A man or perhaps a tribe of warriors walked up to an isolated lake covered with ducks several hundred years ago. The lake was away from civilization where the flocks found sanctuary. The hunters may have prayed to thank their creator, or perhaps they shared a drink of some concoction. But either way, they celebrated while planning their hunt.
They watched the ducks while sitting in thick brush that surrounded the lake. Chain quacking filled their minds with visions of a roasted duck dinner instead of the jerked meat carried in oiled leather wrappings. They watched the ducks lift up to stretch their wings, and then drop back down in the crowded waters. They reveled in their good fortune.
Modern-day hunters seldom have moments like their hunting ancestors who found duck-covered lakes unless a miracle occurs, and a miracle is exactly what happened. The 20-acre lake's lower end was half-frozen while the deeper half was covered in mallards with a few other species, about 500 white geese, a few Canada geese and two Tundra swans.
Steve Matt, a longtime hunting buddy, and I moved slowly through the darkness inside of his lightweight canvas hunting blind. We had successfully tried this tactic the year before on white geese with limited success.
Matt and I started about 100 yards from the lake and took 10 slow steps or less each time we moved. The ducks and geese occasionally made a few sounds of protest, but our human outlines were hidden and the waterfowl that can see in the dark, ignored us. Only the Trojan horse method seemed possible, with the idea that flushed fowl would come back.
The date was Jan. 1, 2014, and we were hunting the Kansas Southeast Zone. Matt had permission to hunt the property, and there was no other way to approach the lake that is surrounded by open pasture.
We were exactly where the flocks wanted to be, and this lake was the only open water for miles. All other lakes, ponds or rivers were frozen. The waterfowl had kept this section of lake from freezing by sheer numbers and movement.
Matt, who had once counted waterfowl for the Federal wildlife services, estimated at least 5,000 to 7,000 mallards were on the lake.
Moving forward inside the blind occasionally became dramatic when a boot toe became tangled in thick grass. Between each move, we stopped to listen and wait. This is when the hunt really became interesting.
I have hunted waterfowl over 50 years and never heard these sounds. Occasionally a thousand or so birds would lift up to stretch their wings about 50 yards from our position, creating a “WHOOOSSSHHHING” sound that could only equate to a sudden big wind on a calm day or a big ocean wave coming in, an almost spooky sound.
Our blind moving forward a few steps brought on exceptionally loud chain quacking. Between these outbursts, a lot of low grumbling could be heard from the flocks. I closed my eyes and listened several times, knowing I would likely never hear this sound again, except on a refuge like Squaw Creek in northwest Missouri.
We finally reached our spot after about a 45-minute stalk of slow, deliberate steps with about 20 pauses and glances through the blind's netting. We flushed a few ducks that were sitting close to our shoreline, but they settled back down farther out in the lake. They were convinced something was out of place on the shore, but did not feel enough concern to leave.
A few minutes after sunrise, the Tundra Swans decided to depart. The tips of their 6-foot wing span pounded the water as they worked to lift off with a few light, high-pitched honks, about 20 yards from our position.
Their departure made a couple thousand mallards lift off the surface, creating a beautiful mist of water off their wings, feet and bodies that reflected different colors in the rising sun's soft light. The ducks quickly set back down as the photographer's favorite light continued to illuminate their green heads.
The flocks eventually started spreading out in their open water sanctuary. Soon mallards were close enough for their eyes to be visible.
“Now, make sure you don't shoot into the flock,” Matt whispered. “We just want to shoot our limit and only drakes.”
I nodded agreement to Matt's correct guidance and waited. A big pintail drake was on the flock's edge and close to me, so he was my first duck when we jumped up to flush the flock, followed by two greenhead mallards that dropped with one shot. I saw ducks splashing down on Matt's side too.
Suddenly the magnificent “WHOOOOSSSHHHING” sound filled the air as several thousand wings propelled ducks and geese out of harm's way. Long, black strings of ducks quickly gained altitude and then circled our lake with the resolve to return. We waited for smaller flocks to enter our air space to avoid shooting over our limit.
We filled our bag limit of greenheads quickly, unloaded and cased our guns and then ended the morning by watching from a distant hilltop as ducks came back to their sanctuary. The sight was breathtaking to anyone who cherished beauty.
I was unable to hunt the following day, and soon a big cold front dropped temperatures into the single digits, pushing the ducks to warmer climates.
“So Steve, are you going to hunt this pond tomorrow?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “Let the ducks and geese rest. They will have a long flight soon and need to conserve some energy. We had an incredible hunt today and that's enough. Besides, they'll return next year and hopefully we'll be back too.”
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org