By Steve Drake EBS CONTRIBUTOR
I stepped out into the darkness of early morning. It could have been colder by my estimate. Long johns may have been a bad decision. The moon was light enough to see my way to the pickup and my trusty chocolate lab, Avery, was hot on my heels. I could sense her excitement. She knew where we were headed.
The grey-mouthed old dog jumped into the cab like a puppy and with a turn of the key we were headed off. Old fashioned country came through the radio and it reminded me of riding out on some of my first hunting trips with my grandpa. I sipped my burnt coffee and drove through lonely city streets that carried me to a deserted interstate, and eventually to an empty dirt road.
I had to be early. It was opening day and if I didn’t head out early the hunters who lived closer to the lake would beat me to the good spot. Not this year. The truck had been loaded days before, snacks were strategically placed, and the Mossberg shotgun was oiled and ready to roll.
But pulling off the main road, my headlights illuminated a camper parked in my best hunting spot. Grumbling I hopped out of the truck and threw on my waders and quickly smeared my face with black paint in hopes of hiding my face amongst the cattails. Avery didn’t seem as concerned about my savvy camping companions, more so impatient with my preparation. Like a camouflaged Santa, I tossed the decoy bag over my shoulder and began the descent to the water.
Already sweating, I stopped midway and gave the night a listen. I assumed the other group of people was right ahead of me but I couldn’t hear any noise or see headlamps. Not even their dog was making a sound. They must be good. I was making enough noise for everyone and looked like a fool carrying too much of a load.
As I reached the edge of the water, it seemed I had struck a bit of luck; I couldn’t see a single decoy in the river. Those guys must have passed on the good spot and gone straight for the lakeside.
Without too much thought I hastily started to set up. The muddy ground slurped and gurgled as I trudged through the stinky bog and out into the water. Decoys set, I waded back to shore.
The stage was set, now all there was to do was wait for the morning light. A star-speckled, deep navy sky lightened and turned alight with beautiful reds and oranges. Color danced off the waves almost like a strange flame.
Excitement and anticipation had been running through my veins all morning. Minutes seemed like hours as I constantly checked my watch for the legal time to shoot. Five minutes left until it was officially opening day, and I couldn’t believe no one had pulled into the lot and set up down the way.
Tense moments began to fade like the wind and it became a surprisingly dead morning. Not a shot rang out across the whole lake. No birds were off in the sky. My grandpa always told me to go for your coffee in times like these and it was guaranteed to bring the birds, mid pour. I had no such luck.
Maybe it’s just a poor opening day, I thought. Then wingbeats raised my attention. I brought the gun instinctively to my eye, but it was all wrong. It was sporadic and oddly shaped. It was a lonely hawk which almost appeared to laugh at me as it jumped around in the sky.
The sun was coming up over the hill behind me and I could tell it was going to be a beautiful but hot blue-sky day. I shed some clothes and finally spotted my first flock of ducks moving in the sky. They were far off in the distance, but at least they existed. Maybe I would go for that coffee.
Then I heard a resounding boom.
The silence of the day and the seal on the season was broken. I was sure that shot from my neighbors would kick off a chain reaction of birds and bring a tornado of feathers to me. Off in the distance an army of webbed feet was spattering the surface of the water as they took to the sky. I did my best to make a case for them to come see me with my duck call, but it was no use. It seemed I was doomed to spend the morning with ducks of the plastic variety.
Still it was better than a day at the office. The morning brought more gunshots and sounds of boats far off on the lake, accompanied by the obvious sound of people laughing. My neighbors seemed pretty loud for duck hunting.
Irritated, I abandoned my spot in the river and took a short jaunt over to the lakeside. I could hear the other hunters shooting but I couldn’t really see where they were. Then a lone mallard duck flew right over my decoys, soaring no more than 15 feet out to my left. Without thinking, my Mossberg was up and tracking the bird in the air.
After a brief hesitation—I was thinking of that hawk—I fired and the victorious sound of the duck smacked the water. Avery plunged after the bird and in an instant the adrenaline was back in full force.
Avery expertly dropped the bird at my feet, and we sat back down as still as we could be, trying to control the excitement. Five minutes later another bird hit the water and my trusty sidekick retrieved it. Then nothing.
Sitting on the side of the lake and with coffee running dangerously low, my mind began to drift. There sure were a lot more power boats out this year. And there was even a paddleboard. If it was hot enough for them, no wonder the duck hunting was so bad.
Just then, movement among the green cattail caught my eye. I crouched low and tried to peer through the breaks in the leaves to see what it was. It was a hen merganser and not a few inches behind her were half a dozen little ones. I’d never seen birds so young on a duck hunt before. Maybe it was time to call it and wait for better, colder weather.
As I crested the hill on my way back to my pickup I spotted another truck that had crept its way into the parking lot. It was white, kind of dirty, with a distinct emblem placed dead center on the driver’s side door.
The game warden snapped his head my way, seeming surprised by my presence, and I nodded friendly in that Montana way people do. I tossed my decoy bag in the back of the pickup and as I looked over, I realized the campers I was hearing all morning were not hunting at all; the gunshots were from them shooting paper targets off the road.
I waved but they didn’t seem very friendly. The warden must have shut down their shooting.
When the warden made his way over, he was friendly. He introduced himself and we began chatting about the day. I told him I’d gotten a couple mallards and he asked to take a look at my license and birds.
He had eyes that were squinted like he had been in the sun all his life and had a monotone growl to his voice. Avery sat next to him and waited for acknowledgement. He nodded in approval at my tags, scratching Avery behind the ears as he did so.
Once dismissed, I finished loading. I was headed down the interstate when I caught sight of that white truck quickly approaching in my rear-view mirror. The warden flipped on his lights and I turned on my turn signal to move over to the side of the road.
He walked up to me huffing and puffing as if he had something caught in his throat and he squinted those eyes at me as if he was trying to read my expression. In an oddly embarrassed tone of voice he asked me a very simple question: “Do you know that duck season isn’t for another month?”
I didn’t answer immediately, puzzled by his words. I grabbed the regulations off my dash and started thumbing through the pages. By the time I found the season date page, there was no need. It started to sink in.
I had read the date for upland game bird season—read grouse and turkey—not migratory bird season—read ducks. I looked over at the warden with dumbfound eyes.
“I had to get back into service to check myself because you just seemed so confident that you were all good,” he said.
Standing on the interstate with only my long johns on and camo paint all over my face, it felt like noon traffic just kept coming on by and staring me down. The warden confiscated my ducks and handed me a ticket.
So take it from me. Double check the regulations before you head out this season, and if you want to get the best spots, it’s best to start out early. But not too early.
Steve Drake is a Bozeman filmmaker and local outdoorsman.