Western Hunting Journal, Premiere Issue whj001_premiere - Page 89

TRAIL’S END Continued from page 88 The weather may be colder, but the arrival of big northern flights can compensate for a lot of chill in the air. What remains offers the season’s most challenging and least appreciated segment of all. The weather can turn downright brutal on Montana’s high plains, but foot stomping cold seems a small price to pay for seeing the waterfowl season through to the end. Ev- ery duck that’s going to reach the area will have arrived. The birds may be wary, but their condition—plump and meaty, with scarcely a pinfeather to pluck—will be at its best. That wariness ultimately translates into challenge. This is when the birds let you find out how good you really are. Over the years I’ve ended my waterfowl season in settings as diverse as Kodiak Island and the Texas Gulf Coast, but the area around our current Montana home remains my favorite. As shooting light ap- proached that January morn- ing, we shivered in a patch of snow-laden willows while steam from the slough wove a silver veil across the glow from the eastern horizon. Our dozen decoys looked positive- ly crowded on the little pocket of open water in front of us. While setting out the spread, I’d noticed fresh duck tracks on the rim of ice surrounding the slough. The birds had depart- ed before our arrival to feed by moonlight in stubble fields nearby, and they would return. Could we last long enough to be there when they did? Rosy seemed to think so, but I wasn’t worried about her. Somehow, the performance specs on my best Labs always seem to improve when the temperature plummets. Peo- My toes were already wriggling involuntarily against the lining of my boots, and I knew that Lori was approaching the limit of her tolerance. The minute hand on my watch seemed to be moving in compound low as it crept toward legal shooting light, a recurrent impression on frigid mornings. ple are different. My toes were already wriggling involuntarily against the lining of my boots, and I knew that Lori was ap- proaching the limit of her tol- erance. The minute hand on my watch seemed to be moving in compound low as it crept toward legal shooting light, a recurrent impression on frigid mornings. Somehow though, the magi- cal moment always arrives. Just before it did that day, the sound of whistling wings brought us to attention as a single mallard dropped into the blocks, but I couldn’t confirm its gender. Rosy stared but never broke, while ripples from the swim- ming duck added a welcome breath of life to the spread. The first flock arrived just as our natural decoy—a hen, as daylight revealed—recog- nized something amiss and departed loudly. Its warning came moments too late for the dozen new arrivals, which had already committed to land. I ceded the first drake to Lori and then began isolating green heads from brown. The sight of a lot of ducks clawing their way into the sky at close range often makes friends ask why I insist on carrying one of my doubles when I’m duck hunting. I just find that two shots are plenty. After the second, I’m ready to turn my attention to the dog. The three fallen drakes— someone missed once, but my lips remain sealed—provided little challenge, for all lay stone dead within a thirty-yard circle. Save for some icebreaking on the final retrieve, Rosy had an easy time of it. Then the sound of new wings rent the air, and Act Two began. By this time I could see multiple flocks of mallards working the fields around us— black dots silhouetted against the sky ahead to the east, wings flashing in the sunlight behind us to the west. The individu- al flocks looked small—eight, ten, a dozen birds—but there were plenty of them. I could see the rest of the morning spread out in front of us as clearly as the details of the winter land- scape. Sometimes the Big Finish plays out best in excitement mode, with dogs breaking and fingers fumbling through vest pockets for shells as the end of another season tries to com- press itself into a few furious minutes of birds and shooting. I have been there and loved it. But other winter days seem to be asking me to slow down, take my time, and derive as much as possible from the fi- nal hours of the season. This was one of them. As the second flock made a wide turn to give us another look, I quietly un- loaded my shotgun. Our “blind” was nothing more than a patch of barren willow, two sets of white over- alls, and the patience to hold still when it counted, but that was enough. The birds started to cup their wings a hundred yards out, and they dropped into the hole in the brush like basketballs falling through a hoop. For an instant orange feet were dangling in front of our faces, and then the birds flared in a loud, unanimous frenzy. The one unforgivable error in such circumstances is to shoot a hen by mistake. Lori wisely let the birds separate before she isolated two drakes and sent them tumbling into the snow across the slough. Since I could already see another flock starting to lose altitude over the far end of the field, I kept Rosy planted by my side. This was a stern test for a young dog. She didn’t seem particularly happy about it but she didn’t break, and soon the next flock was on final ap- proach. “Here,” I heard Lori whisper as she handed me her reloaded twenty. “Your turn.” My shooting wasn’t as clean as hers had been, and the second drake fluttered down in a line of frozen cattails sixty yards away. At least I’d provided Rosy an opportunity to show us what she had learned over the course of her second season. That retrieve provided the morning’s only real chal- lenge, for us or the dog. The ten greenheads we carried out of the field had been a given at first light. Limits were not the point. Long months were due to pass before we hunted ducks again, and we needed as many memories as possible. Nothing makes memories like a Big Finish, no matter where it takes place. All you have to do is be there. WHJ www.westernhuntingjournal.com 87