My father and I began waterfowl hunting together approximately forty years ago. This past year, I took him on a hunting trip to North Dakota. This article is an account of that trip.
The old man, my old man that is, climbed shakily into his new Dodge Ram, Off Road Package, thank you very much, adjusted his hearing aids, cranked on that beast of a four wheel drive machine, and pointed us northward. It was five o’clock in the morning, and never mind that I had just worked six consecutive twelve hour shifts in a very busy emergency room, and was attempting to function on two hours of sleep, the time to embark on the duck hunting trip of a lifetime had arrived, and we had fourteen hundred miles to close before the games could begin. Pour me another cup of coffee, please.We were bound from Columbus, Ohio to Stanley, North Dakota, where we would be privileged to hunt ducks, geese, Tundra Swans, and Sandhill Cranes on the opening day of the North Dakota season. Dad spends a good deal of time on the internet duck forums, and he had learned from one of his contacts about a small guide service in Stanley, named Tim’s Guide Service. We had gotten the brochure, seen a few pictures, and heard the stories of Dad’s internet pal from Wisconsin, but we really had no idea of what to expect. “No, you don’t need to bring your dogs or decoys. Waders may come in handy but you don’t really need them. And no, that brand new Duck Wrangler boat that you just bought probably won’t do you any good out here.” Those comments alone were enough to make us wonder what kind of hunting we would be in for. “Do they hunt from blinds? Well, not really. Pits? No.” Surely you could understand our concerns at that point.All of this aside, nothing could diminish our building excitement. We had been planning the trip for six months, and when I gave Dad a gift certificate for all of the trip related expenses on Father’s Day, he began sending me daily e-mails counting down the days. By early September we were at a feverish pitch.Dad and I began duck hunting together forty years ago this year. For a period in my youth, he had a lease on a marsh directly across from Magee Marsh on Lake Erie, and we traveled there together on most weekends during duck season. We stayed in a small camper across the field from the blind, and many mornings we had our limit of ducks before we made it clear across the cornfield to the blind. In recent years, things have changed in Ohio, and we rarely see ducks in the numbers that we once did. This, more than any other factor, made us look to North Dakota with rabid anticipation. We had heard rumors that there were lots and lots of ducks in North Dakota. And you know something, those rumors are true .The trip out was uneventful. The weather was good and we enjoyed having uninterrupted time to talk with one another. It had been too long. We also enjoyed the rare opportunity of eating every meal at Cracker Barrel - it just doesn’t get any better than that. But by the time that we hit Wisconsin and Minnesota, we started to see a lot of Lund boats being pulled by pick-ups, all headed in a westerly direction -toward North Dakota! Excuse me, but isn’t some of the best waterfowl hunting in the country in Wisconsin and Minnesota? Seeing all of these guys heading in the same direction as we were made us nearly crazed. Who needed coffee at this point?And then there were the roadside rests. One duck hunter can pick out another duck hunter at fifty paces, farther than that with a good set of binoculars or a spotting scope, and the conversation between the hunters at the rest stops was brisk.“Where are you headed? We’re going to Devil’s Lake.”“Stanley? Where’s that? Up past Minot, isn’t it?”“First time to North Dakota, huh? You are not going to believe it! You’ve never seen anything like it.” And they were right!We pulled into Stanley late Friday evening and unpacked all of our gear in about seven and a half minutes. The lodge, it turned out, was an old converted motel, and while the Ritz-Carlton has nothing to fear, it was comfortable and homey. We were greeted by Karla, Tim’s wife, and by Dave Brown, Tim’s nephew. There were enough hunters booked for opening day that Tim needed help. Dave, an oil field worker, had taken vacation and would be our guide for the next five days of hunting. Both Tim and Dave have spent their entire lives in and around Stanley and I would swear that both of them know every square inch for a fifty mile radius. Dave would later tell us that he began scouting the section line roads on horseback at the age of six, and by driving a pick-up since the age of thirteen. Clearly, the experience has paid off.Tim had been out scouting big birds until after dark, and his account of what he had seen, delivered in that quiet and unassuming manner of his, was enough to get the adrenaline flowing through an old man’s veins. Morning would come at 3:30 AM, but we all knew that we wouldn’t have any trouble getting out of bed. Given that geese and cranes can only be hunted until 1:00 PM in North Dakota, the days at Tim’s Guide Service were divided into two segments - big birds in the morning, and ducks in the afternoons.We would leave the lodge early and head for the fields to set up our site. This consisted of placing approximately forty Bigfoot goose decoys, and a fair amount of goose and crane Outlaws in an appropriate configuration. We would then place our large Canada Goose layout blinds in close proximity to our decoys. These all had perforations in the bodies to allow visualization of the incoming birds. This was all accomplished well before daybreak and the vehicles were then moved approximately a mile from the hunting site so as not to disturb the incoming birds.The mornings were chilly, see your breath and frost on the decoys chilly, but for the most part, the skies were clear. In Ohio, we find clear skies to be troubling. In North Dakota, there are so many birds that nobody found clear skies to be particularly upsetting.To prepare for these morning hunts, we would scout for geese and cranes in the evenings. The terrain is so open, and the section line roads so accessible, that tracking geese and cranes on the wing was quite possible. Our guides wanted to know what fields the birds were feeding in, and what sloughs they were returning to after feeding. And by the way, ponds and lakes in North Dakota are referred to as sloughs.Dave, our guide, used a high-powered, high-dollar, Nikon scope to locate the birds. This enabled us to sit on the top of a hill several miles away and to observe birds feeding without disturbing them. Unless it was posted land, of which there was very little, we would hunt fields that had shown a high concentration of birds the prior evening. For us, the practice yielded mixed results. On most mornings, we had birds come in, but we were successful in bagging birds only about fifty percent of time. At other times, they stayed just out of range, floating majestically on the wind. Several times, however, my father, blowing skillfully on his Ken Martin goose call, was able to turn birds right into our decoys. It was a thing of beauty to watch. Our guides were very concerned by our limited success, and they worked very hard at improving our odds, but the truth is, some mornings the birds come in, and some mornings they don’t. We tried to reassure them that having a rewarding hunting experience was not inexorably tied to the daily slaughter of big birds. The experience was just so rich in so many other ways.In the end, we had taken several geese, had near heart-stopping close calls with the Sandhill Cranes, and Dad bagged what he categorized as “the ultimate waterfowl”, a Tundra Swan. We were quite satisfied with the results of out hunts for the big birds.And while we are on the subject of the Sandhill Cranes, it is important that I mention the sound that they make. It is one that is difficult to duplicate, even with a call, but it is a sound that connects with something very primal and very deep within a man’s psyche. The only analogy that we could make was one of a sound that a giant locust would make. Whatever the sound, it caused an instant release of epinephrine into the bloodstream, with a resultant tachycardia (higher than normal heart rate). Wow! What a feeling.Way down deep, far below our skin, down in the muscles and fibers, somewhere near our souls, my father and I are duck hunters. This is the primary reason that we went to North Dakota in the first place. So, after lunch on the opening day, we set out to try our hands with the ducks. We had only one short stop at a slough that “usually holds swans” in an attempt to bag the coveted Tundra Swan.The slough was visible from the road, and sure enough, there were seven or eight swans on it. The problem was that there was very little cover and almost no chance that we would be able to sneak the slough. Both Dave and Tim pointed out two small draws at each end of a hill at the opposite end of the slough. They told us that when swans leave, they usually do so by gaining altitude over these ravines. For this reason, they suggested that we enter the area from the back of the slough and split up, with each of us setting up in our respective ravines, as close to the slough as we could get, without disturbing the birds. After we were in position, they would enter the area from the opposite end, perhaps causing the swans to leave the slough. What would happen after that would be very much left to chance.Dad chose the nearer draw and got into position. I elected the longer hike for myself and was also soon in position. Dad was equipped with his camouflaged Winchester Super X 2, what a gun, and three and a half inch Kent Fast Steel shells. I had what had been my great-grandfather’s Winchester Model Fifty, also with Kent Fast Steel, but unfortunately, I had only two and three quarter inch shells. The proof was in the powder - Dad scored, and I didn’t.Just as had been predicted, the swans rose over the ravines. Dad’s initial shot caused the behemoth but graceful bird’s wings to fold, as it dropped in altitude, but it recovered, and once again began to rise. A second shot dropped it into an alkali slough behind us, where, bless his heart, Duke, Dave’s chocolate lab, performed a hundred yard retrieve through caustic water, and wrestled that beast all the way to shore. It was a most impressive thing to witness. There is a story that Dave tells about Duke making forty-eight long water retrieves in a single day. As he dropped the last duck at his owner’s feet, he reportedly urinated on it and jumped into his kennel on the truck. It was if to say; “I love you, man, but I’m done.”It was now time to find the ducks. We were divided into three groups and dropped on three different sloughs. The objective was to get the ducks moving between the three sloughs and to hopefully get some shooting for everyone. The plan worked pretty well, too.Our afternoons duck hunting required very little in the way of equipment. We had taken two small camouflaged chairs with us and we usually threw out a small number of deeks, but even those probably weren’t necessary. The ducks were there, and there was a good deal of movement, even in the afternoons. We found that a limit of ducks in a two to three hour period was pretty much a given, even for hunters with marginal shooting ability.On the afternoon of day two, we had that once in a lifetime duck hunting experience, that prior to that day, we could only have dreamed of. Dave said that he was taking us to a slough that he knew to hold ducks. He also stated that it didn’t get much hunting pressure, and that we should probably have pretty good success. That was the understatement of the week.The slough was in the shape of an hour glass and we placed ourselves in the tall grass on the small channel in the middle. We threw out a small number of decoys, but once again, they probably weren’t necessary. We got situated quickly and we could see ducks on the water at both ends of the slough. Dave then made his way up the bank to the truck and promised to return for us in a couple of hours.Neither of us is sure of the mechanism that caused the ducks to leave the water, but what ensued, proved to be the most exhilarating hunting experience that either of us had ever had. The sky quickly became black with ducks. They were recklessly flying between both ends of the slough, and for some unexplainable reason, they were compelled to fly right down the channel that we were sitting on. Many of them were quite low, too. In fact, on several occasions, ducks nearly flew right into our heads.We were shooting and reloading as fast as we could. The ducks were falling out of the sky all around us. At one point I had to just stop, giving myself a small and impromptu sermon to quit hyperventilating and to get my stuff together. It is difficult to estimate the number of ducks that we saw in that first hour, but both of us agreed that it was probably in excess of twenty thousand. We took our share and left the rest. They are waiting for you there now.Several years ago, Dad fell off of his roof and broke his neck and back. A year later, my wife and I were struck by a car on our tandem bicycle. I have had six orthopedic operations since that time, including back and neck surgery. The folks at Tim’s Guide Service were careful to place us in high yield hunting areas, with minimal physical expense to our tired old bodies.In the final analysis, it truly was the trip of a lifetime. From the buffalo burgers and deer sausage that we had for meals, to the gentle family atmosphere that Tim Brown and his family sought to engender, to the absolutely fabulous hunting conditions that we found near Stanley, North Dakota, this trip had it all. We left North Dakota fulfilled by our time together and the opportunity to share in an activity that we both love. We felt as if we had made new friends, genuine Americans, upholding American values in the Heartland. And we once more became aware that waterfowling is so much more than the hunt. It is, as my father so eloquently reminds me, the sport of kings.