Late Season High Plains Freelance Duck Hunting
(Dec Mallard Hunt)
Author: Jim Julson (Colman, SD)
This hunting adventure had it’s beginning over 12 years ago when we began getting together with the neighbors, across the Interstate, to hunt deer. Those neighbors had a bunch of boys and so did we. We also hunted pheasants together as our CRP grass and food plot plantings matured and the pheasant numbers increased. When the boys were young we only hunted ducks a couple of days a year, primarily because the only ones around were locals. As those neighbor boys grew up and moved on Lance, one of those neighbor boys ended up in western South Dakota and developed more than a passion for waterfowl hunting, and especially ducks. This last fall Lance was back home for a wedding the same weekend duck season opened. Lance, several of his brothers and his father, the old hunting group from years past, hunted the duck opener on our place. This also gave Lance a chance to work his Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Crocket, retrieving ducks in a cattail slew. Something he didn’t have a lot of access to in Western S.D., especially due to the multiyear drought. At the end of that weekend Lance invited my son’s and I to hunt late season high plains mallards with he and his buddies. We set the date for just after the end of the fall college semester. All my boys would be home from college. This would also be one of the last times, for a while, my son’s and I would all be hunting together. Ben, my oldest Son was graduating from College and had taken a job as a Civil Engineer, in Phoenix. He would be moving shortly after the New Year. Ben graduated Friday afternoon in Fargo, ND and that Sunday morning we all left from home for western South Dakota, including Rick, Lance’s father.
Day 1: Four am Monday morning we’re getting dressed and organized. Its 4 degrees outside! When we arrived everybody got their head lamps on and we start hauling decoys and lucky ducks to the set up spot. It was a very nice pond with open water at one end and some older permanent blinds. There where several corn stubble fields nearby and this water was the only water in the area due to the draught. Perfect we thought! The ducks forgot to show up! We didn’t see a one all morning, not even on the horizon. For some reason they had moved out.
Plan B. We packed everything up that afternoon, picked up a boat and lay down blinds and moved a 100 miles south to a very large body of water. A couple of Lance’s hunting buddies, Dan and Karl, had checked it out the day before and there where plenty of ducks. We still needed to scout for the next mornings set up location. Lance decided on a remote sand beach for the next morning.
Day 2: After setting up early this morning we discovered the ducks were landing on a point across the lake from us. By 9am we had shot at and gotten one green head---we moved across the lake to that point! In order to get setup before the flight finished we took just a few decoys and some burlap bags to cover our selves. The ducks didn’t disappoint us and we shot 17 in a couple hours.
Quick setup with burlap bags to cover ourselves as blinds. It worked!
(L to R) Ben Julson, Lance LaLonde, Rick LaLonde, Crocket and Muda
The wind was relatively still, for South Dakota and two of the ducks we shot went down into a bay just to the side of us. The bay was covered partially with ¾ inch ice with the balance being large sheets of ice that had broken off from the main ice, intermittent open water between those large sheets and then open water out to the lake. Crocket and Muda when up over a little rise between the point we were on and the bay to retrieve those ducks. When I came up over the rise Crocket had one duck that had dropped in the broken ice next to the open water leading to the lake and was working his way back to shore through the smaller ice chunks. Muda was out on the larger solid piece of ice and had just gone in the water amongst the larger floating ice sheets to retrieve the other mallard. She had gone into the water fairly close to the duck and had it in her mouth. She was in a small open pool of water surrounded by large sheets of floating ice the size of half a house. She couldn’t get back up on the ice; it either broke or was too slippery. She was trapped in the middle of a bay with no way to get to shore or the lake. As I looked around I saw an open channel, about 8 inches wide, between ice sheets that ran from shore all the way to the pool Muda was in. I broke the ice and got into the water, as far as my waders would allow, at one end of the slot and frantically called Muda toward the opening. She listens very well and swan toward the slot. Her neck just fit and she swam with head above and her body below the ice to me and delivered the duck to hand. After that we kept those dogs close and they retrieved ducks only in the open water. We used the boat to retrieve the questionable ones.
When the action was over for the day we moved everything back across, cleaned the ducks and headed back to the hotel. For supper that night we marinated the duck breasts in a Candied Marinated and grilled them at the hotel. They were great and we ate almost all the ducks we shot that day. Then it was time to clean the guns. No matter how hard you try to keep the sand out of stuff, hunting on a sandy beach point gets sand into everything including the guns. The temperature was above 32 degrees so we cleaned them outside using the carburetor cleaner, starting fluid, and silicone lubricant, I always carry in the pickup during hunting season. With all that solvent floating around in the air it was lucky no one smoked or we may have all gone “HOME” sooner than expected.
Everyone was in high spirits for the next days hunt. The weather service was warning of a developing snow and rain storm moving in from the south by the next morning. This provided a dilemma. Great weather to bring the ducks into the decoys but not very good weather for crossing a large body of water in a 15 foot Lunde aluminum boat with a 15 hp Evenrude motor loaded down with gear, people and dogs. What to do? Let me explain, Lance and his two buddies Dan and Karl are duck hunting fanatics. Weathermen have been wrong (at least once or twice) in the past. So they decided weather permitting we would give it a try the next morning.
Adam Julson in black, Karl running the motor and Dan holding the boat—taking a load across the reservoir
Dan Julson and Muda on the ride across the reservoir---just a little cold and wet!
Day 3: Next morning was overcast, no rain or snow, a mild wind and the temperature was above freezing so we didn’t have to break ice to get the boat in. It seemed perfect. It took 4 trips with the boat to get everything to the rocky point we where to setup on. My boy’s job in between helping set out the decoys and lay down blinds was to shoot ducks that came in while were finishing up the set. Right at shooting time and while we were still setting decoys the boys had 3 mallard drakes down and Muda and Crocket were retrieving them. For the next 3 hours we never waited more than 5 minutes between ducks coming within shootable range and the dogs got a good work out. Both dogs behaved well and set quietly by the lay down blinds as Lance, Dan and Karl continually called the ducks within shooting range.
Lay down blinds and decoys set up for the day’s hunt
Because we were on a point like the day before, there where small bays to either side of us that had about 1 inch thick ice on them and the big open water was right in front of us. One of the drakes we shot came down over a little rise toward one of those bays. Muda and Crocket took out after it so I followed. What I saw made me laugh. They both had the duck and where pulling to see who would get to bring it back. I called ---they both came, still both holding the drake. A 100 pound Chessy and 50 pound SM. What a site! They both won a little of this tug of war and that duck was drawn and quartered before it ever hit the cleaning table. Shortly after that we dropped a green head, in open water, out about 70 yards and Lance sent Crocket. The wind as picking up and blowing toward the ice covered bay. It was strong enough it pushed Crocket toward the ice covered bay and ran him into the ice before he could reach shore. He tried to crawl out of the water onto the ice. Impossible, the ice would either break or was too slippery. The water was too deep to get to him in waders. He was so focused on trying to get up on the ice no amount of calling or use of the e-collar would get him to swim along the edge of the ice to shore, a short 25 yards away. We could tell he was getting weaker so Lance yelled “Get the boat.” Dan and Dan took off running. They had hidden it on shore about 1/3 mile away. It seemed like forever and then we saw the boat come around the point bouncing across the waves. As they got closer my son Dan leaned over the bow and put his arms around Crocket and picked him up out of the water enough he could control him and they could get him to shore. He still had the duck in his mouth! After a short breather and a thank you prayer we decided to wrap it up. It was getting colder, the wind kept picking up and a large piece of ice had broken loose and was going to hit our decoy spread and push it up on shore. We got everybody and everything back across the lake without mishap and went for a late breakfast.
Close of the 3rd days shoot.
Back (L to R) Dan Anderson, Adam Julson
Front (L to R) Crocket, Karl Anderson, Lance LaLonde, Muda, Ben Julson, Dan Julson
By the time we started for home it had begun to rain and we drove on intermittent icy roads all the way home. The weatherman was right, but lucky for us his timing was off. I’m glad we decided to go when we did. By the next morning the weather and roads were much worse. We are all thankful everyone, including the dogs, all made it home safely with memories to share.
It was a joy hunting with this group. Lance, Dan and Karl showed us a duck hunt that was pure adventure from start to finish, and something we’ll remember for a life time.