Nothing says fall like gray clouds and skeletal trees reflected at dawn in the glassy surface of a remote marsh.
Nothing says anticipation like concealed hunters watching a flock of wary ducks slowly descend in tightening circles, grudgingly responding to the blandishments of skilled callers.
Nothing says relief like a whispered “take ’em” when the ducks’ final glide path carries them over the decoys.
Of course the actual shooting is anticlimactic, according to veteran waterfowlers John Payne, 75, of Central City and his 55-year-old son Phil of Ryan, who govern their harvest not so much by the maximum number allowed by law but by the number they want to clean and eat.
The Paynes say the sport’s greatest challenge — and its greatest appeal — is fooling the instinctively suspicious ducks, persuading them with realistic calls and decoys and a well camouflaged blind to momentarily set aside their overriding interest in self-preservation.
In addition to each other’s company, they enjoy duping the ducks and observing their aerobatics so much they have been known to stay in their blind long after filling their self-imposed limits.
Like the hunters themselves, their equipment has stood the tests of time.
Both father and son extract distinctively ducky sounds from vintage Carlson Championship Calls, crafted more than 40 years ago by Wendell Carlson of Cedar Rapids. Their spread of 30 decoys includes some that have weathered more than 40 hunting seasons, and their spinning-wing decoy, nicknamed Ronnie the Roboduck, has outlasted several replacement batteries.
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Their homemade blind, accessible only by boat, rests on stilts, surrounded by 3- to 4-foot-deep water in a pond that has consistently proved attractive to wayfaring ducks. Its cobbled-together appearance belies its comfort and functionality to hunters and its invisibility to ducks.
Last weekend, ducks of several species — mallard, pintail, gadwall, wigeon, shoveler, teal and wood duck — regularly overflew their ambush site on private land along the Wapsipinicon River.
Some of those ducks may have been driven south by the season’s first strong cold front, which blanketed the Dakotas and Minnesota in knee-deep snow and happily coincided with the opening of the main duck season in Iowa’s north zone.
The wet fall, which has filled ponds, sloughs and potholes to overflowing, also has expanded the landing zone for traveling ducks.
“High water usually translates into more ducks,” Phil Payne said.
During my visit last Sunday, each flock was first spied by the sharp-eyed Paynes, whose hail calls provided my first hint of impending action.
As the ducks circled closer, the Paynes’ calls became softer and more subtle, mimicking the reassuring sounds of contentedly feeding waterfowl.
To my tin ears, and apparently, too, to the circling ducks, the quacks and chuckles seemed most convincing in stereophonic sound, which occurred when Phil, who had left his dog home that morning, was outside the blind, retrieving dead ducks.
We might have missed one or two, but every duck we hit landed feet up in the water, providing easy retrieves for Phil and attesting to the Paynes’ skill at bringing them in close.