Guide Mike Franklin calls mallards.
Even so, I tried to temper my expectations. Disappointment is the norm that makes the great hunts great, so statistically speaking, disappointment was what I should expect.
Mostly I just hoped I’d get along well with Regina, the new co-worker I’d invited to join me on this trip. We’d be doing three days of hunting sandwiched by two 12-hour drives from Sacramento to eastern Washington. It would really, really suck if we didn’t like each other.
It turned out Regina wouldn’t be the problem. Our journey to Washington was a non-stop pleasant get-to-know-you fest.
But something did go very wrong: An inauspicious wrong turn in central Oregon led to some tense driving over a snowy pass that landed us on the coast when we needed to be, oh, three hours inland. And in my attempt to make up for lost time, I got a speeding ticket (thank you, officer, for cutting 8 mph off my actual speed – “It’ll save you $100,” he said).
The high point of the debacle came when we stopped at Wendy’s in The Dalles. I asked for bourbon at the drive thru, and I apparently sounded so needy that the girl gave me a big cup of ice cream for free. (“When did Wendy's stop serving hard liquor to motorists?” my friend Andrew asked later on Facebook.)
Eventually, we arrived, unpacked with great haste and enjoyed a nightcap of some cinnamon whiskey that Regina had bought. Yes, it was a sham when I asked for bourbon at the drive-thru – our car had been loaded with all kinds of whiskey.
From left: The author, Colton and Regina after a ridiculously successful hunt.
Everything went normally when we met Mike and his new guide Colton the next morning. Oh-dark-thirty, no coffee with caffeine in the hotel room (curses!), hoarse sleep-deprived greetings, a 20-minute drive out into the darkness. Blah blah blah.
When we finally arrived at the blind, I could hear the mallards in the water and see their dim shadows as they departed. So far, so good. We set out decoys and dropped into the blinds, where I was a bit shocked at the narrow openings we’d be shooting through – about a foot wide and three feet high.
I was feeling claustrophobic, and indeed, when Mike called the first shots at singles and doubles, it was really hard to get my gun around that opening, but Regina and I did drop those birds.
Setting up in a flooded corn pond.
Then, it happened. The mallards started coming in, wave after wave, enticed by that aerated water, Mike’s pull-string motion decoy, and Mike’s and Colton’s duck call duet.
Teal landed. “Don’t shoot them,” Mike said.
Mallards landed. “Wait,” Mike said as he called the bigger group.
Wave after wave hovered over the water, wings cupped, holding still, giving us plenty of time to single out the green heads. That’s when I understood the narrow opening: We were shooting ducks that were, for the most part, right in front of us. Our biggest worry would be avoiding shooting the ones that were too close – I’m all about the duck dinner, and a mallard center-patterned at seven yards doesn’t make the best table fare.
Mallards, mallards and more mallards.
Regina and I kept looking at each other, eyes wide.
“Holy shit!” I said. Maybe more than once. OK, a lot. And I think I added a few more adjectival expletives. It was unreal.
In less than an hour, we had our limits. All mallards. A couple hens marred the otherwise perfect day. “Let’s get out of here and let the birds back in,” Mike said.
The next day, we did it again, and I got my first-ever all drake limit, marred by a bull sprig that my gun moved to involuntarily. Mike had raised his eyebrows at that. “Glad you got rid of him,” he said. “We don’t want them here.”
Regina got her first band. And I pulled off something that blew my mind: I took a photo of the birds in our face, carefully set down my camera, picked up my gun, and stoned a greenhead in one shot. It took less than an hour to get our limits, and again, Mike hustled us out of there to let the birds rest.
Willy waits for shoot time.
And on the third day, we did it yet again – full limits of mallards. I missed a couple ducks and dropped a hen, but I got my limit in 25 minutes nonetheless.
It’s been a few days since I got home from that hunt, and every time I think about it, I’m still just stunned. I’ve enjoyed some really excellent hunts in my nine seasons, some hunts that I thought would be the best I’d ever have, and none of them had come even close to this.
The worst thing about these hunts was how fast they were over, and the second worst thing was how badly they had spoiled me. By the third day, I was just taking for granted that the shooting would be astonishing and endless, and I was right.
But I’m pretty sure those drawbacks won’t scar me too badly. I’ll be visiting Mike again next year for sure. Hunting with him was the kind of adventure that makes you want more, more, more.
Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com
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