I’ve often stated that the prairie grouse are my true love. Deep down the excitement and mystery of these native birds really does something for me. The last couple of years I was their devoted companion, only rarely straying to chase their Asian cousin the pheasant. Yesterday things once again changed in my life. If prairie grouse have become my true love, then yesterday I was reunited with the mistress that I’ll never be able to quit.
For the last two years I had forsaken this first love, in large part due to Emma’s deteriorating condition. I could justify an upland trip without her, but I think it would have killed her to watch me take the duck hunting gear and leave her at home. Most of this season I spent reminiscing about my waterfowling pursuits but had not acted upon them, always figuring “next year.” As the seasons came to a close I decided that I couldn’t wait for the snow geese to return and set the wheels in motion for a hunt that I’d been longing to have since moving to South Dakota.
Much the same as its bigger sibling the Mississippi, the Missouri river, is steeped in tradition and history. One of those traditions is late-season Canada goose hunting, which prior to yesterday I had only dreamed about. There are goose camps galore strung out along the river and a number of guides willing to share their pit with you for a price. The biggest stickler holding me back with such an arrangement was this last bit. I’ll go on record as saying I am staunchly against paying to hunt. I think it could lead to the downfall of hunting in this country as more and more land is taken away from public access. It was with this great internal moral conflict that I booked a day with a guide for a buddy and me. My rationale was that it was the only hunting opportunity in South Dakota, we would be using his gear and access to his land…that’s how I rationalized it but it still didn’t sit well in my heart.
This would be a bit of a reunion hunt for one of my best hunting buddies and me. Many of you who have followed the site from the start probably have noticed that Aaron and Storm had been absent the last couple of years in the blog. While I had shifted from primarily waterfowling to prairie birds, Aaron and Storm continued to chase the migrating birds. After a two-year break from the field we looked to pick up where we had left off.
The trip almost didn’t happen, as a cold-front moved in on Friday night and brought with it snow, drizzle and some strong northwest winds. After hemming and hawing for about a half-hour we decided to chance it. Thankfully about 20 miles west of Sioux Falls the conditions improved dramatically and we assumed we would have smooth sailing. Unfortunately Mother Nature decided to test our resolve once again, and the winds kicked up and we had to drive a significant stretch in on-and-off white conditions. Finally arriving at the motel, we both were beat and retired for the evening.
Most waterfowling adventures begin in the wee hours of the morning; late-season geese on the other hand seemed to be more dignified and like to see the sunrise before starting their day. We met our guide at about 7:30am, and were at the field after nine. We would be meeting other hunters, which was another big potential issue for me, as I have very few hunting partners choosing to share these experiences with the closest of friends. I was more than relieved when the group showed and I recognized some familiar faces. Thankfully the dog world is rather small and filled with good people. The nine of us set about to putting together the spread:
With temps just two degrees above zero we elected to sit in the trucks, waiting to see the first groups lift off the river in the distance. The birds had been flying around 10:30 most of the week, but with the abrupt change to lower temps they took their time stretching their wings, and it was noon when we spotted the first group. Three from the group offered to take the trucks out of the field while the rest of us headed for the layout blinds. As luck would have it, on this first group, Aaron and I were the only ones with calls in the blind. With a three-year layoff from calling I was a little worried whether I’d still have the chops. Aaron is an incredible caller and I happily played second chair to his Concert Master performance. The flock circled once before cupping up and committing to the spread. As those big birds parachuted into the spread I was falling in love all over again with the majesty of waterfowl.
In addition to the waterfowl hunt I was extremely excited to see Storm in action and had the camera gear along to capture this magnificent dog at work. As some of you have probably gathered from recent posts I miss having a retriever around the house. I love the setters and the cocker is growing on me, but with that being said, there is just something about a working retriever. After the first volley Storm was called on to perform his end of the job:
The action was extremely fast-paced as flock after flock appeared on the horizon. I’d alternate between calling, shooting and trying to manage the camera. Storm continued to do his job with enthusiasm and efficiency:
While we had a lot of success there were a number of geese that got away unscathed. Towards the end of the flurry I’d try to snap some pictures of the birds. Had I had a different blind set-up I think I could have managed some good incoming shots, but the last thing I wanted to do was ruin the hunt for the others with my camera glass causing flares. In this shot someone clearly wasn’t on the bird. This low-res copy doesn’t do it justice, but you can see a wad between the two birds and the shot string behind them:
Having the birds stacked up above us, and so readily responding to the calling and spread, completely fanned the waterfowling flame that had been laying dorment inside. I had moved to this great state to waterfowl, and prior to the prairie grouse obsession, I’d waterfowl hunt to the exclusion of all else, only chasing other birds once the duck season had ended. I can’t take back the two-year absence but I can dang well make sure it never happens again:
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how complicated we make life when at the end of the day it should be so, so simple. We’re always striving for bigger, better, faster, stronger, more money and more power. In the end how much of that will ever really matter? In the end the memories of family, friends, passionate pursuits…and a good dog or six will be what leads us through our dark times. Me?…my New Year’s resolution will be to making more memories like these: