Duck crew: Mr. Niles, Mike, Kurt and me
Duck dogs: Hank and Chester
Duck supplies: decoys, shells, beef jerky, coffee, tobacco, hand warmers and dog first aid kits
Wisconsin Dells – 1980s
I met Mike in junior high, small town WI. After school we would fish local streams together around the area. Seemed like a much simpler time back then because nobody knew where we were or worried. Eventually I was invited to spend weekends with his dad Niles and cousin Kurt at their cabin in The Dells. Mostly fishing and shooting guns at first, later being invited to duck hunt with them without even owning a shotgun at the time. You quickly learn shooting .22s at homemade targets is one thing, actually hitting a bird flying overhead, adrenaline pumping, duck calls quacking and labs anticipating their turn to hunt is a whole different skill. Over the years it didn’t take long to realize what an incredibly gifted, outdoorsman Mr. Niles truly was. I swear fish would jump in the boat, deer would crawl in his stand and ducks would circle his head in a holding pattern. He was notorious for lighting his pipe and just wandering off
on his own from the duck blind when nothing was happening (except for Kurt snoring and Hank passing gas. I swear they fed that dog cans of chili). Minutes later we would hear echoes of shotgun booms not far away and there Mr. Niles was walking back grinning, with 4 ducks over his shoulder. We never even saw a single mallard fly over us.
Duck Hunting Technicals v Fundamentals
Being a forever nerd and part of any sort of hunt, you need to learn the local rules/guidelines which always intrigued me. Decoys can’t be more than 200 ft away from the blind or boat. Shotguns must me cased or un
loaded as the boat is still moving, motorized or drifting. If you decide to field dress a duck, you have to leave either the head on or one feathered wing attached while transporting. Cutting out the scorched flesh around the pellet is best or the meat tastes odd.
Fundamentals on the other hand, with some patience, can be learned. Gun training the labs. Learning about shotgun chokes. Hitting practice skeet vs actual ducks. Identifying which mallards flying in you can take a crack at, drakes versus hens, depending on what you already shot and the bag limits (I didn’t have to worry about that for many years).
River Duck Hunting
Rivers can be tricky and dangerous, which is why we still go to the cabin a few weeks ahead to scout it out and see what the DNR decided to do with the downstream damns for the season. Some years the water level would be up 10 feet, which meant get the Jon boats ready, other seasons open sand in the middle allowing a more stationary blind along the banks. Sand or not there was still current, and going up river to find the backwater sloughs was always preferred; quieter, more camouflaged, safer for the dogs away from the current and floating logs. Plus not having to chase rogue decoys down the river was always a bonus.
Memorable Duck Hunting with Mr. Niles
A mechanical draftsman by trade and beyond being a pro outdoorsman, he was an incredible wildlife artist. Didn’t matter the medium; watercolor, oils, pencil drawings the man was gifted. Maybe that’s what made him such a great hunter, maybe he could see what the ducks were going to do real-time in the sky before he painted them on a canvas. When I first started going with them he actually let me use one of his favorite duck guns; an Ithaca Over/Under 12 gauge.
Sometimes I wonder if he let me use it starting out because it only allowed two shots or if he knew I would fall in love with the sport. I always felt there was an
unspoken initiation phase, proven sometimes by the smirks from Mike and Kurt. I found out the new guy might get the older duck waders, possibly with a hole in the boot. Or when it’s your turn to skeet shoot and people behind you are snickering, you quickly learn that you were given Mr. Nile’s dad’s shotgun loads able to take down an African elephant. I think even Mr. Niles had a smirk.
To this day I love blasting ducks coming in, watching them splashdown and the new dogs tearing off on their own adventure. There wasn’t really one memorable hunt with the group that stands out, rather it was all the things I was able to learn and experience from Mr. Niles about duck hunting from my junior high days to well in my 30s; respect for the process, the land, the wildlife you killed and hunting dogs past. I was honored to be part of his final duck hunting season in 2008 and blessed to be taken in as one of their outdoor family members to this day.
P.S. – Duck hunting doesn’t stop in the blind, we’re hunting for Mrs. Niles original duck dinner recipe handwritten on the card. It’s somewhere at that cabin.