It took more than an hour, but the first duck of North Dakota's waterfowl opener finally discovered my decoy spread.
Placement of the dozen or so decoys was less than ideal, but after getting to the location an hour before shooting time and carefully planning the day, I was hesitant to make any changes - especially now during the golden hour.
Basing plans on tradition, I'd set up in the same spot my hunting group had used for the past few years, regardless of conditions. The uncles, getting up there in age, liked the location because it offered easy access from their pickup trucks. Some years were more fruitful than others, but we always seemed to scratch at least a few ducks, if not limits.
There were some caveats, however. It was on the west side of a large slough, so sunny days made spotting birds next to impossible as they passed within the bright whiteness of the sun. And the water itself was large. Our little hide-away was nestled near a couple floating cattail islands, and within spitting distance of a secluded bay. If the wind was out of the west, it was ideal.
So today, when greeted with bluebird skies and a south wind, I knew it would be an uphill battle.
The gang finally showed up about 15 minutes before shooting time. My faithful 16-month-old German wirehaired pointer, Remy, quivered with anticipation in his camo-clad neoprene dog vest as he watched the convoy's headlights bounce down the rutted prairie trail.
I was glad I'd actually woken up to the 3 a.m. alarm clock and made it to the spot when I did. Any later, and we'd surely be scrambling to get the decoys in place before first light.
Imagine my surprise when the hierarchs settled on a new plan.
"We're going to kayak across to the other side of the slough," Uncle Paul said, speaking of himself and his brother, Jay.
"I think we're going to sit up on that little point to the south," Great Uncle David said, of his son, Kevin. Being a nonresident, Kevin was not allowed to participate in the resident-only opener, but enjoyed tagging along to place his aging black Labrador retriever, Cole, on duck-finding duty.
So we were all on our own. Fair enough. We'd spread out to minimize the birds from settling in one spot and sucking every airborne fowl to a given area.
Made sense to me; plus I had Remy to keep me company. And I knew he wouldn't spill the beans when I blew through a box of shells without ruffling a single fowl's feather.
I was a bit worried about my spread, however. As mentioned, it was not in the ideal locale. And from past experience I knew that if the ducks wanted to be anywhere else, they most certainly would go there.
So when David's three-blast salute officially declared the season open, I watched to see what would happen. Soon after, Jay and Paul began barrages of their own.
It's funny watching other people hunt from a distance. Everything is out of sync like a poorly produced film. Flocks of ducks would mill around, either looking for places to land or settling into a higher flight to feed in the fields. Sometimes, the low ones would pass near my fellow hunters, and a duck would suddenly drop from the sky as if running into an invisible wall. It was only a few seconds later when I would hear the shot, or shots, that ultimately brought the quarry down.
After watching my relatives' success for most of the morning, and seeing flock after flock of mallards, pintails, redheads and all manner of webbed-footed wonder pass me by, frustration began to build like lactic acid in an overused muscle.
Without thinking, I grabbed Remy - he'd been whining incessantly with every shot, wondering when he'd finally get the chance to make a retrieve - and headed for shore. There were big hay bales near the cattails, and I decided resting upon the oversized hockey pucks was more comfortable than constantly shifting weight from one foot to another as they sucked deeper into the incessant duck slough muck.
As if on cue, a drake mallard saw my decoys and dive-bombed down on a string.
"Figures," I thought.
A flock of teal buzzed so close to the top of the cattails I could have swatted them with my barrel - had I not left my hiding place.
I may not be the brightest bulb, but I wasn't about to watch a golden opportunity pass by.
Quickly, Remy and I sloshed back out to our hiding spot and hunkered down. Not five minutes later, a pair of redheads b-lined from the left and veered toward our covert. Two shots later, one bird fell and the trusty canine got to make his first retrieve of the waterfowling season.
As sometimes happens, everything slowed down after that. While it only took another 25 minutes to finish out my 6-bird limit, the moments crawled by in high definition - every quack, every gun blast, every retrieve, made in meticulous detail, and etched in my brain forever.
Birds continued to mull about as I picked up the decoys. A few more shots rang out from my hunting pals, but for the most part our morning was over. Like always, we'd made more memories to hang onto when the puddles freeze up and the birds are gone.
There still are a couple months to go before that happens, hopefully, and many more memories to make.
Tyler Shoberg is Sports Editor of the Pioneer, as well as an avid outdoorsman. He can be reached at 701-451-5717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.