(Editor's Note: This is the third installment in a journal as Richard Simms and partner Ed McCoy traveled on a hunting road trip to South Dakota. Click here for Entry Two.)
The day before, I had driven well over 100 miles of South Dakota back roads around Long Lake in search of the mother lode of ducks, without success. However, I'd found a half-dozen spots I could hunt where I felt sure I would not be skunked. The best of those spots required substantial "boots on the ground," or in my case, "waders on the ground."
It was a half-mile walk across the South Dakota grassland. A half-mile is no big deal, right?
It gets bigger, however, in the dark, in high grass, wearing 10-pound waders, hauling 15 or 20 pounds of gear and wading through unknown waters. My retriever, Britney, ran, or swam, circles around me in the dark, covering at least 3 miles, while I struggled to the spot I'd picked out to hunt the day before via binoculars.
I was hyped for the first hunt, however, so I was in place at least 30 minutes before the first orange glow in the east. Twenty minutes before legal shooting time, I heard the first "whoosh" overhead. Duck hunters know the sound, but nonhunters have heard it, as well. If you have ever heard a jet airplane go screaming over your head at relatively close range, you know exactly what a flock of ducks sounds like as it plummets from the sky.
Britney and I sat quietly and watched the predawn show. Well, I sat quietly. Britney was whining impatiently, especially when ducks splashed into the decoys just a few yards away. Dogs are very smart, but they can't quite grasp the idea of "legal shooting time." On this morning in South Dakota, I couldn't legally pull the trigger until 7:28 a.m. Britney and I were forced, or privileged, to watch dozens of ducks come and go before that time.
As legal time arrived, three green-winged teal were swooping toward the decoys. Britney was a happy dog when I finally squeezed the trigger and one teal splashed down for the final time. Her first official South Dakota retrieve was textbook.
There was only one problem. When my single shot rang out, every duck on the pothole figured out they needed to seek safer water. That's normal. What wasn't normal was that none of them, or any new ones, tried to come back. The minutes ticked by. In the distance, flocks of geese were trading to and fro, but nary a duck came near enough to see the decoys. For 45 minutes we sat, one tiny teal in hand, wondering if that was going to be the take for the day.
I was somewhat perturbed and distraught over the lack of action. Remember that I had driven more than 2,000 miles up to now to reach this remote little body of water.
That's when a spoonbill finally decided to hook into the pothole in easy range. Many duck hunters dislike spoonbill because they are not the wisest duck. In fact, they are often downright stupid. But again, I'd driven 2,000 miles to get here, and the trigger was going to be pulled on whatever (legal) waterfowl flew by.
Not long after that a gadwall made a similar fatal error (which required a GREAT retrieve by Britney, by the way), followed not too much later by a pair of wigeon—both of which found their way onto my duck carrier. I texted Ed McCoy, my partner who would be flying in to meet me the next day, "9:43 a.m. Five ducks in hand. They all came in before legal time, piecemeal since then. Busted by some others, including geese and pintails."
In Southeast Tennessee and Northeast Alabama, where most of us hunt around here, we kill primarily gadwalls. Occasionally, other species are taken, but they are the exception, not the rule. I don't complain, especially on the good days. But it is a beautiful thing to go to a place where virtually every species in the waterfowl book is likely to drop into your decoys. And for most folks around here, pintails are the ultimate prize. It gives you a stomachache when you miss out on an opportunity.
At 10:15 a.m., I looked across the pothole, and a half-mile away I saw a duck pointed at me like a rifle. When a duck is headed directly toward you at low altitude, all you see is a little circle with the thin lines of the wings extended. If they are interested in your spot or your decoys, those wings won't be flapping much. At a distance, the wings will be straight lines, but as said duck grows closer, the wings begin to bend into a downward curve—cupped wings, as hunters call them. Cupped wings are a duck's version of brakes. The harder they brake, the greater the "cup."
"On a rope"—that is another phrase duck hunters love. That is the description of a duck heading toward your decoys like it is sliding down a rope ... never circling, never wavering from its straight-line path.
This hen mallard was on a rope, drawn to the decoys like a magnet. As she got close, the wings cupped into a massive arc, and she began to backpedal with feet down. It was the shot every waterfowler dreams of when they go to sleep at night. And based upon this lengthy and compelling description, you might guess that I managed to miss this dream shot at my limit bird. You would be wrong.
Picking up decoys, I made an interesting discovery. It almost felt like a horror movie when I picked up a decoy and found the bottom covered with squirming aquatic invertebrates that looked like tiny shrimp. It was clear why the ducks, especially those in need of protein, liked this pothole. I was done for the day, ready for a hot cup of coffee and another afternoon scouting, searching for the spot for the next day's hunt—after I got back to the truck.
Loaded up with all the gear plus the weight of a limit of ducks, I started back across the grasslands. I was met by a stiff northwest wind in my face, driving a flurry of snow and sleet. If you don't like the weather in South Dakota, just wait 15 minutes and it will change. During the arduous haul, I thought of my good friends at Blowing Springs Kennel, who have done such a great job helping me develop a great retriever in Britney. I wondered, however, if or when we could teach her to haul decoys for me.
When I finally opened the tailgate on the Tacoma, got my ducks cleaned and iced, Britney fed, my waders off and me settled into the warm truck—I deciding then and there that tomorrow's hunt was going to have to be easier.
Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports.
Updated @ 1:03 p.m. on 11/1/13 to correct a typographical error.
Updated @ 2:28 p.m. on 11/1/13 to correct a typographical error.
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