Old Friends, New Friends, Birds and Dog Work.

Good times among people who share a passion makes for memories that last forever. Photo Credit: Tony Giese

I had recently written a blog post about why I waterfowl hunt, why it has the meaning to me that it does, and what about it keeps me coming back. This most recent hunt epitomized all of those reasons. It was a hunt a few years in the making for me, and it has me looking forward to the next opportunity to go.

My younger cousin Colton (I used to call him my little cousin, but since he towers over me now that just doesn’t apply) is currently in his junior year of college at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. While I am sure his academics are up to par, what I know for certain is he spends any free time he has there hunting and fishing the area with the friends he has made. Hearing his stories, seeing his social media posts makes one wonder when he finds time to do school work and attend class.

He had been asking me for years to come up and hunt with him. We have hunted together since he was old enough to go with, so it is always fun to get together with him. However, schedules never seemed to work out to get up there, and the promises of “Yeah bud, I’ll try to make it work next season” seemed to be on repeat.

Well this summer my wife, knowing that if I didn’t set it in stone and plan to go it wouldn’t happen again this season told me,

“Why don’t you just pick a weekend when Colton says it’s good and go?” So after consulting Colton on when the best time is, we decided on the weekend of October 12th. It started as me and my buddy Ben going up, then another friend Matt wanted to go, and a few weeks before the trip a friend of ours Austin was available to go. We made plans, bought licenses, booked our hotel rooms and waited impatiently for the weekend to show up.

The week of the hunt, Colton spent a ton of time scouting his ass off trying to get us on a hot spot. A cold front was set to hit by the end of the week, which was good news for us. I checked in with him throughout the week, finding out what we needed to bring up. He had us bringing enough gear to hunt either a field or water. Austin was bringing his field goose decoys in his trailer, and Colton had me bringing my two dozen floating duck decoys and all of us were instructed to bring our waders “just in case”. To say we were well equipped for anything is an understatement.

Matt and Austin headed out earlier than me and Ben, and all of us met up after the three hour drive at our hotel. Ben and I drove up in my truck, which we also had my dog Lola, her gear and kennel in addition to our hunting gear. At the hotel we asked Colton what the plan was over cheap hotel coffee at 9:30 pm, and he grinned and said,

“I have a field that has 500 geese and 150 ducks in it. They were there tonight, I watched them.” The kid has heart and a drive matched by few, so I knew he put the work in to get us onto something good. He also told us that we would possibly be hunting with 10 or more guys in the morning. Now the way I hunt back home is usually with no more than six guys, which can be difficult to hide everyone, so I was a bit leery hunting with a group that large. But as we told Colton, he’s the guide this weekend, he knows what’s going on up there. With our plans set, we said goodnight because 4 am was going to come early.

We woke up Saturday morning to frost on the windshield of my truck, and the thermometer in the truck reading 26 degrees. Ben and I (and Lola) loaded up in the truck and drove to Colton’s house. When we pulled in, there was a camo clad hunting army standing in the frosted driveway. Colton made introductions, a true sign of his good upbringing, and once everyone shook hands, he said,

“Well let’s go.” Guys climbed into their respective vehicles, with Colton and one of his college buddies jumping in my truck with Ben, Lola and I after loading their gear into the back. The convoy of four vehicles got on the road with us in the lead, and following Colton’s back seat driving directions, we headed to his field.

The field was a large silage cut corn field that still had some standing corn left that we could use for cover. As many guys as we had we made quick work of setting up the decoys out of Austin’s trailer. It went so quick in fact that even after setting up we had over a half hour left before legal shooting light. While we waited, out came the coffee and stories, as everyone watched the sky for the first hint of sunlight.

The back and forth banter and good natured ribbing that takes place in these moments is something I didn’t even realize that I missed until that morning. It can get ruthless, nothing seems to be off limits; however none of it is malicious. Everyone is an equal opportunity participant, and if you can’t take it this isn’t the place for you. The closest thing I have experienced to it was my time in the military.

The morning hunt was the opposite of what Colton told us to expect. Instead of hundreds of geese hitting the field, we were bombarded with ducks. The first flock of the morning seemingly came out of nowhere, and passed low over the spread before we could react. A few guys hit the duck calls and a few of us also did some soft goose sounds to add to the realism. The spinning wing decoys seemed to focus the duck’s attention as they made their final pass, wings cupped, falling into the kill hole. Colton called out,

“Take em!” and the guns fired. I picked a drake mallard out and was about to pull the trigger when it fell, shot by someone else. I swung on a Susie who was attempting to make a turn and leave and pulled the trigger. She crumpled and hit the ground. Two ducks had left from the original seven, but in their haste, they swung past a touch high on Austin’s side, who proceeded to double on them. Seven ducks entered the field, and none left. Not bad shooting for a group who all had met this morning. Lola did her work, chasing a few cripples and recovering some birds that had sailed out into the fence line brush.

Lola on her way back with one of her many retrieves during the morning duck shoot.

The rest of the morning went a similar way, with small bunches of ducks buzzing around. Some flocks came in and ducks met their fate, while others gave a few looks and moved on. The one constant was Colton’s extreme patience in calling the shot; he ensured that the birds were in the middle of the group so everyone had a fair chance at getting a shot. That type of patience is not expected to come from an early 20’s college student. I remember how I was at that age, and waiting on the perfect set up for that large of a group would have been a challenge for me. Colton executed it perfectly, passing on shots that I would have called, allowing the ducks to work just a smidge more perfect for everyone.

Thanks to Colton’s extreme patience and Lola’s hard retrieving work, combined with everyone’s teamwork, we were able to put the smack down on some Wisconsin mallards that morning.

What had been discussed the night before as a goose hunt turned out to be a hell of a duck shoot. By about 10, the geese Colton had told us about still had not flown. Colton had a few ideas where the geese would be loafing if they truly were still in the area, so the group decided to grab lunch and check those few ponds out. That would decide if we were coming back for an evening hunt or moving somewhere else. We packed up our personal gear and the ducks and it was decided by Austin to leave the decoys set up since the wind would remain consistent through the afternoon.

A few of the guys headed back to the house to clean and cook up some of the ducks, while Colton, Ben, Matt and I drove around the area looking for the no show geese. It seemed odd to us that these birds had not flown this morning, and we worried they had slid out a different way we didn’t see. The first three ponds Colton took us to had no birds, and I could see the worry in his eyes. His last choice to check out took us up a gravel road, and at the bend in the road we came in view of the cattle pond. That pond had geese stretched from one end to the other, along the shore and even over the small hill. There were even two pure white snow geese mixed in. We turned around, everyone all smiles, and headed to get lunch.

After a quick lunch, and Colton remembering he had to go to work quick, Austin and Colton were convinced that we had to get back into the field by 1. So everyone headed back, and we waited. Guys took naps, chatted and made each other laugh, and I even took some time to throw Lola’s training dummy to pass the time. A new addition to the hunt, Tony Giese, captured some great shots during this down time.

The laughs continued as we hung out, having arrived to the field way too early. Photo Credit: Tony Giese.

Tony Giese got some great pictures of Lola while we had our self induced field downtime. Photo Credit: Tony Giese.

Our four hour downtime allowed me to let Lola stretch her legs for some training retrieves. Photo Credit: Tony Giese.

The afternoon passed without seeing a goose or duck flying. Discussions shifted to wondering why the geese hadn’t flown yet. I rubbed it in to Colton and Austin that our hour long break was when they flew. Some good natured ribbing ensued, but Colton told us he didn’t see the geese the night before until after 5:00pm. (Which made us all glad we came back at 1:00pm). But as time went on and 4:30 hit, Colton began pacing the field, eyes trained on the horizon where he saw the birds come from the night before. Worry etched his face, with ten other hunters here with him, the pressure was on him.

I have never seen Colton pacing this much, eyes trained on where we found the geese loafing, almost willing them out of the pond. Little did he know I was glad he was the one with the pressure!

When 5:15 hit, we couldn’t get Colton and Austin to calm down. It was as if we didn’t already have a great duck shoot in the morning; they were convinced the day was ruined because the geese weren’t flying. I told Colton we still had an hour left in the day, anything can happen.

Well, about 5:30, the geese began moving. We had a flock of five come in, circle twice and then committed. Colton once again called the shot perfect, and none of the five left. Lola went to work, and suddenly one of Colton’s buddies yelled out,

“More birds coming!” So while Lola grabbed a goose we gathered the rest to get covered up again. The three geese flew towards the field next door, and were setting up to land there. Everyone hammered them on the calls, while Austin also flagged. They suddenly picked up and turned towards us. We began to slow our calling as they closed the distance, and they began to slide off their flight path to us.

“Guys we need to hammer them again, they like it!” I yelled out as they stayed wide and swung behind us overtop of the standing corn. Everyone picked up their calling, and I watched as the lead bird, which was a larger bird, cupped it’s wings and turned towards us, drawing with it the two others. I was calling so hard that I was starting to see stars so I stopped, but the racket from the other guys continued. I looked at my buddy Ben who was sitting next to me, and we smiled listening to the chaos.

“They’re comin’ right for us.” I said over the noise, and saw the birds swing wide setting up for their final approach. The lead bird was calling back hard and I noticed Lola had her eyes on the approaching birds, shaking in anticipation knowing what was coming.

The lead bird was backpedaling into the spread with it’s feet down while his partners swung out. I heard someone whisper

“Matt, you watch him and if he gets up, blast him.” We had determined that Matt would have first crack at singles, given that he was the newest hunter in the group. The guys continued to scream their calls at the other two while I watched the bird in the spread. It’s head was up, and looking towards the corn we were in. It was slowly walking away from us, and Lola was shaking uncontrollably, eyes locked on it. The two geese decided they didn’t want to partake, so Ben told Matt,

“Kill him.” Matt swung his gun out just as the goose realized the gig was up, and Matt fired. He hit it too far back to drop it, and fired a second round which crumpled it. Everyone cheered as I sent Lola to get her retrieve finally after waiting so patiently.

We rounded out the rest of the hunt with a few more geese and some bonus ducks for the guys that had not hunted the morning. We made quick work of picking up the decoys, and headed back to Colton’s house.

Everyone chipped in and cleaned our birds from the evening hunt. So many hands made quick work of the task. Plenty of laughs and memories from the hunt were shared.

Fruits of the labor. Fresh free range protein for everyone.

Cleaning the birds from the hunt was a party in of itself. Beers came out, music was turned up and the large group of us made quick work of cleaning birds. After birds were done, a few of us cleaned up, and went out to dinner in town. I can tell you, after getting my belly full of food, and warming up from being in the cold temperatures all day, I was ready for bed. Myself, Ben and Matt went back to the hotel while the young bucks went out on the town. Even poor Lola was tired from her work for the day, she curled up on her bed after her evening bathroom visit and passed out. We made plans with Colton for a show time in the morning, and turned in for the night.

The next morning came early, even with our early bed time. It was warmer than the morning before, however there was a cold drizzle as we sluggishly loaded back up in the trucks. We ran late, because I needed fuel and we were generally moving slow that morning. We got to Colton’s house and all the young bucks, who had been out later than us, were impatiently waiting for us “old guys”. Everyone pilled in their perspective vehicles, and the convoy headed back out.

Our hide, Austin’s panel blind, made it easy to hide our large group. After using it, I want one of my own.

We pulled in the field and with the switch of the wind we sat in some blown down corn using Austin’s panel blind to hide all of us. With the decoys set, trucks parked, everyone settled in for the morning hunt. Anticipation was high as we discussed what would it be, another morning duck shoot, or will the geese give us a show? Colton was attempting to fix a problem with one of the spinning wing decoys when a flock of mallards screamed over and we yelled for Colton to get back to cover. Some of us who hadn’t had time to load our guns after parking the trucks were attempting to jam shells in our guns while the others called at the ducks. The five ducks swung in right towards the spinners, and true to his form Colton called the shot perfect, and the five ducks fell. Cheering commenced as I sent Lola to do her work.

After a lone mallard made a solo dive into the spread and met his demise, the geese began to come out. And boy did they come out. With little wind they would swing behind us and the blown down corn didn’t do as good of a job of hiding our backsides. We had some birds work in close, usually small groups, but for the most part our shots were on one of their approaches.

The view that makes every waterfowler’s heart race, geese with feet down, cupped and committed. Photo Credit: Tony Giese

Some of our shots had the birds landing in the tipped over corn, and Lola had her work cut out for her. I would go with her into that jungle like maze, working her into what little wind we had. True to form, she would find the bird and bring it through that mess. The blown over corn was as tall as her, so struggling with a 10 pound or more goose through that was a true challenge for her. In fact, towards the end of the hunt, we chased yet another downed goose in that mess. This bird had buried itself under the corn, and Lola had her mouth on it. She was so worn out fighting that mess, that she looked at me with that bird in her mouth, as if to say,

“Hey can you at least help me with this one?”

I wish I had taken a picture of it. She had the bird, which I wouldn’t have been able to find with out her. She wanted to pull it out, but given her activity this morning and all day yesterday, she was running out of steam. I grabbed it for her and we fought our way back.

We made good work on some flocks, however they didn’t want to finish perfect, and continually circled behind us, picking our hide apart. Lola made some far retrieves as well, but as the morning went on, birds began to land in the field next door. Any waterfowler knows what that means. You just can’t compete with live birds. As long as there wasn’t any birds landing when more came out, we could get a few flocks to work us.

One of the last groups we had, after Colton called the shot, one bird spun to the left away from his flock in an escape attempt. Austin and I were on the left so we swung and both fired at it, and it crumpled and fell in the blown down corn again. Lola and I took off once again, fighting the tangle of wet, blown down corn. I heard her trampling through it, working back and forth to find the bird. Then silence. I walked to edge of the field because I thought I heard her doing her successful trot. I exited the corn to see her run by me back to the blind, goose in her mouth. As I praised her one of the goose’s legs was flopping around, and I noticed something on it. Low and behold, it was banded. I hooted and hollered, to the point I think the rest of the group thought I suddenly became insane. As she got to the group before me, I yelled out,

“Hot damn boys it’s banded!” Everyone surrounded the dog, looking to see the band. Leg bands are used to track bird’s migratory routes, and other pertinent information, and in the waterfowl world it’s considered a kind of trophy. Austin asked if anyone else shot at it, and everyone other than me and him said no. Austin looked at me and said,

“You wanna draw for it?” I said yeah that’s fair. Ben got two different color shotgun shells and the group picked which color was the winning shell. Ben put his back to us and switched the shells around a few times. Austin told me,

“You pick the hand.” Pressure was on me, because I had a 50/50 chance of picking the correct shell. Never having luck in gambling I just blurted out,

“Left hand,” thinking there is no way I got the correct one. Ben grinned and opened his hands, the winning shell in his left hand. I was stunned as everyone patted me on the back and Austin and I shook hands.

“Fair is fair man, congrats!” He said.

“Thanks man, it’s been 20 years since I shot a band, this is awesome.” I replied, shocked that I had picked the winning hand. The first band I shot was when I was 13, and I was set to turn 33 in a week, with no bands to my name. Until this morning.

Colton came over and wanted to take a picture together with it, as I was there for his first band and we have that picture together too.

Colton shot his first band with me, and I shot my first band in 20 years with him. Great to make memories with family in the field.

We watched the birds continue to dump into the neighbor’s field, and the newer ones began to beeline there. We realized our hunt was over, and instead of continuing to get soaked we decided we should leave. Once again with such a large group tear down was quick, and with the conditions in the field getting worse we wasted no time in leaving.

The last hunt of the trip was a muddy, wet experience filled with laughter and good memories. It also produced my first band in 20 years of hunting. What a way to end an amazing trip. Photo Credit: Tony Giese.

Muddy fields and pickup trucks, sounds like a country song. Photo Credit: Tony Giese.

Ben and I checked out of our hotel, and went back to the college kids’ house for a wild game feast. Colton made goose chili, and the boys deep fried turkey, ducks and geese. Combined with fresh hot coffee, it was one of the best post hunt breakfasts I’ve had. So good that I didn’t feel like driving home. But we had to, as our weekend of fun was over and it was time to get back to regular life. We had a three hour drive home, so we said our goodbyes, and began our long trek home.

This hunt reminded me of the reasons why I love hunting, why this type of hunting warms my heart. In this hunt, I hunted with family, friends I knew before and friends I made that weekend. Hunting has afforded me the opportunity to meet different people who share the same passions I do. An interesting thing about society is how we compare friends to being family. We consider close friends family, as a sort of badge of honor. However I feel that in these type of situations, hunting and sharing time together in the field, friends become family, and family becomes friends. Colton is much younger than me, however he is as close a friend as any of my other friends. We have shared many times in the field together, have a plethora of memories shared, and it is a bond that few have experienced.

The friends I have from hunting are more than friends, the bond is closer than that. The mutual passion and shared successes and failures create a bond similar to those of family members. Mutual hardship, frustration and joy create memories that last a life time.

Most people think sitting in the cold rain would be miserable, but waterfowlers enjoy it for the opportunities available in that type of weather. Even though we were cold and wet, this group was all smiles and laughs. Photo Credit: Tony Giese.

I want to thank my cousin Colton Wightman for his hospitality and the work he put in for us to make an amazing hunt. Also thanks to all his college buddies for the gut busting laughs and compliments on Lola, for the work she put in. Thanks also to Austin Knobloch for hauling his trailer and decoys and allowing us to use them for a day and a half. All told with guys coming and going, we shot 38 ducks and 30 geese in a day and a half plus a leg band. Lastly, thanks to Tony Giese of Flashtone Photography for capturing some amazing photos and sharing them with me.

4 thoughts on “Old Friends, New Friends, Birds and Dog Work.

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