Duck Ship of Fools

  • Fog, Friends, Food, Fun – All About Duck Hunting
  • Farms Ponds Frozen, Search Reservoirs for Quacker’s
  •   Using Google Maps and Digital Reckoning
The fog might not have contributed to hunting success, but it did create some memorable moments.
The fog might not have contributed to hunting success, but it did create some memorable moments.

By Jim Low

Like a faithless lover, duck hunting is hard to give up on.  I, along with many other Missouri waterfowlers, wrote off the 2016-2017 duck season as a bad job weeks ago.  But when hunting buddy and long-time friend Bill Powell asked me to join him on one last hunt at Pomme de Terre Lake, the siren’s song was irresistible.  Here was a chance to redeem an otherwise disappointing season with a mixed bag of divers and puddle ducks.  Who knew?  Maybe a brace of canvasbacks awaited us.

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Despite difficulties with equipment and fog, we arrived in plenty of time to set up a convincing decoy spread.

A large part of Bill’s motivation lay in testing the blind he was building for his new duck boat.  I might have seen the handwriting on the wall when, the night before our departure, he admitted that work on the blind had not progressed as hoped.  Instead of hunting from the comfort of his boat, we would motor to our chosen spot and hunker down in brush at the water’s edge.

My misgivings vanished when I woke to dress at 2 a.m. and peered out the bedroom window.  The fog was thick enough to stir with a spoon.  Duck weather!  By the time we got to Wheatland Park on Pomme de Terre’s northwestern shore, the air was so thick I had to ground-guide Bill as he backed the trailer down the boat ramp.  Launching the boat turned out to be the least of our problems.  The new 25HP Mercury motor stubbornly refused to catch, despite repeated mental review of the starting checklist.  Tank full?  Check.  Fuel Line connected?  Check.  Vent open?  Check.  Primer bulb pumped and firm?  Check.  But still no ignition.  Ten minutes and several expletives later, Bill discovered the missing item on his list.  Kill switch?  On!  Switch to off position…Varoom!

With motor purring like a contented tiger, Bill turned the bow into…an impenetrable fog bank.  The boat ramp was still visible, so Bill knew which direction was north.  All we had to do was motor three-quarters of a mile due south.  But even in our sleep-deprived condition we were sharp enough to know we would lose our bearings the moment the shoreline disappeared, and Bill’s boat had no compass or GPS unit to guide us.  With the boundless and equally unjustified confidence inspired by technology, I whipped out my smart phone and launched Google Maps.  In seconds, I was looking at a dot (us) moving slowly across the screen headed – due north?

“Turn around!” I shouted over the motor’s roar, fearing we might crash into the shore we had just left.  Bill dutifully turned what he judged to be 180 degrees and soon had us headed – due east.  “Turn right!” I shouted over the motor’s roar.

This went on for five or 10 minutes, until the boat ramp appeared again.  That’s when it dawned on me that the cursor on my phone’s screen had changed from the usual arrow, with its pointy end indicating direction of travel, to a largish dot with a funnel shaped thing protruding from one side.  This led to several questions.  Why had the cursor changed?  Had I accidentally switched a setting?  Did Google Maps automatically make the change when we went from land to water?  From day to night?  Was that funnel supposed to be the wake behind our boat or a beam of light preceding it?

This, in turn, led to several minutes of fumbling with settings, widening and narrowing the view to find landmarks and ordering Bill to go faster, slower, stop, turn left, turn right and stop altogether while I tried to figure out how facts on the water related to the image on my screen.  About this time, Bill looked up and exclaimed, “Oh, there it is!” Apparently I had navigated us – entirely by accident – to the desired spot.  Never ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, we proceeded to transfer our hunting gear to shore so Bill could motor farther down the cove (keeping the shoreline in sight!) and hide the boat.  Meanwhile, I began setting out decoys.

Everything went smoothly until I dumped the bag containing scaup decoys on a 100-foot jerk line.  There was evidence of an elegant scheme to keep decoy cords and the main line orderly.  However, that effort had been defeated by the hurly-burly of tossing decoy bags into and out of truck and boat.  Utter chaos now prevailed, and a pocket knife seemed the only remedy.  Bill set about deploying the other decoys while I applied years of experience with tangled baitcasting reels to the diver rig.  Amazingly, I had it mostly untangled by the time shooting light arrived.

That’s when Bill discovered that he had left our stools and food in the truck.  No matter.  We had managed to remember our guns and ammo, and we had camo netting to drape over buttonbush and willows to create individual blinds.  We were set.  All we needed was ducks.

Late-season hunts on southern Missouri’s big Corps of Engineers reservoirs are most productive when neighboring ponds and streams are frozen.  That had been true the previous week.  However, the past few days had been warm, and puddle ducks now were contentedly preening on a thousand farm ponds.  So, we pinned our hopes on diving ducks, whose preference for big water keeps hunters in business at Pomme de Terre regardless of weather.

We did see a few goldeneyes and ringnecks, but none that showed significant interest in our decoys.  The only shots we fired were at a pair of Canada geese that strayed dangerously close around 8 a.m.  Feathers drifted down as the pair disappeared into the fog.  Moments later, we heard honking out on the water a few hundred yards away.  The distressed calling continued and it seemed clear that one of the birds was down.  Bill hotfooted it back to the boat with his retriever, Hector, and went in search of the crippled bird. They returned empty-handed half an hour later.

Bill’s dog Hector had a great time retrieving sticks while we worked with decoys, and he slept like the dead during the drive home.
Bill’s dog Hector had a great time retrieving sticks while we worked with decoys, and he slept like the dead during the drive home.

Two hours and several decoy adjustments later, we admitted defeat and collected our gear.  As we motored back to the boat ramp, Bill noticed that his shotgun was missing.  Back to the point we went and retrieved the gun in its cunningly camouflaged case.  At least the fog had lifted, and we could find our way without digital assistance.

At the ramp, we experienced what we thought was our final humiliation of the day. Earlier in the morning, when Bill pulled up to park his truck after launching the boat, the fog apparently had confused him so thoroughly that he parked 50 yards too far downhill. As a result, his trailer was blocking half of the boat ramp’s width.  “Did I really do that?” Bill asked in dismay. Yep.  He sure did.  The one boater who arrived after us had kindly refrained from leaving a nasty note or scratches on Bill’s new truck.  But he surely must have had some choice words for the rubes who preceded him.

On our way home, as Hector snoozed contentedly between us, we decided to visit a pond owned by one of my neighbors.  Geese regularly visit there, spreading gooey green poop liberally across lawn and sidewalk.  She is delighted to have me visit periodically and put the fear of God in these feathered manure spreaders.  To simplify our approach, we traded vehicles, putting guns and retriever in my truck for the trip to the pond.

Alas, we found it deserted, dashing our last hope.  I dropped Bill and Hector back at his truck before heading home, ready for a nap.  Then I realized that Bill hadn’t retrieved his shotgun from the back of my truck.  After a quick phone call, we both reversed directions and returned to our rendezvous point to do a final sorting of gear.  He still ended up with my phone charger, but that was small potatoes in the Chinese fire drill that our day had become.

Every hunt creates memories, regardless of whether game is taken.  If nothing else, our last duck hunt of the 2016-17 season resulted in a full limit of stories to tell.