Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Insanity of Late Season Duck Hunting

As we stood in front of the fire, steaming out our wet clothes, after having risked death by drowning, exposure, and pneumonia, after having been up since black night, after having rowed and poled miles, after having frozen fingers setting out decoys and having frozen feet from inactivity – after having been uncomfortable constantly in the quest for a few pounds of bird meat that I didn’t like to eat too terribly well, I concluded one thing: if you have to be crazy to hunt ducks, I do not wish to be sane.

Robert Ruark, from “You Got to be Crazy to be a Duck Hunter” from the book “The Old Man and the Boy

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In the outdoors realm, there are few things more disconcerting than sinking a warm, dry socked foot into a pair of frigid chest waders.

A set of waders that suddenly reminds you that one boot foot in particular took on enough water during your last hunt to sink the Titanic.

A boot that yours truly forgot to dry out. 

When the late season brings a shot opportunity at a prime goldeneye drake, don't miss!

Simply put, there’s no good time to discover that you are, in fact, a forgetful dunce when it comes to “Waders 101.”

But that is especially true when an Arctic blue norther has roared into North Texas overnight, dropping temps into the 20s, wind chills into the teens, and bringing a wind-driven drizzle that is freezing on contact.

What do you do in such a circumstance?

Simple…you stay on mission, especially when the 2010-11 duck season is about to sing its swan song.

So that’s what I dutifully did as I used my camera to record the early stages of a hunt that Pottsboro’s J.J. Kent and McKinney’s Kevin Harding were embarking upon yesterday morning on a beautiful cattail choked body of water.

Kent, a Mossy Oak and Buck Gardner Calls pro-staffer, and Harding, an enthusiastic waterfowler of some 20 plus years, go way back.

All the way back to Lubbock, Texas, in fact, where the two men met while students at Texas Tech University.

Except it wasn’t a class, a Red Raiders’ pigskin game, or a cross-campus hike that provided their first meeting.

Instead, it was while training their respective black Labrador retrievers on a local playa lake.

Kent, who owned a once-in-a-lifetime dog named Whiskey, and Harding, who owned an equally adept dog named Harley, became lifelong friends.

And card-carrying members of the Texas waterfowl hunting fraternity, a club that still lures grown men to the edges of insanity with pre-dawn gatherings interspersed with occasional bouts of frostbite in a good winter.

Or the beginning stages of hypothermia, an affliction that I was sure I was experiencing when the morning cattail action proved slower than expected.

And brought the idea of retreating.

But not for some place warm and dry.

North Texas duck guide J.J. Kent pleads with late season mallards on his Buck Gardner Double Nasty XL call.

  But instead for Kent’s big Xpress duck boat rig and a wind-tossed ride to a sheltered duck hole, a spot that should lure in all forms of flying fowl looking to escape the howling waters of Lake Texoma.

I guess my teeth were chattering too hard to offer much in the way of protest.

Besides, if I was going to die courtesy of Jack Frost, I at least wanted to trade in the Nikon for the Remington and go out in a blaze of glory.

So a couple of hours later, as I tried in vain to burrow deeper into space-age clothing supposed to keep one warm, I looked up just in time.

To see a spectacular hooded merganser dropping his flaps and putting down the landing gear as he reached for the decoy spread.

Cold or not, I didn’t miss that gimmee shot opportunity at a bird that is now on its way to my wall.

To be honest, the hope for a string of greenheads never materialized despite the fact that our trio saw plenty of mallards on the wing.

Even with Kent’s superb calling on a Double Nasty XL call, the greenheads had other ideas. That’s late season wise guys for you.

But as the Arctic blow continued, occasional shot opportunities would present themselves as a variety of duck species provided a mixed bag smorgasbord of shooting opportunity.

At one point or another, mallards, teal, gadwalls, shovelers, and even a plump late season goldeneye drake all came calling to our decoy spread as ice built on the tossing blocks.

And most of the time, one or more of those birds stayed behind for Kent’s current Lab, Bo, to retrieve after the smoke from spent gunpowder had been torn away on the wind.

For the record, Harding is a very good shot and he didn’t miss many shot opportunities with his Benelli.  

A late season goldeneye drake brings a warm smile to the face of Kevin Harding on a frigid North Texas winter day.

All except a canvasback drake, of course, a regal bull can that none of us is talking about anymore. 

Right, J.J.?

Also for the record, Kent is an equally deadly shot who seldom misses.

And then there’s me, a hunter whose shooting ability shined early on in the game, then proceeded to disappear faster than the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff chances did this last fall.

My shooting expertise was particularly embarrassing on the goldeneye drake that I had an opportunity to knock down.

I guess I can blame a sore shoulder. Or the supposed hypothermia. Or the teeth chattering. Or even the numb foot in a frozen boot.

Or better yet, I can blame the insanity of hunting late season ducks on the wings of an Arctic blow.

Cold or not, that’s a malady that I hope to never be cured of.

As long as ducks continue to fly on a north wind.


A Dad, a Son, and a Smile Made of Green

For most duck hunters – and I’m one of them – green is everything.

As in the iridescent green of mallard drakes, greenheads as they are affectionately known by legions of duck hunters who covet their aerial presence over a decoy spread.

Few things make a boy smile more than bagging his first greenhead. Above, Zach Burkhead shows off his first mallard drake taken on a recent hunt.

In fact, one of my life’s most memorable moments was on a frigid gray January day near a Red River slough, a spot where my 20-gauge shot column finally connected with a mallard drake.

When that drake crumpled to the ground below, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a bigger smile on my face than I did in that moment.

Little has changed in the quarter century that has followed.

Now mind you, I’m no duck snob who turns up his nose at taking other species.

Over the years that I’ve been duck hunting, I’ve grown to love the appearance of pintails, wigeons, gadwalls, green-winged teal, and even divers over my spread.

But I must also admit that no matter how successful a hunt has been, there is always just the slightest twinge of disappointment if a greenhead or two doesn’t grace the daily bag limit.

Years ago, that was no problem. Grayson County might not have been ground zero for greenheads, but it wasn’t far off the mark thanks to the marsh like upper ends of Lake Texoma and the thousands of acres of peanuts being farmed locally.

In fact, so high was the local goober production in years gone by that a couple of Grayson County farmers I’ve known down through the years have spun tales of so many mallards feeding in their family’s peanut fields each night that the babbling chuckles of these ducks made it difficult to sleep.

A North Texas tall tale? Nope – I’ve seen the pictures they had to prove the surplus of green-headed ducks.

By the time I started hunting in the 1980s, peanut farming was in slow decline but was still good enough that I was able to knock down plenty of greenheads whose craws were filled to the brim with crunchy peanuts.

On some hunts, I bagged mallards who circled a drinking hole during the mid-morning hours after feeding in nearby sandy fields.

On other hunts, I actually hunted the dry peanut fields themselves, taking mallards where there wasn’t any water for hundreds of yards around.

But slightly more than a decade ago, the Grayson County peanut industry all but faded from this area, making the bagging of a limit of greenheads a more difficult chore than it had ever been in years gone by.

So much so that despite my best efforts – and several close calls – neither my oldest son Zach nor my youngest son Will had ever bagged a greenhead mallard on the waterfowling trips that we’ve shared together.

There have been a number of other ducks – gadwalls, wigeon, teal, and divers – but not a greenhead for either Son 1 or Son 2.

Until last week that is.

Last week when Zach spied a lone duck locked up and gliding into our spread from nearly 70 yards out.

“A single coming in,” he whispered quietly while looking under the brim of his camo hat.

When the mallard drake approached into shotgun range, Zach shouldered his 20-gauge and touched the trigger.

Crumpling the greenhead into the decoy spread with a geyser spray of chilly water.

And producing a smile that looked as big as the Grand Canyon itself.

A familiar grin that a proud father quietly remembered from so many years ago.

And now eagerly awaits the day when he sees the same smile on the face of his youngest son Will.

So that the family waterfowl hunting circle of green will be complete.