By Jim Gebhart
Published in www.ontheflymag.com
Chasing Taimen in Mongolia, Huge Sea-run Browns in Tierra Del Fuego, Following the Duck Migration From Canada to Mexico…All of these adventures catch our eye and our imaginations. If only we didn’t have to earn a living and support a family. If only life was one big trust fund with little responsibility. Well, every once in awhile the planets align and something magical happens for us Regular Joes. It happened a few years ago for me while I was “hiding in NE Ohio,” shirking my normal responsibilities of corporate life in Houston. I managed to hunt three opening days in three different states.
A family gathering in Michigan required my attendance in early October. It happened to be the opening weekend of duck season. The previous season I had the opportunity to buy into a cheap duck lease in southern MI. Due to time restraints and other commitments, I had never hunted it. So, I called up Bill Highman to introduce myself and let him know I was going to be hunting the lease on opening day. He was also, so we made plans to meet. It turned out to be a bluebird day with some success and lots of fun.
The next weekend was opening day in Ohio. I had been given permission to hunt a parcel of land that consists of a stream with a good size beaver pond that drains into the Grand River. I had hunted that property for a couple years after befriending the owner while chasing steelhead on Lake Erie tributaries. It was typically covered up with woodies and mallards on opening day with a few Canadas sprinkled in to keep it interesting.
Then my wife asked if I wanted to attend one of our friend’s weddings in New Orleans in early November. I was hemming and hawing about whether we should all attend. Turns out, it was scheduled for opening day of duck season in Louisiana. Better yet, my brother-in-law, David Bassemier shares a great marsh lease with his buddy Boomer. After a quick call to my brother-in-law and confirmation that a hunt was scheduled, my indecision was quickly resolved. I could see a duck dream season evolving before my eyes. It was kind of the “Age of Aquarius” or at least the Season of Anas. Anas is the genus that includes mallards. OK that’s a reach, but I am going with that analogy.
Opening Day Michigan:
Bill and I met early, at his motel in Hillcroft, Michigan. I transferred my gear into his truck for the short drive to the lease. We parked and walked about a half a mile into the lease to set up around a cattle tank. There was no cover around the upwind side of the 3/4 acre pond. There were tremendous amounts of goose scat everywhere within 35 yards of the water. Down feathers drifted in the breeze and clung to the grass stems. Good sign.
The decoys were arranged, with 6 Canada goose decoys placed strategically away from the other duck decoys. We settled into our depressions in the dried ground, trying our best to look natural and waited for light to show on the horizon. Shortly thereafter, we were buzzed by three teal. They circled around and made another pass looking over the spread. Circling again, they came in fast, cupped their wings and prepared to land. We sat up to Bill’s “Take’em!” Although we understood the command we both missed and the ducks bolted. I swore I could hear duck laughter.
“Bill, I thought you could shoot,” I joked.
“Hell, I thought you could shoot” Bill’s response.
We waited patiently for our next opportunity. A flight of spoonbills gave us a look. The group split with two coming into the decoys. We both sat up to shoot. Bill knocked both down. I missed.
By then the bright sun was up and we were exposed. We quickly rethought our spread and decided to move to the downwind side of the water and try for better concealment, in the drainage ruts from the pasture. This was not ideal since ducks always land into the wind.
We had just concealed ourselves when the geese started honking and showing on the horizon. Two sand hill cranes passed by as thousands of Canada geese came over the horizon. Surely we should get two limits of geese, 2 each. Bill called and flapped his decoy wings. Cattle coming to water wandered up on top of us, unaware of our concealment, a great sign.
A pair of geese came in low and straight over the water at 20 feet. I politely waited for Bill to take a shot. Being only so polite and patient, I hesitated no more and dropped both of them. They hit the water with big splashes, both dead. One limit bagged.
“WhooHoo! Why didn’t you shoot Bill?”
“I was waiting for them to get closer.”
“Well, wait no more my friend,” as I got up to go retrieve my limit.
Another pair of geese buzzed us but Bill didn’t get a shot. The sun was bright in a cloudless sky. The wind was still. We got no more birds that day. The thousands of geese were alerted to our presence and decided to go elsewhere. Bill and I discussed plans for hunting together back in NE Ohio and then headed out.
Opening Day Ohio:
The following weekend, Doug Fries pulled into my driveway at 4:30 AM. My truck was already loaded with decoys and guns. I greeted him in my waders and handed him a cup of coffee and breakfast taco, for the 63 mile drive to my spot. We were off on time and were speeding along the country road, not more than 4 miles from my house. We came over a hill and a whitetail doe came bounding across the road. The passenger side of my bumper caught the deer, knocking it into the ditch. I barely had time to hit my breaks.
“Wooow! Aren’t you going to stop?”
“No time,” I replied. “We’re racing the sun.” I’m not sure if that is a good sign or bad sign.
Rick Dula, our third partner for the hunt waited in a parking lot on the way to the blind. We met him and he followed us to our spot.
An hour later, we pulled off the road and loaded up for our 300 yard walk to the blind. The trail was overgrown from the previous summer. The reflective tape that I had tied to limbs and bushes led us across a small stream, through the woods and right to beaver pond. We didn’t need a blind. In this location we were hunting from timber on the edge of the pond. We quickly put out the decoys, and grabbed our spots. Doug and Rick were on my left, downwind from my spot beside an old oak that jutted up from the water. Felled trees, from the beavers stretched from the shore, into the water. Rick and Doug would get first shots at the birds as they landed into the wind, from left to right. We waited for shooting time.
15 minutes later, we were surprised by a flock of woodies that buzzed us from behind. They circled wide as I blew my call a couple times. “Get ready boys, I think they are coming in.” The four ducks dropped lower as they approached the pond. Just before coming into the decoys, they cupped their wings. “Now!” I called. Doug and Rick stood and each dropped a bird. I shot twice and dropped a pair. The fourth quickly disappeared into the trees.
By now the sun was up enough to see the intense colors of fall. The maples around the pond reflected their red colors in the early dawn. A lone birch contrasted nicely against the more intense maples, like a white vertical line drawn against the reds and yellows of fall. A low fog spread across the water. This might be the most beautiful spot I have ever duck hunted.
We didn’t wait long, before a flock of mallards flew over, at the top of the trees. I threw a few calls their way as they circled, momentarily out of sight. They came back crossing our spread still rather high. I hit them with a solitary quack as they circled downwind. Then they committed. 6 mallards cupped their wings, dropping into the decoys. One landed before I made the call. “Take ’em!”
We stepped from behind our trees and unloaded. Four mallards dropped into the water. Two flew away, including the one that had landed. We all laughed and hollered as we collected our ducks.
We barely had returned to our hunting spots before we heard the geese. We couldn’t see them yet, but they sounded close.
Then we saw them, five Canada geese appeared over the trees on the opposite side of the pond, just beyond range. We cursed silently as they kept going. Then from our left came another honk. I replied with my goose call. A lone Canada was flying low over the pond, attempting to catch the previous group. We all fired and the bird hit the water with a huge splash. ” I didn’t say take him, boys,” I joked
Opening Day Louisiana:
Three weeks later, on a Thursday evening, my family and I arrived in New Orleans. In addition to my suit, for the wedding, I brought my Winchester 1300 and some camo. Unlike the cooler temperatures in Michigan and Ohio, here it was 85 degrees and humid, a typical opening November weekend in southern Louisiana.
Friday, late morning, David, Boomer and I picked up his boat and launched it for a quick run into the Delecroix Marsh. We pulled up to the levee, where we unloaded 3 pirots (pronounced, peerow) and some plywood, to ready the blinds for the next morning. Mosquitoes harassed us mercilessly as we drug the pirots and supplies to the edge of the marsh. The water was just inches deep. The mud bottom however, was 2-3 feet deep. I was warned to not fall out of the pirot.
Pirots are essentially flat bottom, one man canoes, with shallow sides. You stand in the middle and use a push pole to glide across the shallows. Since this was my first time, I progressed achingly slow across the ponds. It seemed I was always on the verge of overturning. Pirots are not for the clumsy or those with a hangover, in other words, not for me.
We took care of business and headed back to town where we rewarded ourselves with some po’boy sandwiches and beer. All was ready for the next morning, opening day number three.
Unfortunately, the next morning when I awoke, I was feeling bad. I got up feeling nauseated and got dressed, covered in sweat. I ate a bit of toast and had some water, determined to make the hunt.
“You’re looking bad, Jim.” David mentioned. “Are you sure you are up for this?”
“Oh yah. I’ll be okay,” I lied. Just before joining David and Boomer in the truck, I grabbed some plastic grocery bags…just in case. We had about a 45 minute drive to the marsh. About thirty minutes into the drive, the nausea overtook me. “Pull over David.” “What? He responded. “Pull over,” this time said with more urgency. Just as he was pulling over, I vomited into the plastic bags. “He’s puking,” Boomer laughed from the front seat. At this point, David had pulled to the side of the highway. As I opened the car door, I could hear David dry heaving in the front seat, quickly unrolling his window. I concluded my business, leaving the grocery bag on the side of the road. I am not one to litter, but that bag was not going back in the truck. Still feeling miserable, I assured the guys that I was feeling much better and we were on our way.
All I could think of was the pirot. Yesterday I was healthy and it was daylight. Today, I was sick, shaky and it was pitch dark, under a cloudy sky. What could go wrong.
The guys took pity on me. I laid on the dock sweating as they loaded our gear into the boat. Other hunters barely glanced at me as they busied themselves with their gear and boats, readying for the day’s activities. I slouched in my seat and dozed most of the way to the levee, pirots and duck blind. At one point I did look up to see the green eyes of a gator reflecting in the spotlight, as we sped down the canal.
We arrived and made our way to the blind with no issues. I wasn’t trusted with any gear in my pirot, justifiably. Just like that, our decoys were spread and we were ready to hunt, with barely a moment to spare. We had not worked “puke-time” into our morning’s activities.
The dawn sky illuminated red in the light fog and the teal began flying. We could see large flocks moving all around us. “Here they come,” said David. 7 blue-winged teal banked and came in hot. David made the call and we all shot. I dropped one and three more fell. David and Boomer jokingly argued over who had shot two of the three other birds.
Before we could figure it out, we were hushed by another flock of 12 birds coming in. We each dropped two birds! Phenomenal hunting! “I guess you are going to say that you shot both of the birds, I dropped” Boomer griped to David. “ I do think I hit two birds with one shot,” David responded. “Did you hit any, Jim” I laughed, feeling a little better with the shot of excitement from the shooting.
Then, the next flock came in. We all emptied our guns and six more birds dropped into the water. The teal were coming in so fast that we hadn’t had a chance to pick up the birds. Before we could give it much thought, another flock headed towards us. Boomer and Dave both scored doubles, again. I dropped two and then another with a later shot.
“Holy smokes! Did you see that?” I yelled. “I dropped three birds, a triple!”
“I didn’t see you drop any,” Boomer joked.
“Are you kidding me? I feel like Michael Jordon, playing in the finals with the flu!”
David and Boomer hopped in their pirots to retrieve the birds. “Stay there Jim, so we don’t have to retrieve you also.”
We finished our 18 bird limit in 45 minutes of hunting! After loading up and heading back to town, I slept the rest of the day. We all attended the wedding that night and laughed about our exciting hunt and the accompanying ordeals.
The third hunt of my trilogy of opening days was the most eventful. Despite feeling sick, the sheer number of ducks and uniqueness of the marsh hunt made a wonderful experience. Now years later, we still laugh about that hunt at family gatherings. The remainder of the season was spent hunting in NE Ohio at the beaver pond. I look forward to another opportunity to hunt several states in one season. Now that I am back in Texas, I’m thinking that a Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana combo season is just around the corner.