Favorite hunting spot brings back fond memories

Nick Lowrey

About 10 miles west of Brookings, just south of the juncture of Highways 14 and 81, is one of my favorite places on earth. It’s a series of lakes and wetlands intermingled with farm fields that create an ideal place for just about anything hunting or fishing. I grew up hunting the federal waterfowl production areas that dotted the landscape. I watched more suns rise and saw more ducks fall in that area than I could count.

I was still in grade school the first time my father, my two brothers and I made the trip north from our home in Sioux Falls through Madison and up Highway 81 toward Twin Lakes. Minnesota native and SDSU alumnus Dan Houg, who had spent four years hunting ducks on the waterways and swamps along Highway 81, had agreed to show us some of his favorite hunting spots. He had a boat, and it was the first year my older brother could carry a gun. My younger brother and I were just along for the ride.

At about 5:30 a.m. on opening day of duck season in 1994, the five of us crammed into Houg’s 14-foot duck boat and set off across a portion of Twin Lakes that lies on the east side of Highway 81. The moon lit our way across the lake toward a shallow, cattail-filled cove tucked between two hills and well hidden from any road. What sounded like hundreds of ducks and a few Canada geese thundered off into the night as we approached the back of the cove. That was enough to get my heart racing even as a small child.

After setting out a few dozen decoys we waited for the sun to start rising and the ducks to start flying. Being only about nine years old and having the astounding ability to sleep almost anywhere, I did so. I was jarred awake by the thundering blast of three shotguns—two 12-gauges and my brother’s much smaller 20-gauge. Two birds fell out of that first flock. Both were gadwalls.

The rest of the morning probably would have gone the same way except that my older brother had a habit of getting a bit bored when the ducks weren’t flying. About mid-morning as I scanned the skies for ducks, I heard a spring rattle followed by a rather ominous plop. My brother had unscrewed the magazine cap on his Winchester shotgun and the magazine’s spring had launched the cap into the lake. My dad was less than impressed. I, however, thought it was hilarious, as did my younger brother.

My older brother spent the rest of the morning in a miserable mood, and for about an hour the rest of us were pretty bored. That is, until we heard the familiar and wholly unmistakable honks of a flock of Canada geese. They had very nearly snuck up on us and were just within shotgun range as they passed over. Houg and my dad fired three shots apiece.

Two of the massive birds broke formation and glided to the surface of the lake several hundred yards away. The day was coming to an end, so we packed everything up and set off to retrieve the first geese I had ever seen up close. That, as it turned out, was easier said than done.

My dad took a position on the bow of the boat, shotgun ready to make short work of the wounded geese and lift the birds into the boat. As we approached the geese, he fired and stared astonished as both birds disappeared under water, vanishing in a white spray. We all stared at one another, wondering what happened for a few moments, before another loud boom from my dad’s shotgun laid one of the wily birds out as it resurfaced from its dive.

The second goose surfaced just off the boat within easy reach, so naturally my dad grabbed it by the neck and swung the bird as well as half the water in the lake into the boat. The goose was less than thrilled to find itself in a boat surrounded by hunters. It spent the next few minutes trying and nearly succeeding to destroy everything it could before some quick action from Houg ended the bird’s rampage.

Years later I would kill my first duck less than a mile from that cove and would eventually spend at least part of every hunting season chasing ducks there until I left South Dakota. Now that I’m back and I’ve found better places to hunt, I still find myself drawn to the memories only the Highway 81 ponds can conjure back.