A hunter’s true bounty
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
In the beginning: Darkness. We drove into the vastness of pre-dawn; truck headlights a tunnel in the void. Down a frozen-hard gravel road, arrow straight with 90-degree turns; farm country. Gravel to grass; two barbed wire gates; snow covered two-track along the edge of a field of standing corn. Dashboard lights show time; oh-dark-thirty, and temperature; eleven degrees. We do not speak much. Darkness.
Past the final gate we unloaded decoys and shotguns, gear bags and extra clothing; the big black lab ran into dark shadow, returned. We were on a high bluff; below us, flat gray of a long lake; to the east a lightening of the sky over North Dakota prairie. A steady breeze off our left; north wind.
“To be of the season you must be in the field, in the wind, in the cold. You need to suffer a bit”
We hauled gear to the lee side of a small point that sliced into the lake, a sliver of sand and marsh grass. North of us big water stirred under a restless wind; to the south and west, calm. We pulled on waders and tossed decoys into the dark water, kept them close to shore for we did not have a boat and would need to retrieve them by wading. It was lighter, not by much but enough to see a small band of ducks flying fast from north to south.
“Bluebills,” Ted said.
Shooting time near, we hurried. It was purposeful effort, moving quickly but with control, no frantic flailing of wasted motion and frittered away energy. We moved to the task. When we finished and the crude blinds were built, excess gear stashed under dead grass, the shotguns loaded and the small stools in place, then and only then did we become still. Only then did we draw a deep breath of November air, turn our backs to the rising breeze and settle into silence.
It was, by our measure, a fine morning. The sky deep in cloud and daylight came with cautious steps, a tentative shift of grays. The day prior we had hunted the same lake, farther north, on a day with thinning cloud and the sunrise sky was tinted with rose, faded orange and lemony yellow; citrus colors in the cold November dawning. We saw ducks that day. It was a good day.
But this morning was different. This morning held promise of change with the chill that had not been there a day earlier. The breeze was gentle at daybreak then grew in power with the rising day, flexed its muscle, showed off its strength in an angry wind that tore gray water to white capped turmoil in barely implied violence and menace. The sound of the wind never ceased.
We saw ducks riding the gale, rapid wingbeats of a determined flight; birds in hurried flight. They were in their element in the November storm, as much a part of the landscape as the wind and the waves and the sky above. They are the spirit of the storm, the essence of the season, the pulse-beat of the oncoming rush to winter.
Some pivoted off the main flow, turned to our decoys, toward calmer water. We would wait, motionless, eyes moving to track the birds and then one of us would say, “Now,” and we would rise and lift the shotguns to shoulder. We took what was given, a mixed bag.
We were waiting for mallards. The currency of a North Dakota duck hunt is measured in the verdant green of the head of a mallard drake, the rich orange of the webbed feet; bonus awarded for a double curl of the tail feathers. The big birds fattened in the agriculture fields north of the Canadian border where the big lands of North Dakota merge with the waves of grain in Manitoba and the border between the two is a line on a map but not a real border for the green headed mallards bent for southern waters.
We had our shots; we got our birds. We took some mallards.
But there was more than the hunt on that day. There was, on that ragged morning the titanic shift of season, autumn falling behind, winter rising above. There was no mercy to the wind, there was no touch of the golden warmth of October, there was, nowhere on that day, any hint of easy times ahead.
You can do many things at the turn of the season but you can do nothing of worth from the comfort of lounge chair and warmth of house and hearth. To be of the season you must be in the field, in the wind, in the cold. You need to suffer a bit. You need to give up comfort. You must feel the chill reach for bone, you must know the power of storm that brings trepidation to your gut, you need know the dark threat of deep water turned to froth by the wind. You must know big weather and you must face the stinging wind and the cold spray. And in it all you must find hope and optimism in birds on the wing as they defy the bitter day. That is the true bounty of the hunter.
We were done by 10 o’clock, limits taken. The ducks still flew, November birds on the storm of season change. We gathered decoys and gear, loaded the truck, turned the heater to high.
Birds were on the move; skeins of geese etched the sky, great V’s overlapping other V’s and wave after wave against the tattered gray cloud and everywhere the sound of their wild calls. On the drive out I wondered why a field was snow-covered while the adjacent one was brown. Then the realization; what I’d taken for snow was in fact thousands of white geese come to ground.
We pulled up at the battered old farm house where we were staying, still chilled from the hunt, walked inside to the heat. Sally called out, “How was it?” And I told her it was wonderful.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.