Opening Day on Public Land

I have the alarm set for 2:30 a.m., but at 2:10, I step out of bed and stumble down the hallway. It’s officially Thanksgiving Day, and I know I’ll be in sleepless agony by dinner tonight. But there’s no time to think about that now. I’m focused on 30 minutes before sunrise.

Two of my buddies, Seymore and Jay, crashed at my house and are still asleep. Seymore evidently carried in a sleeping bag, rolled up his hunting coat for a pillow and stretched out on the floor. Jay managed to pull the bed out of the fold-out couch. I make no attempt to be quiet as I turn on the kitchen light and make coffee, so Jay and Seymore promptly wake up. Maybe a minute later, the smack talking begins. The topics are predictable: poor shooting, poor calling, who gets cold the quickest, who can drink the most coffee at 3 a.m. before getting sick, why Seymore prefers hot tea over coffee, whose shotgun is best, etc.

The three of us have hunted together every opening day for the past six seasons. Over the years, our settings have changed, and other buddies have joined us here and there. For the last three years we’ve hunted public land. Average and slow days have outnumbered the great ones, but the great ones are easier to remember. Last year on opening day, five of us limited out on green-winged teal, mallards and gadwall.

The starter on the old boat motor isn’t enthusiastic about working this cold morning. Tim, another buddy in our crew and resident mechanic of the group, is on his way to the lake, but won’t be here for another hour. I know we need to get to our spot early. Other folks have seen the birds we’ve seen. We don’t think of those guys as enemies, and will swap stories with them at the ramp later on. But right now, in the dark, when we’re not yet set up, they’re definitely the competition.

Summoning all the mechanical knowledge I’ve acquired myself over the years, I whack the starter with a hefty crescent wrench (a crucial tool left in my boat two years ago by Robey, another buddy) and hit the ignition button again. The old 2-stroke grumbles to life in a small cloud of acrid smoke. Another year on this motor, I think to myself, and it’s going to be time for a new one. I sucked some milfoil into the intake last summer while fishing and actually set the thing on fire, but only briefly.

After a short boat ride, we’re there. Layout blinds and decoys set, I check my cell phone with one hand, and sip a cup of coffee with the other. It’s 4:15, and I’ve missed a call from Tim. I try to call him back, but no answer.

Soon, we hear another boat motor and see lights coming toward us. We flash our headlamps, and when the boat doesn’t stop, we know it’s Tim. As he gets closer, the water becomes too shallow for him to run, and he has to step out and slog through the mud. Before he gets to us, he shines a spotlight across the decoys, grumbles about the arrangement, throws out a few more blocks of his own and readjusts most of the spread. We give him plenty of smack talk for sleeping in while we claimed the spot, but he counters with the fact that he had to tiptoe around a sleeping 2-year-old at home.

At 5:00, another boat approaches, and we flash our lights at it to reveal ourselves. These guys got up early to get this spot—just not as early as we did. They’re respectful, and motor on to another area. Tough luck. I’ve been in their predicament many times myself.

Finally, we have the spot secure, and the moment is here. Thirty-two minutes before sunrise, and a half-dozen gadwall are hovering over the spread. They soon splash down, the drakes chattering amongst themselves. We watch them and wait. Shortly, we hear distant gunfire rumbling across the lake.

“It’s time by my clock,” Tim soon whispers. My clock matches his. We all rise, the gadwall flush and the blasts in the early-morning light are nearly blinding. Four ducks on the water, on public land we’ve scouted, 30 seconds into a new season. It doesn’t get much better than that.


5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Corey said,

    This is a good story. It sound just like what we go through down here in Florida. There are good years and there are bad years. Dealing with some of the hunters down here can be a trip.

  2. 2

    Jesse said,

    Great story I have to go through most of the season it’s just an all out race to the spots. Except in my case they others are the enemy.

  3. 3

    Steve said,

    I think we have the same motor and hunt the same type of places. I spent $500 on the motor this year and I am considering a lease this year.

  4. 4

    L Janelle said,

    Well, here we go. It’s 3 weeks before the season open. Reading your story brings me to the conclusion we all feel the same passion for this sport. I have been hunting with Mike for the past 3 years and we feel the same way about what we need to do to make each hunt the best yet. we scout weeks in advance. I will bring my boat and race to the spot we scouted. his boat is slow. he arrives about 5 minutes later . it’s great just being there watching all the falling stars, smoking cigars, drinking coffee. I don’t think there is any thing in this life that I enjoy more , If you try to explain this to any one, they think you have lost your mind.

  5. 5

    Kevin said,

    Nice story, and sounds ever so familiar. I hunt in Massachusetts, and if you havn’t heard of our states unrivaled waterfowl gunning, its becuase its wanting to say the least. Either way hunting public land is a battle everyday, often not so rewarded by game, but instead by memories. Nice story,

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