Shining headlamps over the lake, the beams are refracted in a million different directions in the dense fog. The marsh bottom isn't as boot sucking mud as it has been in the past years, so decoy setup goes fairly quickly. Shooting time starts as I am getting to know my hunting partner better. This is the first time we have shared a blind.
Jacob Young and I met about a month previous, when he, as the president of the University of Idaho BHA collegiate chapter, had arranged a duck call build. Not part of the college group, he’d graciously invited me along due to my proximity to the event. We had chatted that evening, which logically led to the agreement that we should duck hunt and combine a stewardship project with it.
I already had a perfect project in mind as I had literally tripped over it the week before. As had my dog and my son: abandoned barbed wire in an Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) pheasant release hunting area. A few emails later and we had permission to pull the wire and a date was set.
Which brings us up to speed on how Jacob and I ended up in a duck blind together. As it gets closer to sunrise, the fog gives way to giant plops of wet snow, fondly referred to as snizzle (snow-drizzle). As hunting laws of the gods dictate when you are showing someone a new spot, not a single duck was flying at shooting time. We hear widgeon, mallards, and the occasional goose honk from somewhere beyond our foggy field of vision. What we don’t hear are gunshots from the four other parties we know are on the same lake. This gives us heart that at least the duck god’s aren’t just playing games on us.
As visibility improves, we see birds. Thousands of them in the middle of the lake; on the water and flying overhead. There isn't a single location we can see where they are going near shore. These birds have been hunted and are smarter that those of us trying to lure them in through the fog. We watch as they get harried by bald eagles, clouds of wings glimmering over the water as they rise in unison and settle down again well outside of gun range.
With the lack of shooting, my dog is getting restless and cold, so she and I go for a walk down the shore. Around a point, there are two wee bufflehead barely within gun range. I don’t discriminate against divers and eat every duck I take, plus I hate getting skunked. The dog finally has a job and gets some of her wiggles out.
A lone widgeon does a close enough look and Jacob is able to get a shot off. The dog goes out after it, but it was a wing shot, and the duck leads the dog on a chase for a hundred yards. As the dog closes the distance, the bird dives and doesn’t come up. The dog circles, looking perplexed as the bird still doesn’t surface. I call her off and get the kayak. Watching from the shore, Jacob still hasn’t seen the bird as I head out with strong paddle strokes to the last approximate spot. I scan the area and see something funny about 75 yards further away. The vegetation is poking up above the surface of the water here, so I don’t have much faith in my long distance vision, but as I paddle closer the spot disappears. It comes back up again a little further, but my kayak strokes are quicker than the dog was swimming. I close the distance and glide forward to a stop, raise my gun and wait for it to surface again. It comes up, but only the beak and head plane above the water. On it’s next breath and I try a shot, but there isn’t enough of a target above the refraction of the water and the bird manages to avoid the spray. I paddle closer and we engage in a dance where I spin circles in the kayak trying to cut her off and she dives just out of glove range, skimming under the kayak several times. She can’t fly, and she can’t even fully swim, but her will to evade me is strong. Finally, I chose the correct direction to spin and she choses the wrong direction to surface and I nab her with my gloved hand. I twist her neck and scramble her brains, trying to end her suffering quickly. I deliver her to Jacob’s hand.
I trade spots in the blind with my husband, who has been eating snacks and picking up trash on the shore with our two year old. He drops another bufflehead in the first five minutes, it zooming by at the presumed speed of 500 mph. He’s feeling cocky that the hunting is picking up, but not another bird comes within range. In the middle of the lake, waves upon waves of birds lift, wings glimmering, then resettle in a slightly different location. We decide we’ve had enough of trying to compete with the thousands of live decoys and start packing up. Other hunting parties start filtering past, apparently everyone has decided they’ve spent enough time moonlighting as birders in the inclement weather for one morning. At the launch, reports of the morning are the same all around; only one or two birds per party. Everyone was sure the weather was going to make a stellar day of hunting. I can still hear the echos of the chuckling duck gods.
After hot grilled cheese sandwiches, we head up the road to the location of the afternoon's stewardship project. A message from a friend coming from the direction of town reports that it’s snowing like crazy, so my hopes of any last minute participants aren’t optimistic. We have five brave souls at the parking area, plus a two year old and a slightly tired bird dog. Donning hunter orange, we trudge down into the wildlife management area (WMA). Ten minutes in and my son and dog have already tripped over the barbed wire that we are here to remove. This illustrates to the party the need for this project.
This particular parcel of Coeur d’Alene River WMA is part of an IDFG upland game permit release area. Rooster pheasants are released every week during open pheasant season in the part of the unit located across the river. Hunters, with a valid upland game bird permit, hunt both sides of the river, most accompanied by bird dogs. This particular unit used to be a private farm where hay and cattle were raised, hence the abandoned barbed wire fencing. Since IDFG acquired the property they have been working on improvement projects as funding and time allows. It was added to the pheasant release program in 2020 and is very popular with local hunters. It’s not uncommon to see upwards of 10 to 15 vehicles at a time spread between both sides of the river on weekends.
We all diligently set to work and soon establish a rhythm. The t-posts are connected with 4 strands of barbed wire and we soon figure out the span of two t-posts is about all one person can manage to coil of that unwieldily mess. One person goes ahead and clips, another frees the wire from the grass and brush, and a third rolls the wire. Tie it off, carry it to a staging area next to the two-track, repeat process. The five adults leap frog at this as ducks and geese fly overhead, starting their nightly maneuvering. My son picks up trash and plays in the dirt, burying his toy crocodile over and over. The bird dog splits her time between following the person carrying wire, sniffing out pheasant tracks in the grass, and watching the birds fly overhead. When we get close enough to the river she takes herself to look for ducks, as apparently none of us were taking that seriously.
The rain finally dies and the sky lights up for sunset just as we reach the riverbank where the fence ends. Walking the track back, OnX gives me about 620 yards pulled. We discover another section off the main line in the tall grass, but that will have to wait for a future project. After taking waypoints of the staged wire for IDFG to pick up with their truck, we trudge back up to the vehicles, a little soggier than when we started. Hot drinks are waiting for everyone, along with a tailgate full of snacks. A few stories later and it’s time for everyone to head their separate ways. We are all better friends after the afternoon of work and a piece of public land is in a little better condition for everyone to enjoy.