A last minute decision to make a quick jump shoot hunt proved fruitful for Lola and I, which was much welcomed given how our season had unfolded thus far.
To say the Illinois 2018-2019 season has been a challenge for us, would be an understatement. Other than our success in Wisconsin that I wrote about in Old Friends, New Friends, Birds and Dog Work, our season here in northern Illinois has been terrible. We rely on dry field hunting, and some mid-fall heavy rain kept the farmers whose property we hunt out of the fields during what would be harvest time. The season went on and on and we attempted to hunt the sod at one field, and the silage cut corn field at another to no effect. The birds were turned on to hitting corn fields with feed in them, and we could not change their plans, no matter what we threw at them.
Between me and my buddies we kept eyes on our fields, waiting for the day we see corn stubble instead of corn stalks. To say it was frustrating would not do how we felt justice. The season seemed to tick by, and always the update via text was,
“Corn still up.”
On December 4th we received a video via group text that the one of our fields had FINALLY been picked, so plans were made to hunt that coming weekend. On Thursday the 6th, it was discovered that the farmer had then proceeded to plow the field up, which is once again frustrating as it restricts our ability to hide. We still made plans to hunt Saturday afternoon, since time was ticking by and it was at least a change from what we had been dealing with.
My two buddies arrived at the field that Saturday afternoon before me, and had happened to jump four mallards out of the creek. We set up some goose decoys, Ben dug holes for our layout blinds and we hunted that afternoon. We watched a ton of geese hit the field across the street, and when we picked up that night, once again empty handed, we made plans to hunt Sunday morning. Unfortunately the temperature was going to be in the teens. Well, a few hours after we parted ways, my buddies told me they weren’t willing to sit in the cold to watch what we did that evening, and I can’t say I was too disappointed, since it would give me a chance to sleep in in a warm bed. We made tentative plans for Sunday afternoon but given it was football Sunday, I wouldn’t blame the guys if they wanted to skip that as well, given how terrible our Illinois season had been.
Sunday morning I spent with my wife and kids doing Christmas projects, and I texted back and forth with one of the guys. He wanted to deer hunt instead, and I wasn’t feeling up for that; besides my boys were delivering Christmas decorations they had made with my Aunt to other family members. So I told my buddy Ben to just go deer hunting, I didn’t know what time I would be home.
I felt a bit dejected about not going, because even though I like going, my dog Lola lives for it.
Our off season is spent like this, me and my boys taking Lola to the local park to run some retrieving drills.
We got home from our family visits a bit sooner than I had expected. Lola met me at the door, and I don’t know if it was my own self guilt or she truly was able to express her disappointment, but my mind made up that we needed to go. Going off of the fact that Ben had kicked up four mallards the afternoon before, I decided that I was going minimalist; taking my other buddy Mark’s one mojo, six floating duck decoys, and my gun and backpack. As I hurriedly loaded my small amount of gear into my truck, I came up with my plan.
The plan would be to park as far from the ditch as possible, put on my chest waders, sling the six decoys over my shoulder, put the mojo on it’s pole, grab my gun and backpack and walk to the ditch. I would then stop short of the ditch itself, drop everything (quietly), taking only my gun and a few extra shells. I would tell Lola to sit next to the gear, and stalk the ditch looking for the four mallards. If none were found, or hopefully I shoot a few, I would set up my small spread and hunt that way until the close of shooting time.
Well, that was my plan anyway. A hastily formed plan, and the clock was ticking; it was a little after two, and I had a ten minute drive plus the walk to get set up and hunt. By the time I parked the truck, it was close to 2:30. I got out and Lola followed me, her energy level bumped up, knowing what this all meant. I walked to the back of my truck, dropped the tailgate and pulled on my neoprene chest waders. I strapped my coat to my blind bag; I didn’t want to sweat on the walk out, to just sit and freeze for the rest of the night. I uncased my shotgun and laid it on the tailgate. I pulled six Texas rigged duck decoys out of my twelve slot decoy bag; the other six were set up for the jerk rig and taking the whole kit would be more work than I felt like doing, especially for possibly only four mallards. I took one of Mark’s mojos out of the container he had his two in; mine were on the fritz so I asked him if I could borrow his and of course he said yes. I put the drake mojo together and got it on it’s pole. I looked down at Lola, and she wagged her tail, as if to say,
“Come on dad let’s go!”
I walked to the cab of the truck and opened the driver’s side door. I called her to sit on the driver seat, and reached behind the seat and got her vest. I slid it on her and zipped it up. I wanted to keep her warm with how cold it was and the fact she might (hopefully) go for a swim. Walking back to the tailgate, I surveyed my gear again, and then swung my backpack on. I loaded three 3″ four shot duck loads into the Benelli, then slung it across my chest to free up my hands. Over one shoulder I slung the clunking and rattling six decoys, holding them by their rigs in one hand while I grabbed the mojo on it’s pole with the other. I clumsily shut my tailgate after a few failed attempts given how full my hands were, and began my walk.
Now given it was only a little over a 300 yard walk, with the gear plus walking in waders, it definitely wasn’t a Sunday stroll. Luckily there was a grass path that surrounded the plowed field so I didn’t have to traverse the field, but it still was a bit of work, while trying to do it quietly and control the dog, who wanted to jump in the water immediately. When I got to a spot I determined would be a good gear drop off point, I as quietly as possible dropped the gear I wouldn’t need to jump shoot the ditch.
I kept my eyes on the ditch, which was lower than the field I was on, just in case my noise kicked up some skittish ducks. First I placed the mojo on the ground, then next to it I set the six decoys, which made the most sound. When I noticed nothing flew out of the ditch, I took my shotgun off, and laid it on the ground. I quickly took my backpack off and placed it on the ground. I took my right hand glove off and threw it on top of my pack. This would keep my trigger finger free from any obstruction so I can feel both the safety of the gun and the trigger, ensuring that at the moment of truth I could manipulate both as needed. I kept my offhand glove on, because, well who wants two cold hands? I took my hand warmer muff out of my pack that had slots for shotgun shells on the front. These slots already had spare shells, just in case. I clipped it to my waders, grabbed my shotgun and turned to Lola. I told her to heel, and then sit. I took the route where the field and the grass path met; this kept me just within sight of the water in the ditch but given the steepness of the bank on my side, any birds would be below my field of view, which helped conceal me from them.
As I slowly made my way, I kept my eyes peeled on the ditch, hoping to catch any birds by surprise. Suddenly a flash of movement came up from the ditch, and my heart jumped in surprise. But instead of the fast wing beats of escaping mallards, it was the slow, seemingly awkward take off of a great blue heron. Catching my breath I followed it’s flight path as it flew ahead of me, and about 50 yards down the line I happened to make out an iridescent green head of a drake mallard on the opposite bank from me.
He was looking my way!
I dropped to the ground, and decided I wasn’t going to mess this up. I was going to do whatever it took to get that drake and whatever other ducks were hanging with him. I watched the spot to see if he took off, and when I noticed he didn’t I looked back to Lola. She had noticed I dropped to the ground and decided she was going to move up to me. I hollered at her quietly,
She stopped, clearly confused as to what the hell I was doing. Confident she would now stay put given my current position, I began to belly crawl forward, hoping to get to a closer spot to get a good shot. As I crawled, I had to split my attention between the spot ahead of me where the duck was, and looking behind me to ensure Lola stayed put. She sat still, ears perked up, and I’m sure she was thinking to herself,
“Well this is new.”
My gloved left hand held the forend of the shotgun while my cold and exposed right hand brushed against the cold damp grass. I was as low as I could get, and it brought me back to my infantry days, being told by instructors to stay low, use your feet and your elbows. I used my elbows to pull myself along, hoping that I was making those instructors proud. The 50 yard belly crawl seemed like an eternity, with my attention split between my last visual of the drake ahead of me, and then looking behind me to ensure Lola was staying put. She was, but she was shaking and I couldn’t decide if it was because she was cold, or excited. Honestly, it was probably both.
When I had felt I crawled far enough, I stopped. Looking down at the grass inches from my face, I told myself,
“Ok, slowly rise up, the bird should be about even with you. Take your time and put the sight right on him.” Taking a deep breath, I placed my gloved hand on the ground, and bent my right leg, preparing to raise up. My non-gloved hand, no longer cold because of the excitement of the moment, was wrapped around the grip of the shotgun, trigger finger fully extended outside of the trigger guard, in true grunt discipline of the weapons safety rule,
“Keep your fingers straight and off the trigger until your are ready to fire.” Some habits are beneficial when they become second nature.
I slowly rose until I was on my knees. Still not tall enough (short jokes aside) to see into the ditch, I slowly began to stand, eyes locked on the ditch. When I was fully standing, I realized I had misjudged how far I had gone by a mere 20 yards, as the drake was sitting on the far side of the ditch, still a bit ahead of me. I raised my gun to my shoulder just as he took off, and I also noticed a hen mallard taking off flying the opposite direction he was. I put the green Truglo sight right on the drake and fired. He crumpled, feathers falling as he dropped back into the water. I swung on the hen who was making her way out over the sod field beyond the ditch. I fired once and it hit her but she kept going, and I settled in again and fired, folding her into the green sod field. I lowered my now empty gun, turned to Lola, and yelled her name to send her. She took off from her spot behind me, and headed right for where she must have seen the drake fall. I could see him beak down in the water, but I wanted Lola to get to do what she came for. She barreled off the bank and landed with a splash, given that that location was one of the deeper spots. She grabbed the drake and brought him back up the steep bank to me. I took it from her, she shook water off as I lined her up on the hen, who’s head was now up. I sent Lola again, as the duck had landed too far for a final shot, and Lola happily obliged. She sprinted off the bank again, hit the water, jumped through it, climbed the shorter bank on the other side, and beelined for the hen. The bird, seeing what was coming for her, attempted to get up to run but Lola was on her before she could make good on her escape.
“Good girl!” I hollered, proud of her and her two retrieves. Given that the last retrieves she had had was during our Wisconsin hunt, almost two months prior, I felt a sense of accomplishment that she could finally get to do what she loves.
She came to heel with the hen and I dispatched the hen quickly. I took a moment to look at both birds, and they were both fine specimens of their species. They were both in their full glory of their winter plumage, feet bright orange from their time spent in the cold waters during their travels. I snapped a few photos of me and Lola, and Lola on her own with the results of our hunt. I thought to myself after taking the pictures while I began to set out the decoys for the rest of my hunt, even if these two are the only we get tonight, it’s been a successful hunt. After the way the season had been going, a nice hunt with me and the dog was well deserved.
Lola shortly after her retrieves. Trust me she’s happy, but she doesn’t like sitting for photos.
Had to get a photo while we still had decent light for one, much to the chagrin of Lola.
Lola spent the rest of the hunt curled up, waiting for another retrieving opportunity that unfortunately didn’t materialize.
The small spread in the icy water.
Sunset on the spread.
Well the rest of the evening was uneventful, save for watching the thousand or so geese landing across the street as they had done the night before. Even though I had a spread I was proud of setting up, nothing came to check it out. I had carried this gear to just jump shoot two mallards. Most guys would think of that as a bummer of a hunt. Not me. As I packed up and hiked out, I was smiling from ear to ear. Lola and I had shared a memorable hunt, and for a last minute decision, it paid off both in game harvested and more importantly, memories made.