The Holidays Were a Blur

Duck hunting during the holidays consisted of a variety of not so noteworthy hunts.

A trip to the China Island and Kesterson Units of the North Grasslands ended up being mostly a scouting trip. I’ve been to China Island twice now and I’m not impressed.

The afternoon hunt at Kesterson produced a little action. My friend Roger Matuska and I walked out to blind 3A, which consists of two barrels and a dog box on an island. Spoonies, wigeon, gadwall and teal passed by and I managed to knock down a greenwing teal and a gadwall. The spoonies came in like lasers and I missed three opportunities while muffing a couple other opportunities.

The barrel blinds at Kesterson were dry and very functional. The dog blind was adequate.

The barrel blinds at Kesterson were dry and very functional. The dog blind was adequate.

At least we didn’t get up at 2 AM for the hunt. Leaving home at 9 AM instead and hunting the afternoon was painless. We only carried three decoys and used a jerk string. The ducks passed within range, but didn’t slow down.

Trips to our Webb Tract club produced a few quality birds. On the Friday before Christmas, I bagged two sprig, an Aleutian goose and a spec. Boy did they give me and Lola a workout. I only killed one bird dead. The others all provided lengthy chases, but Lola came through. It rained so hard Saturday morning that I didn’t hunt. I was soaked before I left camp.

Another trip to Webb on the day after Christmas produced a couple spring and chances at geese. The island was holding plenty of birds, but they didn’t fly much.

The delta is holding plenty of geese.

The delta is holding plenty of geese.

I smoked a bunch of ducks and geese from last year. They were well received at our Christmas party and as gifts. Venison was also popular, both as summer sausage and smoked. I served smoked goose breast, smoked steel head and summer sausage with cream cheese and crackers. There wasn’t any left over.

I’ll be out again later this week. Still looking for a day with major action.


Lola’s Achilles Heal

Lola  with the expanse of open water behind her.

Lola with the expanse of open water behind her.

Lola doesn’t let too many ducks get away. Over the past four years, she’s averaged one or two lost birds per year. I don’t count birds that sail out of sight.

But she does have a weakness that I’m going to work on next summer, but its to late to fix it for this year.

Her Achilles heal haunted her last Wednesday, on a grasslands hunt. The club I hunted has a vast expanse of open water with limited escape cover. Intuitively you might think that a lack of cover would help Lola, but that is not the case.

With six ducks in the bag, it was about 10:30 in the morning and I wasn’t in a rush to shoot my last bird. I passed on a couple shot opportunities and hoped to end the day on a pintail drake.

Sure enough, one came along and passed in reasonable range to my left. The bird came down on the first shot, but I shot again because I could see that it was still quite lively. Unfortunately, my second shot missed and the bird hit the water swimming. I hollered, “Lo,” and Lola was off and running. As she approached it bird, it attempted to fly but couldn’t quite lift off. Lola was in hot pursuit and nearly had the bird in her grasp when it dove.

Lola stood, frustrated, waiting for the bird to surface. Surface it did, but not until it was about ten yards away as Lola continued her pursuit.

Concerned that we might lose the bird, I climbed out of the blind and traveled as fast as I could in hopes of getting a shot when the bird resurfaced. Unfortunately that never happened. We looked for that bird for a solid 30 minutes. Somehow it had evaded us – in open water.

Our first lost bird of the season. It wasn’t long before a teal passed by on almost the exact path that the pintail had taken. I fired and broke the bird’s wing. The chase was on again and the story of the pursuit it was almost identical to the first one.

Again the duck dove and again it disappeared. Again I climbed from the blind and “sped” to Lola’s aid. It too was lost. We searched all around. Two lost birds in a row.

It wasn’t over yet. I was now determined to finish off the limit. A widgeon passed by and I whistled at it. It circled and passed overhead. I pulled up and fired. A miss. The second shot was at a the bird’s rear.

I broke its wing and down it came – very much alive, in fact, this bird was even more lively that the first two. It was a full 200 yards from the blind by the time Lola caught up with it. And, then it dove. I climbed from the blind in pursuit.

Lola lost track of the bird for a moment. Then, without seeing the bird, Lola took off towards a clump of tules about 30 yards to the north. She circled the tules and then found the widgeon, but it alluded her. She circled the tules again and then trapped the fleeing bird up against the tule stalks. Finally we had bird number seven.

I mentioned this issue with my host and he suggested that I work with Lola in the water by placing a tennis ball or some other object between my knees under water and train her to snorkel. I’ll work on it next summer.

I’ve experienced this type of escape by teal and sprig in the past, but I’ve never lost two in the same day. Snorkeling birds are most difficult when there’s a slight chop on the water. When the water is calm, it’s much easier to see the wake of the bird’s bill as they attempt to swim away.

Sometimes it seems like the birds vanish into thin air, but actually it’s thin water.

When the Freezer’s Full

You can tell when people like meat. Their eyes light up at the mention of mallard and they smile and ask, “What’s this?” as they reach out for a mytery offering.

I appreciate people who have an adventurous appetite.

My wife will not eat game meat, except pheasant. She likes fish, but even fish often take a back seat to anything Safeway.

When I hunt, I prefer to shoot stuff. Bringing home a prize is part of the fun. I enjoy preparing game to eat, but without eaters I’m at a disadvantage.

That’s why my freezer fills up.

When that happens, it’s time to get to work.

On my Idaho trip I came home with 50 pounds of pure meat and also found a great Jerky and Sausage Supply store in the small Idaho town of Kooskia. I went a little overboard purchasing seasonings and cures, but I’m having fun with them. The company has an online store:

Over the past week, I’ve made three batches of jerky. The first two were with venison and I tried Eldon’s Original and AC Legg’s Maple Style. I prefered the Eldon’s original. While brining meat in Eldon’s Premium Ham Brine in preparation for smoking, I threw in some duck breasts from non-mallards. I often make jerky from the likes of spoonies, cinnamon teal, wigeon and gadwall.

Another good brine for jerky is a 50/50 mix of soy sauce and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. With these, overnight brining is enough.

On the other hand, the ham brine recipe calls for several days of soaking. After 5 days I decided to check out the meat. It was ready for smoking while the breasts were ready for the jerky maker. Yesterday I fired up my water smoker  and sliced the breasts in preparation for the dehydrator. (I use a NESCO, American Harvest Food Dehydrator and Jerky Maker. It works well.)

After a day of smoking, the meat (ducks, geese and venison) came out of the smoker looking quite good and tasting great. I have to watch myself while I’m doing all this because if I eat too much of the product I swell up like a balloon. You don’t want to take in too much salt! That’s why you need eaters!

The “ham-brine”  duck jerky also came out excellent, but the Eldon’s Original is still my favorite.

Last weekend I made a big dent in the venison by producing 15 pounds of summer sausage with  High Mountain Seasoning’s summer sausage kit. It came out perfect. I highly recommend their product – just follow the directions.

My grinder is a Cabela’s Heavy Duty Grinder that I purchased for about $70. It will produce two pounds per minute and that’s fast enough for me. I don’t know how long it will last, but I’ve already got my money’s worth.

Now my freezer has some room, but (hopefully) not for long.

A Great Retrieve and a Good Day in the Mayberry Marsh

At daylight, a drizzle and low light created a dreary haze about the Mayberry marsh. Perfect for duck hunting.

With the water too high for wading in many areas, I used my rowboat to access the area I was hunting. Ducks were scarce.

Leaving the boat behind once we reached wading water, I towed three decoys and limited gear. Lola and I made our way to a likely location.

The drizzle was fog-like and in the difficult light, I decided to call on my mallard call to see if anything would show up. In less than a minute a pair of mallards passed over so close that I had no time to raise my gun.

Frustrated, and too deep in cattail to see ducks, I moved out into a position with more visibility.

I called out to a single mallard and he coasted over. Boom, I had a green-head. (My first of the year at Mayberry.)  It was an encouraging start. I missed the next drake, but at least I had action.

Ducks were scarce, but several reacted to my calling. Three gadwall passed over and I dropped one.

I couldn’t figure out if they were mallards and decided to shoot the passing shot anyway. The gadwall meat will join my sausage mix.

The highlight of the day came at about noon time – as I was beginning to feel the urge to call it a day.

A pair of mallards passed overhead from behind me about 70 yards high. I fumbled for my call and got a hail out to them in time.

They did an immediate 180 and set their wings while the hen hailed back to me.

About the time they came into range, they may have seen me as they began to flap and gain speed. I stood and fired at the drake and down he came – neck extended and one wing folded – a definite swimmer.

The situation was complicated by a wall of tules and cattail 25 yards in front of me and in between Lola and the mallard.

Calling out to Lola, I jumped (sort of) out into the pond and headed towards an opening leading to the adjacent pond. I had not been over there before. As Lola and I reached the opening, the water became deeper. Within a few steps past the opening, the water depth was at my navel and also my comfort level.

The crippled duck was nowhere in sight. I motioned to Lola and let out a “mark.” She swam out into the  pond, which was about 25 yards across. First she swam along the front edge, with no sign of the duck.

Then she swam to the middle of the pond and circled. I was no help and had no idea where the duck would be found.

Lola headed towards the far side of the pond and then turned to my left swimming along the line of tules and cattail. After going about ten yards she turned into a thick patch of tules and I could hear the familiar sound of a chase. A minute or two later out she came with the green-head in her mouth. It was a classic retrieve.

Lola gave up the duck to me and with nothing left to prove, we picked up the decoys and went home smiling.