Friday, October 15, 2010

The Adventure Begins--

First, my apology for promising a post and then disappearing. I just had some things to attend to and now that they are done—the story, edited for posting. glg

The Adventure Begins---

The outdoors is, or should always be, an adventure. There should be an element of surprise on every trip. When our hunting or fishing trips go exactly as planned then in time the outdoors becomes the mundane and we find ourselves turning away from nature. I don’t worry about my trips becoming mundane. If I can’t find some way to keep it exciting then nature has a way of lending a helping hand. Here’s what happened two weeks ago.

My brother-in-law, Ken, has been teaching his nine year-old son, Alex, the basics of shooting a shotgun and introducing him to hunting, so I decided that it would be a good thing for me to step in and offer to teach Alex some of the finer points of duck hunting. Now Ken has some hunting experience but he’s never set a spread of decoys, used a call, or enjoyed the frustrating thrill of stalking mallards on a prairie slough (pot hole). So, I offered to introduce Ken and Alex to duck hunting. The first surprise that morning was me—I was up on time and picked them up on time. After stowing their gear I explained to Alex that the big bag was duck decoys. When everyone was settled, we headed for my wife’s family farm (they lease out the tillable land) and the farmstead’s four sloughs: the north slough, the south slough, the corner slough, and the roadside slough.

The north slough is my favorite for setting a spread of decoys. The south side of the slough is the treeline boundary of the long abandoned farmstead. Although the farmstead’s buildings are in general decay from their abandonment, the presence of the house, granaries, one-time chicken coop and of course the large, traditional barn all influence the flights of ducks nearing the slough. To the north and west of the slough are tilled fields, and on the east are a few more trees that curve into the treeline. Put together, the slough sits in a perfect tree-formed funnel and with a small spread of decoys along the southwest banks the birds turn, cup their wings, and drop in—a picturesque setting and within easy range. At least that is when everything is going right. Nothing went right.

The reason for setting decoys on the north slough is it is perfectly positioned to intercept and decoy birds being flushed off sloughs in the surrounding countryside. Within a three mile radius of the farmstead there are a dozen sloughs that hold anywhere from a handful to a hundred ducks each day of the season—when the birds are leaving Canada and northern North Dakota lakes. On any weekend of the waterfowl season hunters like to cruise the back roads and flush birds from the sloughs, shooting at ducks as they flush. The ducks, depending on wind, flush either north or south (rarely east or west) and either direction sends them to our area and the north slough is one the ducks look over, giving me the chance to decoy them.

But, that only works if there are ducks on the other sloughs, and I always get a good idea of ducks in the area by looking over the sloughs we pass on the drive out. On that morning we didn’t see any ducks. Not good. I was determined, however, so I drove to the slough, passing the roadside slough—no ducks, and a half-mile from the south slough—no ducks. Humm, this wasn’t looking very promising. A youngster sitting in the cattails and watching decoys bob in the water could get very bored, very quickly. Usually, when I approach the north slough to set my decoys I can hear ducks on the water. This morning there was complete silence. Curious, I drove to the top of a small rise where I could look down on the slough. It was empty. I decided to see if we could flush some ducks from the corner slough. It would often hold a few birds when sloughs closer to the roads were empty.

Once near the corner slough I told Ken an Alex to sneak to the northeast corner and hide near the cattails while I crept to the south end of the slough where I would send Cookie into the water to flush the birds. It should have worked and probably would have if there had been any birds on the slough. After Cookie had splashed from one side of the slough to the other, without a flushing a single bird, I called her back and started for Ken and Alex.

There are some larger sloughs north of the farm and these sloughs are usually productive because these are the sloughs where I rely on hunters to flush the birds and send them south, toward my decoys. We climbed into the suburban and bounced across the field and climbed back on the road and turned north.

This time we got a little action, but it was quicker than expected. Nearing the cattails surrounding the slough, Alex nearly stepped on a whitetail doe and her fawn. Both deer exploded into the air just a few feet in front of him, nearly knocking him over as they burst from cover and sprinted for the safety of a soybean field—their tails waving as they ran. When we’d recovered we decided the deer would have flushed anything on the water and we returned to the Suburban. As we drove away four adult mallards, flew past us and cupped their wings to sit on what I call a mid-field slough, one that is surrounded by tilled fields. We decided to follow them and try to flush them (within range) from the slough.

We climbed into the Suburban and drove toward the mid-field slough. The field had been recently harvested and pinto beans, missed by the harvester, covered the ground. It was perfect pickings for the ducks, which love the beans. Plus, the slough was a quarter mile from the road. I parked below the crest of a small rise and the three of us, plus Cookie on her leash, crept toward the slough. As we neared the slough the high cattails hid us from the ducks, which we could hear on the water. I told Ken that I would take Cookie around the slough and send her in from the far side, flushing the ducks over the two of them.

I hadn’t covered ten feet when Cookie caught a scent and started lunging into the thick cattails. Holding her back was a struggle and I knew the commotion would flush the ducks. I turned and told Ken to get Alex ready. Whatever she had scented, she was determined to get, but I had no idea what was in the cattails. I thumbed up the setting on the control for her shock collar. At least if I had to call her back from a deer, the collar was set. Once I turned her loose I expected her to pop back out of the cattails with a crippled duck or goose that had been lost by a hunter. Not a season has gone by when she has not found at least one bird lost by a hunter.

That’s not what happened. When I freed Cookie she plowed into the cattails—a 70+ pound German wirehair on a mission. Her tail was furiously wagging, then she started barking, the bark of “I am gonna kill you, dude!”

“Holy Crap!” I thought. What is she after? Cougar? They’ve been reported in this area. Bear? They too have been reported. Wild pigs are rumored to be moving toward us. There are also moose, even the occasional elk. Then, suddenly, all hell broke loose. Her barking was furious and filled with low, guttural, killing growls and in return something was spitting, howling, snorting, and then spitting some more. The cattails were waving like hurricane winds were whipping them. All I could see was her tail and I grabbed it to pull her out. She lunged back in and the uproar increased. The air smelled of musty cattail dust and the roots mingled with the rotting stalks of last year’s cattails; the tiny puffs of cattail cotton from the pods being whipped by the melee, were everywhere.

I glanced at Alex and Ken. Ken was asking me what was going on and Alex, on his first duck hunt, was watching and hearing something that was loud, mean, and scary as hell. His eyes were open like liberty dollars and he was clutching his H&R Single-shot as if it was all that stood between him and the devil’s own cattail demon! I turned back to Cookie and again grabbed her tail, it was all I could see, and I tried to pull her back. That didn’t work. Whatever she was fighting was holding its own against her. A few of the cattails were pushed down by the snarling, snapping, rolling dog and unknown creature, and then I saw the flash of teeth. It wasn’t a cougar, bear, or pig. Guessing, from the size and number of teeth, I thought she might have cornered a bobcat, which was double trouble because they cannot be hunted in my area. If she had cornered a large, feral cat, the cat would already be dead, she’s killed several. Regardless of what she was locked with, in mortal combat, I had to get her out before she was seriously injured. I reached into the swirling cattails, caught her collar and I yanked her back, only to have her lunge back into the cattails and resume her attack. I’ve seen a lot of dog fights but nothing like this. Cookie was snarling and spitting and clouds of steam like dragon fire burst from her mouth and nostrils whenever her snarling head broke free of the cattails, and the clouds of steam-breath surrounded her head like smoke. She went back in the cattails and I reached in again, grabbed her collar and pulled, this time with the force to choke off her barking and as I pulled her up for the first time I could see her adversary—a fully mature raccoon.

Doggies and raccoons have a long had a mutual hatred of each other but now I faced a new problem—rabies. Cookie is up to date on her vaccinations but the possibility of a rabid raccoon could not be ignored. The raccoon was not making a retreat but was standing its ground, only its snarling face, white teeth exposed, could be seen through the cattails. Ten years of hunting the sloughs flashed across my brain. I had never seen a raccoon in a slough, although lots of sign around the edges. I’ve also seen beaver, a couple of foxes and several coyotes stalking ducks, and once I watched a coyote emerge from the cattails surrounding the corner slough with a mud hen in its mouth, but I had never encountered a raccoon. I had to err on the side of safety—and kill the raccoon. If Cookie’s fierce attack had injured it, the raccoon would suffer needlessly. If the unexpected encounter of a raccoon in the cattails surrounding a slough meant the animal was sick—it had to be destroyed. I got the leash on Cookie and then pushed her out of the way. The raccoon still wasn’t retreating and five or ten seconds had passed while I struggled with Cookie. Holding my shotgun in one hand and trying to aim it, while holding Cookie clear, I fired a load of No. 4 steel at about five feet. I thought the load would blow a hole through the raccoon and end the struggle. I missed, or the steel shot was useless, or the raccoon was pumped with so much adrenalin the pellets had no effect. I fired the second barrel and the raccoon snarled and edged toward me.

Ken had sent Alex to the Suburban, and he was now kneeling beside me. The smell of the cattail dust and the cattail cotton both still hung in the air; and both the raccoon and Cookie were still snarling, eager to resume the savage death battle.

“Here,” I said, “reload the damn gun and kill the raccoon.”

Ken took the shotgun and I handed him two more shells. I struggled to get Cookie completely clear. Ken maneuvered until he could see the raccoon in the cattails, then it turned to face him, hissing menacingly through barred teeth. Ken fired one barrel and the raccoon seemed to roll to its side, but Ken could see it was only injured and not dead. Finally, through a narrow opening in the thick cattails, Ken could see the raccoon’s full head. Ken’s second shot finally killed “the beast.” With Cookie pulled away and calming down, Ken made sure the raccoon was dead and then he dragged it to the edge of the cattails. I explained to him that I planned to make some calls and if I had to retrieve its head for a rabies test I could easily find it. Ken and I walked slowly back the Suburban and once there I checked Cookie for injuries, she had only one small puncture wound on her cheek. I washed it out while Ken and I discussed the day’s events, we decided to fold up our tents and call it a day.

Once the guns were put away, Cookie given water and a treat, I climbed into the driver’s seat and started across the field; just as I pulled onto the dirt and gravel road Alex, commenting on the morning events said, “That was exciting. Is duck hunting always this exciting?” Then he wanted to know when we could go again.

That evening, long after a call to the sheriff to see if there had been any problems with rabid raccoons (no) and the call to the vet (treat the puncture like any other, keep it clean and put on antibiotic), with my notebooks open and a cup of coffee in front of me, I reviewed the day. Nothing had gone as planned and Alex wasn’t any closer to learning how to set decoys or successfully creep up on a slough of ducks; but Alex had summed up the morning with one word, “exciting” and he’d asked when we could go again.

I think he’s got a good start on a long hunting career.


john said...

sounds like you guys had a real adventure out there, what a great experience for Alex!

Galen Geer said...

Yeah, today I drove by the house and he was in the driveway with his grandfather. They were preparing to go fishing and he told me they were also taking their shotguns to hunt ducks, then he asked me if we were going to go this weekend. Yep, I think he's a duck hunter.

Phillip said...

SOunds like the boy got the right taste of fun, despite the scarcity of birds! That's excellent. I expect he'll get the fever pretty quick.

Galen Geer said...

I think he's got it, now he just needs to be sure to keep it fed.