by Bret Amundson
I had a last minute invite to head over to North Dakota to do some waterfowl hunting. I decided to load up the truck and go-after all, it’s not every day that you get an invite like that and have the time available to do it.
The truck was loaded literally to the ceiling. Every nook and cranny was packed tight with full body honker decoys, mallard shells, waders, ammo and more. I began the drive from Brainerd with the anticipatory visions of giant greenheads dropping into our corn field set up and swarms of snow geese on the horizon.
I stopped in Hawley, MN at Raymond Reading’s house and transferred my cargo into his 1 ton pickup and fish house/camper that we’d be staying in for the 3-day trip. Mika and Mack would be our four-legged companions on this journey and they happily piled into the backseat like wide-eyed children on their way to Disneyland.
Raymond’s relatives have land in the north-central portion of North Dakota and that would be our destination. 400 acres of corn, bean and wheat fields surrounding a wetland complex with thick cattails and small islands. We arrived Thursday night after dark, but as we stepped out into the crisp late-October atmosphere, the air was filled with the lovable cacophony of snow geese. Thousands of them were roosting on the big slough that we’d be hunting near.
Snow geese wouldn’t be our main target, but we’d be lying if we told you that we didn’t want them to come over the spread.
Halloween morning we awoke to a slight scare. The small ponds in the area had frozen up overnight. Temperatures in the teens have a tendency to do that to water. The big slough would remain open and the area birds that stuck around would be concentrated there. We’d set up on a cornfield to the south of the roost, our two blinds camouflaged by corn stubble, dogs laying at our sides. The area to the front of the blinds was dotted with fake Canada geese and mallards with an opening in the middle. Battery powered spinning decoys sat atop poles to attract greenheads, but within reaching distance if geese came near and we needed to shut them off.
As the early light warmed to bright daylight, the realization sunk in that this morning would not go down in the record books. Despite the high numbers of ducks and geese on the pond, our spread would not be the “X” this morning. The snow geese and Canada geese poured out to the east and flew out of sight for their morning feed. Would they even come back? (Turns out, they wouldn’t). The mallards that we could see swimming never left the water.
We decided to call it a morning and as I was climbing from my blind, I noticed a flash of wings in a smaller slough to the west. A bird dropped into cover and with the prevalence of sharptailed-grouse around, I headed off to get a closer look. As I neared a thicket growing close to more cattails, it exploded with two-dozen hungarian partridge. I managed to squeeze off one shot as they broke the sound barrier escaping and we were finally on the board for our trip. As my lab, Mika was searching in the grass, sharpies starting to flush all around me. I didn’t know where to look! A haunted house-like experience took place as the sound of wings encircled came from every direction with the echoing chuckle of grouse taunting me. The chaos allowed most birds to find their freedom, but one late-flusher let me get too close and was soon falling to the ground. Well, turns out it wasn’t ground that he was dropping into. He had flown over the water and splashed down like a teal. Mika would have to break through ten feet of ice that ringed the edge of this pond before reaching feathers. Because of the tall cattails and the lack of waders, I had to listen for 10 minutes as she scratched and clawed her way through. Finally I could hear her swimming to the bird before turning back for the ice. Coming back should be easy right? She already had broken the trail. Well, then it started to get interesting as she wasn’t appearing on dry land and all I could ear was the sound of ice cracking and creaking.
I always get nervous when freeze-up occurs and you have a headstrong lab (like Mika) that wouldn’t be scared one bit if Mike Meyers walked through her kennel with a butcher knife.
Soon though she was plowing her way through the cattails and shaking off the cold, another successful retrieve in the books. All told Mika would make over two-dozen retrieves including some that would require swimming so far across a slough that you’d lose sight of her. If the bird was belly up and dead, she’d get it. Some of the wounded birds would dive, swim and run across the water, making it tough, but she’d swim a half mile through 20 mph winds and waves to find them before finally coming back. She’s in pretty good shape so I haven’t had to worry about her in those conditions yet. But the ice bothers me.
We’d hunt a few small sloughs throughout the weekend that required breaking through ice to get the birds. Sometimes they landed on the ice. Each time, she’d work her way through and bring it back. After that first experience, I wore waders from then on, ready to go in after her if she could break though. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I’d jump in and swim. I owe it to her for what she does for me.
A good mallard field hunt is what we were looking forward to and the second morning saw a few nice greenheads drop into the corn in front of us, but most of the mallards we had scouted never left the water-a strange experience. With the bright moonlit nights and the Halloween holiday, maybe they were out gathering candy corn after shooting hours?
We still finished with a wide variety of species including a couple drake hooded mergansers (laugh all you want, but they’re going on the wall), drake green-winged teal (also going on the wall), some big northern mallards, some young drakes without their plumage yet, gadwall, redheads and of course the sharpie and hun too…we may have even run into some pheasants over there. I guess North Dakota has a few of them, even up north.
Mika snored the whole way back to Brainerd and soon I was sleeping like a rock, dreaming of another early morning sunrise in the duck blind.
Here are some more pictures from the trip: