Last weekend marked more than over-consumption of turkey and football, with spending sprees on Black Friday. Sundown on Sunday also marked the end of Montana’s 2012 general big game hunting season.
For some lucky hunters, the season has been over a long time because they got lucky and filled the freezer early in the season. For others, Sunday marked the end of five weeks of frustration, when we start explaining that actual hunting is just a small part of the experience. The camaraderie and fresh air is what it’s all about.
With the exception of some late seasons or damage control hunts, however, big game hunting is done for another year, though that doesn’t mean hunting is over. For some, hunting season is just getting interesting.
We’ve now had some winter storms and that means ducks and geese, which had been enjoying autumn fattening up on grainfields on the northern prairies of Montana and Canada, are heading farther south in search of food and open water.
When we lived in eastern North Dakota, duck hunting was mostly an October sport, as more often than not, by November there would be a blast of arctic weather that would freeze most of the wetlands, pushing the ducks south.
Here in southwest Montana we have rivers and creeks that seldom freeze, including warm water spring creeks that never freeze, and these waters attract ducks in numbers that often seem incredible.
I often recall a day some years ago, two Labs ago as I recall, when my dog and I made a sneak on a bend on the Beaverhead River. As we got within shooting range of the river a few mallards flushed. I picked out a drake and shot, dropping the duck. There was a moment of expectant silence and then the air exploded with the sight and sound of a thousand mallards taking to the air all at once. I stood there, my jaw and gun open, stunned by the sight of a solid wall of ducks in front of me, with iridescent blues and greens from the ducks’ wings and heads sparkling in the pale sun of early winter.
Then the ducks were gone, while I stood there wishing I’d been carrying a camera with the presence of mind to try to catch the ducks on film (this was before digital cameras, of course). Alix, my old chocolate Lab on one of the last hunts of her career, waded out into the river shallows to retrieve the duck while I did my best to process, in my mind, the sight of all the ducks I’d seen.
My preference for late season ducks is jump shooting, meaning my dog and I try to sneak up on these secluded creeks and ponds, hoping to get some shooting when the ducks flush.
It’s a fun way to hunt, and in some respects it’s like hunting pheasants, with lots of walking and then shooting at flushing birds. It’s also a guessing game, trying to guess where the ducks might be. Sometimes, I can get a look at look through binoculars at distant parts of a creek, but usually it’s a matter of walking quietly to spots where I’ve learned ducks hang out on cold nights.
Lots of things can go wrong. Sometimes I guess wrong and we’ll come in on a creek and the ducks will flush out of range, or I’ll lose control over my dog and she’ll run and ahead and flush the ducks prematurely. Even when things come together and we put up the ducks in good range, it can be difficult to pick out individual drake mallards and concentrate on one duck instead of the flock of ducks. Also, I use a double-barrel shotgun, meaning that after I’ve shot twice, the ducks are gone, and all too often I’ve totally missed.
Still, things occasionally work right and we come home with a few ducks often enough to keep me going back out on wintry mornings. The ultimate reward, taking a plump, juicy roast mallard out of the oven, makes it all worthwhile.