Outdoors

A hunt for elusive ducks

The Nature Call: According to Phil ... there were no ducks

Decoys are set up for an early morning duck hunt with with father and son. (John Lawrence Hanson/correspondent)
Decoys are set up for an early morning duck hunt with with father and son. (John Lawrence Hanson/correspondent)
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A muted brown form moved quickly and directly to my position.

The motion caught my eye. I could be forgiven that I thought I saw a sasquatch if all I had was that glance.

Leaping a large puddle, I saw blue eyes and soft pale features in a face mask’s opening.

It spoke, “Was that you?”

“No,” I replied.

The sound of a gunblast had brought him running from his stick finding diversion. His eyebrows dropped, moving deliberately, he returned to his post beside me. Our wait continued.

Approaching storms excite the fowler. Will the big winds from Canada usher in a flight of new ducks? The Nov. 26 Panhandle storm blessed my college roommate in Denver with more than a foot of snow in the city, a portent of precipitation and wind for Iowa that always raises the hair on the back of my neck.

Snow was forecast for northwest Iowa, for us just rain and gale-force winds. I’ll take it on the minor increase of probability of making my meager spread of decoys look attractive to a mallard from the provinces.

Sunrise north of Palo was 7:11, hunting time commenced at 6:41. We arrived to the parking lot at 6, my alarm rang at 5:13. Since I turned out the lights last night, the center of the low coursed from Centerville, Iowa, to Appleton, Wis. Linn County barometric pressure bottomed out about 2 a.m. at 989.4 millibars of mercury. Overnight, the winds had moved from easterly to the north and now in this dark hour at the marsh they were westerly at 33 mph, the mercury climbed to almost 997 mb.

A familiar truck had beat us to the parking lot. Now that competition had arrived, he hopped out and we exchanged pleasantries.

According to Phil, there were no ducks. Which made me wonder what he was doing there decked out like the star of Duck Dynasty. Before I completed my thoughts, he explained he was waiting to jump shoot geese. I picked up that I was supposed to be extra stealthy setting up.

For Phil and his dog, I didn’t use the headlamp. Duane Arnold scattered enough glow that we completed the walk and setup in the dark.

The driving wind put the decoys in motion, they looked real enough.

Dark became gunmetal gray became Ingmar Bergman overcast. All was quiet save the roar of the wind.

Bands of sleet added to the austerity. Driving horizontally, pellets attacked eyes and face. The only relief was to bury one’s head down or turn east, neither was a viable option lest the surveillance fail a fleeting opportunity.

I prepared cocoa and coffee, for boy and man. I left the cocoa in the truck. If hunger is the best sauce, then shivering sweetens bitter water. He accepted the offer of coffee and made more progress on the cup than I expected. He claimed quite quickly to feeling some effects. At least he wasn’t cold anymore, though the size of his eyeballs was surprising.

He said he was feeling jumpy. I quipped that’s not all he’d likely feel. The bathroom humor that followed between father and son buoyed his mood. Don’t ever get too old to laugh.

Fidgeting is taboo in the blind, so I cast him down the trail to find sticks to break while I manned the post.

In weather like this and nearing the end of the season, duck species are few. Mallards, of course, but goldeneye and bufflehead are tuxedo-clad birds with a notorious resistance to migrate until freeze out — or a big wind. I kept alert, straining for sight or sound of wings.

The blast at 7:26 had brought him running back. I hoped it was Phil. With only one blast there was a certainty, albeit unconfirmed.

Back at the parking lot, Phil’s truck was gone. We stowed our gear and then retreated into the stillness of the cab, out of the wind and ready for home. “What is that?” I asked, motioning to the windshield. Rubbing the sting out of my eyes, I realized it was the large black primary feather of a goose, deftly tucked under my wiper blade.

The prophet was right. There were no ducks, according to Phil.

Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.

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John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.

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