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Aunt Betty

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Once I took a guy to my favorite timber hole. I was smashing em and wanted to share. He'd started me out at this particular venue. He'd let me hunt his private club I owed him so I got him on the phone and begged him to join me. He was on his lease 20 miles away so I kept pestering him and finally he said OK.
There were conditions. Don't bring your whole crew here and we are going to let at least one bunch land. He agreed but didn't quite understand.
So we met and I took him in my rig to the hole i use. LsT comes and its not long before a group of 6 greenheads land. Im like wait ..
He says are you kidding? No wait do not shoot.
Then another flock of twenty come in. By now he's starting to whimper and my dog is too. Wait....
Look up real quick...pick one out and shoot and keep on shooting until you are out.
He looks up. Holy smokes it is a ducknado!
Ducks were lined up and cupped as far as we could see.
Blam blam and six are on the water.

Reload. Be careful we only get two more....

He said he never in his wildest dreams could imagine that it could be like that. Yes it can. Oh yes it can..
 

Runnin' 87

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Thirty years ago he laughed at his grandfather for his walking stick. Ten years ago he laughed at his father about his walking stick, one like Grandpa’s. There he was, in the dark, four more steps to go, leaning on a walking stick, same as Grandpa, same as his Daddy. It was late in the season. The trips in and out of the duck blind had made these last few steps soft. After setting the decoys, pushing the boat into its own hide, and wading back to the blind, he had worked up a pretty good sweat. Here he was, leaning, puffing, and wondering why he had not added a few steps to this side of the blind. He wondered if the Old Men, now back in their prime, weren’t laughing at him now for leaning on the stick.


The corner of the blind bit his knee as he climbed in. He made his way to the seat, greeted by a lick and a cold nose. Best kiss in the dark ever, just don’t tell the ladies. Off with the cap, and jacket. Just for a few minutes to let the steam out. He knew he should have doffed them when he arrived thirty minutes earlier, always though, afraid of being late. Late for the best part that was beginning just now with a dim sliver of gray in the east. An almost imperceptible sliver of sky that was only slightly lighter than the black sheet that covered the remainder of the sky.


More kisses, warm then quickly cold on his cheek, as he leaned over for the battered thermos. The same thermos he had shared with the Old Men. He fumbled with the pour, burned his hand, and put the first sip down his chin. Getting another kiss at the same time. The dog had perfect timing.


The tickling of the reeds over his left shoulder singled the first breeze of the day. That put a chill on his head, and shoulders. He reached for his coat and cap. Orange now, the gray was now a sliver of orange. The next air that moved was not a breeze. Rhythmic whistling, and a splash. Ha!!! He couldn’t see them for the shadows. Just the occasional lambda parting among the decoys. A whimper from his right…”easy…it’s not quite time yet.”


Slowly he started filling his pipe now. His mind drifting back to the smell of Grandpa’s cherry tobacco drifting through the air. He could see him now, in his mind’s eye, with a half-cocked grin and his old pipe clinched in his teeth. A few puffs and a good coal was working. In a moment the briar would be warming his fingers. More orange now, purples, pinks, some blue starting to show. The last twinklers were fading fast.


“God. I hear that there is a hole in the floor of heaven…maybe a window…if you can find it in you grace. Can you part the curtains just a minute? Let us share these next few moments together?”


Splash and away that went. This time he could see their silhouettes rise from the low shadows, circling off to the left. He took a long draw, “ya’ll will be back”, as he cracked the barrels open. Then in one motion reached into his pocket, the brass of two shells between his thumb and two fingers, slid them into the chambers, snapped the gun closed, and checked the safety as he put it back into the rack just in front of him. “It’s time now” was his answer to the whimper and kiss on his right cheek.


There now…airy whistles from behind, had he been standing they might have knocked the hat of his head when they passed over. Dark silhouettes against the coming orange sky. Big turn to the right. Around, around…he sat the pipe down as the same hand touched the shotgun in front of him. Around…”keep coming you three.” Their wings set now, and they began the dance. Crossing left, right…coming closer. Trying to focus on one was impossible as they moved in and out of the shadows. “Come on…a little more.” The two in front crossed again. The third was lost in the dark now, but not, it emerged the dark as the leading bird. The two falling back and crossing again.


His left arm was lifting the shotgun, taking its full weight, and moving the barrel from the rack. “NOW BOY!!!” whispered through his mind as clearly as if had been spoken into his ear. Like a wave rising, he stood, the gun pressed into his shoulder. He felt the cold stock bite into his cheek. His thumb moved the safety forward. His finger touched the coolness of the trigger.


A breeze, the birds tilted, they crossed again…”THERE BOY… THERE” He heard no sound, just a sharp tug on his cheek, and there was the flat black image of two birds now falling in some twisted ballet. … “There you go boy, lift, lift, pull…pull through…press!” This time there was sound. Only it was an echo as the third duck tumbled on the pond.


Again, in a single motion, the barrels opened, his hand pulled the two spent hulls, dropping them as he reached for his pocket. Two cold pieces of brass between his thumb and two fingers, forward again, and closing the gun. Nothing moved…three white lumps on the water, one in pirouette, as the ballet came to a close.


“Back!!!” and away the dog went to do his duty. No more needed to be said. As he placed the gun back into the rack, he picked up his pipe. Puffing the coal back bright as the first duck was delivered to his hand. There was a splash, and without further word the dog was gone again. The dog knew where they were.


A smile…he felt a smile…bright orange now, deep purple and blue, a faraway cloud was giving some rays from the horizon. This was going to be a good one. That smile. It was not his. There were two now. Just for a moment, and they began to fade. They were gone by the time the dog returned with the third duck. He took the cold, smelly, shower in stride, and scratched the dog’s wet head. “Three minutes and we are halfway there.”


Wings….”Thank You God. Thank you for the moment.” Four more took the same right turn, and were coming. “Bubba…this ain’t going to take long today.” He sat the pipe down as he reached forward.
 

Mean Gene

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Have started writing a book revolving around my waterfowl hunting. Prologue and 4 stories in so far, and I'll go ahead and post them up here. This project is basically for my wife and kids...kind of hoping to "show" them a bit of what I "see" and maybe give them a better understanding of why I do what I do. Title of the book is "Misty Morning Memories".


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Prologue


For a duck hunter there is no more important part of the day than when the darkness fades away into the early morning light. It’s a magical time when all things come to life, and no matter how many times you take your seat in the theater, the show is never the same. It matters not how old you are, at the first hint of the curtain being drawn the anticipation of what might be breathes life into tired bodies and all waterfowlers are young again. True duck hunters are as attached to this time of the day as leaves are to trees. One simply cannot exist without the other. Memories made at dawn do not dwell within our minds, they become part of our hearts, forever growing in stature and in the end are larger than life.

I have watched this scene unfold for well over fifty years while chasing shadows in multiple states and two countries. Sometimes I feasted with kings, sometimes begged with paupers, but there isn’t one second of my time in the marsh that I would trade for anything else in the universe. When the day comes that I am unable to embrace that which I have loved for so many decades I will weep, but I will never forget.

Last year my daughters challenged me to write a short book based on a series of questions they provided. I enjoyed that project, so I decided to continue with a second volume. However, this time around I am providing my own set of “questions”. I will not do this simply for their enjoyment, but as a way to give them, and anyone else willing to listen, a glimpse into a part of my fabric that can never be unwound. Waterfowling is not who I am, it’s what I am. The story styles I will share here may vary from time to time, but everything contained between the covers of this book will be true. I want you to see what I have seen. I want you to feel what I have felt. So please, sit back in your chair by the fire and walk with me while I share with you my misty morning memories.
 

Mean Gene

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Under the Oaks


The old decoy carver put another log in the wood stove and thought about where he might hunt the next morning. He’d been spending quite a bit of time in the shop and he had more birds to finish, but what he really wanted to do was to put that one last goldeneye decoy in the water and see what would happen. It would be nice to actually get to hunt over one of his own decoys instead of just finishing them and sticking them in the mail for others to use. Turning his back to the stove so he could soak up some of the heat he began contemplating. “The river?” he thought, “Yes, I do believe I’ll try the river in the morning.” There was always a good number of divers there this time of the season, so tomorrow he’d place his one lone goldeneye decoy in the water with a few bluebills and mallards and see what might want to visit. With that he headed up to the shop, gathered his gear and loaded it in the back of the truck. “Better now than in the morning in the dark” he thought to himself.


The deciding of where to hunt in general had been easy enough, but now he had to consider where specifically he would go. The gravel bar? No, the water was too low for that to attract anything right now. How about just down from where Cottonwood Creek came in? No, maybe another time, but not tomorrow. Say, what about that place up there under the oak trees? It always seemed to hold wigeon and goldeneyes, and he’d never tried it before. What better place to take a decoy that had never been in the water than a place he’d never tried? And with that it was decided…under the oaks it would be.


The next morning the old carver rolled out of bed just before 5 O’clock. Shooting time was at 6:50, but it was a short drive with minimal set up, so he did not feel the need to be out in the cold any earlier than necessary. He packed a light lunch, warmed up the truck and headed to the Shell filling station. The pick-up itself had plenty of fuel, but there was the matter of an empty thermos that had to be taken care of. He smiled to himself and he rolled along. “Gotta love a small town where you can get your thermos filled for a buck!” he thought.


The drive up the gravel road that ran along the river was as familiar as the old carver’s walk up his own sidewalk. He’d been doing it for twenty five years, and other than a little need for some maintenance nothing about the road had really changed. After dropping off his gear just above where he’d hunt, he moved the pick-up a couple hundred yards away from his hunt location. No reason to signal his presence to the birds. Putting out the decoys would be somewhat of an adventure this morning. He’d never been in the water here, and it was rockier than he’d expected, so the old carver just put his body’s tranny down in Granny gear and took his time. It wouldn’t matter really, he only had twelve floating birds and six standing so it wouldn’t take long.


Since he had not hunted this particular spot before the old carver took extra care in his steps as he carefully set out the decoys. Slippery rocks could easily make for a wet morning and shivering in wet clothes was not on his “to do” list. The familiar decoys were the first to be placed in the water. He set a few above his blind location, and a few below intentionally leaving room between them as a landing zone for interested birds. The last decoy to be set was the goldeneye he had brought to life within the confines of his shop. He picked a spot where it would be highly visible, but not prone to taking the brunt of a low shot. Once the blocks were out he used branches and leaves to help his layout blind blend in to the cut bank. The dog would be hidden beside the blind on the right hand side so it would make it harder to be detected from birds coming in from down river and a large oak would take care of hiding from those coming from the upstream side.


The temperature along the river was in the thirties but not so cold as to turn to ice when it touched something. There was no breeze, there was a slight hint of mist rising from the water, and the stars shown bright and clear. Looking at his wristwatch told him he didn’t have long until shoot time officially begun. Catching movement in the corner of his eye he could already see a flock of ducks gliding into the river upstream of him. “Gonna be a good day” he thought. He settled into the blind, loaded his Browning, poured coffee into an aging weathered cup and watched through the leafless branches of the oaks that lines the bank. This was his favorite time of every morning. The work was done, the coffee was ready to drink, and the skies were becoming light enough to watch the movement of the day as it unfolded before him. Listening to the gentle sounds of water caressing the rocks as it made its’ way past the trees, he was content. Here he was more at home than he could ever be surround by the walls of any house.


Two minutes after shoot time a flock of wigeon locked up and settled slowly through the air toward his decoys, lowered their landing gear, and silently slipped down on the water. The old carver popped up and fired one shot, killing his first duck of the day. His lab, Hannah, was more than willing to rush out into the cold water and retrieve the day’s first prize. He could have easily killed more than one bird, but the rule here on the river was one duck in the current at a time. Hannah was good, but no dog could be expected to get out and back with the first bird before the second had been carried away downstream.


Twice in the next half an hour there were pods of buffleheads in the decoys. At one point a drake and two hens sat in the water a mere 10 feet from the hunter and his companion, but today they were safe as the old carver had determined to wait for bigger birds such as wigeon, goldeneyes and the occasional mallard. As the light of the morning grew stronger, he got a good look at his goldeneye decoy bobbing along among his five bluebill neighbors. It looked good. It rode the water well. The colors were right on. It had a profile that could not be mistaken for anything other than what it was intended to be. A smile of satisfaction grew on his face as he settled back to wait.


The morning flight wasn’t hot and heavy, but it was active enough to maintain one’s interest. By the time noon rolled around the day’s harvest was three goldeneyes and three wigeon. The morning had been good. Twice he had worked flocks of wigeon as they circled and circled until finally agreeing to try and land with the decoys. Twice goldeneyes came from down river and landed just past the old carver’s goldeneye decoy. Once several mergansers had worked their way into the decoys. One bird came so near the blind she almost touched the old carvers’ feet. At one point he was treated to the sight of five river otters swimming through the decoys as they periodically raised themselves part way out of the water to get a better look at the fake birds. Once, as the old carver sat silently in his blind, a kingfisher flew past less than two feet from his head.


Just before deciding it was time to head for the barn, Hannah started growling while looking down stream. “Knock it off!” he quietly scolded, but she continued. The old carver turned his head to see what she might be looking at and there at the top of the cut bank he was greeted with the crouching figure of a lady with binoculars. Obviously a birdwatcher, she stalked forward trying to get a better look at his goldeneye decoy. “Well now” he thought to himself, “I suppose if that decoy can fool a birdwatcher with a pair of binoculars at forty yards it must be a pretty good one!” When the lady lowered her glasses and strained her eyes to get a better look, the old carver simply said, “Hello!” and she almost jumped out of her skin! “Oh, I’m so sorry!” she said. “It’s OK” he assured her, “you’re not bothering anything. I made that decoy, by the way.” “Well,” she chuckled, “that explains a lot, I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t moving!” The hunter and birdwatcher both laughed and had a good chat. When the lady left, the old carver decided to call it a day. After all, there was hot chocolate to drink back at the house, and he sure couldn’t get it from the bank of the river.
 

Mean Gene

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The Gravel Bar

As you slowly bump along the dirt road you will eventually come to the trestle where slow moving freight trains clack along the tracks on their way across the river. Below the ancient ties the riffled water gives way to a pool that often holds good numbers of salmon in late September and early October. As the pool tails out, the river widens and slows: the flatness of it disturbed only by boulders scattered just under the surface. There in the soft current, during the later part of the season, you will find goldeneyes, buffleheads, Canada geese, a few wigeon and once in awhile a mallard or two. A bit further downstream, the road side of the river bank is lined with large oak trees under which woodducks spend many hours searching for acorns or resting on the rocks scattered along the edge. As you continue along, the oaks give way to willows which become too thick to see through, and the side of the mountain on your left walks toward the river until the two nearly become one. Here the rocky face and the willows form a sort of tunnel that transports you into a new world and all that you brushed past fades away into a new reality. Before you the world begins to widen to the point where it would be easy to be content with the view, and for most people that would be enough. However, for those very few who know, the real treasure lies not ahead but is hidden just beyond behind the willows in a place not easily seen.

Each river holds its’ hidden gems close to its’ breast. These places are not freely given but instead must be discovered through a desire to see just what is beyond the horizon. Things that come easy are often underappreciated, but that which must be worked for to attain becomes treasure to the explorer. Many will wander by something forever, always wondering, “What if?’, yet never will they move past the question. Others will take the first step, but they lack the imagination to see what might be, and they return to the path of familiarity. Only a select few ever see the possibilities presented, and even less will embrace the unknown long enough to get to know it. Only those in that last group will be fortunate enough to find the gravel bar.

I have hunted the gravel bar for many years. Upon arrival in the early morning darkness the gear is dropped off on the side of the road before moving the truck a short distance down the way. With just a headlamp to shed light on the path the walk back to the drop point always seems longer than it really is. The gear is placed in plastic sleds and skidded down the embankment until it reaches the base of the willows ten feet below the road. After carefully stepping into the water the sleds are pulled into the river. Held by ropes on the sled bows they are floated along behind as you walk through forty yards of mid-calf water until reaching the gravel bar. The sleds are then drug up onto the rocks to hold them in place.

Always the first order of business was to place the decoys. When I first started hunting here, I used floating duck decoys only. Before long I started including a few full body standing duck decoys. At some point I added a few full body standing geese and later added some floating geese. In the end I settled on two dozen floating ducks, mostly wigeon with a few divers, a dozen floating geese and a half dozen standing full body geese. I’m reasonably certain I put more thought into that setup than was necessary, but I have always been prone to experimentation. The most curious part of all of this was that each and every day I hunted that gravel bar I would first walk to the middle of it, and, using my headlight and my flashlight, I would scour the area before deciding just where to put every bird. I say curious because based on the water level, which was immediately obvious upon reaching the bar, I knew exactly where the decoys were going to go. Still, it never stopped me from examining it all as if it was the first time I had ever laid eyes on it.

Next it was time to set up the blind. I started by setting up, against the willows at the end of the bar, a homemade eight foot wide frame of one by four boards that was made to adjust for both height and the unevenness of the ground. Then lightweight camouflage netting was placed across the framework, one side to the other. The last order of business was to place willow branches along the front and sides. At that point the entire blind blended in with the background so well that even for me it was hard to see in the daylight once you were out fifty yards or so. The willow branches were used over and over throughout the entire season. They were cut the morning of the first trip of the year, and at the end of each day they were collected, bundled, and placed back in the willow trees where they were not easily seen. When the blind was set up the two plastic sleds were placed one inside the other, drug into the blind and set to the back. A folding camp stool was placed between the sleds and the blind and that became my throne for the day. After once again checking the decoys I would sit down in the blind, open my pack, uncase my gun, pour a cup of coffee, place my call lanyard around my neck, turn off and remove my headlamp, and quietly sit while I waited for the rising sun to transform night into day.

Although I could not see it in the dark, I knew exactly what surrounded me. To my front was a gravel bar about twenty-five feet wide that stretched twenty-five yards to the front before disappearing into the water. To the right of that was a slice of still water and to the right of that were tall willow trees that filled the space between the water and the cut bank leading to the road. Behind me was a thick, tangled mass of willow trees. To my left was the main channel of the river. The current here was swifter than it looked, but not overpowering, and stretched thirty-five yards until it reached the far bank. Here you were met with black berry bushes, oak trees and willows that separated the river from a field. When the air was clear you could look up and see the stars so bright and clear you thought you could reach up and touch them. When the air was cold the warmer water formed a mist that hung over the river. Some days that mist was light enough to see through while others it was so thick you could hardly recognize the end of the bar. I much preferred it to be light.

It's amazing what you can “see” in the dark. If you sat silently, and listened closely, you could hear the sound of the water gently rolling across the rocks as it traveled along the side of the bar. Across the river, and out into the field, there was the soft lowing of the cattle. Occasionally there was the sound of the breeze running through the trees as it traveled up or down the river. As darkness slowly gave way to light, I would search the sky above the water looking for ducks as they began to trade up and down the river. Catching glimpses of them now meant the morning would be productive while seeing nothing would mean I would have more time to enjoy uninterrupted cups of coffee. Very seldom would these river ducks ever make a sound in the air instead choosing to make their way to wherever they were going without great fanfare.

I killed a great many ducks and geese here: mallards, woodducks, wigeon, goldeneyes, buffleheads. I shared my paradise with others: Sarah, Aaron, Bob, Mark, Ryan…but mostly I hunted alone. I worked my dogs here: Hannah, Houli and Silas. I saw ducks, geese, salmon, otters, kingfishers, and songbirds. Yes, I shared, but in this one, single, solitary place I was given more than I ever deserved. Here I received joy and sorrow, satisfaction and frustration, excitement and boredom, plentiful bounty and empty hands. But the one thing I was given that stands above all else, was contentment.

When one day death overtakes me, spread some of my ashes here, for the gravel bar is a place I never want to leave.
 

Mean Gene

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Dad’s Decoys

Any job is better done when using the proper tools, and waterfowling is no exception to that rule. Duck decoys have been around since long before the United States was even a thought. In fact, there are still a couple decoys in existence made from tules, that were constructed by American Indians. In the beginning decoys were built from whatever wood was most readily available at the time. Far from art forms, these early renditions were often rough, at best, painted with blocked in colors, and not much thought was given toward preserving them for use by future generations. Later they became mass produced and made of plastic, were blessed with more detail, and since they were much lighter in weight a lone hunter could carry a dozen or two in a backpack with ease. These days they are being made with other plastic based products, and a great amount of detail, and have become so expensive that the average duck hunter has to visit his banker for a second mortgage on the house in order to buy a dozen.

Ah, but there have always been, are now, and always will be some who are willing to take older decoys, refurbish them, and hunt them as if they were from the very best of stock. My dad was such a person. He grew up in an age where every dollar counted, and none were made to be wasted, so when the decoys became worn, instead of buying new they were cleaned and repainted. I have made many decoys. I have purchased many decoys. I have decoys in bags scattered around everywhere. Though all of those fake birds have their purpose, none are more prized to me than the remaining six of my dad’s decoys. These were his prized possessions, and he used them for many years before passing them on to me. When they first got to the point where they were in dire need of new clothes, he and a friend of his decided to repaint them.

Although this project was undertaken in my early youth, almost fifty years ago, I can still think back on it and see faint memories of my dad and this project floating silently by within the confines of my mind. I am not certain of the exact year, but I do know it was all done while we lived in Susanville, California. We were there from 1965-1972, so it had to be someplace within that time frame. There were a few dozen of these decoys to be done, so it was no light task, but it didn’t matter: it needed to be done and it would be. Much to my mother’s chagrin, after a good rinsing outdoors the initial cleaning of the decoys took place in our bathtub. Painting was a task to be performed out of the house with the garage being the only logical choice. I have no idea what brand of paint was used, but I am most certain it was lead based. That meant I would never be able to chew of them and survive, but I really had no intention of doing that to begin with, so it didn’t matter. Once the paint was dry the decoys were re-rigged, placed back into their carrying bags, and put away until the next duck season rolled around.

From that time forward those decoys hit the water, each and every year, until approximately 2015 when I officially retired them. At no time were they ever repainted…they didn’t need to be. Unlike modern paint, that holds up to abuse for very short periods of time, that lead based paint was nearly impervious to damage. The picture I have included in this story shows those six birds as they are today. In all that time they sat in fresh water, saltwater, rivers, lakes, streams, and even floated the entire seasons during the four years I had a blind in the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley. They were never individually bagged, they were never babied, they were never pampered: yet there they were, year after year, ready to hunt and looking good. I doubt there is a decoy being painted anywhere on the planet, in this day and age, that will be able to say the same thing.

So, when you walk into my shop, understand that those six decoys are legends. They have seen more hunting time than most people have been alive. If they could talk they could tell you tales for weeks of how they hunted in all kinds of weather, in all kinds of climates, in all kinds of situations, and not once did they ever falter. Not once did they ever fail. And when they look you in the eye, and tell you they could still, to this day, sit on the water anywhere in the world and fool real ducks, believe them, for what they tell you is the truth.
 

Mean Gene

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Sculling

I’m not entirely sure what year it was when I went on my first scull boat hunt, but I do know I was hooked on it from that day forward. Although I can not remember the date, or even the year for that matter, I am of absolute certainty that it was John Hayden who piloted the boat, and the body of water was Lake Shastina. While coaxing ducks from the sky into a carefully set spread of decoys was, and still is, something I dearly loved to do, this was different. Sculling was a spot and stalk style of hunting, more closely associated with big game hunting than anything, and the challenge of glassing a bird, or birds, then sneaking across the top of the open water in order to get close enough to shoot them, was a thing that touched me deeply. Once engaged in sculling I knew I would never willingly stop.

There is nothing fast about sculling: it is slow, methodical, and meticulous. When you succeed, you did it right. When you fail, you did it wrong. Yes, there are circumstances that cause success, or failure, which you can’t control, but by and large the outcome of the chase is determined by the skill of the operator. On the water, you are alone. There is nobody there with which to discuss plans, or strategize. There is nobody there to help you make decisions. And, right or wrong, there is nobody there to take credit for, or to accept blame for those choices, except you. No matter what, you own everything that happens. I firmly believe that those who were born to scull not only accept that as their reality…they relish in it, and would have it no other way. Perhaps that’s why I love it so much.

Another aspect of the game I embrace is the solitude. Once you settle into the cockpit, and move away from the shore, you are alone. If you want to carry on a conversation you must have the ability to talk to yourself. Obviously with two hunters in the boat all that changes, but the overwhelming majority of my time spent under the oar has been alone. I have indeed conversed with my alter egos…yes, out loud…but normally all words are spoken only in my mind. You see sculling is very much a thinking man’s game. There are never ending possibilities, all of which must be considered before starting the sneak. Experience, calculation, physical conditioning, and weather observations are all “advisors” to be consulted with, and those talks are most often held in silence.

Sculling starts long before the boat ever hits the water. Seaworthiness is the top priority and is always addressed first. Next on the list is camouflage. Making the boat hide on the water means trying to paint it so it blends in with that particular water. Normally some shade of gray is the preferred color, but sometimes a green or brownish is in order. Most go with gray as it works in the majority of situations. I get a bit more elaborate with my paint scheme, but would probably do just fine with a solid color. I also coat my final paint job with semi-gloss clear as water is shiny, not flat. Aside from the single sculling oar, which propels the boat, I come equipped with a kayak paddle, a large sponge, binoculars, something with which to bail water, and a flotation device. I use closed cell foam pads to lay on, and my bow weights, which keep the nose of the boat down to the water line, are two pieces of railroad iron weighing in at 60 lbs apiece. Other than that all you really need is a gray rain jacket for “just in case”, your gun, and your shells. Simple…I like simple.


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Sculling isn’t a easy task. It’s an art form to get the boat from point A to point B with a single oar that slides in through the transom. Your task is to the move the boat forward, usually two to four hundred yards, across open water, and get to within thirty yards or less of creatures who survive by being aware of their surroundings, and who flee at the first sign of danger. Keep in mind that these creatures are not obligated to stay in any one place while you’re trying to get close. They are often moving, which means you are constantly changing course and always trying to keep the bow pointed directly at the birds. Sometimes you move the boat forward, sometimes you stop and wait, and occasionally you turn the boat sideways in order to “herd” the birds in a certain direction. There is never a “one size fits all” approach.

I was born a sculler. I’m convinced it has always been inside me, I simply needed to be placed on the right path in order to find the end of the trail.
 

Mean Gene

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Shasta Valley

Of all the places I have ever hunted ducks, I hold none more dear than the Shasta Valley Wildlife Area. Located just a few miles outside of Montague, California, this refuge was, for many years, the absolute best refuge providing duck hunting in the entire state. While a few of the ponds contained two blinds, most had only one, and all were separated by a generous distance. All blinds were assigned on a first come first served basis. Your number was determined by what parking space you were in before check in time on hunt mornings. Once the check station opened the hunters would pick a blind, and the staff person would cross that one off on a map of the area. That meant that blind was taken, and the next person would have to pick somewhere else. What a wonderful system. Once you picked a blind you knew nobody else was going to try and hunt your area, so there was no need to be in a huge rush to get there. Granted, you needed to be out there and set up before shoot time, but you had an hour and a half in which to accomplish that, and since most parking areas were within ten to fifteen minutes of the blind, you always had plenty of time to make it all happen. Imagine this: no rushing, no flashlight wars, no arguing, just a peaceful start to a wonderful day.

Hunt days at the refuge were Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. When I was working I often could not go over the parking lot to claim my number until the evening before the hunt, but even when I couldn’t make it there until late, I always got a decent number and never had an issue obtaining a good spot. Sometimes I wouldn’t even go until eleven o’clock on the actual hunt day and just hunt the afternoon. The rules were, once you picked up and left your blind, it was open for another party. Upon the late arrival I would drive around and look to see which blinds were open, then pick from one of those. Doing that I had a great many excellent afternoon shoots.

When I first started going to the refuge parking lot, there was always the same person in line in the number one slot. His name was Hap, and he was a retired guy who always hunted alone. He had a cab-over camper on his red pickup, and you could always rest assured that when you pulled into the lot Hap’s truck would already be there. That went on for a good number of years, but just before I retired in 2009, Hap quit coming. I have no idea why he quit coming, but we always assumed the worst and just figured he was no longer walking the earth.

The year after I retired, I became Hap.

That year I hunted the refuge every Wednesday and Saturday morning. On those days I would get to the refuge no later than eight o’clock in the morning the day before the hunt. I was guaranteed to be there before any of the guys who were still working, and almost every other hunter did not possess the same drive I did and came later in the day. If I had guys coming to meet me to hunt, and I wanted a specific blind, I would actually be there at eight o’clock in the morning TWO days before the hunt day. Now, you may be thinking, “What in the world would you do to keep yourself occupied for two days, and where would you sleep?” That was never a concern for me. I had a nice cot, a big camper shell on my truck, I always had a big ice chest with plenty of food, and I brought my small bar b q. The check station was never locked, and it had power and a small wood stove. I would bring my combination TV/VCR, set it up, and watch movies. There was good cell phone coverage at the check station, so once I got my mobile hotspot I would bring it, and my computer, and I was always connected to the outside world, if I so desired. It was acceptable to walk in to the refuge to scout, so once a day, even though I pretty much always knew where I was going the next morning anyway, I would take the dog and walk the two miles into the hunt area and sit and glass those ponds I could see. Since the check station was only about ten miles from my house, on more than one occasion my wife would come out and either bring me dinner, or eat what I had cooked there. It was quiet, it was relaxing, and I loved every minute of it.

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All the hunt ponds at the refuge had numbers assigned to them, but none were ever known strictly by those. Power Line, Long Walk, Muddy Twenty, Two Island, Middle Thirty, North End of Ten, Senator’s, Baby Grain: those were the names all the regulars used. And I do mean regulars as you could always count on one group of folks to show up on Wednesdays, and another group on Saturdays, with a few showing up each of those two. There were also three lakes on the refuge, one of which you could hunt. Steamboat and Bass were resting areas, and Trout was open to hunt, and divided up into sections on the map which could be chosen, just the same as the ponds. Although I hunted most every pond, or piece of the lake you could, I liked some places better than others: those I will cover now.


10:
Pond Ten lay just to the north of Bass Lake, at the base of the dam. It was probably the largest pond on the area and had blinds located at both the north and the south ends. The south blind was poorly set. The orientation was completely wrong and the placement was poor. There was, however, a small island about 30 yards in front of the blind, and those who chose this spot normally just laid on the island. Ducks would come off Bass Lake, drop down over the dam, and go directly over that island. Some folks couldn’t resist shooting at them then, even though that was a low probability chance, but those who let them pass, and called, were often rewarded when the birds hooked around and came right back in. I seldom hunted this blind, but I did well on the few occasions I was there. The blind at the north end of the pond was far superior. This was a four man pit placed in an island about thirty yards off the main shoreline. The water was shallow in front, no more than eighteen inches, even shallower behind, and always had plenty of duck food. From this blind you could see the ducks coming off of Bass Lake far out in the distance, and you had plenty of time to prepare for them. You did have to be mindful of the fact that often ducks would come from behind you, but as long as you weren’t moving around too badly they wouldn’t flare. The ducks worked this blind very well, and seldom were shots beyond thirty yards. I killed many, many limits of birds from this pit over the years, and my most memorable afternoon hunts were from this blind. One year my daughter Sarah and I hunted the north end of ten the very last day of the season. It had warmed up and thawed the water, and a good number of ducks had moved back onto the refuge. Only three parties checked in that morning, and we were the first to choose. We arrived to decently warm temperatures, a 20 mph south wind, and we took two limits of ducks from the pond before ten o’clock. I could not have asked for a better day.


The 30s:
The thirty series were a set of three ponds: Peninsula, Middle Thirty, and Two Island Pond. Peninsula was never much of a shooter and I avoided hunting it. Middle Thirty was a long and narrow pond with patches of tules and a lot of grass. I spent many days in this two man pit, and I killed untold numbers of ducks. This was one of the blinds on the refuge that could be very good for mallards. The birds worked it well, and shots were hardly ever past twenty five yards. Having more weeds than others, it was imperative to have a dog when hunting this one. Two Island was, at one point in time, my favorite blind. When I first started coming to the refuge this pond had a good number of tule patches and was an absolute mallard magnet. More often than not I left this pond with a limit of them. At some point, and I can’t remember when exactly, the tule patches disappeared and the pond became more sheet water. The mallards were no longer as enthused with it as they once had been, and you were more apt to get widgeon, pintail and teal. It was still a good shooter, but not like it once was.

Long Walk:
21i was the west blind in pond 21. It was called Long Walk because no matter which side you went in on it was a one mile walk from the parking area to the pond. It sat across the road from Steamboat Lake, which was a resting area, and when Long Walk had water it could almost always be counted on to be a lights out shooter. If you wanted a pond that was by itself, that was the one to have. Being a mile away from anything you never, ever had to worry about anybody bugging you. When ducks came to this pond you could work them until your heart was content because there was never anybody else there to bother you.

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20:
Pond 20 was a large pond bordered on two sides by the main access road. The blind on the west side never had a name other than the west side of twenty, at least that I ever heard, and the two man blind on the very small island at the east end was called Muddy Twenty. I never hunted the west side, I always took Muddy. From this blind you could be assured of a variety of ducks coming to you. Early you would get bigger ducks, such as mallards, gadwall and pintail, while later in the morning teal were the duck of choice. In the beginning this blind was a very poor shooter. It was often passed over because it was such a poor producer. Then, one year the refuge staff reworked the ground, and got Timothy to grow, and it was suddenly turned into a top producer. The year it turned around I hunted it ten straight shoot days, and killed ten straight limits, and was never there past eleven o’clock. One of those days, shoot time started at seven and I was limited by seven fifteen. My daughter Sarah killed her first goose in this blind and we hunted it together many times.


Power Line:
Hap, the retired guy I mentioned previously, always hunted Power Line. Every Wednesday and Saturday he was there, so for a good number of years I didn’t get to hunt it. When he quit coming I decided to check it out, and before long this was my new home. When I was first in line, and after I retired I was always first in line, I took Power Line. Though not as secluded as Long Walk, ducks worked a decoy spread in this pond like no other on the property. If ducks came in that area, eight times out of ten I could get them close enough for a shot. At no point did I ever come away from hunting Power Line and not have a limit. This was normally a big duck pond, but on those days when they didn’t show, you could always count on the late morning teal. If I had other folks coming from out of the area to hunt with me, this was the blind I took, and I would go park in the lot two days before the shoot day to make sure I could get it.


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Shasta Valley Wildlife Area was the best refuge in the state of California at one time. I’m saddened to say that this year it sat completely dry, and there’s a chance next year may be the same. Drought, and the state wildlife department, are doing their best to destroy that place, and it’s working. But, that being the case, I will forever be grateful that I was privileged enough to hunt it during its’ glory days. I could not imagine how many hours I have spent on that refuge, and I know of none that I wouldn’t spend again.
 

riverrat47

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Gene, after reading your posts and Don Webster's book (Bury Me In My Waders), I feel I could be parachuted into northern California and do just fine. If not a limit of ducks, liberal limits are liberal, and plentiful...right?:joker
 

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