North by Northwest: 3,200 Miles for Waterfowl
November 08, 2016
I've never been accused of being sane, especially when it comes to waterfowling, so when my buddy Brian Hauptman suggested a January road trip to the Pacific Northwest, I was game for the opportunity to hunt some new country.
Now mind you, January is prime time in western Nebraska, where Hauptman and I call home. We'd be leaving behind some world-class duck and goose hunting for an epic adventure into the unknown.
But then, isn't that the kind of plot line that makes the best movies? With a story worthy of an Oscar, we plotted out a few points west of the Rockies, packed our shotguns and pushed over the Divide.
Goonies Never Say Die
After 1,600 miles over some of the sketchiest winter roads I've ever driven on, Brian and I crossed the Columbia River for the last time just east of Astoria, Oregon.
Known to movie buffs as the famed home of The Goonies, Astoria is also surrounded by the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge, one of the nation's premier waterfowling destinations. Joining us for the day was Zink Calls pro-staffer Mario Friendy, who had towed a boat up from Portland to give us a guided tour of the famed maze of marshy islands that make up the mouth of the Columbia.
Motoring out from the dock, we passed decades of duck hunting history taking the form of the many cabins grandfathered in after the refuge was established in 1972. Most of the camps are still used regularly by local duck hunters, while others have succumbed to the harsh environment created where the big river meets the Pacific. The cedar docks, hewn in nearby sawmills, were tinged with green moss and floated on stout pylons cut from timber in the surrounding hills.
Leading the way into the marsh at the front of the duck boat was Friendy's black Lab Money (so named for the cash that can be eaten up by a good bird dog). Ears flapping in the wind, the Lab raised his nose high in the air, as if he could sniff out the best place to anchor the blind for the morning hunt.
Friendy hoped to put us on the puddlers — mallards, pintail and wigeon — that use the many estuaries ribboning through the marsh. However, the same storm we had pushed through in Idaho and eastern Oregon had moved the fair-weather birds inland to calmer waters. The incoming tide (which can shift seven feet of water at a time) forced us out of several fruitless set-ups in the shallows with hardly a shot.
With a never-say-die attitude, Friendy related that we'd have to move to the edge of the marsh to have any shooting opportunities, and only then perhaps for scaup.
Divers are a rarity where Hauptman and I hunt in Nebraska and we jumped at the chance, perhaps too enthusiastically for Friendy's taste. This was a different kind of treasure for us and soon singles and doubles of greater scaup were buzzing our decoy spread set at the tip of a long, brush-covered island.
We missed many until we got an accurate measure of the birds' speed and trajectory. Soon, Money was earning his pay with long retrieves in the choppy, brackish water of the Columbia River. Friendy coached us on our swing and even got into the game himself. Not even a light drizzle that descended could dampen our fun and we stayed warm with hot soup and even hotter shooting. Before the day's end, a lone bufflehead gave us a flyby that proved fatal and Hauptman added it to the strap to round out our limit of divers.
Hazed and Confused
If 20-plus hours sound a bit long to drive for a few divers, consider Hauptman and I followed that up with another long trek back across Oregon the next day. After a quick morning hunt at a local Portland duck club, we hauled east to Kennewick, Washington, for a rendezvous with Bill Saunders. Best known for his high-grade goose calls, Saunders also manages a team of the region's best duck and goose callers under the banner of Big Guns Waterfowl Outfitters.
The draw for hunters in eastern Washington are the thousands of Canada geese that migrate through. As the birds stop to rest on the nearby Columbia, Saunders secures access to the best fields through long-standing relationships with area landowners. This puts him in the hot seat for some serious goose hunting, and it's not uncommon to encounter several different subspecies of geese — from bomber-like Western Canadas to the squeaky little cackler — during a day of hunting. Hauptman and I hoped to add a few new birds to our life-list.
The birds here see serious pressure and the key to Saunders' success is scouting and realism. He'd lined up a special field just off the river, where the birds could get a first look at our decoys. The weather could have cooperated, but instead we woke up to a heavy fog and light rain. The haze not only obscured our view, but also confused the geese's ability to work a spread they couldn't see.
Speaking of spreads, let's take a brief intermission to discuss the decoy strategy Saunders has perfected. As I mentioned, the geese in eastern Washington are highly pressured and, by our hunt in January, the remaining flocks have seen every spread in the valley. To combat the masses, Saunders and his team turn to several trailers filled with stuffers — taxidermied geese made in the off-season and babied throughout the fall so they still look lifelike by the end of the season.
Back at our regularly-scheduled programming, flock after flock spun wide, presenting just faint specks in the gray light of the morning's hunt. Only the skill of Saunders and pro-staffer Brian Mellenbacher would get them to commit to the hole centered around the in-ground pit.
Later in the day, as the fog burned off, the birds decoyed more readily, fooled by the combination of a large feathered spread and our realistic calling. By dusk, we had 17 geese on the ground — a great day by any measure — including several purplish cacklers and a few big Canadas to brag about.
The third installment of our triple feature stars an unlikely hero in the form of a quirky duck dog named Dave. On the last day of our north by northwest waterfowling tour, the young yellow Lab stayed close to Saunders' side, keying in on both Bill's shifting mood and the turkey snack sticks his owner compulsively chewed on throughout the morning.
The lack of geese this late in the season caused a shift in priorities and found us hunkered along a tiny little creek in the middle of an otherwise barren sagebrush desert. The fact that the spot didn't appear to be the duckiest of locales worked to its advantage, warding off any pressure from hunters who would never suspect the potential of the place.
If you looked closely enough, the only clue to how good the duck hunting would be was a streambed littered with snails, both in the form of live gastropods and the broken shells of those already eaten by thousands of ducks resting on nearby potholes.
We must have busted the birds off the roost in the dark because at first light they started returning just as broken flocks do, in singles and pairs, committing without a care in the world. It was the perfect day of hunting, the kind where we could take turns with our shots, picking drakes out of the overcast light and, when we connected, dropping the birds in the brush opposite the small hole we had set up on.
With each bird downed and at Saunder's command, Dave would break from the blind and trot out on a slow-paced retrieve. This was no hard-charging field-trial dog, but one of those leisurely Labs that makes a great companion and serviceable retriever that needs no handling, but also is no particular hurry to get back to a blind that held little promise of prying a turkey-flavored treat from his owner's fingers.
Those stern-faced, serious hunters whose ideas of correction include shouting expletives and mashing an e-collar button wouldn't tolerate such behavior from a bird dog, but for Saunders and us, Dave's performance was part of the show.
Barely out of the puppy stage and still learning the ways of the waterfowling world, Dave all but pranced through water as if wet paws weren't part of his original job description. Soon, the dog had a pattern worn in the marsh grass where the shallowest part of the creek met the bank, even though the long way around made his retrieves twice as distant.
Although more than one duck was missed because we were laughing at Dave's demeanor and not paying attention to the sky, the hunt was still measured a success by the limit of mallards we added to our road trip tally. We even got a bonus bird in the form of a redhead. After the bird buzzed us several times without Saunders letting us trip the trigger, Hauptman begged for permission, arguing once again that divers were novelty for us prairie-borne duck hunters.
No one has to explain to a Gun Dog reader that waterfowlers are an obsessive bunch, prone to rash decisions that would leave most normal folks scratching their heads in wonder. Take the idea of a 3,200-mile road trip in the middle of winter just to shoot a few ducks and geese. Seems standard fare to hunters, but it turned out to be a blockbuster, not just for the birds tagged, but for the adventure it brought to a big screen of memories that will replay in my mind for years to come.