Low Numbers and High Hopes ~ The Love of the Game

I have a tradition. Fifteen of the last Eighteen falls have found me in North Dakota. Beyond having been blessed by marrying a beautiful, intelligent, driven and principled woman (who is way out of my class), she is a ranch girl.  A benefit of my blessed alliance is her family owns 6000+ acers cattle and grain operation in the Prairie Pothole region.

The best waterfowling experiences of my life have occurred here. On my first visit, her father explained that he had talked to the neighbor and I could hunt as far as I could see in three directions from the house; and this is wide open country.  Perhaps 600 or more potholes are on this land.  Three years ago, I called and asked a week before the opener if the Patriarch had been seeing any ducks in the fields.  “I bumped some ducks out of the pea field west of the house this morning”.  I asked, “About how many”?  He retorted, “Oh I don’t know how many”.  I sought clarification, “Would you guess 50, 100, 200”? He clarified, “Oh I would say a couple thousand at least”.  That is the kind of country this is.

 Besides ducks and geese, Sharp-tail Grouse, Pheasant and Hungarian Partridge populate the land and provide great sport.  I usually hunt a few days by myself, a few with my son who works in the oil field related industries, and 10 to 14 days with my Brother.  

Initially I stayed in a camper (prior to binging a decoy trailer) and later in motel some 25 miles away. Over the last few years I have been camping on my trip with a couple of days in a motel.  I love staying on the land I hunt and using the time saved on my relationships with my dog, my son, my brother and this land.  

There are little traditions we can share while camping that we don’t get staying in a motel. Making coffee and Biscuits each morning prior to heading out is one of them.  My Duck Blind Bistro; a cooking utensil made to easily cook biscuits over a camp stove or even fire is, along with the coffee pot, perhaps our most cherished piece of equipment.  In ten to twelve minutes we have a hot biscuits with our coffee prior to moving out to the field.  I do love a hot biscuit.

There are only a few absolute truths in the universe; one is a hot biscuit makes everything better.

Time in a pursuit as meaningless as trying to harvest a feathered creature to consume (I spend more on this consumption than any other meal in my life) is a great way to deepen a relationship. My relationship with my son, brother, my dog and myself are always improved as we share time, joy, and sarcasm.

This year was special in a deleterious way. Low bird numbers dominated our experience on every hunt.  We hit the vacuum that occurs when the local birds move south and the migrators haven’t arrived.  I always hunt the first two weeks of October and have experienced different stages of this phenomenon.  Three years ago, the first five days were the BEST duck hunting I ever experienced.  Last year we had a few epic days and a few slow days.  It is a rare occurrence over the last decade where we don’t take our limit of ducks.  This year was different. Only three of the days did my brother and I both take our limits.  Out of six days hunting Sharp-tail only once did I get a limit.  One out of two pheasant days I got my allotment. The upland birds were down by 61% according to the paper.  Lesser men would have given up and ended the hunt early.  But my Dad was fond of saying, “It is a sad dog who won’t fight in his own back yard”.  Since this area had become my “North Dakota back yard”, we hunted harder, covered more area, and hunted both morning and afternoon.  All this hard work earned us a few more birds but even more great memories.

Hunting hard for every bird included blowing my calls fast and hard. I got a couple of new calls for this trip.  I am found of single reeds.  So, my first accusation was an acrylic Sutter Basin single reed.  This call is so comfortable for me. It has a nice loud ring and a strong quack. Additionally, I had gotten a Harbst double reed acrylic call the day before I left. This call is special.  It has a deep ducky quack and gets near as loud as my single reeds.  It has great range and probably spent the most time pressed to my lips. The other call I used a bunch is an acrylic Let-Em-Lite double reed. This call is heavy; a characteristic I love in a quality call.  The other quality I love is that it has a wide base to the mouth piece and a slightly smaller air chamber.  This thing makes the easiest chuckle of any call I have ever owned.  Growling into the call with a “GGGRit” made this thing produce a great quack. I alternated these calls to keep a steady magnetic force to pull the few birds available into our spread. 

Our decoy sets were either on the water or in wheat fields next to water.  Lots of small ponds and wheat fields and the few ducks around would jump from pothole to pothole attracted by the duck chatter we produced.  

So, after a fourteen-day hunt, after blowing the motor in my truck in route, after finding the upland numbers drastically low and the ducks and geese all but absent, all I felt was appreciation. I love this country, I love those I spent time with, I love those biscuits, and I loved this endeavor.

Until I see you in the field or marsh, be safe, be good, and BE LUCKY!