Public Land Waterfowl Hunt
When Jared asked for my conservation number, I obviously had to ask why. He filled me in on the fact that he kept an eye on local limited draw waterfowl hunts around Columbia, MO where he lives and helps his friends and family register for them. When they're drawn he helps out with the hunt, bringing a few bags of decoys in his boat with a black Lab named Jet. I hadn't yet gone on a waterfowl hunt so it was a perfect chance to have someone somewhat fanatical teach me the way, lend me some gear to stay dry and hopefully get my first bird. I arrived at his house the day before to do a little deer hunting on the century farm his family owns so I wouldn't be driving for two hours before a long morning of hunting. I used to be a terrible morning person, mostly because while living in Chicago or Madrid I was more likely to be staying up until 4am than waking up for first light. With a change of lifestyle and location mornings have become much more precious. They're when the deer are moving, birds flying in, stripers hitting on huge streamers, so I've done a 180 and learned to embrace those pre light moments filled with excitement and slightly dulled senses.
Jared getting his high powered clip on flashlight ready so we can safely move through a shallow channel of water to the flooded corn field we'd later be hunting in.
The morning steam or fog is half of what gets me excited as a photographer. It adds drama to every scene, and catches the beam from Jared's flashlight in dramatic fashion.
Once we pushed through the shallow water by oar and an often tangled up trolling motor it was time to set up the decoys. We were in 12 South, just 300 yards off the Missouri River and in a corner. We opted to put the river to our back, facing in towards the rest of the conservation area, hoping to get a good view of ducks flying into the west wind that was prevalent that morning. We were hoping to be set up as soon as possible since the first round of birds could be coming in at any moment. The first rays of light were just starting and while it's easier to work, it's maybe a few minutes later that Jared had wanted.
In the corn.
Jet is just itching for action, whining just enough to let us know that we're maybe a little behind schedule and that he'd love to be sitting in his blind because that means one thing.
Birds falling from the sky. Hunting dogs all have such a fantastic attitude. They're bred and trained for specific moments and when they're fulfilling their purpose, nothing makes them happier.
While sitting in the corn, hearing the first birds start to make their way through the area, Jared explained how some hunters take issue with flooded corn fields, likening them to baiting ducks but this was a situation that the MDC sets up for hunters every year so the ethics of it all seemed pretty cut and dry from where we were standing. If a group of ducks would seem like they were coming into range we'd squat down into the corn onto some buckets we'd put inbetween rows, faces pointing down to keep from being spotted by potential groups that would hopefully land into our decoys. These ducks were a group that'd been spending the past month in the area and had been shot at quite a bit so there wasn't a lot of room for error. In my journey over the past few years to learn about hunting I've started to see exactly how nuanced these traditions all are and how difficult coming home with meat can be. Hunting videos tend to show more of the successes but we all know while a great thing to celebrate can truly be fleeting moments. You're depending on a wild animal to act in a way that is predictable which is rarely the case. Add on the layer of public land with other hunters and it starts to get dicey from there. For example, the next hunters to our right were taking a lot of shots at birds that may or may not have been close enough to shoot. The added noise means anything flying in towards us was that much more weary, to the point of hearing a shot and immediately scooping back up into the sky and taking their business elsewhere. There was also the case of the dying cat sounding duck screeches that the pool to the left was making.
After a few suspicious looks from some mallards we finally got a few groups to get into range. A couple of ducks had flown in without us noticing and were sitting in our pool, to the right of Jared and I. So we worked up through the corn towards the pool and got them up in the air. Unfortunately they took off away from me but Jared was able to get the male mallard with a wing shot. Jet took off towards the duck, fulfilling his purpose as a retreiver. He brought his quarry back to Jared and while he easily let the duck go you could tell there was a part of him that wishes that his master would decide this time he gets to keep a duck for himself. Maybe next time, Jet.
Jet popped back into his blind, ready for us to get on more action, but couldn't help but be occasionally distracted by the greenheaded mallard laying on top of his hidden cubby. We called in a few more groups, I missed a really easy shot or two but the rest of our time was pure enjoyment. We looked into the sun, ducked down for passing groups, saw the group directly to the east take down five or six birds that flew in close enought to be worth a shot and around 9 or so, the action really started to almost totally stall out.
It was time to pack it up, get on the boat and head to the truck. We had a two hour drive home after changing out of the hunting gear and Jared had been hunting hard for a few days so we decided to keep it to just a morning hunt. I pulled off my gloves and waded out across the water in front of us to pull in the beached sled while Jared pulled the boat in. We all chipped in, gathering the decoys into a small area and then putting them into large compartmentalized bags for easy storage. It would have been great to being going home with a limit of birds but the amount of knowlege learned on my first duck hunt was more than enough to make it worth the time. They'll be plenty more chances to try for limits with all day sits. I'm totally enthralled by the prospect and my fiance Rebecca who suited up to help document the hunt felt equally interested in giving this another shot. We work together to document all sorts of adventures and this was no exception. Hopefully soon we'll have more to show in the process of plucking and cooking the mallard Jared was kind enough to share with us to experience a wild bird. I've cooked plenty of farm raised birds but as we all know wild meat is always a rich experience, especially when it comes from a hunt you shared with friends and loved ones. It somehow deepens the flavor, and begs for extra care in the preparation of the meat. That's what keeps me going when days are slow or animals aren't cooperating. I know somewhere around the bend the payoff is waiting for me, and the knowlege learned through failure is just adding to my ability to make better choices towards success the next time around.