Master waterfowl hunter Nick Neff watched as the flock of eight ducks made repeated passes over the pond, gaining altitude every time they flew above a spread of decoys that floated lifeless, and frost-covered, on the cold, still water.
When the birds were out of sight, Neff reached for a piece of hunting gear that would save the day – a skillet. Within minutes, the blind that was empty of dead ducks and geese was filled with the sizzle and scent of frying bacon.
“Sometimes we do pancakes, too, but I figured we had enough,” Neff said as he later headed home to Lenexa from a waterfowl hunt almost void of waterfowl. Neither he nor his partners were totally surprised their traditional in-blind breakfast was the highlight of Saturday’s opening of duck and goose season across Kansas’ low plains late zone.
Several days before the season, Neff had checked some websites and learned this year’s waterfowl migrations are running a few weeks behind schedule. He’d spent much of Friday scouting properties he hunts with friends Benton Boyd, Adam Kiburz and Jeff Davis.
Friday’s cold front had brought a few more ducks from the north, it appeared, though most were still at the northern edge of the group’s northeast Kansas hunting range.
“I still think we’ll hunt down south, where we’ll have the bigger blind and at least we’ll know we’ll have a good breakfast,” Neff said late Friday evening.
“Down south” is a pond of about seven acres, in a cow pasture, that Boyd has hunted for many years. It’s a pond where they’ve shot many limits of ducks and 30 to 40 Canada geese per trip on past hunts. Unfortunately, that seldom happens this early in the migrations. The duck hunting, Neff said, is also different than what he enjoyed growing up in south-central Kansas.
“We only really get the migrations (of ducks),” Neff said. “They don’t hang around here as long as they do other places. We just don’t have the big expanses of water, like reservoirs. But that also means the ducks can be a lot more concentrated once they are in.”
Unlike further west in the state. Neff said northeast Kansas hunts are usually mixed-bag affairs that may see equal numbers of ducks and geese working the decoys. He said their best duck hunting is usually gone by early December, while the goose hunting is excellent in January and February.
It’s that time of the year when Canada geese have piled into the many lakes and ponds of Kansas’ most populous county, flying to fields of corn, wheat and soybeans to feed. To sweeten an already attractive pond south of the metro area, Boyd and Neff keep a pool of water open during the coldest temperatures with a propane-powered, submerged heater.
“You can stay there all day and you’ll have singles, doubles or up to 40 big geese come in and land,” he said. “We hold a lot of geese here through the winter. It can be really outstanding.”
None of the four hunters were expecting outstanding hunting when they met in the cattle pasture at about 6:30 Saturday morning, but they knew there were enough geese that had spent the summer and spring in the area to expect some decent shooting. They felt the same about possible duck migrations within the past day or so.
Ice cracked in the shallows as they toted a smallish spread of floating duck and goose decoys into the knee-deep water. Neff wanted to keep the number of decoys to two dozen, which would more naturally resemble what migrating birds would see for live birds this time of the year.
With the decoys floating lifeless on a still morning that had every inch of the pond’s surface mirror-smooth, Boyd rigged a cord to four floating decoys. A few jerks, when needed, and the ripples from those decoys added action to the rest of the spread when birds came close.
Unfortunately for the first hour, nothing was flying. No ducks, geese, or even crows, blackbirds or hawks. Finally, the flock of eight shovelers gave the pond a few looks and were gone.
It was then time for breakfast in the blind that is larger than most dorm rooms.
Breakfast is served
Actually the hunters had begun loading their stomachs even before they loaded their shotguns. While awaiting legal shooting light, Davis passed around a bag of grilled poppers – mild jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon.
Next, Neff began serving slices of homemade smoked goose summer sausage he’d made from last year’s birds. The three other hunters commented it was some of the best summer sausage, no matter the meat, they’d tasted.
Thick slices of bacon eventually sizzled on a propane griddle. A big bag of beaten eggs mixed with green pepper, mushrooms, garlic, spices and chopped pepperoni was added to a large skillet and stirred.
Plates heaped with servings of bacon and eggs steamed in the cold air, as did cups of coffee poured from thermoses.
When breakfast was over, the hunters turned to talking about upcoming waterfowl and crappie fishing trips they hoped to have this fall and winter. The birds, especially the geese, would eventually come. All were shocked that none were seen, and few even heard in the distance on the cool, calm morning.
At mid-morning Boyd said, “This is the slowest opening day we’ve ever had. We’ve always gotten at least some birds.”
That was when a single duck was seen sailing down from high overhead, obviously locked on the decoys. The hen mallard passed on Neff’s side and he shot it. Dakota, his Lab, bounded out to make the retrieve.
Twenty minutes later Davis again passed around the bag of poppers. When they were gone, the four hunters began gathering gear to leave. As they did they talked of upcoming hunts, including one somewhere Sunday morning. To the man, and dog, they want to be afield the day the migrations finally arrive.
Even if that’s not for a while, from the taste of things it appears they’re in for a good season.
Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.