Sunup was rapidly approaching as I started tossing out decoys. Had I shown up earlier, perhaps I would have bagged some of the ducks and geese that passed overhead. Or maybe I would have just shot holes in the sky. I’m pretty good at that.
An unfamiliar sound made me look up to see two trumpeter swans pass overhead. They were monstrous, easily twice the size of the Canada geese that had just gone by. Trumpeters are now summer residents of the North Shore, mostly inhabiting lonely places where few people go. Although I’ve encountered them every autumn for about a decade, they remain “new” to me. That’s why I didn’t immediately recognize the distinctive call.
The swans disappeared, likely retreating to a quieter place in the swamp. Having tossed out a handful of decoys (all you really need up here), I tried to hide the canoe in the muskeg. My efforts were marginally successful, as were efforts to conceal myself and the dog among the weathered gray trunks of a pair of long-dead trees. I’d hunted from this spot once a few years ago. Since the hide is off the line-of-sight for approaching ducks, the lack of concealment was less of an issue. But now it seemed the dead trees were further from the water’s edge, too far to drag the canoe. It was quickly apparent that the ducks were suspicious of the set-up.
A pair of mallards came in unseen and plopped down at the far edge of the decoys. They refused to swim closer. Other ducks showed interest, then veered from my position. This presented a dilemma: Move during the short period of waterfowl activity at first light, or hang tight hoping some birds would pass within range? I chose the latter.
All of this was new to Rainy, my yellow Lab. In his first two years of hunting I had another, older dog as well, so we stuck to grouse in the uplands and sneaking ducks on remote beaver ponds. He seemed confused by this new endeavor. He knew by the presence of the shotgun that we were hunting, but he didn’t know anything about decoys or waiting in a blind. If I didn’t keep a finger on his collar, he began to wander about, which is not conducive to fooling incoming ducks. Not that it really mattered. The ducks were giving us a wide berth, anyway.
I sat it out for an hour and a half; then decided to move deeper into the marsh, where small flocks were trading back and forth. Paddling through the marsh, it was hard to find any place where the floating bog provided enough cover to hide a man, a dog and a canoe. Stashing the canoe some distance from the blind (it is easier to hide just a man and dog) was problematic, because walking across the floating bog was neither fun nor predictable. Let’s just say that in places, the floor of the marsh is a seemingly bottomless layer of loon doo doo.
Finally, I found a spot where I could toss out decoys and hide from the birds. Again, ducks buzzed around as I did so. By the time we tucked in to hide, they were gone. We waited for more. Unfortunately, the morning activity period was coming to an end.
This doesn’t mean the skies were empty, just that what was flying were not ducks. Northern harriers floated over the muskeg. I watched one pounce in the sedges, but was too far away to determine if it successfully made a kill. Migrating eagles crossed the marsh. Is it just me, or do there seem to be a few more bald eagles every year? Small raptors to distant to identify (at least by me) cried out from perches in the snags. Blue jays and ravens were nearly always in view overhead.
Restless, I walked along the shoreline to a rock outcropping and climbed up to look across the marsh. Perhaps a half mile away I could see about a dozen white pillows; distant trumpeter swans. I stood there for a few minutes, just enjoying the view. Then the dog and I took a short walk in the woods to see what we could see. The short answer was, not much. We put up a grouse twice, but never caught more than a glimpse of it. We returned to the canoe.
The ducks that had been buzzing around at daybreak were no longer in the sky. Sliding the canoe into the water and picking up the decoys, I decided to paddle up a side channel where I’ve often flushed resting ducks at midday. A bumper crop of wild rice made for tough paddling. You could see where the ducks had pulled rice from the stalks. In places, there were so many duck feathers on the water it looked like the aftermath of a pillow fight. Ducks began flying out of the channel. It was clear that this was a favored midday retreat. From experience, I knew some would remain until I reached the beaver dam that blocked further progress by canoe.
Suddenly, a dinosaur sounded alarm above and behind me. I turned to see three sandhill cranes pass overhead. Were I hunting for cranes, they were well within shotgun range. I wasn’t, so I just enjoyed watching them. I can remember when sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans were uncommon sights in the Northwoods. Some things do improve over time.
Shortly after the cranes passed, I pulled up to a forested bank to do a sneak on the beaver pond. Wearing waders, I stepped out of the canoe into knee-deep water. My foot found no purchase on a slippery clay bottom. With little fanfare and a big splash, down I went. The waders mostly prevented a soaking, but not entirely. The only thing hurt was my pride.
On a cold day, it would have been a miserable paddle back to the landing. But it was nice out. In all, it was a fine morning adventure. Oh yeah, I shot a couple of ducks, too.