South Dakota 2017: Expert help arrives
WEBSTER, S.D. —
(Editor's Note: This is Part Two as NewsChannel 9 Outdoor Editor Richard Simms documents a recent road trip to South Dakota in search of ducks, geese and pheasants. You can read Part One here.)
The sun was still a figment of our imagination when the husband-wife team of Tyler and Samantha (Sam) Andrews started hauling gear out of the huge trailer. Hunting in a new place, a new way with unknown gear, Ross Malone and I were not too much help. Tyler and Sam, however, went to work like a well-oiled machine.
Out on the ice of the frozen pond Tyler fired up a chain saw to clear away 50x30-foot hole in the two-inch-thick ice. Sam began cutting brush to camouflage our ground blinds. With direction, Ross and I helped place more than 100 goose and mallard decoys on and around the pond. It was an hour-and-a-half of hard labor in 25 degree temperatures and a brisk wind whipping across the South Dakota flatlands.
Sub-freezing temperatures had rendered the use of traditional floating decoys in the flooded potholes surrounding Webster, SD impossible. The ducks were there, along with an absolutely unbelievable number of snow geese - all feeding in the massive harvested corn fields that go on for miles and miles. For several days Ross and I had struggled hunting in the dry fields with the relatively meager number of decoys we had hauled. Without much success, we hung tough, knowing we would soon be meeting up with Tyler and Sam, a husband-wife team of Pro-Staffers representing Avery Outdoors and Banded waterfowl hunting gear. We had high hopes that Tyler's expertise, plus the massive number of decoys he hauled out in a 30-foot trailer, would make the difference between success and our previous failures.
Sunrise found the four of us nestled into cozy layout blinds. It was not long before snow geese began to stream across the sky - not by the hundreds, or even by the thousands - the South Dakota skies around Webster were filled with hundreds of thousands of snow geese. Even the locals said they'd never seen anything like this year's snow goose migration.
Snow geese, however, are very wily birds. It takes dedicated spreads of massive numbers of snow goose decoys to have any hope of bringing the wary birds into gun range. Standard goose and duck decoys won't do it. This is one reason the snows have become grossly over-populated and are doing horrible damage to the environment across Canada and North America.
With our spread we could only watch in awe as the literally unending flocks of snows streamed high overhead, going down to feed in another cornfield a mile away. Fortunately, an hour after sunrise, flocks of mallards began to join the snows.
"Two birds coming down the pike," exclaimed Tyler.
The pair of mallards passed once over the decoys and then hooked downwind. The next few seconds were what every waterfowl hunter lives for - ducks dropping low with wings cupped like parachutes, slowing for what they expect will be a gentle landing among their brethren. As fire streaked from shotgun muzzles, the landing was anything but gentle. Tyler's Labrador retriever, Reese, streaked from her hiding place to do what she does best.
The morning was far from fast and furious - although at one point we could only watch mesmerized as 200 mallards circled and circled overhead. The ducks were low against a backdrop of thousands of snow geese flying high overhead. It was an experience best described as waterfowling nirvana. On more than one occasion two or three mallards would hook in close over the decoys, easily within shotgun range. But no one wanted to "call the shot," as we were all entranced by the hundreds of ducks swishing and swooping overhead just out of gun range.
In the end all of those ducks left without a shot fired. We all agreed, however, it was one of the most intense duck hunting experiences we had witnessed in a while. Fortunately for us, and for Reese, several other mallards were not so wise. It was odd, however, listening as fallen birds cracked down on the rock hard ice rather than splashing into water. Reese was forced to slow herself on retrieves so as not to slip and slide to the opposite side of the pond. But the dead ducks were still few and far between.
"Last year we were able to get on birds good," said Tyler. "It was cold but not frozen- and not nearly as windy. We could predict the ducks and get on them. But this time with this brutal wind and temperature drop, it's just kickin' our butts."
"I've definitely been on some better hunts, but that's hunting," said Sam. "That's how it goes. You just never know what you're going to get."
But the Andrews team has a fallback plan. At noon the decoys came up and after a quick lunch, it was time for the Andrews' pointer, aptly named, "Avery," to get into the game. The slim little German shorthair hit the cattail swamps sucking up the scent of ringneck pheasants like a vacuum cleaner.
Still, brutal winds made pheasant hunting tough even for Avery. On more than one occasion we watched as ringneck roosters flushed wild. Most were out of range - but fortunately not all.
On day two of duck hunting (the eighth day for me and Ross) we battled elements that were even worse. The wind chill factor was a bitter eleven degrees as we worked more than an hour to arrange the decoys in a dry corn field. And again the snow geese came, perhaps in even larger numbers than the day before. On this day, however, the ducks proved to be a no-show.
For me it didn't matter. I could not have pulled a trigger anyway. The unending and numbing South Dakota wind took my fingers and hands totally out of commission. It was a huge blow to manhood when, for the first time in my life, I was forced to retreat to the truck to try and thaw my painfully frozen digits. In that short time three Canada geese chose to reward the tenacity of Tyler and Ross. From the truck I watched as one of the big geese tumbled from the sky. By the time I returned the short-lived spurt of action was over.
With weather forecasts predicted to be just as windy and bitterly-cold in coming days, we all decided it was time to cry "Uncle," heading for our respective homes. Tyler and Sam were four hours from their home in Buffalo, Minnesota but for me and Ross it meant about 22 hours of road time back to Chattanooga.
We went our separate ways, but proud to have found new friends and new waterfowling horizons to remember in the years ahead.
Next, more about Avery Pro-Staffers Tyler and Sam - and the new baby pro-staffer they're bringing into the world.