Adrenaline fuels waterfowl opener

Nick Lowrey

It’s 4 a.m. and my alarm just shattered a rather nice dream I was having. My head lifts from the pillow and my arm shoots out to slam the snooze button. For a second I’m kind of pissed off as I lay my head back down to get back to my dream. Suddenly my eyes snap open and I realize why my alarm went off. It’s the most wonderful time of the year: opening day of duck season.

I get dressed in a hurry and call my friend Derek to make sure he’s up and on his way to my apartment. Still rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I walk to the living room and kick my little brother Bryan awake. He rolls over, blinks and hops up fully dressed and ready for anything.

By 4:30 a.m. Derek has arrived. My brother and I have done all of the last-minute prep work and we’re off to meet another pair of brothers, Brett and Kyle Cosand, at a gas station on the way out of town. Within five minutes we’re traveling west on Highway 14, our hearts are pumping with nervous excitement. We are all aware of just how good duck hunting in South Dakota can be.

South Dakota is one of the best waterfowl hunting states in the country. This is due in large part to the prairie pothole region of the state. There are more ducks born and bred in this region than just about anywhere else in the other 48 states. Brookings just so happens to be conveniently located on the southeastern edge of this duck haven.

By 5:20 a.m. we’ve arrived at our destination, and now the real work begins. We pile out of the truck, slide into our waders and divide up the decoys for the short walk to the duck pond. The excitement builds as we trudge quietly through the mud, whispering jokes and discussing strategy. Just when the shoulder straps of the decoy bags begin to bite, we emerge from the underbrush on the muddy shores of a small pond north of Lake Poinsett.

The moon and stars are reflected in the shallow glassy waters of the pond, broken only by a collection of dead tree trunks that memorialize the grove that grew here before the water rose and flooded the area. The musty perfume of swamp mud and vegetation conjures memories from seasons past. The chilly morning breeze hits my face for the first time and sharpens my senses for the day to come.

In the darkness we find a suitable spot to build a blind and begin to spread our decoys in a classic J-hook pattern. The decoys are spread in short order and we get to work on our blind; collecting broken tree limbs and cutting reeds to weave between them. Soon we’ve built a decent hiding spot for five people and then take a few minutes to rest. In all, it took about an hour to set our decoys and build the blind. Despite the chill in the air, we’re all sweating.

We pass the half hour or so before shooting hours begin by telling jokes and stories from last year’s hunting season. The eastern horizon takes on a pinkish-orange hue, revealing a cloudless azure sky. Soon the air is filled with the faint whistle of wings as thousands of ducks take to the skies for their morning commute to favored feeding areas.

It’s still several minutes before the shooting can begin. We’ve all become silent in anticipation. The eastern horizon glows brighter, taking on a golden tint as shooting hours approach. Ducks begin to materialize out of the early morning haze. They buzz around our decoys, some even land amongst the painted plastic doppelgangers.

Exactly half an hour before sunrise, all hell breaks loose. It begins with a flock of four Blue-winged Teal zipping at nearly 60 miles an hour into the decoys. Their wings cup at the last minute as they slow down to land. Five shotguns open up simultaneously in a deafening roar. The first duck falls, then another and another. The final bird accelerates over our heads and away over the grass.

Adrenaline floods my bloodstream as the ducks keep coming. There’s a small group of mallards from the right, quickly followed by a pair of wood ducks coming straight at us, a flock from the left, and four spooners circling overhead. We’re counting as we go and before the sun has fully risen we have 10 ducks down.

The surface of the water is broken only by falling ducks and in what seems like no time at all, the morning flight is all but over. The skies are nearly empty and there are nearly 20 birds down – far shy of the six-ducks-per-hunter limit. Our shooting, it seems, couldn’t match the numbers.

The adrenaline begins to wear off as we collect and pack both the decoys and the ducks. Weariness begins to creep into my muscles as my back starts to ache while I bend over to collect decoys. And yet, I feel intoxicated. The air is still chilled and fresh, the wind is low, the sun is up and I can’t help but rejoice in the knowledge that this is only the first duck-filled morning of many to come.

Editor’s note: Nick Lowrey is a News Editor at The Collegian. Contact him at [email protected]