Hunting trip to northwest Missouri makes writer wonder what explorers must have felt like in similar conditions
Scaup numbers are down now. But reflect on a time when shooting a limit of this remarkable duck was acceptable.
This hunt took place in the early 1970s on Lewis and Clark State Park’s Sugar Lake south of St. Joseph, Mo. Sadly, migration patterns and dry weather conditions have made this once productive duck hunting lake less productive today.
Strings of scaup stretched across the horizon like tightly stretched Christmas lights. Each approaching duck appeared to bounce up and down in the heavy northwest winds as blasts of winter stung our faces while peeking at the oncoming flock.
The ducks were flying low and straight at our blind, making me wonder if our decoys were pulling them in or if they were just looking for a quiet place to set down – probably a combination of both.
I occasionally peeked outside the blind and hoped that the concrete blocks and iron bars anchoring six-dozen duck decoys bobbing in heavy waves would not lose their anchor cords. Constant pushing of wind and waves was powerful and we figured to lose more decoys before the storm ended. But for the time being our plastic flock that appeared black in morning’s poor light seemed appealing to the ducks.
“Man,” I whispered. “There must be 50 scaup in that string.”
My partner, Fred Simmerman, did not answer. He just watched, fascinated.
We waited for the ducks to fly closer before pulling out duck calls. A few easy clucks with feeder chuckles turned the flock into a series of tight turns around our blind. I could feel their eyes boring down as they made a second lap, their wings creating an addictive whistling noise while fighting brisk wind gusts. Simmerman looked at the sky, smiling. So did I. This moment made getting here worth the chill.
I felt a bit anxious earlier that morning while stepping into the bow of Simmerman’s 12-foot flat-bottomed boat. After all, we were pushing off into a Missouri white-capping oxbow lake with a significant winter storm approaching. Huge black clouds rolled toward us, providing the type of threats that send sane people to shelters.
Northwest winds pushed against the side of our boat. Simmerman’s 25-horsepower Mercury gave all it had, but barely provided enough power against the merciless wall of wind and waves. Sheets of frigid cold Missouri River water flew over the bow and lashed our faces, making our skin look red like well-ripened tomatoes. I wondered if Lewis and Clark’s group faced these same conditions while passing through this area.
We were determined to reach our duck blind sitting in the middle of this ancient oxbow lake that was discovered by Lewis and Clark as noted in their journal. This late-November winter storm would push most ducks south. We both figured this last duck hunt would be a good one and worth the bone-chilled soaking.
Simmerman’s boat managed to reach the sturdy blind that was anchored down by four large posts driven in mud and sand bottom, once part of the Missouri River. Heavy wooden panels formed together for the sides, combined with grass and canvas covering the top with a front opening that allowed a shooting port. The boat was tied off under the blind. Yep, that cold trip made this remarkable moment possible and I was glad we did it, at least at that moment.
The flock continued to make passes around our blind, seeming convinced that our spot was safe. The ducks were probably trying to decide if they wanted to join the flock of idiots bobbing around in frigid waters.
The Susie leading their flock probably wondered, “Wouldn’t a nice, dry soybean field be better?”
“I think they are getting ready to move on, Simmerman whispered. “Let’s shoot on the next pass.” I agreed and waited. “Take ’em,” and we stood up as cold wind and moisture pelted our faces.
“Wow,” I muttered out loud. “The ducks didn’t see us stand up.”
I took careful aim at the lead bird and lightly squeezed the trigger of my 870 Wingmaster.
The scaup tumbled into our decoys. The flock quickly realized their mistake and total confusion broke out across the sky.
I remember feeling amazement at how this large number of ducks could scramble in all directions while blind fright filled their brains, yet never run into each other. They gracefully regrouped and in a split second pumped their wings for altitude.
Simmerman dumped a second and third scaup into the lake.
We carefully slipped through a cut-out hole in the blind floor and stepped into the boat minutes later. We had three ducks floating and had to act quickly. The persistent northwest wind would quickly bob our ducks out of sight to be lost forever.
Our 25-horespower motor sputtered to life and I pushed us out from the blind’s boat area. Simmerman gunned the motor and soon our bow was pushing against the white-capping lake. Cold water splashed over the bow into our uncovered faces.
Chasing those bobbing ducks was an adventure. We killed those birds and were determined not to lose them, a definite rule of hunting. My imagination wandered. I could only imagine how members of Lewis and Clark’s group would have loved to dine on those scaup. Maybe they did dine on ancestors of the ducks we were retrieving.
Simmerman brought me back to the present with a command to get ready. I glanced up and saw a scaup floating high on the waves. Its buoyancy of thick plumage was impressive. I reached down and picked up the dead duck. We didn’t have to slow down for this retrieve – a plus in heavy waves and wind. The other ducks were picked up as easily and we turned back towards the blind.
Finally we climbed back into the blind. All equipment was secure and a taste of hot chocolate from Simmerman’s thermos, a Hershey bar and a ripe apple picked from a nearby orchard was just the needed treat. My mind started to wander again.
Surely Lewis and Clark must have been wintered north of here by this time. If not, they would have liked this area because of waterfowl that slipped in and out of the little oxbow. They could have found plenty of deer, turkey or small game in nearby woods after the waterfowl pushed south. This area has always held a lot of wildlife.
Simmerman woke me out of my daydream with welcome words for any waterfowl hunter.
“Here they come!”
I glanced out of the blind’s front slit to find another huge flock of scaup bearing down on us. But this flock was winging on the edge of a huge snow squawll. We sat and watch in amazement at this sight of ducks approaching, framed by a wall of snow. Any wildlife artist would have loved to view this scene for a painting. B
ut Simmerman and I are not artists. This sight would have to stay in the better sections of our minds.
I knew our decoys were working this time. The flock wanted to splash down and made a brief pass before setting their wings to land around our decoys. We both jumped up before duck feet touched cold lake water. My first shot dropped a drake and two more shots only touched falling snow. Simmerman’s only shot dropped another drake on the left. The ducks quickly disappeared back into the snowstorm.
We retrieved both ducks and were thinking about calling it a day. The snow was falling harder and we were chilled to the bone. Visibility was limited to almost nothing and we could no longer see incoming ducks. But a distant “honk” broke through the gloom. Geese!
The lone honk quickly became many honks as a big flock started flying over the lake’s upper end. We couldn’t see the snow-bound geese but their calls were getting louder.
“We might get a pass shot,” Simmerman said. “Get ready, they’re coming straight at us.”
My breathing became heavy. My heart started beating like a well-played conga drum. Large Canada geese boring in have that effect. We strained our eyes to see the approaching flock, but the snowstorm had not yet decided to give the big birds up. But they were getting closer. Lewis and Clark’s men must have become this nervous when geese approached. After all, they needed geese or almost any kind of wildlife for survival.
The first bird suddenly appeared, closely followed by the flock. We jumped up without a word and picked our goose. They were close. I swung just in front of a black bill, followed through and squeezed my trigger. The big goose folded in mid air and made a heavy splash in the river water. My goose floated close to Simmerman’s. I didn’t hear him shoot. We apparently pulled our triggers at the same time – a common occurrence in a waterfowl blind. The other geese quickly disappeared back into the wall of snow. We decided to pick up our geese and take the cold boat ride home.
Cold Missouri River water splashed in my face as we plowed home through white capping waves and a wall of falling snow that stung bare skin. A pot of clam chowder and a hot wood burning stove waited for us. I tried to imagine what type of stew waited for Lewis and Clark’s boys after a cold day, perhaps deer, hoot owl and sparrow or maybe duck. I only knew that we were cold and happy to sit beside that pot bellied stove after a remarkable day on the oxbow.
I always hate to see the ducks move further south, even though we know they’ll return to this pool next year. I guess it’s their tradition to return. Returning to this ancient oxbow is our tradition too.