The Icebreaker! Waterfowling hunting after a freeze up is tough on dogs.


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by Bret Amundson

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L-R: Bret Amundson, Mika, ’63 Bel Air, ducks, Mack, Raymond Reading.

 

I had a last minute invite to head over to North Dakota to do some waterfowl hunting.  I decided to load up the truck and go-after all, it’s not every day that you get an invite like that and have the time available to do it.

The truck was loaded literally to the ceiling.  Every nook and cranny was packed tight with full body honker decoys, mallard shells, waders, ammo and more.   I began the drive from Brainerd with the anticipatory visions of giant greenheads dropping into our corn field set up and swarms of snow geese on the horizon.

I stopped in Hawley, MN at Raymond Reading’s house and transferred my cargo into his 1 ton pickup and fish house/camper that we’d be staying in for the 3-day trip.  Mika and Mack would be our four-legged companions on this journey and they happily piled into the backseat like wide-eyed children on their way to Disneyland.

The farm that would serve as base camp.

The farm that would serve as base camp.

Raymond’s relatives have land in the north-central portion of North Dakota and that would be our destination.   400 acres of corn, bean and wheat fields surrounding a wetland complex with thick cattails and small islands.  We arrived Thursday night after dark, but as we stepped out into the crisp late-October atmosphere, the air was filled with the lovable cacophony of snow geese.  Thousands of them were roosting on the big slough that we’d be hunting near.

Snow geese wouldn’t be our main target, but we’d be lying if we told you that we didn’t want them to come over the spread.

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Snow geese in a North Dakota wheat field.

Halloween morning we awoke to a slight scare.  The small ponds in the area had frozen up overnight.  Temperatures in the teens have a tendency to do that to water.  The big slough would remain open and the area birds that stuck around would be concentrated there.   We’d set up on a cornfield to the south of the roost, our two blinds camouflaged by corn stubble, dogs laying at our sides.  The area to the front of the blinds was dotted with fake Canada geese and mallards with an opening in the middle.  Battery powered spinning decoys sat atop poles to attract greenheads, but within reaching distance if geese came near and we needed to shut them off.

As the early light warmed to bright daylight, the realization sunk in that this morning would not go down in the record books.  Despite the high numbers of ducks and geese on the pond, our spread would not be the “X” this morning.  The snow geese and Canada geese poured out to the east and flew out of sight for their morning feed.  Would they even come back?  (Turns out, they wouldn’t).    The mallards that we could see swimming never left the water.

Hungarian Partridge

Hungarian Partridge

We decided to call it a morning and as I was climbing from my blind, I noticed a flash of wings in a smaller slough to the west.  A bird dropped into cover and with the prevalence of sharptailed-grouse around, I headed off to get a closer look.  As I neared a thicket growing close to more cattails, it exploded with two-dozen hungarian partridge.  I managed to squeeze off one shot as they broke the sound barrier escaping and we were finally on the board for our trip.    As my lab, Mika was searching in the grass, sharpies starting to flush all around me.  I didn’t know where to look!  A haunted house-like experience took place as the sound of wings encircled came from every direction with the echoing chuckle of grouse taunting me.  The chaos allowed most birds to find their freedom, but one late-flusher let me get too close and was soon falling to the ground.  Well, turns out it wasn’t ground that he was dropping into.  He had flown over the water and splashed down like a teal.  Mika would have to break through ten feet of ice that ringed the edge of this pond before reaching feathers.  Because of the tall cattails and the lack of waders, I had to listen for 10 minutes as she scratched and clawed her way through.  Finally I could hear her swimming to the bird before turning back for the ice. Coming back should be easy right?  She already had broken the trail.  Well, then it started to get interesting as she wasn’t appearing on dry land and all I could ear was the sound of ice cracking and creaking.

I always get nervous when freeze-up occurs and you have a headstrong lab (like Mika) that wouldn’t be scared one bit if Mike Meyers walked through her kennel with a butcher knife.

Soon though she was plowing her way through the cattails and shaking off the cold, another successful retrieve in the books.  All told Mika would make over two-dozen retrieves including some that would require swimming so far across a slough that you’d lose sight of her.   If the bird was belly up and dead, she’d get it.  Some of the wounded birds would dive, swim and run across the water, making it tough, but she’d swim a half mile through 20 mph winds and waves to find them before finally coming back.    She’s in pretty good shape so I haven’t had to worry about her in those conditions yet.  But the ice bothers me.

Mika breaks through the ice to retrieve a redhead

Mika breaks through the ice to retrieve a redhead

We’d hunt a few small sloughs throughout the weekend that required breaking through ice to get the birds.  Sometimes they landed on the ice.  Each time, she’d work her way through and bring it back.  After that first experience, I wore waders from then on, ready to go in after her if she could break though.  I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I’d jump in and swim.  I owe it to her for what she does for me.

A good mallard field hunt is what we were looking forward to and the second morning saw a few nice greenheads drop into the corn in front of us, but most of the mallards we had scouted never left the water-a strange experience.  With the bright moonlit nights and the Halloween holiday, maybe they were out gathering candy corn after shooting hours?

Raymond Reading with a hooded merganser

Raymond Reading with a hooded merganser

We still finished with a wide variety of species including a couple drake hooded mergansers (laugh all you want, but they’re going on the wall), drake green-winged teal (also going on the wall), some big northern mallards, some young drakes without their plumage yet, gadwall, redheads and of course the sharpie and hun too…we may have even run into some pheasants over there.  I guess North Dakota has a few of them, even up north.

Mika snored the whole way back to Brainerd and soon I was sleeping like a rock, dreaming of another early morning sunrise in the duck blind.

Here are some more pictures from the trip:

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A drake hooded merganser

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4-year-old Mika brings back a hooded merganser

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4-year-old Mika brings back a hooded merganser

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Look at the size of that mallard!

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The Green Hornet made sure we got their safely

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Mika with a gadwall

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Mack with a gadwall

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We decided to get a closer look at this roadside slough. Oops. Luckily there was a friendly farmer nearby with some chains to pull us out.

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A nearby farm was full of interesting items.

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Bret Amundson with a drake green-winged teal.

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Mika takes a well-deserved nap at the end of the trip.

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The farm that served as base camp.

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Mika breaking ice

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Mika breaking ice.

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Mika and a pintail

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Mika breaking ice.

 

DOGS AT WORK: READER SUBMITTED PHOTOS

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Send in your photos and you could win a new duck call from DRC Calls and a subscription to MNSJ magazine!

Jana Stadheim sent in this: A picture of my son Kolby hunting on youth waterfowl day 2014.

Jana Stadheim sent in this: A picture of my son Kolby hunting on youth waterfowl day 2014.

Mike Tasa sent in this: 10 year old Nelli hasnt missed a step! Absolutely love watching her work.

Mike Tasa sent in this: 10 year old Nelli hasnt missed a step! Absolutely love watching her work.

Michael Furtman's Bella works hard on a day when she's suffering from Labrador's Tail.  Watch for more great pictures from Furtman in the next issue of MNSJ magazine coming soon!

Michael Furtman’s Bella works hard on a day when she’s suffering from Labrador Tail. Watch for more great pictures from Furtman in the next issue of MNSJ magazine coming soon!

Tony Crotty's "Nahla" had a good day with his group, making over 30 cold water  retrieves-some of them on big geese!

Tony Crotty’s “Nahla” had a good day with his group, making over 30 cold water retrieves-some of them on big geese!

Pete McGinty's 11-year-old Jack at work.

Pete McGinty’s 11-year-old Jack at work.

Cory Loeffler's "Bella" found this wounded goose in a big standing bean field.

Cory Loeffler’s “Bella” found this wounded goose in a big standing bean field.

11-year-old Casey still hits the water like a 3-year-old.

11-year-old Casey still hits the water like a 3-year-old.

Laura Schara and Raven

Laura Schara and Raven

 

The Week Of Firsts, Comes in Threes

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“I think I’ve got a mouse in my boot.”

Once in a while you hear (or say) things during a hunt that makes you scratch your head.

In fact a lot of things were said during my family’s annual hunting trip this past weekend that would make for a good story.  Each year over MEA weekend (or whatever they call it now), I have 9 of my family members and 4 friends, pack up and head west.  It began with trips to North Dakota for pheasants.  For the last couple of years however, resident licenses were all that was needed as western Minnesota would be our destination.

Waterfowl hunting would also become part of the trip since taking aim at a whistling mallard was how we all were introduced to the outdoors.  In a “full circle” moment, our group actually started hunting in this part of the state long before my time.

I don’t remember what year we quit stalking that slough around Alexandria, but I remember celebrating a birthday in the Holiday Inn that sits on I-94, after carrying around a Daisy bb gun that morning.  I also recall an argument with one of my cousins about a duck that I apparently “shot” with that single, deadly, bb.

This year’s excursion would include a mixed bag of outings.  Slough-side duck hunts over floater decoys, layout blind goose hunts with full body spreads and miles of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) walks in search of the dwindling rooster population.  On Saturday we took part in the first annual Burnt Powder Festival, put on by the Montevideo Chamber of Commerce and held at the Watson Hunting Camp.

A scary moment opened the trip as we decided on an afternoon duck hunt.  Steve Hauge had brought a friend’s one-year-old black lab, Jake, to get him some experience in the field.  He learned one valuable lesson thirty seconds in:  Barbed-wire fences hurt.

As I was leading the way to the slough, Jake was bounding around like young labs do 99% of the time.  He bounced sideways right into a fence with his (get ready to wince), tongue flapping in the breeze.

It all happened in slow-motion:  I tried to stop him before he connected but it was too late.  His entire body landed on the fence while his tongue dropped right on a pointy barb.  He let out a yelp that was half pain, half surprise.  Then he proceeded to try to free himself as quickly as possibly by pulling away voilently.  I pleaded for him to stop and tried to reach him before the inevitable.  He yanked and came loose before help arrived.  I expected to see half his tongue hanging from the wire, and peeked through one eye and a pinched face.  Luckily, all pieces were intact and he just had a bloody mouth for a few moments.  Labs are tough.

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Jake and a portion of the guys from one of the trip’s duck hunts. L-R Wade Amundson, Jerry Hauge, Tyler Hauge, Danny Amundson, Travis Hauge, Bret Amundson, Steve Hauge, along with Casey, Echo, Jake and Mika.

The Duck Hunts:  THEY COME IN THREES

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We didn’t shoot limits, but we had some great hunts, even saving the best for last.   Sunday morning, there were 3 of us left with enough energy to drag our backsides out of bed and head out in the rain-my brother Wade, his son Danny and myself.  3 trusty companions would lope along side of us as we made our way down to the cattails, Wade’s Casey and Echo along with my lab, Mika.

The south wind was a welcome change as we were finally able to set up with the wind at our backs.  Ducks were seen here the night before thanks to a scouting report from Tony Crotty, and a heaping dose of optimism crept over me we waited for the ducks to arrive.

A flock of mallards surprised us at first light with a quick fly-by but continued on to somewhere else. Then, without warning, three teal appeared out of nowhere and landed  at 10 yards.  We each picked one and as they rose to leave, 3 shots rang out.  Two splashed down and the hunt was on!  A couple of secondary volleys chased the lone survivor followed by  a couple jabs at the rusty shotgunner who shall remain nameless, (Wade-oops).

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Echo brings back a mallard that had to chase through the cattails.

Thirteen-year-old Danny would shoot his first limit of ducks.  That included his first wigeon.  Earlier in the trip he beaded and folded his first greenhead mallard too.  Wade knocked enough rust off to score a double on a flock of gadwall and soon ducks were dropping all over the place.  Then as the morning was drawing to a close, a flock of gadwall became visible along the horizon.  They were low and tractor-beaming their way in.  A few rogue birds dropped from the flock and landed out in the middle.  Using my new DRC duck call I begged and pleaded for the rest of them to come closer.  A couple more landed and I picked up my intensity.   My quacks dripping with invitations to join us.  Eventually, there were just three and as they neared the spread the three of us took aim and three shots later, these gadwall were awaiting their ride to shore courtesy of our labs.

We started with three and finished with three.

What I enjoyed even more was watching Mika, the retrieval hog, cramming two of the ducks into her mouth and swimming back proudly, while the other two labs looked on jealousy.

Or maybe that’s just what I thought it looked like.

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Casey shows us that she’s still got it.

The nine-year-old, Casey,  would do her one better though by finding two ducks that we thought were lost.  We had searched and searched for these ducks earlier in the morning without any success.  As I was picking up decoys, Casey was back in the rushes, nose to the ground on a search and rescue mission.  Sure enough the hardened veteran came through in the clutch, finding both birds in the heavy cover.

A great finish to one of the best hunts we’ve been on.  We may have finished 3 short of our limit, but we created a few of those story-telling moments that will be shared many times over.

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Roosters: Long Tales and Tail Feathers

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The origins of this trip involved roosters, so we still needed to get out into the CRP and do some walking.  Honestly, I haven’t been able to get too excited for pheasants yet this year for a couple of reasons.  One, the numbers are down a bit.  They’re not extinct, but with a lot of corn up yet they are tough to find.  Two, I’m having too much fun waterfowl hunting!

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Who shot it? Depends on if you ask Tyler or Travis Hauge.

Thursday we ran into the same problem every public land hunter runs into: competition.  We opened our Walk In Access map and found a large section available nearby.  We parked a couple of posters on one end and began from the other.  As we’re making our way around another group of hunters tried to walk right past our posters, but decided to slide down the field and walked up the other side, passing our group along the way.   Soon our WIA looked like Grand Central Station.

That’s the way it goes.

Saturday we started with breakfast at the Watson Hunting Camp as the Burnt Powder Festival kicked off.  We ate donuts next to Congressman Collin Peterson, MN Deer Classic founder Hugh Price and other hunters.  We told stories of the good ol’ days of pheasant hunting and what we need to do to get more birds on the prairie.

A 240 acre CRP field was chosen as my group of 13 would need some space.  Not long into the walk a group of 20 roosters flushed from a thicket and escaped unharmed into the neighboring refuge of private land.  No shots were fired, but spirits were lifted at the sight.  Unfortunately that would be the majority of the birds we’d see.  We did bump a few here and there and actually knocked down 3 of them, including Danny’s first rooster out of the air!  It was a great piece of land that we were thankful to the landowner for the access.

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Danny and his rooster!

Exhausted and hungry we piled into our trucks and began the drive back to the WHC.  Mika was relegated to backseat duty as my dad, Ron, was my co-pilot.  I try to capitalize on every chance I get to hunt with him as opportunities have gotten few and far between.  We approached a small Wildlife Management Area that held a few birds the day before, and I suggested a quick walk.

It wasn’t long before the sound of wings beating surprised us and a redheaded long-tail lifted out of the grass.  I surprised him and soon Mika had secured the cargo and brought it back.    Another rooster would be taken out of section of 8 foot cattails and just like that, I had my Minnesota limit.  I hoped for one more flush for Dad so he could shoulder his classic 12 gauge, but the companionship on this walk would be my real trophy.

I guess Ron likes to give Mika the royal treatment.

I guess Ron likes to give Mika the royal treatment.

We settled back into Camp and got ready for dinner.  During the meal, we were treated to an award presentation for a 93-year-old WWII veteran, Orice L. Larson.  It was a Patriot Award from the Civilian Marksmanship Program and it included a certificate and an M1 Garand-the rifle that was widely used in the War.

Watch for the 2nd Annual Burnt Powder Festival next year with the Montevideo Chamber of Commerce.

Miranda and Anna kept us hydrated then guarded the birds.

Miranda and Anna kept us hydrated then guarded the birds.

LEARNING THE LAYOUT OF GOOSE HUNTING

The guys in my family have shot a few geese, but haven’t done much goose hunting since the popularity of layout blinds exploded.  They’ve wanted to experience the rush of being concealed within the decoys as those lumbering 747′s come feet down within 10 yards.  We scraped together 6 blinds and scouted out a field the night before.   A picked corn field held about 80 birds-not an ideal amount to set up and hunt the next day.  I usually try to find bigger flocks, but our options were limited.

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Wishful thinking

I pulled my old Sport Utility Blind out of storage and threw it in the back of my brother’s SUV.  After the decoys were placed we went to work on getting the blinds arranged and stubbled.  My old blind needed to be set up so I climbed in-phew, it stunk.  As I climbed in I saw something streak across the back rest.  Apparently we had a stowaway.  I quickly showed this mouse the exit and proceeded to stick pins in the door joints.  As I was packing my gear inside I noticed two mice that didn’t get out of the way soon enough as I knelt down.  Gross.  A short ceremony was performed and they were buried amidst the corn stalks.   Finally we were ready and waiting for the geese to arrive.

The blinds are in place.

The blinds are in place.

After two hours in a layout blind, you start to cramp up.  I was spinning around and my boots were binding up.  I felt what I thought was my rubber boot readjusting itself.

Then it did it again.  A thought flashed through my head, “Is there a mouse in my boot”?

Nah.

Then it happened one more time.

“I think there is a mouse in my boot,” this time out loud to the rest of the group.

I opened my blind door and peered down my boot, only to see a furry creature staring back at me!

“THERE IS A MOUSE IN MY BOOT!”  I kicked off my boot and that mouse flung straight up in the air and landed square in the middle of my chest!

The whole crew burst out in laughter as I grabbed him by the tail and gave him a fling.

The geese never came back to that field, so I guess I need to thank Mickey for giving us some entertainment on a slow morning in a layout blind.

This would have been nice to see.

This would have been nice to see.

From first time limits to first time run-ins with barbed wire fences, this trip was another one that will be talked about at Christmas for years to come.  It’s trips like this that traditions in the outdoors are built upon.  The foundation of sportsmanship, conservation and ethics.  It’s because we did this as kids, that we do it with our kids today, and hopefully they do it with their’s in the future.

Dogs.  Gotta love 'em.

Dogs. Gotta love ‘em.

OFFSEASON REGIMEN: Keeping you and your dog sharp in the summer

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“I think you should show off what your dog can do at our get together next month.”

That was suggested to me recently when discussing an upcoming corporate-type event.  This event would also include representatives from Pheasants Forever.

Ruh-ro.

Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t be more proud of my lab, Mika.  She went through the live bird and gun-training program at Oak Ridge Kennels and I followed Tom Dokken’s training book when she came home.  She’s impressed me the last two falls and I’ve been known to tell people that she’s “pretty much the greatest dog ever.”  But doesn’t every dog owner say that?

When you get into the offseason, it’s very easy to get out of the habit of training your dog.  Even older dogs can use some fine-tuning during the summer to keep them sharp for fall.   I decided it was time to get back to work.

It wasn’t like I’d completely abandoned working with her; it just didn’t have much of a regular structure to it.  I always tried to get her some exercise and she has a Kong Frisbee that might rival a rooster in her eyes.

Once it was suggested to me that we do a demonstration, I figured I better get to work.  Starting with the basics, the heels, comes, sits and stays.  I think it’s a great way to get the dog into the “work” mindset.  If I mean business on the small stuff, then I mean business on everything.

Blind retrieves, casting and doubles all get worked into short sessions when it’s cool outside.  It’s important to do the work, but do it during a time that the dog doesn’t get overworked and run the risk of overheating.

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Now that I’m living out the in country, I’m fortunate to be in an area with a healthy pheasant population.  During a recent walk along a sprouting cornfield, the unmowed ditches held 3 pheasants along the way that Mika scented and happily flushed.

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Watching her flush pheasants brought back that exciting rush that had been held dormant since my last North Dakota walk in early January.   Pretty soon both of us were whipped into a sweat as Mika gave chase to the low flyers and I felt my heart race with anticipation of the opener just over 3 months away.

The instinct and training that Mika has did not disappear despite my worries of her getting lazy in the offseason.  Combine that with some summer drills and we should be in for a fall full of long tail feathers and tasty barbeques!

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