Back on the farm when I was young, we could always count on plenty of pheasants, but ducks and geese were a hit and miss deal, both in whether we saw any and whether we bagged any.
It was a different time, the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Where we lived west of the Missouri River, ground cover was plentiful. The federal Soil Bank program started in those years, adding huge tracts of the kind of land pheasants loved.
We even called one vegetation-thick half-section just a mile north of our home place the Soil Bank land. Pheasants rose from that land in numbers that blocked the sun. That’s how the old folks described it around the coffee tables in the local cafes, anyway.
Every road ditch, shelterbelt and stray weed patch hosted hundreds of pheasants. When we left the house for a hunt, we knew we were going to see a lot of birds.
I suppose we were all spoiled by those experiences, although I don’t recall thinking much about it at all. Pheasant hunting to me was just something we always did in the fall. As far as I knew, we always had birds around. If I got a shot or two, that was dandy. If I didn’t, well, there would always be a next time and thousands of birds.
It wasn’t that way with waterfowl in those days before the Corps of Engineers’ dams turned vast stretches of the Missouri River into lakes that held geese, and ducks, too, for days at a time. I’ve never hunted waterfowl since the reservoirs were filled. My experience was all about dryland waterfowl hunting.
When I was growing up, the Missouri could be a raging river with damaging floods in the spring. By mid-summer and into fall many years, the river resembled an oversized creek, grey-brown and soupy, running shallow down the middle of its wide, deep valley. It drew geese and ducks, sure. Those birds had to rest and feed somewhere as they migrated south. The river meant water, and just over the bluffs on the flat prairie, fields of corn and milo offered an all-you-can-eat buffet for a day or two before the trip south continued.
I learned to hunt ducks and geese by watching their flight patterns one day and trying to guess where they might settle overnight, where they might feed and whether they might be sitting around somewhere early the following morning. Without realizing it, I learned quite a bit about the migratory habits of the waterfowl that came down the river flyway.
We had a sweet dam on a piece of ground over east. We called the land Emerson’s Place. I never bothered to ask why. If the ducks, especially mallards, were to stop anywhere near us, it would be on the pond at Emerson’s place. We’d get up long before sunrise, park well back from the dam, walk in quietly and position ourselves on the backside of the bank. I can still hear the nervous chatter of the ducks as dawn came. They sensed our presence even before we leaped to our feet and startled them into flight. I was never any good at hitting a flying duck. No idea why, I just wasn’t.
With geese, after we followed their flight pattern a day or two, we would dig -- in the dead of night and often by hand -- a couple of pits where we calculated the flock might fly over on its way to morning feed. We’d get to those pits well before dawn and wait. Sometimes a few geese showed up. Often, they were done with us and on their way south. I only had a couple of chances, but I found out I wasn’t any good at hitting a flying goose, either.
It’s almost duck season. I know a fair number of people are having trouble sleeping at night in anticipation of their first hunt of the fall. At my age, I have trouble sleeping, too, but I don’t compound the problem by getting up in the chilly dark to sit in a blind or pit. That stuff is for younger, hardier folks.