A young duck hunter looks out at a decoy spread in a pond

The First Duck Season

Reflections of a father on his son’s journey to become a duck hunter

A duck hunter’s journey takes us along and through many highs and lows. From a developing new hunter who’s just trying to understand the aspects of ducks and decoys, to an accomplished duck hunter with many successful seasons under their belt, we are always learning and adapting.

Waterfowlers celebrate many milestones, firsts and lasts, markers and memories of seasons and hunts that we hold dear. In the pursuit of ducks and geese–maybe more than any other outdoor pursuit–we celebrate and sometimes ritualize our firsts in the blind and in the field because of our love for what we do, for the ducks, and for our fellowship.

Growing up on the high plains of western Kansas in my early teens, I cut my teeth chasing ducks, with more failure than success, on public reservoirs and little cow ponds that dot the prairie. Being a primarily self-taught duck hunter, each outing was full of experiments and ideas on how things should go. With half a dozen Featherlite decoys from a Coast to Coast hardware and what would barely pass as a duck call I worked season after season to lure passing ducks into shotgun range. Gradually, through luck and stubbornness, lessons from each hunt began to provide success, and success developed into a passion. Little did I know or understand that my greatest reward in my duck hunting journey would come to pass decades later.     

As a father and a hunter, I have found the opportunity to adventure with my sons into wild places and share my passion for wilderness, wind, and water with them to be my greatest adventure yet. This journey of fatherhood in the field with little ones in tow is not without its challenges, but the rewards have been spectacular.

This last duck season I found myself at the helm of my son Mason’s first real duck season. Without a doubt, Mason is no stranger to the duck blind, to early mornings, or to the excitement of cold fronts and the migration that they bring. Mason has been accompanying me in the field since he was old enough to wear rubber boots. Gone are the days of diapers and baby wipes in my blind bag as Mason is now 10 years old and ready to truly begin his own duck hunting journey.

Wearing new waders that he received for his birthday and carrying a youth model 20-gauge pump shotgun that was gifted from a dear friend, we set off into the November prairie potholes of Kansas to try our luck. I looked on with a heart swollen two sizes too big, full of pride and often nostalgia as somehow this season full of newness and freshness tugged at the carpet of time under my 27 year career as a duck hunter. Every new experience that Mason and I shared from our early morning coffee waiting for shooting light, to breaking ice, and even going home empty handed somehow kindled an ember in my hunter’s heart that I didn’t even realize had been fading.

We spent plenty of time in the field with more than 20 mornings in the blind. So many firsts: his first mallard, his first teal, a first goose, even gadwalls and northern shovelers were on the list. Longtime friendships with old hunting buddies were rekindled and we were privileged to hunt with one another’s sons after years had passed between us. There were days with only a few birds, and days with heavy straps of limits. We shared smiles and shivers of cold equally, and a distinct twinkle in our eyes that affirmed our mutual adoration of ducks and duck hunting.

As our season progressed, the grind became a reality. Three a.m. alarm wake-ups grew tiresome; ponds, lakes, and even rivers froze, and the birds became as stale as a week-old heel of bread. Finally, the last day of an unforgettable season was before us. A blue sky day with low wind came kissing across the golden switches of tallgrass prairie from the south. Mason and I arrived early at a small cattle pond positioned less than a mile from two larger roost lakes. We were greeted with nearly two inches of ice to break over knee deep water in the darkness. We broke ice, we spread out a dozen decoys, and we snuggled into our layout blinds blended into the surrounding grass. The anticipation of shooting light grew like a lump in our throats, built on both promise and doubt.

The day was slow as the morning sun broke into reds and yellows and purples across the sky. The ducks found it to be the perfect opportunity to soak up the day’s sunshine without flying that morning. Laying in our blinds dressed for warmth on a 50 degree day we talked and shared stories and jokes. We laughed until our cheeks hurt, and knowing this was our last day of his first season neither of us wanted it to end. We made the decision to stay all day, not knowing if the birds would fly, but in reality not caring.

At about 3 o’clock we began to see large groups of late season January mallards flying high to feed. We called and hoped but the birds kept flying. Then from out of nowhere, and without warning, a drake mallard came cruising into our spread like a fighter jet to an aircraft carrier. I was able to shoot this duck on its exit from our pothole before Mason even knew what was happening. For the next hour and a half we worked singles and a double into our spread and took our shots.

Then it happened, with the sun balancing on the horizon a lone mallard hen circled us from above. Mason spotted the duck first and pressed his lips to his call. He let out a few quiet quacks and turned the duck overhead. She began to rise out and away so he gently called again, turning her back and headed for our decoys. In an instant this hen was hovering 8 feet above our bobbing decoys looking for a place to land on Mason’s side of the spread. I called for him to shoot that duck. He sprang up from his layout blind, and as natural as any seasoned veteran, he cleanly took the last duck of his first season.

As Mason waded out to retrieve his prized mallard laying just on the edge of the ice, somehow the entire season flooded my mind. I had witnessed Mason’s first time hearing whistling wings overhead in the morning dark as a hunter. I had witnessed him grow into a dedicated young man who stays all day for a chance at very little. In that moment, with goose bumps up and down my neck and the biggest smile I can remember having, I looked on realizing my son had become a duck hunter right before my eyes, and I couldn’t be more proud.

A young boy retrieves a duck from a marsh

Last modified: May 7, 2020

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The First Duck Season

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