The Last Great Duck Hunt

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An east wind and textbook diver shoot foreshadow the end of an era for a group of friends

An hour into the hunt, the show really began. Massive flocks of goldeneyes flew south and then began trickling back north in smaller bunches. Photo © Jim Nelson/Shutterstock

East winds typically deceive and confound. Even in literature, they often portend bad tidings or evil events.

But one bright November day, a light easterly breeze brought four rednecks to the pinnacle of their obsession and marked the end of a personal, gilded age of duck hunting. Even now, when the horizon blurs with gray and the winds shift east, I think back to that morning.

The Build Up

“The run,” as I called it, had begun in mid-November 2010. Dissatisfied with the few divers we’d found at traditional spots, my layout-hunting buddy Joe — the best duck hunter I know — and I began looking elsewhere. Always innovative and eager to hunt, he continually pushed me to explore new territory on the 130,000-plus-acre water we hunted. And we’d hit pay dirt immediately, locating dandy numbers of bluebills, redheads and buffleheads in relatively unpressured corners of the lake.

Some great hunts followed. Soon, our buddy Jesse, a relatively new open-water hunter who seemed like an old pro, joined in. And then my brother-in-law Jay, with whom I’d started diver hunting three decades earlier, came along. We enjoyed the remainder of that autumn together but didn’t realize our fresh success was only a prelude to the next three seasons.

In 2011, Joe, Jesse and I hit the water with new resolve and enthusiasm, and were immediately rewarded with heavy straps of ’bills, buffs, redheads and cans. And unlike previous years, when a couple of great hunts usually morphed into stale, unproductive stretches, we kept rolling, mostly because we were mobile and motivated. When the wind blew from the west, we’d hunt the lake’s western shore. When it tilted east, we’d hit our east-shore honey hole. Strong southerly winds had us tucked into a productive bay near a large harbor. Schedules sometimes kept everyone from going at once, but at least a few of us made it out to hunt almost every day.

Our collective roll continued in 2012 and 2013, with even greater success and forays into areas we’d never considered hunting. Almost everything we tried worked, and it seemed the good times would never end.

Which brought us to that east breeze in late November 2013. We’d pretty much burned out our west-shore spots and even our southeastern-corner honey hole. Further, with a straight east wind predicted, our options were limited. We decided to hunt a harbor we’d only plied once or twice, albeit with great success. We figured it was more of a scouting foray. We were dead wrong.

Sun Behind, Lake Ahead

We launched a bit late that morning, mostly because of the long drive around the massive lake from our west-shore homes. Jay had worked the night before and would join us later if the shooting was good. A few birds were trading about 500 yards from the launch, so Joe, Jesse and I quickly decided to motor south a bit and set up between two distant points.

The initial action was good, with Jesse missing a few ducks but then grinding through a limit after an hour. And when Joe entered the boat, the show really began. Good groups of bluebills and massive flocks of goldeneyes, the size of which we’d not seen in 20 years, zipped south to some unseen feeding area and then began trickling back in smaller bunches. Steady pops echoed from the layout boat, and we ran the tender boat nonstop for collection duties. After a while, we didn’t bother throwing the anchor or turning the motor off.

Soon, the second limit lined the rails of the tender, and it was my turn. Meanwhile, we’d called Jay with the report, and he was on the way.

Usually, layout shifts start with constant back-and-forth searching, looking for distant blips on the horizon or swiftly-approaching ducks on the deck. But that day, 95 percent of the divers came from the south, and they stood out like neon lights in the bright, late-fall sunshine. As they streamed over, I simply picked the best shots and let the hunt play out. Two singles fell quickly, and then a large group of whistlers decoyed perfectly. I waited until the last possible moment, and then picked off a triple as the birds floated over the spread. None were farther than 25 yards.

But I had a problem. As I hurriedly tried to reload, anticipating the approach of my final duck, I discovered I couldn’t jam shells in my gun. In fact, I couldn’t even close the action. The bolt slide link on my trusty Browning had sheared in half. My favorite gun — a constant companion during our diver run — had temporarily become a boat anchor.

Enter the tender boat and reinforcements. With Jay in tow, Joe and Jesse scooped up my ducks and loaned me a fresh gun. I used it once, five minutes later, and was done. It had been a great day, but something bigger was on the horizon.

At one point, the action was so steady that we didn't bother anchoring the tender boat or turning off the outboard. Photo © Shutterstock

Throughout our three-plus-year streak, we’d never taken a full four-man, 24-duck limit from the layout. We’d had many three-guy, 18-bird days, and even some low-20-something hunts when folks shot mergansers or a fourth gunner joined us. But that day, we finally had the chance to hit max capacity.

The suspense didn’t last long. Jay shot like a champ, and the ducks continued to perform, even though the sun stretched high into the sky. And when No. 24, a brilliant drake redhead, hit the water dead, we realized we’d finally achieved layout perfection: 16 whistlers, seven bluebills and that one redhead. Twenty were stunning drakes.

A Thud, and Aftermath

We motored slowly on the way back, mostly because we wanted to savor the moment, and also because Joe’s 18-footer was at maximum capacity with four husky dudes and 100 decoys. As we neared the harbor, though, he hit the throttle to clear some skim ice, and a loud bang erupted from the motor.

Figuring we’d struck a rock, Joe trimmed the motor up for a look. Nope. The prop and lower unit were fine. But a simmering smoke told the real story: We’d blown up his outboard. The old motor was ruined, and that boat never saw the water again.

That was a strange harbinger for the years that followed. The next season brought two new boats and the same crew of hunters. But things had changed. Joe’s wife died unexpectedly, forever changing his life and that of their children. And although we continue to hunt together, things will never be quite the same. They can’t be.

Our other buddies continued hunting, but in limited fashion. Jesse began enjoying deer hunting more than ducks, and his layout time dwindled. Jay simply couldn’t hunt as much, or maybe he didn’t want to. And although we had solid success during 2014, an early freeze ended that season ended prematurely. Eventually we realized that time and our lives had moved on from “the run.” Our streak was finished.

Even now, the crew still gets together, two or three at a time, to chase divers on open water. And many days, we do well. But as the years stretch on and seasons pass, I think back more to the shining morning when we shared our finest day of duck hunting and witnessed the culmination of a brief era.

Maybe we’ll start another run someday. Perhaps we’ll reunite on the water more frequently, carefree and eager to hunt as much as we used to. I hope so. But for now, a few photos from a perfect layout outing must suffice. Much like the flocks of migrating divers that grace the lake every autumn, that last great hunt will always be there in lore and memory: mostly out of reach.

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