I glanced down at Brady, my Chesapeake Bay Retriever. He was looking at me as if to say, “Aren’t we leaving yet?” I have to admit I was having mixed feelings about this float for waterfowl down the Little Missouri in North Dakota. I could see the desire in his eyes that I felt in my heart, so I decided to push off and make it across to the bank on the other side before the sky broke loose.
This was the kind of storm that brought down flights of ducks and geese from the prairie pothole region of Manitoba. If I hit the oxbows right we’d have our limit by dark. A subtle cold wind hit us about midstream and I knew it wouldn’t be long before we’d be in for it.
Brady was in the front of the canoe and a small number of decoys were in the middle. I looked down at the decoys numbering about 12 and wondered out loud if I had brought enough. There were teal, mallard, pintail and for good measure two Canada geese. It seemed at the beginning of the season, late September, you would tend to get mixed flights of ducks and geese. That’s why I had brought a mixture of decoys. I mulled it over and decided I had the right number and mixture.
The sky was more troubled now and it was difficult paddling alone to get to the other side. Brady kept looking toward the northeast as thought he was trying to predict an incoming front. Every once in a while he’d look back and whine and wag his tail, letting me know he was ready for the hunt.
Brady was a gift from my children, given to me two years ago next month. Last year was his first season and he did very well. I worked with him over the summer with hand signals and he improved daily. Last year the first goose he retrieved was almost as big as he was; he couldn’t keep the head out of the water so it acted like a rudder taking him further to the right on the swim back. It was when he bit on the neck and head he realized he could swim straight, that was probably the best lesson he ever taught himself. Some dogs, like Brady, have a natural instinct for problem solving.
We got to the first oxbow after 45 minutes of paddling against the wind. I set the decoys out in a hook pattern and made a makeshift blind using the canoe as a seat. Over the winter I had painted the canoe in a marsh grass pattern for just this purpose. Tipped up, it was just high enough for me to sit on. It also offered some shelter for Brady and truth be known, a time or two for me when the weather got so bad I needed a break. I always packed a small green plastic tarp I could put down or wrap up in to get out of the weather. They say bad weather means good waterfowl hunting, and I can say from experience that it’s true.
We were no sooner set up when Brady looked again at the sky. Off in the distance I could see a small flock of ducks and a pair of Canadians. I pulled up my facemask and gave a hail call. They were coming in downwind perfectly. I knew from previous hunts that when they came in line with the point of land that jutted out into the river they’d flare, circle to the left, turn back into the wind to settle up against the bank to be protected from the wind, and land in calmer water. I was well concealed when the first pair landed. I don’t always shoot the first to arrive, because I like to use first-comers as live decoys. Besides, it was still early and I was enjoying the day.
Gusts of cold wind now blew through the trees as two more pair landed in my lair. I like to have others along with me on trips like this, but that day Brady and I were enjoying the waterfowl opener. When I hunt with true water-fowlers, there’s no complaining on days like today. Then it occurred to me that that characteristic is something you need to look for in hunting partners. The quality of uncomplaining acceptance, or at least the ability to have a decent time, even when things aren’t going very well. To put it in another way, you don’t want to be trapped in a storm with “Wally the Whiner”.
My father taught me that happiness is not a station you arrive at but a manner of travel. Sure there were going to be bumps in the road of life, but it was how positive you kept your mental attitude that determined how smooth the ride would be. I’ve found in my life that if you want to find the heart of a man you need to take him hunting, fishing or camping. It can either be a short story with a sad ending or you may have found a life-long companion.
Twenty more ducks and 14 geese were a mere stone’s throw from me. Every once in a while I’d try to duplicate what I heard. I got some strange looks from a pair of mallards that were standing ankle deep near the shore so I wondered if my calling needed some practice.
Off in the distance I could hear an outboard motor and knew it would be less than five minutes before they’d be here so I had to decide my next move.
All of a sudden a hawk swooped down and landed in an old dead tree not 30 feet from where I was sitting. Suddenly there was an alarm call from the mallards in the shallows. The next thing I knew, the place exploded and in the blink of an eye the calm water was empty except for my decoys. All the commotion even spooked the hawk.
I was looking down at Brady and he was looking back at me; both of us in utter amazement at all that had just happened. A few minutes later a boat came around the bend with occupants that looked wet, cold and were complaining about the weather as they went by. One glanced, saw my decoys, then spied me and said, ”Have you seen or killed anything yet?" I replied, “No, but it’s sure nice to be out on the river hunting isn’t it?" He muttered something about being slow and I don’t think he was talking about my canoe!
As they disappeared out of sight, the rain started to come down harder. Another pair of mallards flew by, made a circle and landed within gun range. I looked down at Brady and said, “Perfect!"