to that point now; sitting on the bank of the river, practically in the open and staring at our decoys.
"Shouldn't have shot that gadwall, Rick."
"I guess we'll know better next time."
We both shook our heads and laughed.
We packed up the decoys and headed back to the rig. We estimated the hunter on the pond had shot 4 or 5 ducks that day. I've hunted this area many times and I've learned a lot over the years on how to hunt it. If the pond is not frozen, the ducks ALWAYS want to be on it. They will choose the pond over any other location. It's easy to blame someone or something (like a silly superstition) on an unsuccessful hunt. The truth of the matter was simple: Someone had beaten us to the pond and our outcome was a result of that. Next time he'll be the one disappointed!


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Bristol Bay is for fishing - Alaska part 3

I awoke early on the third day of my trip in Alaska. A faint glow from the rising sun came through the upper bunk window. I lay in bed and imagined large northern pike exploding on my Spillers Diver back in some weedy and wooded slough somewhere on the river.  The idea of it made me smile. I couldn't wait to catch some pike today, but first, we would search the river for bull moose.

We left the cabin before the sun had fully risen and ventured up the channels. We saw a few moose but they were all cows. Chad informed me that we were still early for the Rut: when the bulls get very active in search of cows to breed with. It often forces huge, smart bulls, to wander about in the open during daylight exposing them when they would normally be hiding. With cold hands and no bull moose spotted by midmorning, we headed back to the cabin.

When we returned to the cabin, we ate a large breakfast, readied the boat, and rigged up our rods for pike fishing. If you haven't fished for pike before on a flyrod, I highly recommend it.
Chad took me to a long slack water slough, and I began casting a large weedless frog pattern to the grassy banks. Pike love to lie in submerged grass. It's in the grass where they can blend in and wait for any unsuspecting creature to come close before they attack. 
I shot a cast towards a clump of half submerged grass and made a few pops with the frog before the chaos happened. A pike lunged from six feet away, half out of the water, and crushed my fly. It happened so fast my heart nearly stopped. I set the hook quickly but even that seemed like slow motion when compared to the way the pike hit my fly. It fought with all its might but I was able to bring it in quickly.
We continued to fish the slough on out to the main channel. We drifted closer to a huge beaver lodge that had large sticks and branches reaching into the water. I just knew there had to be a pike in there. I made a cast towards the outside of the beaver lodge and began popping my fly back towards the boat.  A bubble trail on the surface marked the path of my fly as my leader was nearly to the rod.  I stopped popping the fly, and looked for the next spot to cast. That's when it happened! Out of nowhere, a pike flew out of the water engulfing my fly in its toothy jaws! The sudden commotion scared the crap out of me. I fumble the rod and set the hook fast. The pike was not a huge one so I brought it in quickly.  

We continued to fish the slough catching a few more pike. None were huge, but the explosion of a pike hitting a top water fly is something every fly fisher should experience; they even put bass to shame!

After pike fishing we returned to the confluence of the small river we had fished the day before. Just as suspected we caught a bunch of silvers.

The next couple of days brought more great silver and pike fishing. We returned to the confluence of the small river and sore-lipped many more silvers.
My trip on the Nushagak was coming to a close. We awoke on the last morning and started boarding up the cabin for our departure. Out here, every window and door needs to be boarded up to protect the cabin from bears or thieves.

We loaded the moose meat and our gear in the boats, however a couple things we left near at hand... such as the fly fishing stuff! We decided we had time to make one last hurrah with the silvers downriver. We pushed off the bank and headed down the river to catch a few silvers for the road.

We arrived at the familiar silver hotspot and started fishing. Chad stuck with a topwater fly.
He said, "I'm not really a numbers guy, so this is a fun way to catch them. I think fly fishing for them with those leeches, and stuff, may even be more effective than regular fishing."
It was safe to say that Reed was also hooked on catching silvers with a fly rod.

I decided to work my way down to the bottom of the bar. This was, perhaps, a hundred yards of river and we had caught silvers throughout this stretch. The bank was lined heavily with grass, and as I made my way along the bank I spooked a pike. I didn't think too much of it until I spooked another one a few feet down. I stopped and looked at my pink pencil popper tied to the end of my 15lb tippet. Those pike will have a hard time chewing through this stuff... I thought to myself.

I moved down the bank a few yards and spotted a likely pike "haunt" up ahead. There was a weedless pocket between the grassy bank and some submerged vegetation growing out in the river. I made a long cast and began popping the fly back towards me. Immediately an explosion occurred that nearly stopped my heart. I lifted the rod and nothing but slack came back. I stood there amazed because at the end of my tippet there was no fly. Crap, I thought to myself. On the take that pike just severed my fly right off.
I looked back at the water just in time for my pink pencil popper to float back up. Sweet, gotta love barbless hooks, I thought to myself.
Because we had everything packed up, and of course my steel tippet was in the other boat, I was stuck with what I had. 
I retied the fly on and placed my cast back in the same spot.
Pop....... pop,.........pop.......... Kaboom!
This time I tried to strip set the hook. Once again, nothing but slack came back in my face. "Dang-it!" I said out loud.
This time I actually got a good look at the size of the "demon pike," as I was now calling it. The fish appeared to be about two feet long. No monster, but now it was starting to get personal.
I cut my tippet back to 25 pound. Have fun cutting this you stupid fish.
I watched the water and once again my popper floated to the surface.
This was getting comical, I thought as I retrieved my fly and tied it to the heavy tippet. For the third time I re-casted my fly to the home of "demon pike." This time my fly made it nearly to the edge of the pocket before he annihilated it. And as if the pike was saying, "go back to Idaho!" I lifted the rod and felt slack as an empty tippet came back in my face. I stood in amazement and watched the fly, once again, float back up. I retrieved the fly and this time "Mr. razor-tooth," had cut the 25 pound tippet 6 inches up from the fly.
"You win!" I said out loud.
I went back to the boat and found some OX tippet and tied a couple feet on. It was time to catch some dulled toothed critters, called silvers. I was obviously no match for the pike today.

My traumatized pink pencil popper made it back onto my line and soared out to "silver land." This was the area between the current stream and the slack water extending nearly into the bank. I made my way down the bank casting and casting with no follows or takes.

A silver porpoised and I placed my fly in route to pop across his plane of vision. Pop, pop, pop, pop... A wake emerged behind my fly as a silver surged to devour it. The wake disappeared and I kept on popping. Sometimes silvers will continue to follow your fly all the way into the bank. A wake appeared again and as quickly as it appeared it disappeared. I continued popping with continued interest in my fly but no commitment. I placed several more casts in that direction with brief interest in my popper. Then I thought, this is the last time I have to fish on this trip, I really want to catch a few more.

I tied on a My Little Pony fly and bombed out a cast. Two strips were all I got and my fly ran into a pissed off silver. The fish made a long run and all I could do was smile as my reel sang. I landed the fish after a nice battle and quickly released it. I caught a few more silvers on the My Little Pony, and before I knew it, unfortunately it was time to head back to civilization.

It had been a wonderful trip and a great reminder of how special, remote and wild Alaska is. Rivers and ecosystems not yet destroyed by man and wildlife in bountiful numbers. I am very lucky to have spent as much time in wild Alaska as I have. If you are going to go to Alaska, you owe it to yourself to get away from the road system and experience one of the many WILD rivers Alaska has to offer. 

When we returned to Dillingham, a painted container said it all.