DE PERE – The truck’s digital clock read 4:10 a.m. and its compass “S” when the old Ford’s engine fired up.
Before heading inside one last time to grab my 12-gauge, daypack and shotgun shells, I looked skyward past the truck’s hood to admire Orion. Other than the Big Dipper, you won’t find a better known, more easily identified constellation than Orion.
But while hunters see mostly utility in the Big Dipper – extending an imaginary line off its bowl to pinpoint Polaris, the North Star – they look to Orion for hope and inspiration about the day ahead. After all, Orion is the celestial embodiment of the great hunter in Greek mythology.
Aldo Leopold wrote that Orion must have been the original mentor of those who rise too early. And he’s still mentoring. Orion’s pre-dawn post in the southern sky seems chosen just for duck hunters, which Leopold also notes: “It is time when Orion has passed west of the zenith about as far as one should lead a teal.”
Maybe that’s why I shrugged off Bo Schumacher’s gracious suggestion to take my time driving the 62 miles to the Fox River south of De Pere to hunt ducks. “You can make it closer to 5:45 a.m.,” he texted. “Shooting hours don’t open till 6:20ish. We’ll have the decoys out by the time you arrive.”
What? And miss the river’s pre-dawn magic, those final moments of nighttime silence that last “only as long as darkness humbles the arrogant”? Once dawn prevails, all manner of gulls, herons, geese, ducks and even chickadees loudly proclaim the world their own.
Besides, at risk of sounding like the old man I’m becoming, I enjoy sitting alone in a duck blind on a once industrious river, watching headlamps and hearing whispers as hunters half my age toss decoys onto calm waters. I like seeing those tiny splashes from small anchors, which tug decoys into loose ranks that betray ducks and geese into shotgun range.
Schumacher walked me to the blind minutes after my 5:30 arrival, and then waded out to deploy decoys with his De Pere friends, Carlos Hernandez and Nach Peerenboom. Once they finished their task and joined me in their newly built Taj mahal blind, Schumacher conceded that the strategies behind their decoy spread might be wishful thinking.
This particular blind is best hunted in westerly winds, but the day’s predicted winds would be calm early before building into easterlies as a storm approached. The ducks – assuming they arrived – would likely land farther out than Schumacher prefers.
Still, this is where they built their blind on the Schumacher property, and so this is where we would hunt. Besides, heavy rains and high waters rendered another site too treacherous; and age, elements and rotting wood left a third blind unusable.
As dawn brightened, we watched flocks of waterfowl working the gray skies above the Fox. Schumacher led the calling when identifying ducks and geese, but left his calls dangling on the lanyard when identifying a flock as pelicans, seagulls or cormorants.
I admired how well my three companions spotted distant flocks, and just as quickly identified their species. They also weren’t fooled when stray mallards hitched a ride with a goose flock, or confused teal flew silently alongside mallards, perhaps thinking the bigger ducks wouldn’t notice the stowaways.
The first bird to fall to our shotguns was a drake wood duck, which descended toward our decoys with cupped wings, but then glided south behind nearby trees, possibly to safety. The hunters weren’t fooled, and Schumacher kept calling. Seconds later the woody tilted into the decoys, dodged the first shot, and then folded in a fusillade of steel.
After Schumacher retrieved the duck, we resumed watching and listening. I soon recognized our group’s standouts were Schumacher on the calls and Peerenboom on the lookout. Schumacher and Hernandez can spot distant ducks that look like gnats in distant treetops, but if I were a junior pilot in a fighter squadron, I’d want Peerenboom leading. The enemy would never see us first.
Schumacher and his backups called in some passing mallard flocks by midmorning, and our shotgun blasts added a hen and drake to the bag. Around 10 a.m. Schumacher reached behind the blind’s bench seat, proudly uncovered a gas-heated griddle, and fired it up.
He then pulled out a sealed baggy of marinating duck meat and green peppers, and poured it onto the warming metal. After lining up slaw and soft taco shells atop paper plates on the bench, Schumacher cooked the meat just past rare and made tacos with the peppers and slaw. The four of us ate everything within minutes.
Our hunger inadvertently kept us from sharing the feast with DNR conservation warden George Protogere, who stopped in soon after. The five of us compared notes on the area’s duck and goose activity while Protogere evaluated our B.S. meters and stress levels.
Before leaving to visit a nearby hunter-education class, Protogere also checked our ducks, hunting licenses and overall compliance. I followed him from the blind soon after, and was on the road home by 11:05 a.m., just in time to dodge the approaching storm.
Schumacher texted me later in the day to invite me to hunt again when the ducks and geese flew more often. I doubt Orion can reveal when such days will come, but I’ll look his way, just in case.