Winter arrived Wednesday morning cold and blustery, but not cold enough to freeze the backwaters where Wendell and Galina Diller and I would hunt geese.
Usually by now ice in these tangled waterways has thickened sufficiently to support our weight, along with that of our decoys, guns and other gear. But not this year, and when we pushed off from shore just after daybreak, we did so in a canoe, not on foot.
These December hunts are Wendell’s and Galina’s favorites of the year. Most waterfowlers have hung up their guns by now, reducing pressure on the geese, and as a bonus, swans and mallards often congregate with the big honkers in December, providing a bird-watching bonanza, a real painter’s inspiration, whether a shot is fired or not.
For the first 100 yards, we didn’t paddle the canoe. Instead from the bow, I smashed the quarter-inch or so of ice that sprawled before us using my paddle, while Wendell push-poled from astern.
Galina, meanwhile, lay amidships atop our decoys and other gear.
The thermometer read 14 degrees. But only minutes passed before Wendell said, “I’m taking off my coat.” He was heating up as he powered us ahead, our canoe rising atop successive sheets of ice before breaking through.
A ballistician and inventor, Wendell in recent years has changed altogether the way he hunts waterfowl. Pursuing the birds mostly in the greater metro, with limited hunting-location options, he restricts the number of ducks or geese he kills in a given outing.
Also, he avoids “educating” birds he doesn’t kill, wanting to ensure that remaining fowl stay in the area for the longest time possible to provide future hunting opportunities.
A mallard hunt that Wendell, Galina and I undertook a few weeks back illustrates the point.
This was at a location Wendell and Galina have hunted many times in recent years. A difference this season is that an influx of mallards arrived in the area in early October.
Not much surprises me anymore about Wendell. But I was taken aback when I joined him and Galina on the mallard hunt to learn that our “blind” would be Wendell’s vintage Oldsmobile, in front of which, in a cut soybean field, he had strewn a dozen greenhead (and hen) decoys.
Bordering the field, in addition to Wendell’s Oldsmobile, was various farm equipment.
“This is how this field looks to these ducks when we’re not here,” Wendell said. “We’re keeping the same appearance for our hunt.”
A couple of details:
The first is that Wendell and Galina shoot only the “long guns” that Wendell invented. These are 12-gauge pumps with ported barrels that approach 7 feet in length. The guns aren’t heavy, and they’re not difficult to shoot. With them, Wendell uses subsonic shells with a muzzle velocity of about 1,000 feet per second.
Outfitted this way, the guns make almost no sound when discharged. Just a big “poof.”
Additionally, Wendell and Galina never shoot into flocks of birds numbering more than, say, three.
“Actually, I prefer to shoot only at singles or pairs,” Wendell said. “That way, when the mallards hear no shotgun reports and aren’t witness to their buddies getting killed when they approach decoys, the larger group is more likely to hang around longer.”
“OK,” I said, “but I still feel silly standing behind your Oldsmobile looking at that mishmash of decoys laid out 30 feet from us.”
Telltale by the quizzical expression on his face, Mick, the yellow Labrador I brought along to retrieve, felt silly, too.
But soon enough, as if on a string, the mallards showed up. When they arrived in singles or pairs, we dropped them (mostly), while ignoring larger flocks of up to 15 birds.
Easily, we could have killed our 12-mallard limit. Instead we put four birds on the ground and called it quits — watching, instead of shooting, for the remainder of the outing.
“Ducks aren’t stupid,” Wendell said. “They’re not going to hang around when your shotgun makes a bunch of noise and you shoot into big flocks.”
• • •
Wendell, Galina and I broke a lot of ice to get to where we wanted to be Wednesday morning.
Arriving, we threw out a half-dozen floaters, stashed the canoe and started a charcoal fire in a small grill. Then we twisted long barrels onto three Winchester pumps, chambered a shell in each and popped a couple more in the magazines before settling in.
“Settling in” with Galina, who is from Russia, means waiting for her freshly perked coffee and Siberia-winter-worthy pancakes.
Cold as it was Wednesday morning, geese were in no hurry to get airborne. But soon enough, a few swans lifted off, gaining purchase slowly. Then a squadron of mallards was aloft, their wings, tiny compared to the swans’, beating metronomically.
Perhaps we were chatting or otherwise not paying attention when the first two geese overflew us, low and slow, passing by cleanly.
Other honkers followed. But most skirted the point where we lay in ambush. Soon, Galina handed up the coffee, then the pancakes, and in our little corner of the world — dusted with snow, the trees bare-limbed, a watercolorist’s dream — we ate and drank.
This was just before Wendell said, “There, two geese.”
Lumbering toward us, the birds vectored in the direction of a dozen or so honkers that sat perched on the ice upwind.
As the geese neared a point directly over us, Wendell and Galina raised their long guns and fired, somersaulting one of the big birds toward a splashdown in the spring-fed pool of open water that lay before us, and sailing the other onto the ice.
No sound, or virtually no sound, accompanied the birds’ demise.
And no other geese in these backwaters were the wiser.