Wind moaned in the darkness; predawn North Dakota; sunrise a broken promise. Windows rattled in the old farm house. The big lab whined, restless, his toe nails clicked on wooden floor. Coffee brewed; the only optimism in the air.
“Wind chill’s eleven.”
“Above or below zero?”
The lake where we’d hunted ducks the past two days would be frozen. The air temperature was four, maybe five above. The lake had been open last night but showed the flat sheen of water making ice. Surely, it would be locked up.
“More coffee?” We drank coffee; daylight showed in pale shades of gray. We gave it an hour then left the house. It was still very cold and the wind was strong from the north. We drove four miles on rutted and frozen gravel two lane as the wind blew snow across the road.The farm fields rolled off in gentle rises and were lost to the falling snow.
We crested the hill and Ted stopped the truck. The sun had broken through the haze of snow and the lake ahead was sheathed in rising steam; it was very much open. We reached for binoculars. Geese and ducks and swans showed like spirits through the clouds of steam, spectral birds that seemed part of the air or the snow as if dream visions of birds not flesh and feather.
We backed off, moved down the road, parked. We’d hunt pheasants in a low slough where the wind might not be as bad.
We walked the cattails and thick cover next to the frozen wetland; corn stood nearly. A perfect setup for pheasants.
We hunted an hour and never saw a bird.
The day prior we’d walked a mile along a similar area; cattails and marsh to our left; cut corn for 30 yards then standing corn. We’d had birds go up, dozens of flushes; three dozen? Four dozen? We did not count them only saw them; big wild pheasants rising over the marsh.
The big lab worked like a machine, a black fur-clad reaper in the thick of it all driven by pheasant scent. He is a long-legged powerhouse of a labrador, driven to hunt. When we rested him he lay still, his chiseled head showing the stoic nobility of black labs, his face nicked and raw from pushing through the heavy, coarse cover
Ted shot well; I shot abysmally. I missed textbook-easy shots at big roosters, the heavy gun pounding my shoulder as if in rebuke of my efforts. I felt, standing on the frozen ground, that I could easily take a step backward in the evolution of the hunt, go to bow and arrows or spear or just thrown rocks and have no discernible difference in my success.
I thought to myself: For all the years I’ve done this, I’m still not a very good shot and to expect otherwise is to expect nothing less than an act of magic or a miracle on a par with the parting of the seas.
But that was a day past and time was running out. The third day, for me, of a three-day hunt in the center of North Dakota, duck and goose heaven where birds were plentiful and game bags heavy. We gave up on pheasants and drove back to the farmhouse. The truck’s thermometer showed 9 above. The wind seemed to mock us.
We hauled decoys and blinds, shotguns and shells and a canoe and settled in on the lee shore of a small point that jutted into the lake. There was very little natural cover. We used layout blinds, a somewhat diabolical but very effective blind in which the hunter lies flat on their back on what is essentially a reclining lawn chair but low, only a few inches above ground level. The blind has sides and a hinged top and the entire contraption resembles a camouflaged coffin. When birds draw near the hunter lifts up, tosses the top aside and blazes away.
I did not do well with the layout blind. Ted would rise with little apparent effort and shoot with uncanny accuracy. I flailed mightily, fighting to fling the cover aside as if trapped inside a human-sized taco. I rarely got shotgun to shoulder. Once my camouflage hat caught on the side of the blind and forced down over my face effectively rendering me blindfolded.
In the darkness of such state I heard the sound of Ted’s shotgun and when I pulled the hat from my eyes saw a duck fall. “Did you shoot?” he asked. I mumbled something about feeling like a jack-in-the-box and sunk back down.
Ducks moved; mallards and redheads, canvasbacks and bluebills, goldeneyes and buffleheads. We had steady shooting. It never got above 12 degrees. When we quit late in the afternoon the decoys were sheeted in ice.
The day before I arrived the wind had blown a gale from the north and the ducks and geese and swans had flown. “Twenty years of hunting and I’ve never seen so many,” was one report. The wind never stopped and the birds flew every day, high and rapid-winged, flock after flock, tens of thousands for three days.
On the afternoon of my final day their numbers were dwindling. The migration had passed, the ducks and the geese and the swans. Swans are the last to migrate. When they’re gone it’s over.
We loaded the truck on the high hill overlooking the lake. I stood and in the chill air came a wild call, the sound of swans, one more flock. The afternoon sun angled low and caught the pure white of swans against the blue sky and dark cloud. In that moment all was caught as if a photo; the swans and the sky and the land and water. Then the swans were gone and the sky was silent and empty. The hunt was over. We started the truck for home.