Duck seasons can dawn bright and cold, warm and humid, or dark and wet, and openers might be filled with the hiss of slicing wings or the awkward silence of an empty marsh. But however it arrives, the first day of duck season always carries anticipation and promise.
That tingling anticipation and anxious suspense first hit me almost four decades ago, as a dreary, rainy night slowly morphed into a crisp, breezy October day, and hundreds of birds I’d only read about filled the sky above Pool 9 of the Mississippi River in southwestern Wisconsin. I brought home only one awkwardly ground-swatted hen mallard that day but had taken the first steps along a lifetime journey of passion.
Thirty-eight openers later, little has changed. The pre-dawn black of Sept. 1 found me stumbling through a goldenrod-laced field, following a hazy spotlight toward a hidden slough where we’d spend Wisconsin’s 2016 teal and early goose season opener. A late-summer cold front had boosted my optimism, but recent heavy rains had spread birds out, likely making hunting more difficult. No worries. We were afield, and that’s all that mattered.
My host, Jeremy Dersham, owner of Ridge and River Running Outfitters, instructed Zach Schulenburg and me to place duck and goose decoys in a large combo spread. As hazy sunlight began to illuminate the water, I tossed my final block and plopped a stool down next to Dersham’s father, Terry, and scanned the horizon. Schulenburg and Seth Miller prepared to video the action for an upcoming Scoutlook film. Legal shooting hours for geese had opened, but we’d have to wait until 9 a.m. to shoot teal. Meanwhile, we watched wood ducks file past us and flocks of mallards dump into the blocks without circling.
“Man, I wish they were legal,” someone said, knowing those gullible mallards would soon morph into the skittish, paranoid birds that consistently frustrate hunters most of the season.
During the next hour, two flocks of geese gave us a look but didn’t commit. We debated whether the decoys were set correctly, but the spread looked good to me. Several dozen honkers had been loafing during midday at the area, and our mix of floaters and full-bodies in a small bay seemed realistic. Besides, teal beckoned, so we hunkered down for action.
The first hour saw decent shooting, as a single and then two nice flocks of greenwings committed to the spread, and our Kent Teal Steel cartridges performed admirably. Dersham’s Lab, Spike, churned through the water, delivering several tiny ducks to hand. But as the sun rose high and temperatures increased, the flight slowed. Dersham managed a single goose at about noon, but we soon decided to take photos and plan for Day 2, happy with our birds.
The next morning brought fog and cooler temperatures. Oh, and Wisconsin state duck and goose calling champion Troy Maaser joined the group, too. If nothing else, we’d hear some sweet mallard and honker music during our hunt.
A few teal zipped through during the first hour, and we shot a couple. But again, when the sun burned bright, action stalled, and I wondered if we were through. Maaser had a different idea.
“Geese,” he said. “There.”
As I located the flock of 12-plus birds in the distance, Maaser was already into his routine, alternately imitating a lonely goose and an excited flock, with interspersed moans adding realism to the serenade. Honestly, I listened to him more than I monitored the geese, as I knew I was hearing something special.
But about those geese — they were coming. Actually, they had locked on to Maaser’s call and were soon cupped with their feet down at 15 yards. Someone called the shot, and eight birds dropped from the sky.
“That was … that was … awesome,” I said, stammering.
Profound? No. But I guess it summed up an incredible moment in the marsh. Such scenes aren’t made during hazy summers or bitter, bleak Februaries. They’re the stuff of autumn — of great early-season events and the promises of more north winds and evening campfires to come.
We relived the hunt for a few minutes and then decided to pack up, content with our birds and snippets of great action. Retrieving, bagging and hauling out the decoys required plenty of work, and we were soaked and mostly spent when we finished. But that sweat and the aching muscles that followed mattered little. It was on. We were there. Waterfowl hunting season had begun, and we’d received a nifty taste of the treats ahead.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.