When it mattered most

by Neil Beltran

Normally, any day I spend on the pond is a good hunt. If the dog gets to work a little and I’m grilling a couple of duck breasts that evening, it’s a great hunt. But there were two outings this season for which I harbored hopes of those rarer times, when there’s constant reason to suddenly hunker down and peak out from a lowered hat brim, when calls ring out, when the air smells like gun powder and the shell belt gets lighter and lighter, because the skies are filled with birds.

One of those outings was when my son came north for a hunt after several years’ absence. Fortune smiled on Griff and me that day on the rice just before Christmas. The other was this Saturday, when the very first guy I ever duck hunted with and his son made a road trip to our waterfowl mecca from their usual desert oasis duck and goose hunting grounds by the Salton Sea. As their truck and decoy trailer rumbled up the state, recent reports had me doubting that my high number refuge rezzie (for a place I’d never hunted) would produce much.

A little back story first

About eight years ago I went to my first Quail Unlimited meeting. No one talked much about quail that night; about ten minutes into it, the subject switched to waterfowling and stayed there the rest of the evening. The message was clear to me: forget this upland stuff, I need to try duck hunting! So I bought waders, borrowed some decoys (from one of the QU guys), and sent in a season long application for Wister, a refuge in the Imperial Valley about 3 1/2 hours from my house. I got lucky with a good draw the first Wednesday of the season, and headed out with my Mossberg pump, the virgin waders, and a dozen dekes in the Volvo sedan’s trunk.

It was windy when I got there around 2 am, the kind of windy where things need to be nailed down or they sail away. I met some guys in the parking lot and eagerly told them I was there for my first duck hunt. They looked at each other and shook their heads ominously. Wanting to take advantage of their expertise, I tapped my shirt pocket and told them I had a brand new duck call but wasn’t sure how  to use it. They didn’t respond.  “When should I call?” I pressed. “Just keep it in your pocket,” they advised, finally. “In fact, don’t even touch it.” What a strange sport, I thought to myself. Of course, now I understand what they meant.

Striding over to the snack trailer, I ordered a coffee and a doughnut. I told the old gentleman who ran the concession that I was there for the first time and didn’t have a clue where to go or really even what to do when I got to my spot. “Is there a good teal pond?” I asked, figuring I could tell a small duck from a big one, even if I couldn’t identify the restricted-take Pintail or the then not legal Canvasback. He suggested maybe I should hunt with his grandson, who was rushing to get there because of the sudden appearance of a good wind but lacked a reservation.

I hooked up with Matt shortly after, and under his patient tutelage ended that first morning with a strap of three teal. I couldn’t have been happier, even after pushing a cart through the special kind of caustic glue-mud I’ve never found anywhere but Wister. The rest is history, and I’ve been waterfowling ever since.

The moment of truth

I met up with Matt and his son Max a little before rezzie call. The kill sheets – and my bottom of the barrel number – weren’t very encouraging, but we went to the window and rolled the dice. After a long trek out, with Matt pushing his huge custom-made decoy cart loaded with goose decoys and me hauling my small load of duck decoys, we made it to our pond. It was nearing shoot time, and in the growing light I gazed dejectedly out at shallow water dotted with clumps of mud and bristly stubble. As we trudged around the pond setting up, I brightened at the sight of goose feathers floating almost everywhere I placed a decoy.

We didn’t really have a choice about where to situate ourselves; our only option was a lone island in dire need of some vegetation Rogaine. Matt brushed us up as best he could as shots around us signaled shoot time had arrived. It wasn’t long before we had customers. Matt convinced a drake Mallard to take a closer look and I bagged him. Then groups of noisy Specks began to criss-cross the sky overhead. I’ve seen these groups before but had to be content with just watching them. But Matt’s a rather legendary goose man and soon they began to heed his call to drop altitude and turn toward. Larger herds with lots of eyes weren’t fooled by our scant cover, but pairs and trios were less able to detect us.  I smiled to myself watching Matt and his son enjoying the visits by Specks, Honkers, and Snows, and thought of hunters in other blinds wondering what kind of Snow call Matt was using. Because the truth is, he doesn’t need a call to summon Snows. Which is why online we refer to him as Mouthcallinmatt.

Little Schatzie brought back nine ducks, two cacklers and nine big specks!

Little Schatzie brought back nine ducks, two cacklers and nine big specks!

We saw our share of ducks, too; teal, pins, wigeon, mallards, and even had a couple of colored-up supersonic Bufflehead drakes buzz the tower. The final take for the day?  Nine Specks, one drake Mallard, four drake Wigeons, four bull Sprigs, and two Cacklers – the bountiful glory I’d hoped for but that had seemed so in question. On the way home, I glanced back a few times at a tired young pup, happily sleeping off twenty retrieves. I’ll probably get out a few more times before the season comes to an end, but even when the skies are empty and the guns are silent, I can relish the memory of two great hunts when it mattered most.

My small contribution to the 20 ducks & geese we harvested

My small contribution to the 20 ducks & geese we harvested

~ by SpeakingZenaphorically on January 8, 2013.

2 Responses to “When it mattered most”

  1. Hey Neil,
    Great writing, and good seeing your enthusiasm. I got my first limit at San Jacinto last weekend, and I’m looking for a Norcal hunt for the weekend of the 21st…got anything going? IN any case, congrats on getting the GF out there, and having so much fun with your son. I remember going out with my dad, it still keeps inspiring me to do the hard work of duck hunting.
    Take care, Rich

  2. Thanks for reading the post, Rich. The only thing I’ve got going on from the 21st on is a guided hunt with River Valley Outfitters the last Friday of the season.

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