I’ve spent years on various blogs writing about deer hunting. If you’ve followed me at all you’ve read countless stories of my time in the northwoods chasing whitetails. I also love bird hunting, and because my dad was an avid bird hunter, it’s really what I grew up around. My dad has hunted deer as long as I have, but he was bird hunting long before I was even a possibility. It’s his his area of expertise. Geese, ducks, pheasants, grouse, quail, chukars…if it flew, he could knock it down. I recall autumn Saturday mornings as a kid in the backseat of our station wagon riding down Lineville Road to Green Bay (the body of water, not the city) to pick up dad from another morning of duck hunting on Longtail.
By the time I was a teenager he had traded his skiff and waders for hiking boots and a .410. Pheasants were his game, and unlike my early years deer hunting, I loved upland bird hunting from the start. We had a Golden Retriever named Honey who was a good hunter and a better retriever. Honey wouldn’t harm a thing at home, but put her in a field full of pheasants and she turned in to a flushing and retrieving machine. If it dropped, she brought it back. Many beautiful fall Saturdays in the 90’s were spent with my dad, Honey, and my Browning pump 12 gauge flushing pheasants around Krakow, Sampson, and Sobieski.
My other bird hunting partner is my great friend of 40 years, Andy. Yes, I have a brother, son, and good friend named Andy. I’ve never actually called this friend by the name on his birth certificate. He’s not Andy, he’s Hoot, and that’s how he’ll be addressed for the rest of this column and my existence. Hoot and I grew up on the same street in Pulaski, our parents are friends, our dads would hunt together, and we still carry on the tradition. To this day one of my favorite hunting memories is the time our dads took us and my brother to Goose Haven in Horicon Marsh for a morning of goose hunting like we’d never seen. We couldn’t have been more than 13 years old. Hoot and his family have their own deer hunting traditions, so we’ve never spent a day in the woods hunting deer together. We have hunted birds together for three decades.
When we got old enough to get our own places in 2001 we both got Springer Spaniel puppies within months of each other. We still laugh about the time we took our pups, Sam and Sascha, to Wolf River Game Farm for training season and thought it would be a good idea to get a live duck to train them on a water retrieve. The logic was that we’d release the duck, shoot it over the pond, and have the dogs get it. They had retrieved dummies hundreds of times by then, but we wanted to see what they’d do with live game. We “released” the drake mallard and he just stood there. Within seconds he was being mauled by two wildly energetic puppies. We had to put him out of his misery. The water retrieve never happened. Not the most humane shit we’ve ever done. I’m not particularly proud of that moment. Hoot and I learned more that day than the pups did. No more live sacrifices. That proud mallard deserved better than to be ripped apart by those idiots.
I don’t remember how or why – it was probably my dad’s endless tales of his triumphs on Longtail – but at some point Hoot and I decided we should take up waterfowl hunting. We didn’t have a boat, so we spent several fruitless opening days of waterfowl season fighting for a space on the crowded west shore of Green Bay south of Sensiba Marsh waiting for some ducks to buzz our paltry decoy spread. For many years waterfowl hunting was far more frustration than fun, but getting to spend that time with Hoot and the dogs made it worthwhile.
I do recall an opening day sometime in the mid-2000’s when my brother-in-law Brett joined us and we got my dad to come out as well. I’m quite sure it was my dad’s last of many times hunting Longtail. We concealed ourselves alongside a downed tree on the beach and waited for ducks. At one point a flock of teal came zooming by way too high to shoot…or so I thought. I didn’t even consider firing. My dad shouldered his 20 gauge Benelli and took aim. To hear him tell the story he led those ducks by 100 yards before he pulled the trigger. BANG! One shot and a teal folded up and plummeted. We stared in amazement for what felt like minutes while that teal dropped. Brett famously yelled, “What the fuck, Jim?” at his father-in-law in amazement. We’re still laughing at it ten years later.
After many seasons of fun waking up before dawn and fighting for space on Longtail with little to show for it, Hoot started to talk about some land that his dad had outside of Forestville on the Ahnapee River. There were ducks and geese there, and instead of dealing with the annual frustration on the bay, maybe we should try our luck there. I’m not big on breaking tradition, so I still wanted to go to the bay for the opener. We started hitting the Ahnapee later in the season to see if we could find some success there. We didn’t…at least not at first. Hoot and I learned a lot about persistence in our early years hunting the Mighty Ahnapee. We also learned a lot about what not to do.
We didn’t have boats, so we were limited to the shoreline. We’d put on waders and hide in the cattails. One early morning we walked up to the river and there were geese swimming in the water not 10 yards from us. The two of us sat and debated our ethical dilemma. I argued that it wasn’t very sportsmanlike to just walk up and blast a bunch of geese swimming right in front of us. I grew up around people who would mock you mercilessly if you were a groundswatter and I did not want to be one. I felt like 49% of Hoot agreed with me, but 51% of Hoot was thinking, “We came here to get geese. There they are. Let’s get them!” While we debated the geese swam away, and by the time they flew – now making them fair game by my logic – they were too far to shoot. We never saw another bird that day and came home emptyhanded. I couldn’t wait to call dad to get his opinion on the debate. I explained the scenario and I’ll never forget his simple reply, “You were out there to hunt geese, right?” Yes. “Did you get any?” No. “Do you wish you got some?” Yes. “You should’ve shot them.” I felt like an idiot…but I still feel like I was right and that’s all that matters to me. It would’ve felt like a hollow victory.
By the time we got our bearings on the Ahnapee we still had one persistent annoyance. The river is always busy on opening weekend. You can hunt that river any other day during the fall and pick your spot, but on opening weekend it’s a fight to claim your territory. You can’t just say, “This is our land and we hunt this spot all the time.” That doesn’t mean shit to the guy who got there before you. Once you’re in the water you’re on public land. On public land the spot goes to whoever claims it first. During that time shooting started at 9:00 AM on opening day. We were tired of losing our spot on the river to other hunters so we decided we were going to arrive at 6:00 AM. Certainly nobody would be foolish enough to show up at 6:00 AM, right?
They weren’t. Hoot and I had our spot. At 7:00 a hunter showed up in a gigantic duck boat with a yellow lab and what looked like 500 decoys. Initially he seemed friendly enough, but eventually he asked us to move. We pointed out that we were there first and that we couldn’t move because we did not have a boat. We only had access to Hoot’s small strip of riverfront land and we intended to hunt it. This guy had an entire river to hunt with his boat and he would not leave. We politely debated for at least 30 minutes. Hoot and I still laugh at the number of times he said, “We’re all sportsmen here. We can figure something out.” What he meant was, “I’m taking this spot and I don’t care if you were here first.” He ultimately parked himself in the river right in front of us and hunted the spot anyway.
I was not happy feeling like we went out like a couple of bitches. We had the spot first. It was ours. We just let this dude show up and park in front of us…not like we really had a choice. What were we doing to do, fight him? Yell at him until he changed his mind? I have a common sense rule that I don’t like to let an argument get too heated when the person on the other end of it has a shotgun. I don’t know him. Maybe he’s crazy. I’d rather have a bad day of hunting and live. We decided that the usual decorum did not apply on this day. Usually when the river is full of hunters we tend to be good sportsmen and not shoot at birds that look like they’re headed for another party’s decoys. We also won’t try to call them away if they look committed to someone else’s spread. On this day we ignored those unwritten rules and it could not have worked out better. A flock of mallards came screaming by us toward that guy’s decoy spread. Hoot was able to wing a greenhead and he landed in the other guy’s decoys, still alive and swimming. We sent my dog, Sam, after it. Sam proceeded to chase that duck through his decoys, then all over the land in front of him for at least the next 20 minutes. Again, we would never do that intentionally in any other situation. On that day it felt more than appropriate. It felt necessary. Instead of giving that guy a middle finger we let my dog do it.
It became obvious that boats were going to be a necessity if we were going to continue our pursuit of Ahnapee waterfowl. Hoot actually had a jon boat on the land that we could use, but it was a tight space for two grown men and a dog. Plus, there was no motor, so we’d be rowing ourselves all over that river. It wasn’t ideal. Luckily Uncle Dave came through with an old boat that was once won by my Great Uncle Andy…yes, another Andy. My Great Grandfather was Andy, too. We all called Great Uncle Andy “Brother” though, because that’s what my Grandma called him. Uncle Brother. I can’t make this shit up. The way I understand the story is that my Uncle Brother was half in the bag at a Trout Unlimited one night in the late-70’s and bought a fiberglass duck boat. He had no use for it, and somehow 30 years later it was just sitting at my Uncle Dave’s cottage taking up space. Dave said this boat needed work, but that I could have it. To make a long story short, after some TLC, a cool paint job, a really comfortable chair, and a trolling motor, I have myself a nice little duck boat. Hoot did the same to his jon boat and was able to obtain a motor of his own. Now we’re able to cruise the Mighty Ahnapee like real duck hunters!
A few years ago – based on the dates in iPhoto I’m going to say 2012 – I was stuck at home on opening morning. My wife was working a weird shift that weekend and I wasn’t going to look for someone to babysit my three kids in the middle of the night so I could go hunting. Hoot was alone on opening morning. He jumped in his boat and found a spot on the east shore of the Ahnapee a few hundred yards south of his land. He called me while he was out there and said that there were some guys tucked up against the south tip of an island in he middle of the river having the day of their lives. He kept calling me from his boat telling me that we needed to get that spot. We hunted there a few times later that year and he was right. We were consistently getting ducks and geese to come to our decoy spread. We had to make this spot ours…permanently.
We employed the same strategy that didn’t work for us years ago. We just got there earlier than anyone else. This time the people who had hunted that spot never showed up. It was ours. After years of trial and (mostly) error on the Ahnapee, we had our boats and our spot and started having success. Over the years we’ve become better hunters, too. We have been able to call birds in to our decoys. We’re smarter about when we shoot. I’d actually go as far as to say we’re passable waterfowlers!
Another change took place when our dogs passed away. We lost Sam in 2013 just after she turned 12 and Sascha died a year later in 2014. Hoot chose not to get another dog, but I wanted one. I felt I needed one if I wanted to continue bird hunting. This time I wanted a dog hearty enough to work the cold waters of late-season duck hunting while still having the ability to work upland game on a pheasant or grouse hunt. I hit a home run. My Black Lab, Belle, is more than up to the task. It’s too bad I can’t train her the way she deserves because she could be amazing. As it is she still gets the job done. She’s just a little rough around the edges, and to be honest, I kind like her that way. She isn’t perfect, but she still brings the birds right back to me, and in the end that’s all I really care about. She’s been an amazing hunting partner for me for five years now and I’m proud to call her my dog.
In 2016 the DNR threw us another curveball. In past years the duck hunting opener always meant a different opening time. Every other day of the hunting season it was legal to shoot 30 minutes before sunrise, but opening day was 9:00 AM. In fact, for many of my earliest years, it was noon. However, in 2016 the DNR decided that even opening day would be an early morning start. Where we hunt, it’s usually between 6:00 and 6:15 AM. Now we could hunt that early on opening day. A 6:00 start means you can start setting decoys at 5:00. If people can start setting decoys at 5:00 how early do we have to show up to get our spot? 4:00?? 3:00???
I’ve always been a fan of the late-night/early-morning hours. I’m an IT/Network guy and I pride myself on working crazy late hours when most wouldn’t. As my friend Mark at work likes to say to me, “Only two kinds of people work those hours, whores and robbers. Which one are you?” Tyson and I frequently make runs across the state to check out our deer hunting land and we always leave by 3:00 AM. Hoot and I decided that if we needed to get there at 6:00 AM to get our spot when opening was at 9:00 AM, then it only made sense to get there at 3:00 AM if it opens at 6:00 AM.
On opening day of 2016 I woke up shortly after 1:00 AM. Hoot and I met at our usual park and ride at 2:00 AM. We got to the land and strapped on head lamps. We put a bright green light on Belle so she couldn’t disappear in to the woods. By the time we got our gear to the river and got our boats in the water it was after 3:00. Were we early enough? It’s always scary to come around the corner of that island in the dark just hoping that nobody was early enough to take our spot. So far nobody has been that crazy. We got our spot.
If you’re not a person who enjoys the outdoors I could never explain to you the thrill of sitting in your boat with your friend and your dog at 3:30 in the morning. You might think I’m out of my mind to get up that early, but it’s actually one of my favorite moments of the year. I’m lucky to have a friend in Hoot who appreciates and enjoys that time as much as I do. Once we get our boats tucked in we have about 90 minutes to relax and hang out until we can set out our decoys. Hoot and I get to spend that time catching up and just chilling waiting for the sun to come up. The other boats show up after 4:00 and we turn on our headlamps to signal to them that we’ve claimed our spot. The boats coming from the landing to the south usually kick up flocks of geese on the way and I always sit in awe as the river comes to life in the dark. If you shut off all lights and let your eyes adjust you can see their silhouettes gliding over in the night sky. You can hear the wind whistling in their wings…but mostly you just hear a lot of honking and eventually the crashing in to the water when they choose a new place to congregate. It’s an amazing night and I love every minute of it. If Hoot wants to get there at 2:00 this year, I’m in.
Oh, by the way, the hunting is fun, too. As I mentioned above we’ve become halfway decent. After years of futility, last year was the first time we shot our limit in a day. We each bagged two geese (and I got myself a bluebill) on a beautiful day last fall and my son was there to witness it on his first ever trip waterfowl hunting. This year the daily bag limit on geese was increased to three. I’m convinced it’s because the DNR recognized that we finally got our limit in a day and they want us to step our game up. I feel like Hoot and I have developed an unspoken understanding of how the other hunts. When a flock comes by we never shoot at the same birds. We always discuss our strategies during down time and consider what we could’ve done differently. We seem to understand what the other is thinking without saying it. I guess that comes with years of hunting together. I get as much enjoyment out of seeing Hoot make a difficult shot as I do myself. We’re a good team and one person’s success is the team’s success.
We don’t get to hunt as much as we’d like. My dad likes to remind me that we’re not “real duck hunters” because we “never go.” We both have full-time jobs and three kids. My duties as a husband and father obviously come first. We both say that when our sons get old enough to hunt they’ll be a good excuse for us to get out even more but for now we take what we can get. We make the best of it and enjoy every minute we’re there. On a few magical mornings every autumn Hoot, Belle, and I get to experience the Ahnapee together. The first of those days comes this Saturday when duck season opens in Wisconsin. When you’re tucked in to your warm bed early this Saturday morning think of Hoot and me having the time of our lives on the river. We’ll be overanalyzing our decoy layout, eating jerky, and reminiscing about many of the same stories you just read. I can’t wait.