Nine guys, one cameraman, a snowstorm, 36 mallards, four black ducks, one pintail, 13 geese and one band — Editor Nick Green ended his 2017 waterfowl season with a bang.
A flock of 120 ducks wanted to be there: We were on the “X.” They made one j-hook before starting to cup up and commit to our decoys. I patiently watched through the netting of my layout blind as 10, then 20, then 50, then 75 started to sit down mere yards from us. Jake Sawyer laid to my left in his blind; he was calling the shots. “Kill ‘em,” he yelled. Nine of us popped up and unloaded our guns.
Our volley took down 12 birds — the most I had ever seen taken at one time. It was piss-poor shooting, though. Before anyone could get out of the blinds to start retrieving ducks, another flock was circling. Seven cupped up, and two flew away.
The late-split for waterfowl was December 30 and 31. Until that time, my 2017 duck harvests consisted of one drake mallard, a merganser and a bufflehead, despite getting out more than 20 times. I got a call from my brother-in-law, Eric, on Friday night saying that he had a field in Hillsdale County with 500 to 600 mallards, several hundred black ducks and hundreds of geese.
That Saturday’s forecast called for 0 degrees at 7 a.m., with moderate winds and snow throughout the day. I weighed my sanity and decided I would give my first season of waterfowl hunting one more run, knowing that, as my luck usually goes, a goose egg was probably in order.
I met Eric at his father-in-law’s house at about 4:45 a.m. after a two-hour drive south from Fowler in less-than-ideal road conditions. We hooked on to his 16-foot trailer that was filled to the brim with decoys, layout blinds, clothes and other waterfowl hunting apparatuses that were foreign to a newbie like me.
Knowing nothing about the plan, I was expecting three or four guys, cold weather, misery and zero birds. We parked on the road and waited for the rest of our party to show up. One truck, two trucks and then three trucks pulled into the field.
“How many guys are we hunting,” I asked Eric. “Nine,” he replied. Any glimmer of hope I had for the day was gone. It’s hard enough to hide four guys in a field; I wondered how we would hide nine in a cut corn field with snow.
Luckily, the night before, Eric and some of his friends had set up the blinds, placed the snow covers they had on some of them, sprayed fake snow on the rest and brushed them in. I couldn’t find them in the light of the headlights despite them being 30 yards in front of us — a good sign.
We weren’t only hunting with the Hillsdale crew — we had two guys from Indiana, Kyle and Trace, who had driven up and a guy from Ohio, Dylan, who would be taking pictures and recording the day on a video camera.
It took about an hour to set up the close to 200-decoy spread that we would be using. We had full body geese, sleeper shell geese and full body mallards. My snot stuck to my mustache and icicles formed as we made a careful and conscious effort to make as few tracks as possible putting out our decoys.
The trucks and trailers pulled out of the field, and we got settled into our layout blinds. Shooting time was 7:37 — we had about a half hour.
Banter quickly fired up between guys, many of whom had never met. As the pink sunrise started to cast light over our enormous (at least in my opinion) spread, we all started to get antsy. It has been my experience that ducks usually start to fly about 10 minutes before shooting light — it was 7:30.
At 7:40, we had our first flock fly over the tree line. They were roosting on a small irrigation pond that must have been spring-fed. Almost everything else in the county was frozen due to the unusual deep freeze we had during the preceding week.
About 10 mallards worked our decoys quickly. They made one circle, and on the second, they made a poor life decision. Sawyer yelled, “kill ‘em,” as we popped up and dropped three of the ducks. Then came the flock of 120.
It was the highlight of my waterfowl career thus far. The birds made one pass across us gazing down at our spread before making an almost 180-degree j-hook. They got low, then lower and then they started to put their feet down and cup their wings. A few feeder calls from Trace three blinds to my left, coupled with my brother-in-law’s soft quacks to my right, centered the birds.
“Kill ‘em,” Sawyer yelled. Out of the 12 harvested birds, one was a black duck — a great bonus to our poor volley because they are somewhat rare in Michigan. Quickly, we dropped five more from the flock of seven that came over the trees almost immediately following the survivors of the big flock’s exit.
All of our birds still laid in the field as another flock of about 20 decided to commit. Apparently, their deceased cohorts weren’t enough to deter them from our spread. We harvested six more in short order.
It was 8:05, and we had dropped 25 mallards and a black duck. My day would have been a success if we stopped there.
Some early geese followed quickly. Kyle and Shaun, one of the Hillsdale crew guys, sprinted back to our blinds having retrieved only about a quarter of the ducks on the ground. The flock was high, honking and circling us. They had played the game before. We shut the mojos off, and Eric and Tracie worked the birds.
About 10 decided to commit and come down within shooting range. Our volley took down three of them. We decided this would be a good time to get out, retrieve our birds and stretch our legs despite ducks still in the air working our spread.
We retrieved our birds, tucked the ducks under the sleeper shells to our back left and put the geese in our spread with their heads tucked.
Sawyer, being the rabble-rouser, started to comment on the right side’s (me, Eric and Eric’s buddy, Hansen) shooting. “I shot all three of those geese, what were you guys shooting at?” It was all in fun, though.
The next hour went much like the first: Ducks came, and ducks fell. By 9:30 a.m., we had 35 mallards (one away from our nine-man limit), one hen pintail, two black ducks and four geese. With one mallard left to take, we decided that it was time to put Hansen in the spotlight.
He was pretty new to waterfowl hunting and hadn’t had a true, solo bird yet. He had shot ducks before but they were also hit by other guys he was hunting with. The pressure was on.
A flock of about 10 came from our right and started to work our decoys. They were crossing from our right to our left trying to land into the wind. One duck peeled off and started flying right toward Hansen’s blind.
The drake mallard’s feet came down and his wings cupped up. I thought for sure the duck was going to land on Hansen’s layout blind. Eric whispered, “Hansen, take him, take him.” Hansen rose from his blind and the duck cocked his head in surprise. I could see the iridescence from the drake’s head and wing.
‘Bang,’ miss, ‘bang,’ miss again. The drake quickly made it 20 yards out straight in front of Hansen when his third shot connected. The bird folded and fell to the snow. We finished our nine-man limit of mallards in an epic way; but, we weren’t done.
We could hear geese starting to honk on the irrigation pond. Several flocks later, we had 10 more geese on the ground.
Ducks kept coming, though. At one point, we were all sitting up talking and eight ducks decoyed 20 yards in front of us. We were on the “X.”
Our final birds of the day were a pair of black ducks — a hen and a drake. It happened almost perfectly. Because we already had our limit of mallards, we had to be careful not to shoot around them if we saw other species of ducks.
The pair we harvested peeled off of a flock of about 30 ducks. They were the first ones trying to land, and it was easy to tell they were black ducks. It was the perfect ending to my best waterfowl hunt so far.
We decided to pack things up despite geese still in the air and a few random pintail and black ducks being spotted. We were all riding a wave of disbelief in the day we had. In total, we had harvested 36 mallards, one pintail, four black ducks and 13 geese, one of them banded.