Part of the fun of hunting a waterfowl area managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is selecting the right zone to set up your decoys. The right one means you’ll have opportunities to down a duck or goose. Pick wrongly and you can spend the whole day watching songbirds and crows fly across the sky. Even worse, you see flocks of ducks and geese cup wings and glide into distant decoy spreads set by hunters who picked the right zone.
Another big factor to success can be the luck of the draw. At southwest Michigan’s Fennville Farm Unit—a.k.a. the Todd Farm—last Saturday, our group’s luck seemingly started badly when we were drawn to select our area dead-last out of 22 groups. Fortunately, I was with my waterfowl mentor Kevin Essenburg and his buddy Todd Achterhof, both of Holland, Michigan, who have hunted the area since they were high-schoolers in the early 1990s. Both seemed unfazed that we would be picking our section last.
“Back in the day there might have been a whole lot more groups here and picking twenty-second would have been really good,” Todd told me as we milled amongst a camouflage-clad throng of hunters. Kevin noted that he had picked as high as 242nd in the past. When I asked why numbers of hunting groups had declined, Kevin pointed to a white, dry-erase board that said approximately 4,500 geese and 2,000 ducks were on the preserve.
“Some years, there have been 20,000 geese here,” Kevin said. “That brings more hunters.”
The preserve area forms the core of the 4,100-acre management area. Hunting zones surround the preserve, which is off-limits to hunting—even if a bird gets shot and glides in, no person nor dog is allowed to step over the preserve’s border to retrieve it.
Being drawn last turned out to be a good thing. While most of the other groups headed south to hunting zones along the preserve line, Todd and Kevin decided we might have better luck by going the opposite direction and picked a zone to the north where we would compete with just one other hunting group that had picked a zone near ours.
I had brought my Golden Retriever named Gabe, and Kevin had brought his retriever, a blonde fifth-grader named Andrea, who is his daughter and frequent hunting companion. Although the 10-year-old has her hunter safety certificate, she isn’t quite big enough to swing a shotgun with a goose load, so she signed in as a “guest.”
Kevin had brought about nine dozen Canada goose silhouettes, as well as a dozen mallard shell decoys that balanced on stakes and wobbled in the wind. He also spread out what he called a “pond in a box:” A 10-foot-by-20-foot piece of black polyethylene which, from above, looks like a patch of water and can help bring ducks down. Kevin also set out four “spinny” decoys, ducks with battery-powered wings.
With everything in place, we concealed ourselves two rows of corn back from the grassy field full of decoys by the time legal shooting hours began at 7:07 a.m.
Kevin said ducks fly earlier than geese, and sure enough, less than an hour into the hunt, a pair of mallards flew from the preserve, high and to our left. Winsome quacking and chuckling from Kevin and Todd on the calls brought the mallard drake close enough for a shot, but no steel pellets connected.
About an hour later, a pair of honking geese flew out of the preserve and past us and Kevin and Todd’s calls turned both of them. They were obviously intrigued by the decoy spread and this time no one shot until they came back around a third time. Kevin and Todd each dropped one almost simultaneously. I was holding onto a Golden Retriever’s collar, and both birds folded before I had a chance to shoulder my shotgun. Gabe rushed out and attempted to retrieve the goose that was still flopping, then changed his mind and brought the one that had already expired.
“Do you mind if I go retrieve the other goose?” Andrea asked me. Of course I didn’t, so she jogged out and brought the goose back as she’d done for her dad countless times before.
We hunted fruitlessly for an hour longer before quitting. It didn’t feel like we’d had a stellar day, but that night Kevin texted me: “Total take at the farm today: two geese.”
It made me feel rather good that both of them had been ours. Kevin and Todd had selected well.
Images by Dave Mull