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One Last Weekend

By Steve Van Ert

Closing Weekend Already?

Excitedly I dial the phone. “C’mon, Jimmy, pick up!”  He’s got to get up here. It’s 5:00PM of the last Friday of goose season in California. I can’t let him miss this opportunity. He was supposed to come up for this last weekend but I hadn’t heard from him yet. We would miss out on great hunting that was happening now.  And isn’t that the way it works; you tell someone how great the hunting or fishing is and then when you finally get out there’s not a bird or fish to be found! That’s how it was with Jimmy. I had just met him and had gone into great detail about how great the hunting has been. He was so excited that we went out and bought tags and gear to the tune of almost two hundred dollars! We loaded the dog in the truck and headed to the Paynes Creek Wetlands and then to the Mouth of Cottonwood Creek where we ended being caught in a torrential downpour one mile away from our truck. I had taken him out for the afternoon in hopes of showing him how great the duck hunting is in northern California. Instead, all we did was a lot of hiking, driving and getting soaked. This weekend, though, would be different. It had to be!

On my way out to the pond, after work that last Friday, I stopped at a couple of the ditches, hoping to flush a few greenheads. No luck. I moved onto my favorite pond with only 30 minutes of daylight remaining. I really wasn’t planning on hunting the pond. I just wanted to get set up for the morning hunt. I brought out my “Rig ‘em Right” set up, camouflage netting and other assorted items.  I brought my shotgun only because I wasn’t about to have to recant yet another story of how I could have shot something if only I had been prepared. That decision paid off.

I set my gear down less than ten yards from the bank. The only available water on that 10-acre pond was a strip that was about 100 yards long and 40 yards deep, along one side. I watched as a few small flocks of Honkers moved around the blue sky above me. I went about setting up for the morning by grabbing a few handfuls of bunch grass and plopping them onto the frozen ground in front of me.  I had only been there fifteen minutes when I decided to watch the continuous flow of geese around me. I figured I could always work on the blind after shooting time is over.  A few minutes later I was dialing Jimmy.

“Dude, Get up here. I just knocked two Lessers and a couple of Mallards out of the sky!”  He was still in Reno though and wasn’t going to be able to come up until Sunday. Great! I can just see it now; he’ll drive up early Sunday morning, we’ll sit out there freezing our butts off and never fire a shot. That’s the way it works. His loss; I was going back out in the morning without him. It had been two weeks since I last hunted the ponds and the birds were thick so I was going to be there early the next morning.

Somehow my plan of early didn’t match up with the rising sun. I arrived on the pond as the sun was splashing a few rays of light onto the horizon. I set up my decoys, applied finishing touches to my little make-shift grass blind and waited. I didn’t have much hope though because I spooked what I imagined to be every single bird on the pond. Nonetheless, I decided to hang out anyways. I was rewarded with a few nice mallards five minutes after shooting time started, then nothing.

A couple of hours later I walked around the pond to check other areas. It was frozen almost end to end. I was going to have to move the blind. I went out to gather wood to build up the blind so that Jimmy and I would both have a little bit of concealment. I fought with the frozen ground to wrestle some more bunchgrass out. That’s when they started coming in again.

They were Honkers, not lesser, but big full-bodied Canadian Honkers. First, a flock of twelve landed on the ice about sixty yards out. These were too far out to shoot. Then, over the next fifteen minutes three more flocks swirled around, glided, set their wings and landed amongst the others. It was as though they were mocking me because each flock would circle just out of reach before landing. Then they just sat there. I waited. My feet were frozen thanks to a pinhole in my waders. My hands were half-frozen because I didn’t dare take my hand off of that Benelli Nova. An hour passed. I was ready to give in when, without apparent reason, one flock took up to the sky again. But it wouldn’t pass over me. I waited. A second, and then third flock rose, again just out of reach even with a Full choke. Finally, one big beautiful bird decided to head my way. Not in the air but on the water. My heart beat a little quicker as it came towards me. BAM! One shot and I had my third goose for the weekend! Now I just had to retrieve it.

I’m glad no one was there to witness my first experience with a fishing pole as a way to retrieve birds. Experience has taught me that I had no chance of swimming after it and the two ducks that were out there beyond my reach. An hour and three decoy weights later I had my birds. “Jimmy, get up here! You got to make it for the evening hunt”.  Though much more excited about my results, Jimmy still wasn’t going to make it before morning.

I spent the afternoon preparing for the evening. First I made a trip to Wal-Mart for more shells and a tennis ball. I decided on three-inch number twos shell by Winchester. These are cheap and effective. The tennis ball was to be the trick to not losing weights cast into ice. By 2:30pm I was ready. As I was pulling on a dry pair of socks my phone rang. “Hey, I’m on my way up!”  I couldn’t believe it. “What?  You will only have an hour if you are already driving.” His mind was made. He would call before reaching town and meet me at the pond.

As I arrived and looked out over the pond my stomach sank. There was not a bird (Coots don’t count!) to be seen. I had some glimmer of hope as there was a large flock of geese east of me about 400 yards away. I went about fine-tuning my gear and blind. I directed Jimmy to the site by way of several calls including the “I think I took the wrong turn” call. 4:15pm, not much time left to hunt, but it could be enough. Jimmy walked to the blind excited about seeing the dozen or so coots and mudhens. We sat and waited. And as if on cue, four Honkers came from the southeast towards us. Jimmy raised his gun. “NO! They’re too far out. More will come. Trust me.” He couldn’t believe I wouldn’t let him shoot. Besides, I said, they were too far over the water. He sighed and set back down. I was going to regret saying that. To try to ease his fears of having wasted his only chance for birds, I explained how life works around this pond. I told him how at first we would see the Blackbirds and then the Magpies fly over. If any dove were still here they would be next, followed shortly by the first of several flocks of geese and maybe a few ducks. He seemed satisfied.

The Blackbirds passed. The Magpies passed. We heard what we thought to be hundreds of geese off in the distance, in the very far distance-not close. Not here. No geese. No ducks. Nothing! I’m getting a little concerned we might not be so lucky tonight. A half hour passes and now I am really worried that Jimmy had driven one hundred and fifteen miles for nothing. When there is only ten minutes left of hunting time, I started talking out loud. “I know they will be here! They have to be here. Please be here!”  Each minute went by so slowly! Eight, seven, six and then five minutes left. Nothing in the sky; I’m getting depressed. What was I thinking? I actually stopped him from at least attempting to shoot a goose! Not feeling so good about that decision.

Four minutes to go. As before, we thought we heard a faint honk. “Woosh” six mallards drop in out of nowhere but out of range. “Wow!” Suddenly, like a thunder storm, wing beats, honking, quacking and splashing all around us. The heavens opened with three minutes remaining and the sky was raining waterfowl. Bam! Bam! Bam! Ducks and geese hit the water. I’m up to my chest retrieving and the birds are still landing all around me. Jimmy is like a kid in a candy store.

Quickly he’s out of shells so I tell him to grab my gun and shoot a few more. He declines, happy to have dropped his first ever goose and several ducks, which were out of reach. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to figure how to get the birds out of the water before it gets dark. The fishing pole idea was a bust. Sure, it was fine when I had an hour, but the light was fading. I suggested he just head home and bring his dog back in the morning.

I still can’t figure out why he didn’t bring him in the first place. Oh well, the birds would be cool enough and I would get out there early (seriously, early). I then suggested he could always go to Wal-Mart. They have kayaks. He could buy one tonight and we could gather the birds before the ice formed over the remaining part of the pond. He left with a promise to be back in the morning. Then, as before, my phone rang as I was putting away wet, cold clothing. Jimmy had bought the kayak and was going after his birds!

 We were able to drive right to the shoreline. The truck lights were swallowed by the layer of fog floating on top of the quickly freezing water. Headlamp, paddles, water-proof gloves – Jimmy was ready to go. I looked at the label of the kayak. “Not to exceed 245Lbs”. Now I’m no expert but Jimmy is a big guy. At well over six feet and several inches, he was no less than 285 Lbs. His body filled the hull of the kayak. I offered to go out but he was determined. Slowly, cautiously he paddled from side to side until he had pulled out the last of the birds. Coming towards the shore was one honker, five assorted ducks and one big, shivering, happy guy. I helped him out of the water only to later discover my phone wasn’t as lucky. We moved down shore a hundred feet where I put the kayak back in and I set out to find any remaining birds. Twenty minutes later I was out. We loaded the kayak and headed into town to celebrate. One beverage and lots of retelling of those three minutes was enough. It was time to head home and get ready for a card game with friends. I stayed out until 3AM. Why not? I had no reason to get up early. I had plenty of birds. I would just go out later the next day to bring back some of the decoys and gear I left out.

It was 10:30 Sunday morning when I decided it was a good time to make the twenty minute drive to the pond. Once again, just in case, by some freak chance there were birds out there at that time, I threw my gun into the car. I was glad I did because this was just one of those crazy, unexplainable times. Within an hour of arriving, I had everything packed, put away and was in my car headed home with yet another big, beautiful honker in the back of my Outlander.  What a weekend. I never worry about not getting birds or catching fish for myself, but when I convince someone to join me I just can’t stand the thought of them being disappointed.  No one was disappointed on this final weekend!