Nov 10, 2014

The Ducks Of November 

By: Mike Yurk

We have waited all fall for this. This is the time the big ducks are spilling down from Canada. These are diver ducks, not those little marsh ducks we have been hunting in October. This is the wild end to the duck hunting season as bluebill, goldeneyes and buffleheads are finally coming in just ahead of the storms howling out of the providences of the far north.

It is a time of tough ducks and rough weather in what normally is the last three weeks of the season. Always a turbulent time intensified by the waning days of the duck hunting season. Skies are usually dark with the hint of storms on the horizon. The wind picks up, rolling waves on shore. It’s getting cold and occasionally there is ice ringing rocks on the bank. The first snow flurries are spitting out of the sky.

It is my favorite time of the fall. In the days of my youth, I enjoyed all duck hunting, but it was the diver ducks of late fall that truly captured my imagination.

In those years, I had a wonderful opportunity to hunt on Lake Winnebago on an island we called Garlic Island. My boyhood buddy, Gary Plotz, and his family lived right across from the island and through his mother’s contacts she got us an invitation to hunt there. There wasn’t much to the island then. There was a hunting camp that seldom was used any other time of the year except for duck hunting season.

The camp consisted of a main cabin with two rooms. One room had sofas, a dining room table, a large Franklin stove and a cooking stove. They even had an old black and white television with rabbit ear antennas to watch football games on.  In the back, was the bunk room where hunters slept. I remember the building always had a pleasant odor of wood smoke and bacon. A short distance away was a storage shack where the duck decoys and outboard motors where stored during the rest of the year. There was of course an outhouse. The camp was rustic but functional and, as far as I was concerned, it was the Taj Mahal of duck camps.

A short walk from the main building was a rocky point where three or four blinds were placed. The blinds weren’t anything fancy. I remember them as basically unpainted snow fences with some brush pushed up against them and bench seats. But they were all we needed. On the opposite side of the point was a small dock and a couple of aluminum boats with 25 horse power motors to put out decoys and retrieve ducks. Another two or three boats with motors were tied up to a larger dock in front of the main cabin.

Bluebills, or scaup, as they are officially known, were the most popular duck of the last weeks of the season. They are tough, rugged birds symbolizing what November duck hunting was all about. There were a few redhead and canvasbacks around then but not many. Although the bluebill was our duck of choice for the most part, we also would get canvasbacks and golden eyes. They are big, tough, colorful ducks as well. They are the ducks of November.

For teenagers like Gary and I, these were days of great and wild adventures and also the best duck hunting of the fall. I would wake in the early morning when it was still dark outside, getting dressed in several layers of clothes because we knew it was going to be cold. At the back door was my shotgun, a 16 gauge single shot, my hunting jacket already stuffed with shells and my hunting boots. The rest of the family was still sleeping so I crept around the house as quietly as I could. After putting on my boots, grabbing a couple of sandwiches from the refrigerator, pulling on my hunting jacket, and putting on my hunting boots, I let myself out of the house.

The jacket felt heavy on my shoulders from shells in the pockets, but it was a good feeling. Grass and fallen leaves, dried out and glazed with frost, crunched underfoot as I walked. Even in the darkness I could see my breath. It took me about half an hour to walk over to Gary’s house and, from the lights shining though the kitchen windows, I could see he was ready to go. The boat often was coated in frost as we motored or rowed over to the island. It was just starting to get light by the time we pulled the boat up on the rocky shore.

Many mornings, even on the weekends, Gary and I were the only ones in the blinds for the first couple of hours. I guess the older men slept in those mornings and Gary and I were still young enough to have a lot of pent up energy.

Those last few minutes before legal shooting hours began were exciting and anxious for us as we waited impatiently. The sky was changing from night to day. Some days it was just increasingly lighter shades of gray and other mornings it was the full blown colors of orange and reds and yellows as the sun began to peep over the horizon. It would be cold in the morning and even with all the clothes we wore we still would be shivering, but perhaps, it was much from the excitement as it was from the cold.

Then the ducks began to move. We could see them lifting off the water and we eagerly followed their flights to see if they would turn towards us. We watched for the smaller flights with only two or three birds as they zipped just above the water. It was a thrill to see them change direction and start towards us as we slid a little further down in the blind, hoping, hoping, hoping they would be coming our way.

Suddenly, a small flock of birds were just out of range on the outside of the decoys and they turned, wings cupped, slowing down, the wind whistling through their wings, feet dangling as they lowered themselves into the decoys. It has been over forty years since I last hunted Garlic Island, but watching those big November ducks dropping into the decoys rolling in the wind chopped water is still, I think, one of the most exciting sights in hunting.

It was a great place and time to be a young duck hunter and Gary and I had lots of adventures. As the season was nearing its end in November, there was an intensity to it and we looked forward to seeing the big ducks coming down. It would be cold and sometimes even icy but the ruggedness of the last weeks of the season added to the fun of it. Storms in November were wild and turbulent. You could hear them at night as they beat against your house with rain pounding on the windows. Duck hunters have always been a bit daffy. When conditions are at its worse, the duck hunting is at its best, and Gary and I relished it. It was time for lots of ducks and adventures for a couple of eager teenage boys.

Once, Gary and I went out to get a downed duck. Gary was running the motor as I grabbed the duck bobbing in the water. On the way back in we were approaching the dock and I was standing in the front of the boat to grab the dock. Gary twisted the throttle of the motor to slow the boat down but turned it the wrong way and put the motor into fast forward. We slammed into shore and drove the aluminum boat about half way up the rocks. I went flying out as the boat jolted to a stop. I felt like the bad guy in the James Bond movies who just got ejected out of the Bondmobile. But no harm was done and we found it funny. It was all part of the adventure.

Another time Gary dropped a duck and I went out to get it. As I slowed the boat down to reach over for the duck, I saw water bubbling up in the back of the boat. I grabbed the duck and turned the boat around, starting for land. By this time the gas tank was now floating in the back of the boat. This was not looking good. I didn’t think I could make it back to the dock, so I drove like crazy for the first shore I could get to. I breathed a sigh of relief when the bow of the boat finally grated to a stop on a gravely point. I got out and waded to shore.

I went to the cabin to tell the men there what happened. I thought I had done something wrong and was going to get yelled at. They waded out to the boat and dragged it out of the water. Once on land, the water drained out and they could see what happened. The boat plug was a screw in type and over the years with all the pounding the threads had worn off and it just popped out. It wasn’t my fault and no one yelled at me.

All those days Gary and I hunted on Garlic Island are still very vivid but one day remains special. Gary and I found an old rock blind on the northeast corner of the island where no one else hunted. I have no idea how old that blind was but it had fallen apart and looked like no one had hunted there in a long time. We sort of fixed up the blind by piling more rocks on top. There was a large tree hanging over the rocky point which provided more cover.

Shortly thereafter we got a reprieve from school while the teachers had some kind of conference or training session to go to. Gary and I liked it when our teachers had these conferences in November. It was late in the week when we got our break from school and we decided to hunt the old rock blind. I don’t think there was anyone else on the island that day, which seemed a rarity, but it was during the week. I guess those guys who hunted the island had to work sometime.

It was beautiful day for November with light winds. It was light and shooting hours started by the time we put the last of our decoys out, pulled the boat up on the shore some distance from our blind and finally settled in. It was cool but not cold and a blue sky told us we would be seeing lots of sun to warm us up as the day went on.

We had a dozen and a half decoys of our own and we felt very professional. We stacked our lunches and thermoses of hot chocolate under our feet, loaded our shotguns and waited. It didn’t take long before the first ducks came in, swinging towards us once they saw the decoys and dropping in with a splash. We never saw any big flocks but lots of plenty of twos, threes and fours of ducks came into our set. We shot ducks and went out after them and sometimes we had more ducks in our decoys as we headed back to shore.

We were happy and proud of ourselves. We found this place all by ourselves, fixed it up and were now hunting without any adult supervision. The best hunting, of course, was the first two or three hours after sunrise and then it slowed down. We were still getting the single or double to swing past us to keep our interest. We ate our sandwiches and it was getting to be warm, especially with us sitting on a pile of rocks reflecting the warmth from the sun. The wind had dropped and the decoys just floated on the quiet surface of the lake. Eventually, we both dozed off. Sometime later I woke and looked out in the decoys. I counted the decoys and we had two more then we started with. I nudged Gary, whispering to him we had two ducks on our decoys. I don’t remember if we got either of those two ducks, but it was an interesting episode.

Duck hunting finally came to an end, usually a day or two before the deer season began. It seemed winter came sooner in the days of my youth than it does today. By Thanksgiving, the first ice skimmed across the lake. In less than a month we would be ice fishing and people would be driving on a frozen lake.

I always felt a sense of sadness as the duck season ended. But I could take the memories with me into the cold and snow of winter. Ones of the last weeks of November, when the big ducks come down on the heels of storms and seeing them zipping above white frosted waves, beating into the wind. It was a wild time and I was glad I was a part of it.