Extreme opener: Sometimes waterfowling hurts

Mental toughness is more than half the battle when you face adverse conditions in the outdoors.

When I rolled out of bed at 3:45 a.m. on Dec. 26 for the Western Zone duck and South Area goose openers, the first place I checked was the weather report – then my voicemail.

The weather report showed it was 7 degrees with winds out of the west at 15 to 20 miles per hour and gusts to 30. The wind chill had to be below zero. There was no voicemail from John Van Hoff of North Tonawanda saying we were going to wait until things warmed up. The hunt was a go.

I had to question my sanity. I already knew the guys I was to hunt with were crazy – Randy Tyrrell of North Tonawanda, Bob Lods of Cheektowaga and Paul Sawicki of Angola rounding out our crew of insane waterfowl warriors.

I spent nearly a half-hour getting dressed, making sure I had plenty of layers of clothing. It started with Ice Armor longjohns, jeans with a flannel long sleeve shirt and some heavy saddlecloth camouflage outer garments. Before I put my jacket on, I threw on a hooded sweatshirt and a scarf. I had a pair of shooting gloves that would be going under some fingerless mittens. My boots were some heavily insulated ice-fishing pull-ons that barely fit due to the fact I had two pairs of thick hunting socks. I moved more like the Michelin man than a waterfowl hunter.

It was difficult to get into the front seat of my truck to drive. As I gulped down hot coffee and a leftover ham and egg sandwich, I wondered how cold it would actually be on a wooden dock extending out into the Upper Niagara River. As we met in Tyrrell’s garage, we wondered how long we would last, how the birds would be flying and whether there would be many people on the water hunting.

The first order of business was digging the 14-foot aluminum boat out and getting the outboard motor to fit on the stern. Everything was ice-covered. It took 15 minutes to get things into place, Van Hoff working some magic. Four pulls on the motor was all it took and it fired up.

The decoys were next. The plan was to set out four strings of four decoys for three species – mallards, bluebills and whistlers. A total of four dozen decoys should be enough. A pre-established route was established as Van Hoff would swing around the dock pointing out into the river. Tyrrell would hand him the weight after we fed the strings down from a nearby sun porch.

We also had to get some propane heaters on the dock behind our wooden blind, the only heat and protection that we would have. Remember, we were doing all of this in the dark. When the decoys were in place, we needed to set the boat up for easy access and departure to retrieve birds. We needed to tie on a portside line off the back corner to a dock post and I needed to take my gloves off to make the knot. One of my gloves fell in the water. Fortunately I had another, but it was my favorite shooting gloves.

As 7:15 a.m. – legal shooting time – neared, we were scrambling to get into place. Birds were already flying. Guns were loaded. Propane heaters were fired up. We were ready – finally.

Almost immediately, birds started to arrive on cue. Mallards were everywhere. We knocked three down in the initial flurry and Van Hoff hopped into the boat and motored out to pick them up. Before the last duck was retrieved (using a fishing net), we had more birds down. Van Hoff had to be getting cold out there. We stopped shooting so he could get in and warm up. And when he was ready, we let Van Hoff in before he needed to jump back in the boat and chase the birds down.

We had our limit of 20 mallards in short order. It was well before 9 a.m. when Tyrrell made the announcement that we couldn’t shoot any more mallards. We did have some Canada goose shooting, taking four birds, and we managed to take some buffleheads and whistlers.

In a quick change of plans, we decided to pull in all of the decoys and replace them with just a few whistler decoys. We felt it could be more appealing to attract some of the divers into shooting range. And we felt that the decoys on the water were hurting more than helping. Ice was forming on the back of the decoys and they looked shiny in the sun. When we pulled them, some of the decoys had more than an inch of ice on them.

While the plan didn’t work, in the end it made for a much easier pickup. We had to pull the boat off the water and knock off the ice. The motor had to be removed and put into the back of the truck. And, finally, we had to load 25 ducks and four geese into the back of the pickup.

Yes, it was a successful day. Combined with the extreme weather conditions, it will be a hunt we remember for a long time to come. We shared plenty of laughs, more than a box of shells each in shooting and memories that will last the rest of our lives. Now get me a hot shower and a hot cup of coffee!

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