Open Season: Waterfowl opener slow, but still worth remembering
"You know what we should do next year?" my uncle, Paul Drechsel, asked before biting off another hunk of deep-fried duck. "Bring a bottle of wine."
There was a murmur of approval as the rest of the hunting group got to work digesting both the morning's success and gastronomical delights already in our bellies.
"We should bring lounge chairs, too," he said.
"Yeah," Paul's younger brother, Jay, agreed, "and maybe a table with nice, white linens - and an umbrella!"
"How about some victory cigars to top it off?" I suggested.
There was a jovial round of support. Paul scooped up another half dozen chunks of duck meat from the deep-fat fryer; each golden morsel carefully skewered via toothpick to a slice of home-grown jalapeno pepper and battered in Shore Lunch.
"Eat up, boys," he said. "There's plenty more."
We rolled ourselves to the steaming bites like blubber-lined elephant seals coming out of ocean surf. The feat took effort after a full morning of hunting, but it was worth it: you've never eaten duck unless you've had a fresh one cooked mere hours after uttering its final quack.
The birds were sublime; tender, juicy and not in the least bit gamy. For those of us Scandinavians yet to consume our daily dose of lycopene, ketchup was available. Paul also brought some sweet and sour sauce for the more adventurous of palate.
I washed it all down with an ice cold Coke, then reclined in the cool, green grass and watched a few fluffy clouds meander across the blue sky
My 18-week-old German wirehaired pointer, Remy, dozed in the shadow of one of our pickup trucks. He raised his head only when the wind switched directions and wafted the scent of cooking birds past his nose. But even that seemed to be too much work, and he mostly kept still.
For opening day of North Dakota's regular waterfowl season, it was amazing that the skies were so empty. We were resting, relaxing and reminiscing next to the slough that had been hunted just that morning.
The day's festivities began in the worst possible way; blanketed in a syrupy fog that cut visibility down to mere feet. After a bare-knuckle, 25-minute drive from our motel room to the stomping grounds, Jay and I were met by eerie silence.
Normally, all manner of feathered fowl fusses and flutters in the moments before sunrise - but not today. As the rest of the convoy pulled up and began to unload, the only sounds to break the calm were our own.
"I wonder where all the birds are? This place was full yesterday when we checked it out," my second-cousin, Kevin Drechsel said. His father, David, nodded as he slipped on a pair of waders.
Jay's son, William, who graced us with his presence after skipping out last year because of some fraternity hogwash, popped a couple shells into his Remington 12-gauge shotgun and racked one into the chamber.
"Wanna take care of the pooch while I set up decoys?" I asked.
William took Remy's leash. The young dog stretched, let out a gaping yawn and squatted to make his mark.
Jay headed south to a point he frequents yearly as a pass-shooting spot. He only took a dozen steps before disappearing into the milky mist. Paul drug out a new kayak he bought during the summer just for this occasion. The idea was to paddle to the adjoining body of water and keep the birds moving. That way ducks wouldn't get a chance to raft up in one spot.
William, David, Kevin and myself set up close to the drop-off point with a couple dozen decoys and a prayer. Kevin's 8-year-old black lab, Cole, splashed around while we set up the spread, his silver-lined muzzle giving away his age.
Remy was content to shiver and whine on a bed of overturned cattails I made to keep him out of the water as much as possible. Though he's proven himself a marvelous hunting companion even at only 18 weeks of age, we were still working on swimming.
Soon after I tossed out the last decoy, a barrage of shots south signaled Jay was seeing ducks. A short time later, a couple pops to the east meant Paul, too, was getting action.
Our group had yet to see a bird.
As if on a cue, a drake mallard cupped low and nearly touched the surface outside our decoy spread before I gave the signal to open fire.
We all took turns, but it was William who connected. As soon as the bird hit the water, Cole was rushing to get it, his vigor for the hunt obvious in his enthusiastic splashing.
As the morning wore on, the fog kept the birds at bay. We saw a smattering of them pass low, but often they were out of sight before we had time to shoulder our weapons. When the fog finally lifted, the birds followed, and any passing overhead did so well out of range.
Jay wound up with a limit of ducks, of which we enjoyed afterward deep fried. Remy did eventually get his nose full of feathers after I jump shot a couple blue-winged teal and one wound up in the cattails.
We also salvaged the day with a sporting afternoon of upland hunting. The sharptailed grouse were more than prevalent, and a 20-plus covey of Hungarian partridge was the icing on the cake.
No, today would not go into the history books as one of our better waterfowl openers, but it still was an opener.
That, along with great company and dogs, made it worth remembering.