“A Republic if you can keep it.”

“You don’t have to take an interest in politics, but I guarantee politics has an interest in you.” Randy Newburg

Our Founding Fathers established this political system that is dependent on an informed, educated electorate. Modern times have shown we are neither.

Our form of government is the envy of those who live under any other type. We have a peaceful transition of power every four to eight years. We have a document that spells out the restrictions the government has in regulating the rights of its people. Our system of government allows us to pick representatives that will go forth and represent our interests on our behalf. And if they don’t live up to our standard? If they act against our interest? Well, we can vote them out. The power comes from “we the people.”

Well, we the people have shirked our responsibilities as of late. We have been asleep at the helm. We have surrendered our rights to what is becoming more and more a political elite class within our society. The two sides have continually fueled divisiveness and partisanship to the point that government shutdowns, executive orders and other centralized actions by the government have become so common that they barely register with a majority of Americans anymore.

The fact that government shutdowns, executive orders, emergency declarations and other overreaching actions are more and more common proves how ineffective our elected officials truly are at doing their jobs.

Our society is the most connected society in the history of mankind. We carry around little computers that are connected at the touch of an app to others and also to the world wide web, which holds endless amounts of information. Anything we wish to know is a short Google search away. We have the ability to access almost anything we want to know with such ease that fifty years ago it would have been science fiction.

When the founders established this nation and the way in which we elect our representatives, they envisioned an electorate that was well informed and engaged. In fact, the postal service was established to the degree of effectiveness it was to ensure that information was widespread. Foreigners that observed this in the early part of the 1800’s marvelled at how well informed even the farthest frontier American was.

With our ability to access information at the click of a button, it is shameful how uninformed a majority of Americans (including myself) are to politics, how our government and our political processes truly work. A vast majority of our time online is spent doing meaningless shit, with social media being our biggest time waster. (Chances are you are reading this from a social media account, ironic right?)

The biggest thing I hate when it comes to this is when I hear people say

“We are getting screwed over by the government. They are all corrupt.”

Now, I do agree with both of those statements but my follow up is,

“Have you contacted your elected representative and expressed this?” The response a majority of times is,

“No, I don’t even know who it is. They don’t care anyway.”

How can you say that they are screwing you over and are corrupt when you don’t even know who is representing you? You can sit and take Facebook quizzes, share memes, argue with strangers, shop and do all sorts of things but you can’t figure out who represents you? Are you bitching to bitch or are you actually looking for a solution? Our nation is in the condition it is right now because people are just bitching to bitch, because it is easier to be lazy and complain than to do some research and hold those you elect or those that represent you accountable.

Your duty as a citizen does not end after you cast your ballot. If you voted for someone and they won, it is your duty to hold them accountable for their actions. You do not have to excuse what they do because they are “your guy or girl”. Too often I see people excusing the behavior or rhetoric of someone they voted for despite how blatantly obvious it is that they are wrong in their actions. You can and more importantly, SHOULD be criticizing elected officials, whether you voted for them or not. Remember, they work for US.

Voting on election day and having that be your only participation in politics doesn’t excuse you from your duty as a citizen. A group of citizens asked Ben Franklin what kind of government he and the delegates had created after they left the Constitutional Convention. He replied with words that should resonate with every American

“A Republic, if you can keep it.”

I imagine this is what Franklin looked like when he replied “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

This simple but direct reply highlights the responsibility of us as the citizenry to preserving our Republic. We the people must not only vote, but vote in an educated well thought out way and then continually hold those we voted for responsible for their actions. They must always be reminded that they work for us, not us for them. They should always be worried how their electorate views them. Those at the top nowadays definitely are not.

There is a segment of our society that wants to change our election process is the same segment that allows social media to dictate how they think politically. There should not be an emphasis on getting rid of the electoral college, rather, there should be an emphasis on how to look at information critically instead of falling for confirmation bias. Change how you get your information before you decide you want to change our political process.

We are a Constitutional Republic, not a Democracy (This is a very important distinction that deserves it’s own blog post). People need to look at this nation in that light, the proper light. The founders knew what they were doing, and we better pay attention before we undo what they established and set about a course of our own destruction. Some argue we are already too far down that road to turn back. I argue that if people opened a book instead of an app, read the words of our founders, instead of the words of out of touch celebrities, we can right the ship. Time will tell.

Time for A Change

Back in July when I decide to use this blog as an outlet for my writing, I wanted to combine my two passions, writing and hunting. I thought the path I was going to take with it was going to be solely focused on hunting and all things outdoors. In the beginning it was easy and fun because it was new and I had so many thoughts and stories to share. An added bonus was how well received by everyone the content was, which furthered my drive.

But the more I wrote, the more I observed, and the more my passion for writing intensified, I realized I had hemmed my creativity in to just writing about hunting. While hunting is a huge part of my life, and it is part of my identity as a person, it is but one part of my life. I am also a father, a husband, a history buff; I have beliefs and values and my interests are varied. I have other writing projects I am working on that go beyond hunting and the outdoors. In short, there is a plethora of things I love to do and talk about, and ultimately I didn’t want to feel tied down to writing about just one topic.

Those of you reading this that enjoyed my hunting writing, do not fret. I will continue to write about hunting and all things outdoors. That isn’t going away. If anything, my writing will cover a variety of topics, covering as many of my interests as the mood strikes me. I feel this is the best avenue for me as a person and the ability to practice my craft and improve my writing.

Some of the topics will be controversial; and that is ok. I don’t ever expect nor want everyone to agree with me all the time. How boring would life and social interaction be if we all agreed on everything?

Some of the topics will be about my family, some will be about different experiences I have. For some people, some of the topics will be boring if they are of no interest. That’s ok. What I can guarantee is that the content will be 100% me. All of it will be from my heart, as when it comes to writing, I give it my all.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Thank you to those who have supported, liked, commented and shared my blog in the past. I am excited for the direction it is going and the opportunities to express myself it gives me. Change is something that is necessary in life, in order to grow as an individual. I hope you will join me on this new endeavor.

My Archery Evolution

My Hoyt Rampage XT. Bought it from a buddy at work, first time buying a bow in over 15 years. Great bow for me to get back into the archery game.

I’ve been away from the blog for a bit, as the guys I hunt with and I wrapped up our unsuccessful 2018-2019 waterfowl season here in Northern Illinois. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, waterfowl hunting has become something I am passionate about and focus a lot of my energy and money on.

That being said, my early hunting life saw me being what Steve Rinella calls “a hunting generalist”. I dabbled in all types of hunting, from upland birds, waterfowl, to crows and coyotes. But one endeavor that I was extremely passionate about was archery deer hunting. Now my dad and I would shotgun deer hunt for the two seasons Illinois had, and while the camaraderie of deer camp was something I enjoyed in my youth, archery deer hunting held something all together different for me.

My earliest hunting memories are of my dad taking me on his back up a tree stand and placing me in my own stand while he sat in his own nearby. He told me that at the time I was four years old, and having a four year old of my own I cannot imagine leaving my son in a tree stand by himself. He would give me some jolly rancher candy to keep me occupied, and coincidentally anytime my dad saw or shot a deer, it was when I had a sour apple jolly rancher in my mouth.

That basis I feel is what gave me the passion for the outdoors that I have. But more along the lines of this blog, it is what instilled a drive for archery deer hunting as well. My parents got me a panda bear compound bow when I was young along with some wooden arrows and I would spend hours shooting it in my parents’ backyard.

My dad taught me what he had learned about archery and then came the day I got my own “big boy bow”. While I don’t remember what it was, I do remember two things. The first was that my dad took me to the local archery shop and had me fitted for the bow. The pro shop (which is no longer in business) took my measurements and fit the bow to me, and cut me a dozen aluminum arrows.

The second thing I remember from this bow, was the fact that I shot fingers instead of a release. I had a three finger shooting glove to protect my fingers from the string, and would once again shoot for hours in the back yard. I shot so much that I would break arrows, either with my groups hitting so tight they nicked the fletching of each other, or the one time I “Robin Hooded” two arrows, where one arrow hit another dead center and went down the length of the shaft.

My first deer I shot with my bow was a button buck I shot from the ground, he was head on and I was shooting fingers. It felt like an eternity to hold that 50 pound draw weight back by my fingers before I made that dangerous but lethal shot.

My second archery shot deer was an experience I would never want to repeat. Many lessons of what I as hunter need to improve on kept me out of the woods for a year, working on improving all those skills necessary to be an ethical and efficient archery deer hunter.

Even though I hunted deer a lot, and drew back on a few, the next deer I took with a bow would be sixteen years later, and would be a situation that shook my confidence of my abilities. Up to that point, all the shooting and practice I did gave me a false sense of confidence. But the lessons I learned from that terrible experience in October of 2016 led me on a path of gaining as much knowledge in the art of archery as I could get.

After that terrible reintroduction to archery hunting, I set upon a course to ensure that I am the most proficient at using my archery gear as I could be. I divulged in as much information as I could find. I became an avid podcast listener, and picked podcasts that centered around becoming a proficient archer

So I went into this long, drawn out blog post to lay a ground work of what the future holds for me, and the journey that I will take you on as I work toward my next archery deer. I bought a newer bow early in 2018, and shot it religiously all year, to the point that I wore out a brand new vital area on my Glendale Buck target.

I wanted to know this bow, to know what a good shot felt like. However, one thing I learned in all those hours of podcasts that was consistent no matter who hosted the podcast, was the fact that I needed to get my arrows tuned with whatever broadheads I intended to shoot. This was something I wasn’t taught and didn’t practice in my earlier years. I just screwed on three blade broadheads and went hunting. To this end, I bought an arrow spinner, and made sure that they spun true. Also, I ensured the blades of my broadheads lined up with the fletching of my arrows for a more aerodynamic flight. Once again, something I had never worried about before. I shot these arrows with these heads into the practice target, so I could have 100% confidence in their flight. Then, I sharpened them with the sharpener I bought, to ensure they were razor sharp.

I hunted one day with this set up, and never pulled the bow back. Seems like a lot of work for one day of unsuccessful hunting right? Well, that depends on how you look at it. Me? I had confidence again but this time it was because I had taken the time to understand the nuances that successful archers preach. It wasn’t because I shot field tips in the back yard and then hunted with three blade broadheads, with no idea where the broadheads hit.

So with 2019 here, and because I am who I am, I’m gonna change my arrow set up for this season. Yes, you read that right. All those hours and hours of shooting and tinkering, and I’m going to change it this year. My current arrows are Easton Carbon Aftermaths. They are 8.8 grains per inch, and with my arrows cut at 26″ that means they weigh 228.8 grains. With my 100 grain Magnus Buzzcut fixed blade broadheads that brings my total arrow weight to 328.8 grains. I plan to get a stiffer spined, heavier arrow and maybe bump the head weight up to 125 grains. So, this blog post has set the scene so to speak for the journey you will be on this year, as I delve into the endless technical rabbit hole that is archery hunting. As a returning archer, I am new to this all, so I hope I can shed some light on this for others. So follow along and see my successes and failures during the preparation for the 2019 deer season.

A Man and His Dog.

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,

SIT!”

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.

Cold Weather Honkers.

Bundled up and braving the bitter cold temperatures, my little group of hunters learned a few valuable lessons on this hunt.

With snow on the ground already, my mind drifts back to a very memorable hunt that myself and the guys I hunt with learned some valuable lessons on.

Our duck season closes prior to the end of the goose season, so our focus is able to shift solely on geese. The field duck decoys stay in the trailer and we go with big spreads for geese, as generally bigger spreads seem to work better later in the season. While it’s disappointing to not be able to hunt ducks anymore, it makes it easier to focus on the geese.

My buddy Ben had driven by our field one December day in 2010 and texted all of us that it was loaded with geese. Everyone from our little group was available to hunt, including our resident elder Kent. We planned to meet in the morning, and each of us eagerly anticipated the day. 2010 had been a banner year for us, with many hunts ending with a full limit. We hoped this hunt would end in the same fashion.

On December 18th our day had finally arrived, and as usual we met up and headed to the field in the dark. We headed to the field in two trucks, since my Ford Ranger at the time wouldn’t fit all of us. There was six of us total going, myself, and my buddies, Mark, Ben, Vern and Adam, and Kent was going to meet us at the field since he was coming from Chicago.

We saw the headlights of Kent’s truck in the field waiting for us, as our two trucks pulled up. We pulled into the field and drove to the agreed upon spot, and hopped out. The bitter cold wind was whipping as we approached the trailer, everyone cursing the bitter cold that hovered around zero degrees. When Mark placed his key in the lock on the back door of the trailer, he discovered that he couldn’t turn the key. The locks had frozen in the bitter cold, but luckily Mark had anticipated this and brought his hand torch for such a discovery. He fired it up, and heated both locks enough to loosen them up.

That issue solved, the six of us began the process of setting up decoys and blinds. Given that there was plenty of snow on the ground, we had our snow covers on our blinds, and Kent had white bed sheets zip tied to his. We dug spots in the snow to lower the profiles of our blinds and help them to blend in.

The ground being very frozen, we couldn’t use the stakes for our decoys, so we had to rely on the stands that we also had in our trailer. Myself, Mark and Ben began placing the stands while Adam, Vern and Kent began placing decoys on the strategically placed stands.

The wind would be from the west, so we set up facing east, which also was where the geese would come from. They were roosted on the various ponds in the subdivision to our immediate east, and our field would be the first one they would see coming out. While we weren’t keen on facing the rising sun, given the velocity and direction of the wind, it was our best and only option.

We made quick work of the 120 full body decoys, however it was tough work given the snow and the bitter cold. Kent even left Otto, his German Wirehair, in the truck while we set up. When we closed the doors on the trailer everyone gathered by my truck. We each could feel the bitter cold stinging any exposed skin on our faces, and silently we each dreaded sitting in our layout blinds waiting on the birds. Kent, the source of wisdom and experience in our group, spoke up and said,

“Boys, given how cold it is, I suggest we sit in the trucks in the warmth until we start to see birds moving. I feel they aren’t going to move until later in the morning.” Everyone eagerly agreed, glad he suggested it and we parked the trucks at the end of the field, next to each other so we could talk. Vern’s truck with Vern, Ben and Adam was on my driver’s side, while Kent and Otto parked on my passenger side.

As the sun rose, everyone stayed on guard to watch the horizon. We had a bit of a run to get to the blinds so we wanted to be prepared. But as the morning brightened and wore on, our attention began to drift. At nine, everyone was hungry, so we sent Vern in his truck with Ben to go get breakfast from the McDonalds that was close by. Kent told us we had time, that if the geese had not flown by now, they were waiting for early afternoon.

“Glad we got here before sun up.” Said Mark sarcastically. We chuckled at this hard learned lesson. When temperatures get this low, geese sit tight and only feed once a day, usually in the afternoon when it’s the warmest. They conserve their energy as much as possible. Had we known that, we all could have slept in!

When Ben and Vern returned, we ate our healthy (sarcasm here) McDonald’s breakfast, still half heartedly watching to the east. Save for a few random crows braving the cold, which at first made us consider getting out thinking they were geese, nothing was moving. We had been chatting all morning, Kent regailing us with hunts of the past. We pulled pranks on each other, in the form of yelling “Geese!” and pointing to the east. Guys who weren’t paying attention would reach for the door, and realize that they had been had.

Around 10:30, Kent went silent and I looked over, seeing that he and Otto were passed out in his truck. Vern and Ben decided do the same in Vern’s truck, so it was up to me, Adam, who was in Vern’s truck, and Mark to be the eyes on the sky.

Us remaining three were looking at our smart phones, watching the horizon, and looking at the thermometer in my truck. It read 10 degrees, and I commented I was glad we made the decision to sit in the warmth instead of the bitter cold blinds. Mark was telling me how he was excited for the upcoming ice fishing season, since goose season was winding down for us. As he talked about his plans, I looked at the rooftops of the houses to the east, and caught movement. Trying to focus in the glaring sun on the snow covered rooftops, I saw a line of geese in the gap between houses, flying south to North. They were so far away, they were just dots moving in the blue sky.

“Hey, geese moving way out east.” I said, and Mark adjusted himself in the passenger seat to take a look.

“I got em, damn they are far.” He said, a hint of worry in his voice. He was thinking what I was thinking; I hope they don’t all go that way. Mark got out of the truck, letting the cold air rush in, stating he was going to have a smoke (no one is allowed to smoke in my truck, so they’d rather brave the bitter cold). I stretched and watched the far off geese continue north and out of sight. Looking at the clock in my truck, I saw that it was 11:30. Man, I thought, are these lazy ass geese ever going to move?

Mark opened the door to my truck again, and I was about to razz him about letting the cold air in, when he stated,

“Geese moving to the south!” He was pointing to the south of us with one hand, while he was grasping for his coat on the floor with the other. I opened my door and stepped onto the running board of my truck to be able to look over my truck, and spotted them. A flock of about a dozen was south of us, but flying east to west. That is the movement we wanted, which meant the other birds may come over us soon. I looked over to Vern’s truck, and saw that Adam had joined sleepy time, so I knocked on the glass of his window and said,

“Birds up! Let’s go!” Ben, Vern and Adam each jumped at my voice, piled out of the truck, and began pulling on their cold weather gear. Mark was knocking on Kent’s door, and the old man got out and hurriedly pulled on his gear.

I wish I had video taped us at this moment. After hours of sitting in the truck, taking various layers of warm clothing off to stay comfortable in the trucks, everyone was now hurrying to put it all back on! Otto was out, and was watching us, probably laughing to himself at us. I pulled my shotgun out of it’s case, grabbed my blind bag and began to jog to the blinds. The other guys followed suit, but our jog stopped a short distance away as we struggled in the snow. Plus, if we started sweating, once we sat down, the cold would creep in and make us miserable. We didn’t know how long we would be out there, so we didn’t want to risk it. As we approached the blinds, geese were continually moving in the south. We could hear them, but they were on their way west. Everyone got settled into their blinds, loaded guns, got out calls, and watched to the east.

Well, here we were, ready to go, and the flight seemed to stop. The birds to the south were well west of us now, and nothing else was moving.

“Did we seriously miss our opportunity?” Ben said, blowing on his gloved hands to get some warmth to them.

“There’s no way, there is way more geese in those ponds.” I said, watching to the east. But part of me truly wondered if they had slipped out without us noticing. I could feel the cold wind hitting the back of my neck, somehow with all my layers on it found it’s way and sent a shiver down my spine. Boy I hope all this is worth it.

Ben spotted them first.

“Low group just over the rootops headed right at us.” He said, placing emphasis on the fact they were on a beeline for us. I looked where he was pointing and saw that a six pack of geese was just clearing the rooftops, barely clearing them heading at us. I began flapping the goose flag, but soon noticed it wasn’t necessary; in the snow, the decoys stuck out and these six clearly saw them. I tucked the flag under my layout blind, realizing it wasn’t worth the effort as the six actually dropped in altitude when they cleared the last house. We all covered up, trying to completely dissappear before they got too close and spotted us. They dropped so low that I was worried they were going to short stop us, landing far out in the field. But on they came, wing beats slowing as they closed the distance. Mark, Ben and I let out some excited honks, which seem to jar the silent geese and they drifted off to the left a bit.

“Take it easy on em!” Kent harshly whispered, and we slowed our calling to feeding growls and soft honks and clucks. We learned another lesson; if they are headed your way without calling, don’t hammer them, just let them come. The geese centered themselves on the spread again, and began to make noise themselves. They began to glide in, they were so low that their chests almost seemed to touch the corn stubble as they followed the contours of the field. They came right into the killhole, feet down and suddenly honking as they backpedaled into the spread.

I yelled out,

“Kill em!” The six of us sat up and began firing. I pulled up on a bird right in front of me and fired. I hit it, but too far back so I settled my bead on it again and fired, crumpling the bird stone dead. I swung my gun looking for my second bird, but there was none left. We had dropped all six in the snow, with only one cripple walking away trying to figure out what just happened. Kent sent Otto on the cripple and we began cheering and high-fiving each other from our blinds.

“Hey help the dog, there’s more coming!” Kent yelled, as he headed towards the nearest dead goose. We all climbed out of the blinds and went to help in the pick up, as Otto trotted back with the attempted escapee clutched in his mouth. Kent took that bird and finished it, and we settled in as more birds came towards us. A few small flocks had made us, and they stayed wide but kept heading west. I saw a pair of geese clear the houses and drop, almost following the same flight path as the first six. We covered up as they quickly closed the distance. They pulled up into the kill hole, and backpedaled. I called the shot and just sat up and watched. Guns fired and the two birds dropped, down for the count. Kent sent Otto, while waves after waves of geese began moving from the subdivision. Otto made quick work, and covered up with Kent. We attempted to call and flag some of these flocks, but they continued on.

A single goose broke off of a bigger flock and decided our field looked better than the one it was headed to. It flipped a few times, losing wind out of it’s wings so it could drop altitude, what hunters call “maple leafing”. It closed the distance fast on the spread, calling it’s head off all the way.

“Adam, it’s all yours man.” Ben yelled between calls.

“Yeah man, call your own shot.” I followed up. This way I can focus on calling, and Adam was in the middle, so he will have the best chance. Plus, he had just started hunting with us, so as the “new guy”, he gets the singles.

When the bird was backpedaling into the decoys, I watched, waiting for Adam to shoot. Just before the goose’s feet hit the ground Adam sat up and fired. The bird didn’t have far to fall, because it was so close to the ground. Otto went out to do his work, and Mark told Adam,

“Well, you unload your gun like me and Verno, we have our two geese.” Adam unloaded his gun, and Otto came back with the bird. It was up to me, Ben and Kent to finish the day. We each only needed one goose a piece for a limit.

“Here comes a flock!” Yelled Vern, and sure enough, a dozen geese came from our left, headed right at us. The six of us settled in, and as the geese closed in I picked my bird. I watched this one bird as if none of the other ones were there. It kept coming, and the flock was making such a racket. We called back, and these birds started gliding in the wind at us. They swung themselves down wind to set up for their final approach, and I watched my bird. Yes, I started to look at this bird as if it was already a done deal. They were low as they approached; none of the flocks we had shot into this day circled, they just came right in. My bird was gliding, letting out honks as it closed the distance. I have never really watched a goose approaching our spread this intently before. I watched it look around at the decoys as it began to backpedal in the kill hole at 20 yards with the rest of it’s flock. I called the shot, and the three of us sat up to finish the day.

“My” goose realized it’s mistake as six humans and a dog materialized out of the snow. It pumped its wings as it tried to gain altitude. I pulled up on it, placed the bead of my shotgun on it as I pressed the safety off. I switched my finger to the trigger as I followed the goose with my gun. When I thought to pull the trigger, suddenly the bird crumpled, shot by someone else. A moment flashed where I felt cheated; after all I claimed that bird as mine! But I soon shocked myself to reality as I realized there was 11 others in this flock! I swung on a bird trying to escape to the right. I fired and it fell, hitting the ground in a spray of snow. Ben was yelling and I looked and the goose he shot was running AT him, and he reached out and grabbed it, that’s how close they were. He finished it off and we all climbed out of the blinds, having filled a six man limit. We shook each other’s hands, patting each other on the back, celebrating the moment of good friends having a great hunt together.

I looked at my phone and saw that only a half hour had passed from when we hurriedly climbed into our blinds. We sat for hours in our trucks to fill a limit in a half hour. We gathered up the birds, and snapped a few photos, all the while with more geese trying to come into the field.

Group photos of successful hunts are always necessary, even when it is 10 degrees out.

Twelve geese, a six man limit shot in a half hour. Not a bad way to end a long hunt, most of the time spent sitting in warm trucks.

“We need to get out of here, let them feed.” I said, and everyone agreed. We got the trucks, and it took longer for us to pick up than it had to fill the limit. It was a great ending to what would be a phenomenal season.

The Hunting Community

When I think of hunting, I think of paintings such as this one. Hunting was, for a long time, woven into the fabric of society, something passed from one generation to another. Everyone seemed to be a hunting generalist, they pursued what season was open. Today, there are different “camps” in the hunting community which seem at odds with each other. We need to remedy this to better protect our hunting heritage. Image pulled from Pinterest.

When I took up waterfowl hunting as my sole practice, I became a hunting snob. I looked down on other forms of hunting, swore them off as I wasn’t interested in them. I didn’t concern myself with the negative publicity that came to other forms of hunting, because I saw them as the “others”. This type of thinking is short sighted, and not until recently did I realize how harmful this line of thinking can be to the hunting community as a whole.

The number of people that participate in hunting is on the decline. Hunting isn’t as a part of the fabric of America as it was just fifty short years ago. Hunters are a minority in the United States, yet as I have written about previously, we contribute the most of any group to conservation and preservation of wild places and wild animals.

This isn’t a position in society that is enviable for any group, let alone a group that contributes as much to our wild places like hunting. Being such a small group, what benefit is there to further segregate ourselves by what way we pursue game? Why do we care if someone hunts deer with archery equipment or a firearm? When I grew up, the term “pumpkin army” applied to the people who hunted deer only during the firearm deer season. They were seen as those who shot at anything, wandering around the woods aimlessly, generally looked down upon. Now I know there are examples of this, but they apply to individuals not the group. At the end of the day I know plenty of gun deer hunters who are just as passionate if not more so as archery hunters. I know waterfowlers who are just as passionate in their pursuits as the deer hunter who manages a chunk of ground for deer. I know private land only hunters who work hard on their land to make it what they want, and I know public land hunters who put the work in to find those prime spots and know the area as well as the private land owner knows theirs.

The common denominator I have seen in different hunting cliques is passion for their craft. Passion is the one key ingredient that we all have, passion drives us to do what we do and love every minute, even on the difficult day. So what if Joe is passionate about deer hunting, while John is a passionate upland hunter? I guarantee that the feeling Joe has when that monster ten point walks in is the same when John’s dog goes on point. That’s because they are passionate about their hunt.

Passion is what drives hunters, to include sitting in a cold corn field in pursuit of waterfowl. How else can one explain the choice of sitting in the cold for hours?

Those who wish to see an end to hunting have a common goal; end hunting. Period. They come from different walks of life, but at the end of the day they share that common goal. They don’t care that Steve golfs or Susan bikes. They have a passion to see hunting end. And you know what? In certain places they have been successful. California’s ban on mountain lion hunting, Colorado’s ban on spring bear hunting, hell British Columbia’s full ban on Grizzly bear hunting proves that. The attacks on hunters on social media in recent years shows that they will stop at nothing. No place is safe for them to ridicule and attack hunters and more broadly, the practice of hunting.

How it seems the anti hunting crowd views wild animals. I liked Bambi too when I was a kid. Photo Credit: Walt Disney.

Their hatred of hunting and their goal of reducing or removing it is based on emotion only. They ignore the science that shows the benefit of the regulated hunting of game. Steven Rinella, whom I have referenced in previous posts, says that it seems society has an obsession with charismatic megafauna. They look at bears, wolves, elk, deer and other wild animals as if they live like the animals in the countless Disney movies. Humans hunting them is considered by these people as a sin, that the taking of the wild animal’s life is the lowest practice one can partake in.

Yet, they look down their noses at hunters while they eat a steak, burger or chicken sandwich, being totally devoid of their participation in the death of that cow or chicken. Do the lives of those animals matter less in some way? Is it not hypocritical to rally against hunting while consuming factory farm raised and slaughtered animals?

Contrary to what many people in society who are against hunting think, this is where the meat in the grocery store actually comes from. It doesn’t just magically appear in the cooler. Something has to die to enjoy that juicy steak, burger, or chicken sandwich.

We as humans in the 21st century have become so far removed from where our food comes from that members of our society think they are somehow morally superior because they buy their meat from a store. The bottom line is something has to die in order to have meat, that’s the way it works. So who are you to look down on the hunter who has a closer relationship to their food than you do buying it by the pound wrapped in plastic wrap?

We as hunters need to look past our differences, and realize that an attack on one type of hunting is an attack on all hunting. The passion we all feel in our pursuits is the common thread that ties us all together as one community. Our opponents are united, and I guarantee they laugh when they see hunters attacking other hunters. I’m not saying to defend the negative actions of one group or another, but defending the majority of us who are legally and ethically pursuing wild game. Policing our own community of those who give us a bad name is just as important.

That being said, can you imagine if we as hunters spoke with one voice, not divided by our differences but united as one community, with the common goal of defending our hunting heritage? We would be a loud political voice that would ring out wherever needed. If hunting is as important to you as it is to me, you will put aside those differences and work towards uniting the hunting community. When you see those pheasant hunters out in the field while you drive back from your stand, honk your horn and wave in salute to a fellow hunter. Treat each other as one family, because that will make us stronger for the fights against our heritage that are surely coming. Believe me, they are.

Waiting on a Snowstorm

The one area my hunting partners and I hunt holds a large amount of birds once the migration starts, but with those numbers comes extremely high hunting pressure. It seems that when the birds have moved in en masse and the crop fields are picked, every other field has a truck and hunting trailer in it. After the initial successes following the crops being removed, the birds get wise and begin to frequent those few fields that don’t allow hunters.

The area that we hunt has a subdivision that has a few decent sized ponds that attract the large amount of birds to roost. Luckily for us, our field is the first one they can hit outside of the subdivision, and it provides some great action in the beginning. Our field is generally one of the last to get picked, much to our luck. But as is prone to happen, after a few weeks of hunting here, we fall into a mid season lull as the geese move to their safe haven fields, avoiding us at all cost.

The 2016 season was no different, and to add to the mid season lull, the farmer began the practice of bailing the corn stubble, removing a decent amount of our cover in the field. This practice makes it difficult to brush up the blinds, making it hard for us to hide. Concealment is critical to hunting high pressured birds, so we looked towards our next opportunity; a measurable snow fall.

A measurable snowfall changes the game during the mid season lull. For starters, we can cover our layout blinds in snow covers, and also dig them into the snow. This allows us to lower their profile while the white covers blend in almost perfectly. As a side effect of a measurable snow, it seems to hit the “reset button” on bird behavior. What I mean by this is it seems that geese have completely forgotten which fields are dangerous and which ones are safe. Everything is white, and all looks the same, so the thought is that birds are unsure of where they have and haven’t been. Also, now their food sources are covered, so they switch to survival mode, and when they see other geese in a field (or our decoys) they draw into it like a magnet. To put it quite simply, when the conditions are right, it can be like opening day all over again.

The weather forecast for the weekend of December 11th was calling for a winter storm with a measurable snow fall of 6-8 inches Saturday night into Sunday morning. While there was already a small amount of snow on the ground, it wasn’t enough for us to successfully hide in. Myself, my cousin Colton, and long time hunting buddies Mark and Ben hunted all day Saturday, from sunrise to sunset, and struggled to shoot two geese shy of a full limit. To say it was tough hunting would be an understatement. The birds wouldn’t close the final distance, and continually flared at 50 yards. Our four snow cover clad layout blinds stuck out in the snow dusted mowed corn stubble field, and we just couldn’t fool the birds enough to get them to finish. As we picked up in the dark Saturday night, we made a game plan for Sunday morning based on what we witnessed all day. As we did this, snow flakes started falling, signalling the start of the much anticipated snow storm. We excitedly finalized our plans for the morning, and left the field anxious for what the morning would bring.

When my alarm blared loudly the next morning, I hurriedly shut it off to avoid waking my sleeping pregnant wife. I dressed quickly in the dark room, my clothes having been laid out ready to go the night before, and made my way to the living room. My two black labs followed in suit, and as I flipped on the living room light I could smell my coffee brewing in the kitchen. I dumped the dogs’ food in their respective dishes and they both eagerly ate. While they ate I walked to our back sliding door and flipped on the outdoor light to see how much snow we received overnight.

Much to my surprise and joy, we had at least 8 inches of fresh powder on the ground, and more was still falling. The dogs, having finished their breakfast, wanted out to do their morning business. I let them outside, and as I shut the door I heard my phone quack (yes, you read that right, the text tone for both of my hunting buddies is a mallard hen quacking) from it’s place charging on the kitchen counter. I walked over to it and saw a text from Mark on the screen asking

“You see what is outside?”

I smiled and responded to him, knowing he felt the excitement I did when I saw how much snow we got. I let the dogs in, and put Lola’s e-collar and vest on her, and as I did so her tail wagged uncontrollably knowing what it meant. We headed to the preloaded truck in the garage, and pulled out to get the guys.

After picking Ben, Colton, and Mark up, we grabbed the trailer and drove the twenty minute ride to the field. We chatted the whole ride about calling strategies, how we planned to set up for the wind, and as always some good natured ribbing of each other as we each sipped on coffee. When we arrived at the field and I pulled into it, Lola, who usually sleeps during truck rides, recognized the change in motion of the truck, the bumpiness of driving in a field, and she shot up and began panting and whining, excited to finally be in the field. We all laughed about how her “switch” was now on.

We pulled through the snow to the agreed upon set up location we had discussed the night before. We were closer to the subdivision than we were the day before, but still well outside of the 100 yard minimum distance required by law. To be safe I had brought my range finder and zipped the closest house, and the reading was 200 yards. Trust but verify. As an added safety measure we planned to set up facing away from the houses. Luckily for us the easterly wind was perfect for that sort of set up.

Mark unlocked the trailer and the four of us got to work. Everyone in our group understands the work that needs to be done, so there is no explanation required aside from where the blinds need to go for the wind. After unloading the decoy bags and blinds, Mark and Colton worked on blinds while Ben and I began setting up decoys. Mark and Colton dug the blinds into the snow with the snow covers on them. The process usually takes a half hour, but with the added difficulty of the snow that time increased to 45 minutes. With everything set how we envisioned, everyone got their personal gear out of the truck and I took it to the far end of the field (which I regretted on the walk back) and parked it.

The way we set up was using a fold in the field to further hide the profile of the blinds, with the wind at our backs and the 120 full body goose decoys in a loose “U” shape with the kill hole to our front. The geese would be coming from behind us, which isn’t ideal for observing but we knew that if they spotted the spread in the field, they would come in on a string. While we waited for the birds to begin moving (geese are lazy and wait for full sun up to start moving when it’s cold) we dusted snow off the decoys since the snow stopped. About 20 minutes after full sunrise, we could begin to hear the geese honking and making noise from the various ponds throughout the subdivision. We craned our necks to look behind us, anticipation running high. It’s at this moment, that doubt begins to creep in sometimes. Are they gonna just go east and not come out this way? Are the blinds hid good enough? Will they give us a chance? It’s too late to make changes because at any minute they will be coming out.

Colton was the first one to spot a group. He yelled excitedly, pointing towards the houses and saying,

“Six pack over the houses headed right for us.”

The rest of us looked towards the seemingly never ending rows or snow covered rooftops, and as he described, six geese were winging their way towards us. They looked as though they were barely clearing the rooftops. We all hunkered down in our blinds, and I started flapping the goose flag. Mark started clucking and honking on his short reed goose call, as did Colton. I turned in my blind to look behind us, still flapping the goose flag, and saw that the geese had slowed their wing beats and clearly were headed right for us. I folded up the flag, and tucked it under my layout blind; I wanted absolutely nothing to even have the chance to flare geese in this snow. I could hear the geese honking back at the boys calling.

“They are coming right for us boys.” I said as I put my call to my lips and began to join in the noise the guys were making. Ben did as well, and we sounded like an excited group of geese as I watched through the mesh of my blind as the geese passed over, wings cupped and necks craned down looking at the spread. I watched them as they swung to the end of the field and turned down wind, setting up to come back to us and land into the wind. They dipped lower, zeroed right in on the kill hole, honking all the way in. When the lead bird was backpedaling at 20 yards in the kill hole I yelled,

“Take ’em!” I threw the hood of my blind open and raised my shotgun in one motion, aiming for that lead bird that just now discovered it’s fatal mistake. Right before I pulled the trigger, someone beat me to it and the bird crumpled. I swung on the bird that was spinning out to my left in an attempt to escape, and fired. The bird folded and hit the ground in a shower of snow. I watched two birds of the original six making their escape, with four laying in the snow. The other three guys were hooting and hollering, reloading their guns as I sent Lola on her retrieves. She took off kicking snow in the air on her first run. Colton grabbed the two closest birds, and after Lola brought her first one back I sent her on the furthest bird.

Happy dog doing what she loves in the snow.

“Damn someone was quick draw McGraw on that lead bird.” I said as I jammed another shell into the magazine tube of my shotgun.

“Yeah that was me.” Ben said as he sat back in his blind, sipping on some still hot coffee. I should have known it was him; I’ve never seen someone who can clear a blind and fire as quickly and accurately as he can.

“Hey boys, they are all headed out now!” Mark said as he snuffed out his cigarette and got back in his blind. And boy he wasn’t kidding. Hundreds of honkers were pouring out of the subdivision now; all headed right for us. I dug the flag out from underneath my blind as we all sat back into our blinds. Once again Mark and Colton began working the goose calls as I flapped the goose flag at the incoming birds. A group of three geese broke off of the main group and headed on a beeline for our spread. They craned their necks downward as they passed overhead, following the same path the last group did for their final approach. Swinging downwind and setting up, they flipped upside down in the air, losing air in their wings to drop fast. Hunters call this “maple leafing” as they look like leaves falling. They closed the distance, feet dropped, wings locked for their landing. I glanced over at Lola, who was hidden in her blind, and she was shaking in anticipation, eyes locked on the birds. When they were at 20 yards, in front of everyone, I called the shot.

“Take ’em boys!” I flipped open my blind but instead of shooting I watched the other guys shoot. The geese flapped their wings hard, trying to gain altitude when they saw four men materialize out of the snow, and the boys opened fire. Two geese folded immediately, and the third turned to leave. Thinking it would make it I grabbed my gun since it swung towards my side. But before I pulled it up, a shot rang out and the bird folded. I looked over and saw Colton with his gun to his shoulder, bolt locked to the rear, with him having fired his last shot on the escapee. He grinned at me as he lowered his gun, and asked

“Why weren’t you shooting?” I laughed and heard Ben say,

“Damnit Ryan, why do you do that?” The guys say I always hold back on shooting, which is generally true when small groups like that come in, because it seems foolish for me to join in.

“Hell I figured you guys had it. Three geese and three shooters, should be a done deal.” Ben just shook his head as I sent Lola to do her work.

“Well Kid, we just need one more bird, it’s all on you.” Mark said as he put his empty gun in his blind. He calls me Kid as a nickname, even though we are the same age. Ben and Colton followed suit, in agreement on me closing out the full limit. Lola brought the second bird back as Colton went and picked up the last bird, to make quick work of pick up. Ben called out,

“Hey, four pack headed this way.” He pointed toward the houses again, and sure enough here came a low group of four winging their way towards us. Everyone settled in as I told Lola “kennel”, her command to get hidden in her blind. Ben had stolen the flag from me when I wasn’t looking and began flagging, while Colton and Mark once again took to the calls. I put my call to my lips, started calling, and Ben scolded me,

“Hey, you just focus on shooting, we got this.” Everyone closed their blinds, Ben hid the flag as the geese swung to our right, swinging wide and turning into the wind for their approach. My eyes focused on the lead bird, and I made my decision that one was the one I was gonna take. They were almost at ground level as they settled into the hole. The guys were calling and the lead bird was responding excitedly. My finger was resting on the safety of my gun, hand gripped around the grip of the shotgun, waiting for my moment in the hot seat. When the lead bird was feet down backpedaling in the spread, I flung my blind door open with my left hand while rasing my shotgun with my right. I settled my fiberoptic sight on the bird as it flapped furiously trying to get away. I flipped the safety off and fired, hitting the bird a bit back, not enough to drop it. I settled the sight on it again and fired a second shot, which folded the bird stone dead. The guys jumped up and cheered, with that one bird we had filled a full limit of two geese each. I sent Lola to get the last bird, as we patted each other on the back. Geese were still moving, they were seemingly never ending coming out of the subdivision.

Lola worked hard and deserved her own picture with her retrieves. Ben decided to photo bomb however.

Lola brought our last bird of the day in, head held high and tail wagging; truly proud of her accomplishment. I looked at my phone, and saw that only an hour and a half had passed since we first set up. Given the season we had had up to this point, this was a much needed outcome. The downside was that given that the season was coming to a close in a few weeks, and each of our busy schedules, this was our last opportunity to hunt together. Seemed a great way to end the 2016 season.

Ben, Mark, Colton, myself, and of course Lola, all smiles as we finished our 2016 season on a high note.

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.

“That Old Man.”

In one of my earlier blogs I wrote about my biggest influences in my hunting life. The first one is my dad, who taught me the basics of hunting ethics and laid a good foundation to build on.

The other major influence, and the one that this blog post is dedicated to, was Kent Jarvis. When I was a kid, my dad managed a hunt club in Woodstock Illinois, and let me tell you that as a kid who loved the outdoors it was the ultimate playground. Kent was hired there as a goose hunting guide, and being that he was retired it was a good fit for him. Kent was a personable and friendly guy, hard working, and could run a goose call like no one I’ve ever seen.

He had made custom cabinets professionally, so he was great at wood working. In fact he would make Christmas gifts for those of us he hunted with, and I have various gifts given to me by him from handmade nightstand boxes, to wooden Christmas ornaments and a cutting board he hand made. I even have a few goose calls he made, which I don’t hunt with but have a special place in my home.

Kent telling us one of his many stories during a lull in the hunt…..”I’ll tell you what dude….”

Another skill Kent had that became very apparent once you were around him was he could tell stories. He never knew a stranger, and could strike up a conversation with anyone about damn near anything. Once the hunt began it seemed like he never stopped talking, unless of course he dozed off in the blind. In fact, he could be in the middle of a story and someone could spot birds, he would pause while we worked or even shot the birds, and once the interruption was over he could pick his story right back up where he left off, as if he had never stopped. He had a gift of gab so to speak, and I know through the years I had heard a few of his best ones a few times over. Every hunt we would be listening to one of his stories as he told them to a new hunter to the group that had not heard it yet, and those of us who had heard the story a time or two before would look at each other laughing and say,

“That old man.”

Kent’s dog Otto, with one of our most successful hunts, which took place shortly after Kent’s bypass surgery.

As long as I had known Kent, he had hunted over these bearded dogs called Drahthaars, commonly refered to as German Wirehair Pointers. The first one I remembered him having was named Toby, and he was a phenomenal dog. That dog went everywhere with Kent, he was Kent’s constant companion.

When Toby passed away, Kent was crushed, to the point that he swore he’d never have another dog again. Well his loving wife Rose Ann got him another male Drahthaar, because she knew the bond that Kent had with Toby needed to be reestablished. While he wasn’t Toby, this new pup Otto could hold his own. Once again Kent had a dog that went everywhere with him, and he too was a hell of a dog. Otto would actually share Kent’s layout blind with him, curled up on his legs waiting for the command to retrieve. They made quite a pair, both with their gray beards, cuddled up and warm in their blind together. Kent would tell us that a bonus of having the dog was he kept Kent warm in the blind in the winter. We would shake our heads and laugh saying to each other,

“That old man.”

Kent was a bird hunter to his core, but waterfowl hunting took precedent over upland for him. He was a passionate waterfowl hunter, and he was a wealth of information given his experience. He told me that shortly after his retirement he followed the migration from Canada beginning in September and hunted all the way to the southern reaches of Texas for the spring snow goose season. He said he loved doing it and was glad he did it, but boy was it exhausting.

He knew so much about waterfowl and their behavior, he could tell what birds were gonna work and what ones weren’t. Kent used to tell us,

“Boys, in my experience when geese fly nose to tail like that in a line, you can’t call them.” We didn’t believe him at first because, hey what difference does that make? But we have experienced it first hand, and use that line to this day as an homage to him, and usually follow it up with a chuckle and,

“That old man.”

In 2009 one of our bean fields flooded, which led to an abundance of ducks hitting the flooded spot. Being that we mostly deal with dry field goose hunting, we jumped on the opportunity to get into some ducks. Me and my buddies Ben and Mark extended an invitation to Kent and my dad to come with us. Well what we didn’t anticipate was how difficult the walk in with all our gear was going to be. To make matters even more serious, over the summer Kent had had a 5 way bypass surgery. Yes you read that right, a five way bypass. This was also his second bypass of his life. Well, he kept pace with us younger guys, carrying the heavy loads of the panel blind, decoys and personal gear, and never complained once. Mark, Ben and I were beat doing all of that, and we couldn’t imagine how Kent felt. In true Kent fashion he never let on how he felt. We shot a mess of ducks that day, had an absolute blast, and that hunt is one of my fondest memories of hunting with Kent and the boys. The years following that, he would continually try to keep pace with us, to the point we finally had to say,

“Kent, you’ve earned the right to take it easy, we got it.” He followed it up saying,

“I don’t want to be a burden.” That’s how his mind worked, he would work just as hard to not put the burden on someone else. It got to the point that Ben told me one time,

“Kent has to take it easy, because if he has a heart attack out here, and we have to do mouth to mouth waiting for help to arrive, I think I’ll be too upset to do it.” It was a feeling all of us had, so we tried to force Kent to take it easy. He would just go on, carrying heavy loads, and we’d shake our heads and say,

“That old man. ”

In 2012 Kent paid me the ultimate compliment that still gets to me as I write this almost six years later. He and I were on the phone together during the season, and while I don’t remember the reason for the call (probably making plans for an upcoming hunt) what he told me will stick with me for the rest of my life. He told me,

“Ya know Ryan, I tried to get all of my kids involved in hunting, and none of them showed any interest. I’m glad I got you into it, and you became so passionate about it, and now as a 27 year old man you still ask this 75 year old to go along with you. Makes me feel good I could pass it on to at least you.”

I remember responding,

“Well Kent, the only thing about that is, you’re the one to blame for all the money I have spent all these years on this hobby!” He laughed at this and accepted the blame wholeheartedly. This was one of the most heart to heart conversations we had, and you could hear the genuine love in his voice. I remember hanging up from that conversation realizing how strong the bond was between us, he was more than a mentor, he was family.

That old man.

A few weeks later, on December 16, 2012 I was visiting my dad in the hospital. My phone rang, and the hen mallard quacking ring tone told me it was Kent, so I silenced it. I did this because he and I had hunting plans the next day so I figured it was him calling to finalize the plans. I would call him back when I was done. As my wife and I walked out of the hospital I opened my voicemail, expecting to hear his joyful voice. What I heard instead was his wife Rose Ann telling me she needed me to call her. I hit redial on the missed call and heard Rose Ann answer,

“Hey Ryan, it’s Rose Ann, I’m sorry to tell you this, but Kent died this morning while out hunting.” You could hear the pain in her voice, but she kept her composure, the strong woman she is.

My heart dropped and I felt like someone kicked me in the stomach. I stopped walking towards the car, and my wife turned and looked at me, seeing the look on my face. Somehow I was able to keep it together and told Rose Ann,

“I am so sorry Rose Ann, is there anything I can do? Is someone there with you?” She told me someone was there, and she would let me know the details of what was next, because Kent didn’t want a funeral. When we hung up, I told my wife we needed to go back in and tell my dad. We walked back into my dad’s hospital room, and his surprise that we were back was replaced with grief when I told him the news. I kept it together up until we got back in the car, and then I lost it.

My wife drove while I took on the responsibility of telling our little group of hunting buddies, guys who had come to know Kent through me, and who all adored him as well. Each conversation was short, as each guy wrestled with what they were told, there was plenty of cursing, plenty of shock, and one phrase was repeated,

“That old man.”

Kent had suffered a heart attack while out hunting with two buddies, Vito and Brad. They had been done for the the day, and were negotiating a shallow channel between two lakes which required pushing and pulling the boat. When they got the boat into the open water, Vito and Brad were ribbing Kent about not getting the boat started back up to head back to the dock. When they looked they saw him slumped in his seat, so they knew something happened. Vito, having EMT training, began CPR while Brad started the boat and called 911 to have an ambulance meet them at the dock. Despite their best efforts, Kent was gone.

As cliche as it sounds, Kent died doing what he loved, with people that he loved. I’ve hunted that lake with Kent before and know the amount of effort it takes to move that boat in that mud and muck. In fact, he and I were supposed to hunt there together the next day, just him and me. Knowing Kent, he was right there with the guys, helping out.

That old man.

Kent’s good friend Jason put together a memorial service for Kent in February of 2013. It was held at Vito’s restaurant Guiseppe’s La Cantina in Des Plaines Illinois. Kent’s wife, children, twin brother Trent (yes he has a twin brother, and let me tell you there is definitely no denying they are twins) and the friends he and Rose Ann had made over the years all came together in rememberance of him. There were plenty of laughs recalling stories of Kent or retellings of the numerous stories we had heard from Kent, pictures on display, and the shared knowledge of how this one man impacted us all.

One thing that truly led to not a dry eye in the place was Vito playing a recording of the hunt that fateful day. In it you can hear calling, and then Kent’s voice as he decided on a course of action for the working birds. You could hear the passion in his voice, from that point on just a memory. Jason had hats made in rememberance of Kent, and also faux leg bands inscribed in his memory. I wear no other hat now when I am hunting, and the leg band sits proudly on my lanyard. It was a truly touching experience, to meet others who had been positively influenced by this one man.

Kent’s Krowd was a phrase Kent had had put on some hats he had made for friends. Seemed fitting for that phrase to be put on his memorial hats his good friend Jason had made.

Jason also had faux leg bands made, in honor of the memory of Kent. Inscribed on the band was Kent’s go to phrase; “It is what it is”.

Kent had such a profound impact on me, both as a mentor and as a friend. The values he taught me, the life lessons he made sure to pass on to me, hunting related or not, all have helped make me who I am. I miss not calling him, just to shoot the shit, or to make plans for an upcoming hunt. We would call each other, comparing notes of what we saw bird wise or to just see how each other’s family was doing.

I still make a point to call Rose Ann and check in with her. We call back and forth when time allows, and we always seem to get ahold of each other when the waterfowling season is approaching. She has had to put old Otto dog down, but, in true fashion she now has another Wirehair pup, named Buckshot (Kent’s nickname for his son).

There are plenty of other Kent stories I could write in this post, but as it is this one is lengthy. Chances are, however, if you share a blind with me and my buddies, you may hear a Kent story or two, as he always seems to come up. He may be gone, but his memory is always with us, whenever a flock of geese makes that fateful turn, or ducks drop like rocks to the spread. Whenever something happens that reminds us of him, we chuckle and say,

“I miss that old man.”

The Duck Stamp

The first Federal Waterfowl Stamp, issued August 14, 1934, artwork done by renowned artist Ding Darling.

Continuing on with my preseason blog posts about waterfowl hunting, and on the cusp of a hunting trip with my cousin and some friends to some of the public land areas in Wisconsin this weekend, I figured a good topic for this post would be the history and importance of the Federal Duck Stamp.

America’s early years saw a land teeming with millions of waterfowl, the skies filled with them during their fall migration, dubbed “The Grand Passage.” As with most wildlife during the first 100 or so years of America’s existence, waterfowl became a commodity that was seemingly endless. Market hunting for waterfowl became an industry, with market hunters killing hundreds of ducks in an outing, using such weapons as punt guns. Punt guns were very large bore guns affixed to the bow of sneak boats, where the hunters would creep to a raft of ducks and fire the large gun, killing hundreds in one shot.

Artist’s rendering of the tactic of using a punt gun during the market hunting days.

Market hunting waterfowl fed the demand from the restaurants in the east for wild game, and the feathers of various birds were used in the expanding millinery trade. But the market demands also led to the decline of waterfowl populations by the turn of the 20th century.

The effects of market hunting combined with the loss of wetland habitat due to drainage for farming, and an extended drought in the 1930’s created a dark time for America’s waterfowl. Millions of acres of wetlands had been drained, much of which in reality wasn’t suitable for farming anyway. Something had to be done or America’s waterfowl would be gone from the landscape forever.

In order to preserve and restore wetlands, money needed to be raised. In 1934, during the height of the dust bowl and Great Depression, President Franklin D Roosevelt signed into law the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, better known as the Duck Stamp Act. As I covered in a previous post, Hunting is Conservation Part 1: Follow the Money, 98 cents of every dollar spent on the stamp goes to restoration and protection of vital wetland habitats.

Under the law of the act, anyone 16 years old or over is required to purchase one and have it with them while hunting, and has to sign it across the face of the stamp. This certifies the person to hunt waterfowl in conjunction with other state requirements.

The first duck stamp cost $1 and as specified by the Act, 90 percent went to a special account called the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund for the aquisition, maintenance and rehabilitation of wetlands. The remaining 10 percent went to enforcement of the Act and the printing of the stamps. As the years went on the price of the stamp has raised to meet the rising demand of the cost of wetland protection and expansion, and it’s current price of $25 was recently done.

The stamps, as declared by the Act and it’s amendments through the years, are to be sold via the Postal Service and also at designated spots deemed by the Department of the Interior. Various sporting goods stores, retailers, and to include the gas station down the road from my house carry and sell the stamp until their quantities run out. The stamps not only are required for hunters to use, but those who don’t hunt can use them as a free pass to National Refuges.

Since it’s inception in 1934, funds from the Duck Stamp has raised over $800 million for wetland protection and restoration and also has protected 5.7 million acres of vital wetland habitat, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The 2018-2019 Federal Waterfowl Stamp, featuring mallard ducks in a wetland. The art contest held each year selects the artwork that will be featured on the stamp.

A unique aspect of the Duck Stamp is the art contest that is conducted for the art to be featured on the stamp. Five judges pick the artwork from all of the submissions, and the winner receives no compensation for winning, other than the fame and a pane of stamps featuring their artwork. Noted artist Ding Darling created the artwork featured on the first stamp, and well known artists have been featured since. The competition is open to any US citizen 18 years and older, and the goal of the Fish and Wildlife Service is to try and hold the contest at various locations around the nation each year, in an attempt to allow more people to attend and enter. There is also a junior art contest as well.

The stamps are considered by many waterfowlers as collector’s items, many buy two, one for hunting and one for collection. This benefits waterfowl, their habitat, and also other animals that share that habitat, because these people are contributing twice the amount. One thing I wish I had done was to keep my stamps from all my years of hunting, and put them in a frame. My uncle’s grandfather did this, and it currently resides at my aunt and uncle’s home with a picture of his grandfather in the frame, surrounded by rows of signed stamps from all his years of hunting. It is an amazing thing to look at, the progression of the stamps through the years. The stories and experiences those stamps have been a part of is immeasurable. It’s a true testament to the respect he had for the stamps and more importantly what they meant to him and our waterfowl.

My uncle’s grandfather’s waterfowl stamp collection. Amazing to look at the progression through the years, and it would be amazing to hear the stories attached to them.

If you value conservation and protecting wildlife and their habitat, take $25 and buy a stamp. It’s a great collection piece and helps fund conservation.