A Hunter’s Journal 2014

5 Nov

Saturday, Oct. 25
Balmy weather, bright sunshine, brisk south wind
I opened the duck season without firing a shot, or even setting a decoy. I chose to scout the Sedan Bottoms near Moulton, IA, a giant state wildlife management area near the Chariton River flowage.

Friday, Oct. 31
Warm, windy, out of the northwest, bright sun
I finally went hunting for real at Lake Belva Deere near Sigourney, IA. It was really a “flag cutting” trip, but lo and behold, in the spirit of Halloween, a three ring necks fell for my diver rig trick, two of them treated Susie and me with a special dinner – we marinated them in soy and fresh ginger grilled with onions, peppers and mushrooms on ‘fire wire’ gizmos that really make shish-ka-bobbing simple. They were tasty. I got the recipe from Wisconsin hunters in North Dakota when I made a trip to Devil’s Lake with Dave Schwarz back in the late 1990s (98 or 99, I can’t recall.) The motel was full of hunters, and on Wednesday night we all, without any planning or announcement, broke out our grills and favorite recipes, and before long everybody was just roaming around sampling and getting recipes. We did little-duck breasts basted with Good Seasons Italian dressing. It was a hit, too.

Sunday, Nov. 2
Warm temperatures, bright sun, brisk south wind
I walked in for an afternoon hunt at Sedan Bottoms. Saw a few ducks, learned a bit about the lay of the land, and decided that afternoon walk-ins would be the best way to familiarize myself with those wetlands. It was thrilling to walk in, however, the first time since I can’t remember. I came home reinvigorated by the “hunting” without much consideration about success, totals, or lost birds. I wonder if it wouldn’t be worth the effort to drag our pond skiff into the water and hunt from that. I think I’ll check with a game warden and see there are any rules against such behavior (other than common sense. It might be 500 yards to the water at what I call “parking area 2 on my GPS.)

Tuesday, Nov. 4
It rained earlier in the night, low, overcast sky, temperature in the Low 40s, northwest wind, gusting towards 20 mph
Back at Belva Deer I’ve told Susie that if I get the chance to walk Kris Kringle to a down bird, and he won’t pick it up, it’ll be the end of my dream for him. He just doesn’t care about a) hunting and b) being under voice control. He minds, but he hates it, I can tell.
I had low expectations when I got the diver, goose and mallard rigs set and because the water is finally high enough, I got to set up the boat blind for only the second time since I came to Iowa. I hid it behind the spit of a point that I’ve hunted over and over again, shooting an occasional goose or a few divers. Kris really doesn’t give a rip about sitting on the dog deck; prefers to be curled up under my feet – no matter where my feet might be.
Shooting time was 6:17 a.m., and I was in the boat blind and didn’t have my gun loaded as birds started swarming the decoys. It was so dark I couldn’t see them low on the water. I hurried and got the 1187 loaded, as bird after bird dived on me, some diver groups of 20-30 birds, a few puddle duck groups of a dozen or so – who knows what species, there were birds everywhere. After about 10 minutes, I had a flock come into the decoys, obviously not divers, and two flared above the horizon, and I shot one. It hit the water between me and first decoy, and I hurried out of the boat with Kris in hot pursuit. When I got to the water’s edge, I called him to heel, and he came and sat just like a training exercise. I put my hand in front of his nose and told him to “mark” and when he saw the bird, I said, “Kris!” and he tip-toed into the water, reached the bird and gave it a sniff, but it was apparent he wasn’t certain if he wanted to pick it up. “Fetch!” I said with some enthusiasm, and he took it in his mouth – A FIRST! He’d never picked up a dead bird in the past. He brought it back, dropped it and shook. Picked it up and brought it to me. His first retrieve, just 2 months shy of his third birthday.
We got back in the blind and the birds really started decoying, and I shot like I’d never hunted before. I had about 20 shells on board when I started, and by 7:35 I had four birds on the strap and two birds that were down but lost in the tall grass. If I had brought Ark out of his retirement, I would have certainly had a 6-bird limit.
The birds were still flying and decoying, but I was down to my last shell, and a guy can’t shoot at a working bird without having another shell available – what if it was down but lively? A guy can’t waste birds like that.
I even missed birds that had landed in my decoys. I flushed them with my gun 90 percent mounted, and missed my intended target three times, shooting right over the top of him each time. I could see the shot hitting the water. Apparently I never completed the final 10 percent of the mounting process.
We chased two birds that had fallen into the lake and were blowing away from us in the boat. Both were recovered and they were the first Shovelers I have ever shot! The drake looked like an out-sized Blue Wing Teal until his over-sized bill registered on my brain. I initially thought the hen was a Gadwall, but again the noggin gave it away. I found the drake floating near shore several hundred yards down wind of our decoys, and I got out the boat, and took the opportunity to give Kris his second lifetime retrieve. He had to be encouraged to get out of the boat, but once in the water he “took his line” and tip toed over to the bird, sniffed it a few times and came home without it.
My final bird was a beautiful drake Mallard who came to the decoys with wings set, feet down and died right in the kill slot of my decoy setup. Even that close to shore, I would probably have to go get him with the boat, but I walked Kris to the water’s edge, gave him the line and he went into the water, and, when the bottom fell away, he swam to the bird. The drake was dying, but could still paddle a bit, and Kris wasn’t certain at first, sniffing of the bird as it tried in vain to escape, and, finally, at the command “fetch,” he brought it back to me, held it all the way to me, and presented it, just like a training exercise!
But there is absolutely no appearance that he takes any joy or even real interest in the bird, the swim or anything. He got back into the boat and immediately crawled down to sleep on a decoy bag at my feet.
The birds created a reef about 200 yards down wind and in the middle of the lake, and worked my decoys and the reef without any real break for about an hour after that. It was thrilling to me.
Tomorrow I’m going back. There’s no reason to expect those birds to be there. They are obviously newcomers and while tomorrow will be windy, it’s supposed to be sunny and 60. I’m taking Ark with us. Susie is adamant that I give Kris every opportunity for the light to click on for him, and I’m hoping a little competition from Ark might just do it.
But I’m no longer thinking this is going to work out. He makes a great buddy for taking walks in the woods; he’s a loving and lovable pet, but I don’t think he’s ever going to hunt.

Wednesday, Nov. 5
Balmy west, southwest wind around 10; high cirrus clouds, marking the front that’s moving in left the day partly sunny
I now call Susie the “lab whisperer.”
The ripple generated by the breeze that greeted us an hour before shooting time at Belva Deer went completely flat just as legal shooting time arrived. We had ducks aplenty in the decoys up until then, but with no motion (I didn’t set the jerk line as the decoys were moving so nicely…) the birds cut us a wide berth for the next thirty minutes or so, then the zephyr got back on the job, but by then there were several hundred birds building a raft out in the middle of the lake, and that was tough competition.
It felt strange to have Ark in the boat again. At age 12, he’s been retired for several years, but with a predicted high temperature of 60, I thought he could handle a little work, and it really paid off. Susie, who has always been great with bird dogs but who has never hunted over one, is adamant that Kris Kringle just needs experience to “catch on” to what is expected of a duck dog in my boat.
When a hen Blue Bill came out of nowhere and landed in the kill slot between the diver and puddle duck rigs, I decided that training a Labrador was the overriding purpose of the morning, so I shot it.
Kris was asleep on the dog deck, but Ark was on watch, and hit the water at the shot (he was really steady to shot when he was a puppy, then my lack of training skills overpowered his fine breeding) and Kris came to life to watch. The pup immediately put two and two together, and decided he wanted to join the show, but couldn’t figure out how to exit the boat into the water – He’d never done that before except in training out of the pond boat in our yard!
He finally overcame his reluctance to jump in just as Ark turned the back corner of the boat with the bird. For the first time, Kris showed interest in a bird, albeit a bird in Ark’s control, but interest all the same.
When I got the bird in hand, I showed it to Kris. In previous instances, he had shown no interest or excitement in close proximity to the bird, but this time, he sniffed and licked a bit, his tail sending all the right signals…
We sat through enough close call, no sale, episodes that Kris lost his new interest in sitting up and watching, and curled up to sleep on the deck while Ark maintained his vigil.
I remembered Ark as a young pup. He too had often slept on watch in his early years, but that all ended on foggy morning on the Columbia River. I could hear the geese above, but the pea soup made visibility impossible. I finally figured it was the same for them, so I started calling, and much to my surprise a pair of geese, wings locked and necks craned, sailed through my decoys. I was so taken aback that my strategy had worked, I failed to even pick up my gun.
Talk about sleeping on the job…
But the next time I heard the birds calling, I responded and was ready when the goose appeared like magic. I folded him up neatly, but his momentum carried him over a small spit of land, so his crash into the water was heard but not seen.
Ark came out of his slumber, of course, but couldn’t see anything on the water. I lined him up on the end of the spit, and sent him. When he got to the end of the grass, I whistled him to a stop, and he took my “turn left” signal as I blew the two-short-note peeps that mean “back!” in his whistle training, and he responded. As he headed around the end of the spit, I saw his ears perk up and he shifted gears, and I knew my boy had just “handled” to his first goose retrieve. I was higher than Kilroy’s kite, I can tell you.
So we sat for about an hour, and then a flock of 20 or 30 Bills made the now familiar downwind sweep of our set, and then, at the extent of the body of water we were set up on, they turned left just as all the rest had done before them, but instead of climbing for altitude and skedaddling down the lake, these guys stayed right on the water and bee-lined it to our rig. I was ready, I thought, but man oh man those Scaup are fast!
I started to “pop up” out of the blind when they were some sixty yards to the north of the decoys. When I cleared the blind upright, they were on me! By the time I got the gun mounted, they were past me, and as I swung after the closest bird, I was shooting due south! But for a change I must have gotten the gun all the way up and swinging, because the drake Bill folded cleanly… into dense shoreline grass and weeds.
But I was buoyed by having my Ark on hand, so we got out of the boat and the old boy got active as I called out, “Dead bird! Find him!”
This is a game Susie never ceases to enjoy with the boys. She locks them in the bathroom, hides Milk Bones around the house, and then, with a great deal of excitement, she cheers them on with “Dead bird!” “Hunt dead!” and the like until one or the other finds the treat.
This has always worked on our dogs (We got our first Lab in 1969, and she’s done this game over and over.) Kris too likes the Milk Bone game, but he has shown no interest in applying his interest to other pursuits.
On this morning, however, a page turned in our young Lab’s story. While Ark immediately put his nose to the wind looking for a sign from the “dead bird,” Kris started quartering through the thick cover! I’ve had him do that many times as we walked and practiced upland hunting, but he’s never found anything. On this day I watched with amazement as his ears perked, his tail went into overdrive, and his normal long-legged bound was replaced with a more animated and erratic stop-start-turn-stop-start cadence as he tried to sort out the story his nose was telling him. I held my breath. He suddenly went stiff, and I saw a hint of indecision. “Kris, fetch!” I barked, and he immediately plunged his head into the thick grass and came out with a nearly dead drake Lesser Scaup – his first, in my opinion, actual retrieve!
He brought it right to me, and there was animation in his body language for the first time. He was proud, really! I let him carry the bird all the way back to the boat before calling him in. He gently gave up the bird to hand, and I really laid the loving on him, you can be sure.
I found it interesting that Ark made no advance toward Kris while he was carrying the bird. I have always been surprised at Ark’s willingness to accept Kris to his home. My other older dogs, when we brought a puppy home, read the writing on the wall and made it obvious they’d kill the little nipper first chance. Not Ark. He has been like a much older brother or a youngish uncle. He plays with Kris from time to time, but mostly he ignores him.
On this morning, I choose to believe that in some way he understood this was a big deal in a young dog’s life, and gave him center stage.
When we were back in the boat, and the wind had dwindled again to nothing, Kris went sound asleep. I sneaked a biscuit to the old boy, and after he had crunched it up, he poked his head through the blind door and nudged my hand. I showed him it was empty, and he positioned his ear right where I could scratch it the way he likes best… I think we shared a moment.
(more)

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