The day started before dawn, two hunters and a dog hunkered down along a steep bank on the flooding, our presence obscured from above by a mix of oaks and maples, multihued leaves still clinging to most of the branches. Decoys floated in the still waters in front of us, a small spread of plastic Wood Ducks to the left, Mallards to the right.
As the eastern horizon brightened, Kevin Essenburg sat against the clay bank about 10 yards away to my left, holding a 20 gauge pump at the ready. My Golden Retriever Gabe perched silently atop a metal washtub in the shallow water next my right leg. As the dog was still unreliable to stay steady to shot, I’d taken off the old belt from the jeans under my waders, and looped it between a washtub handle and a metal ring at the end of the camouflage leash attached to Gabe’s collar.
“We might have a dog dragging a washtub out through the decoys to get the first duck—I attached Gabe to it,” I told Kevin in a quiet voice. He chuckled, no doubt recalling a duck hunt of three seasons ago, when Gabe, leashed to my belt, lurched after a hen Woodie flushing from the surface of a different pond. I ended up on my butt in the mud, an ancient load of misfired steel burbling from the muzzle of my shotgun like semi-flat, fiery champagne.
I had newer shells for Wednesday’s trip.
Kevin had the day off from his job as a mechanical engineer, and invited me for a morning of Wood Duck hunting on a body of water he refers to as “Lake X,” making me swear secrecy regarding its name and location. After hunting, we would drive to a river and troll for steelhead from his 14-foot aluminum vee-bottom boat that had conveyed us to our hiding place.
About 10 minutes after legal shooting hours began, a high pitched “schweee!” resonated from the sky to our right, and immediately a pair of Wood Ducks had landing gear down, ready to land between the Mallard and Woodie decoys. I shot one just before it landed; Kevin dropped the other as it tried to gain altitude.
And sure enough, a Golden Retriever, clunking a big, overturned metal washtub through the shallows, bounded towards the decoys after Kevin’s bird.
“Here Gabe! Get back here!”
Over-exuberant but ultimately obedient, the dog returned, towing the tub, for a lesson in patience.
“Let’s let the ducks float there for a bit,” Kevin said. “More might come in.”
It turned out to be a good moment for retriever training. We waited another 10 minutes, dog back atop the tub, fixated on the dead ducks, quivering with anticipation. I finally unclipped the leash and sent him after each bird. About 30 minutes later, another drake Wood Duck swept over the decoys and Gabe stayed in place after Kevin shot. Although my friend missed that one, the dog’s steadiness was a major step forward in developing him into a decent waterfowl companion.
Several minutes later, another pair of Woodies turned at Kevin’s call, swung around on a nearly identical path as the first two we’d killed just as the first beam of the sun over the horizon coincided with me lifting my 12 gauge. The ducks spotted the fully illuminated movement and flared, instantly out of range. We soon decided to go fishing.
By the time we launched at a public ramp on the Kalamazoo River, cold rain spattered from the clouds that had scudded in front of the sun. Kevin held the outboard’s tiller handle and guided the little boat a couple miles downstream, past several anchored boats, anglers letting the current carry bobbers dangling spawn bags below them.
Spurning spawn, Kevin prefers trolling crankbaits against the current. We turned upriver and set out planer boards, an orange Lindy River Rocker on the starboard side and a black and gold River Rocker on the port rod. Both lures wiggled just 25 feet behind the little on-line boards, which planed about 20 feet to either side. Two inside rods held Storm Hot ’N Tots 35 feet straight behind the boat.
Not more than a minute after we set the fourth rod, the starboard planer board ripped backwards, a steelhead attached to the orange River Rocker.
“Fish on!” I exclaimed, and lifted the bucking rod from its holder, line-counter reel belching brief spurts of line as the colorful fish swirled near the surface.
“Fish off,” I said as the steelhead shook the lure free.
Many anglers believe that a fish hooked that quickly after setting lines is a bad omen, and so it was for us. Although we caught a chunky smallmouth bass on the black and gold River Rocker, no other steelie would hit during our hour-long troll back up to the ramp.
Although our harvest was not heavy, the day showed two of the wonderful outdoor opportunities that exist in Southwest Michigan, one of the few places where one can go hunting Wood Ducks and fishing for steelhead in the space of a morning. They’re two pursuits that word play combines into an activity of “hushing for woodheads.”
Images by Dave Mull