Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Opening Day Dreams

I had just fallen asleep and was dreaming of cupped Canadas on their final approach when the alarm turned on to the country radio station. The red LCD readout was blinking 4:00am. It had been a long, fitful night of sleep, tossing and turning. My mind had been racing about the potential problems that we might encounter the following morning. Would we be beat to the field? Would the wind come in from the wrong direction? Would the flock that had been feeding n the hayfield the evening before choose the next field over tomorrow? Were my reeds clean? Did I wax the reed channel after my last practice session in the truck? And now it was time to wake up. The aroma of French roast coffee from downstairs wafted into the room. Fromm beneath the comforter I could feel the cool night air gently blowing in through the North window of the bedroom, The curtains waved in the breeze. I was suddenly invigorated when I could smell the lake on the wind. The fragrance of summer’s weeds dying back and the pungent aroma of leaves decaying brought me inspiration. My feet touched the wooden floor and I was no longer groggy.

Downstairs I turned on the weather radio to listen to the NOAA forecast update. The lake level was at one of its historical lows and the long hot summer had held little precipitation for the wheat, barley or oat fields. Farmers were just getting around to their second cut. Wind was going tobe out of the Northwest at around 5-10 knots. The birds in my dreams just a few hours ago would be coming off the roost to the South and over the woodline from the Southeast of the field.

I had scouted the field the evening before and secured permission by calling the new owner at his South Florida home. He had told me to check with the guy who “normally hunted it” and I did. He was out of town, which, according to the owner, “if he wasn’t planning on hunting it…it’s all yours!”

By 4:30 the thermos had been filled and the donuts packed in the field bag along with 2 boxes of 12 gauge 3 ½” BB’s, the custom goose call from Dead Creek Calls, my handsome leather duckstrap, headlamp, choke tube box, face mask, and camo skin gloves. The layout blinds had been grassed the night before with winter wheat colored raffia attached to their stubble straps. The fullbody decoys with the flocked heads and the motion decoys and flags we already strapped into the bag of the truck. The boys would be here any minute. My black lab, Boo, whined, knowing that something wonderful was afoot. I let him out into the clear night to air out. He held his head high to and we both took a deep breath of the night air with its glorious fragrances. The cicadas were still singing in the willow tree on the North side of the house. Lights flashed over the hill and the first truck pulled into the driveway.

It was my old benevolent buddy who tolerated all my idiosyncracies and was ALWAYS on time, John Lesher. “Morning” we both muttered. “Looks like the wind is setting up right” he said. “Yep, as long as it doesn’t pick up to much and carry them to that next field” I replied. Another vehicle came from the North end of the driveway and spun in. It was my other faithful, but frequently late comrade, Chris Thayer. He was on time today. We reconnoitered there in the driveway and agreed that it all looked good. “Follow my truck, John, and make sure nothing blows out of it, OK?” “Affirmative” was the reply.

Next stop. Pick up our youngest and most enthusiastic shooter for the day, Sterling Pelsue, of Vergennes. We met him at the Mobil Short Stop and quickly stowed gear into my big white truck I call “Snow Goose”. Then off to the field.

Arriving at the hay field, we turned in through the small tractor opening and drove through the crunchy fresh cut hay to the mound in the center. Setting out the decoys with me, my crew has to accept that I am a bit of a control freak. I run the show like a general with obsessive compulsive disorder. Everything must be just so. Sometimes my troops chide me about it, but if it fails I am the first to admit I was mistaken. On this first day, no one challenged me. I walked up and down the center of the field trying to locate where most of the goose poop was concentrated, then after locating the “X”, I said, out loud “This is where the blinds will go.” We set the spread out in the dark, pacing up and down the mound, our headlamps casting strange funnels of light in the pre-dawn darkness. Two pods of 20 fullbodies shaped like cigars stretching out at 30 degree angles from the blinds, creating a landing zone in front of the blinds facing South. “God, I hope this works” I said to anyone who might still be listening. It was now 5:30.

“Alright boys, let’s go back to bed! Get in those blinds and cover up!” Minutes seemed like hours. I closed my eyes and dreamed of the majestic gray and black bombers dropping in to the spread. Feet down, cupped and committed. My heart raced with hopes for a good shoot. I always feel obligated to the guys I hunt with because they put so much faith in my ability to put them in the right spot at the right time. I took a deep breath and prayed for some sign that we were doing the right thing in the right place. I had just about fallen asleep in the comfort of the blind when it began.

A lone honk was heard in the distance from the South. No one said a word. Our hopes were obvious.

The sun had crept up over the mountain and hung lazily in the early morning clouds. A series of  her-onks came from behind us. It was two birds, “the scouts” checking for the field. They swung over slowly at about 45 yards up. “Let ‘em go” I commanded. “We don’t want to shoot the scouts. Let ‘em go back and tell the others that the coast is clear.” They flew back over the tree line and announced their news to the flock in the bay.

Five minutes passed. Nothing. Then I turned to my right to scrutinize the tree line. In between the tall maples and ash I saw the flash of black wings. I strained to see more clearly. Then, like the flock of flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz, there they were. Topping the trees by mere feet a wave of 50 birds were quietly pumping their way toward us.

“Get down!” I said forcefully “Flag ‘em Thayer”…Chris gave them 3 flaps with the flag. A long her-onk came back to him from the lead bird. “Let’s not talk to them unless they start talking”. They circled once to the North behind us and then set up, black feet began dropping and the large majestic Canadas began chattering. “Hit ‘em with the feeding murmur” I said. The team broke out in low-pitched grunts, growls and groans as if the flock on the ground was feeling territorial about their feeding spot. That did it. The birds turned, locked their mighty pinions and craned their necks looking for a place to set down. They were aiming right for the “X”.

As they began to backpeddle, I hesitated for a moment, lost in reverence. John asked “are you gonna’ call the shot?” “Yes…. Take ‘Em!” I shouted, just as the first bird touched down. Everyone cut loose at once and the valley echoed powerfully with the reverberating sounds of autumn.

Chris, Sterling & John - Opener