The day I found this little corner of the lake was hot with clear skies and no wind. I had stopped along the creek banks at a couple of spots to get out and look over the edge into the lake. On the western edge of the lake was a little grassy cove that would be well protected when the wind was coming down the valley from off the glacier. However, on this day it was duck free.
The banks along the creek are alder swamps, with the alders dead or dying. The willows are hanging on and some of them are huge old sentries to the march of time. The grasses among the alders grow in clumps much like tundra tussocks, and like tundra there are water filled muck holes between the tussocks. Some of these muck holes can be walked through, and others will steal your waders after sinking up to your knee.
Knowing this, I was hesitant to walk too far along the banks while investigating the little cove. I eventually managed to slowly traverse to a dead spruce tree standing alone on the shore of the cove. The shore of the cove is open grass for about 10 yards and then another 15 yards of horsetails making for long shots from any natural cover another 10 yards back behind me. While standing there and trying to think of a way to hide in knee deep muck with 10 inches of grass over it, three mallards dropped in about 30 yards out at the edge of the water. I thought long and hard about if I should shoot because I did not know if I could walk any farther out and retrieve the birds. I need a dog right about now was what I was really thinking. I was also thinking that since I was standing next to a tree without any camo that maybe I needn’t worry about how to hide better.
But I didn’t have a dog and the birds swam the few feet into the horsetails. I moved one arm to better hold the gun and they were up and off with the two hens quacking their alarm to the whole swamp. I noticed that they flew around the far side of the cove and then banked right onto a long point of grass that marked the drainage channel from the lake. That is when I also noticed the left side of the back of the cove. It was actually a narrow point sticking out into the main lake. I thought back to all the duck hunting “how to” books that show that decoys should always be set up on the lee of small points in larger lakes. I was looking at the back side of what appeared to be a text book example. As I stood there on the grassy verge of the little cove I hoped that the shore on the lee of the point was not like the cove offering no cover for 30 yards.
Once I had stumbled through the alders back to the boat I motored back down the creek to where I thought the point would be on the bank of the creek. The alders were thicker here and there were more dead spruce trees marching farther from the creek, so this had to be the base of the point. The march through this alder swamp was much worse than the bank of the little cove. The muck holes were deeper and filled with more ankle trapping alder sticks. The alders were so rotten than when grabbing one for balance it would give way sending you down into the muck. The grass tussocks were nearly waste high but were much larger around than near the cove. They were their own little islands.
I had made it far enough to see that the alders thinned closer to the lake shore, but that there were grass tussocks with alders right up to the waters edge. I struggled quite a bit fighting the trees and muck holes and was standing on a fallen spruce tree about 15 yards from the shore. There was not much cover left between me and the shore and like the rest of the swamp on that hot clear day there didn’t appear to be many birds around. I was soaked in sweat and my old rubber chest waders were making things worse. I decided to just stay there and rest standing on the tree trunk and just watch the area for a while.
I guess that my not moving had unnerved them because it was only 20 to 30 seconds after my pausing to rest that four mallards erupted out of the grass within 10 feet of me. Having game birds unexpectedly erupt out of the cover near my feet is some thing that has happened to me though out my life. There was the Himalayan Snow Cock in northern Nevada while deer hunting. These birds are twice the size of a grouse and this one came right from under my feet as I was walking across a narrow canyon. The noise and the wings thrashing the brush left me “disturbed” the rest of the day. Then there was the blue grouse in central Nevada that the dog had walked right by. We were actually bird hunting that day so I was anticipating some flushes, but not a bird coming up from my feet and into my face. Needless to say when I finally regained some composure I missed the bird with both barrels. Dad nailed it, though. Grouse seem to do it to me more than other birds.
So there I was with four mallards flushing up like grouse just 10 feet away and I nearly fall off the tree trunk trying to mount the gun. I had to let them go or risk being impaled on the branches of the spruce tree if I fell. After my heart stopped hammering in my chest I ventured further out to the lake shore and found that the area was mucky but had a firm enough bottom that you could wade out to retrieve downed birds. The alder and grass tussocks made for good seats and natural blinds.
I sat and watched the lake. There were a few divers out in the middle and some puddle ducks way over by a grassy area on the other side. To my left was a nice pile of dead willows that had some feathers around it. I walked over to the willows and found some old rotting plywood pieces and old empty shells. There was a slight trail going back towards the creek bank and I followed it out to near where I had stashed the boat. From where I had parked the boat I had walked though the worst of the area and still had to climb through the last 40 yards along the bank to get back to it. After reaching the boat I had to sit there and deal with over heating in the rubber chest waders. I was wondering just how hot it was. It was late September in Alaska and I was melting.
My next free weekend found me without a hunting partner, meaning no dog again either, and I decided to head out to the corner and see how things worked out. It was one of only two spots I had found that was even remotely safe to wade in this whole swamp system. Most places were bottomless once you stepped out of the boat. This morning I parked the boat a little further down the bank from before, but still had to struggle though the alders in the dark. But I found the little alder and grass tussock I had wanted to sit on and then got my decoys set out along the shore line. This time I brought a sturdy stick with me to use as a wading staff. By sunrise I had 8 decoys setup along the lake edge about three feet out from the grass with a couple at each end further out. The ducks had not flocked up yet and small groups were the norm, so any more than a few decoys would have been out of place. As I was sitting there two ducks came from out of no where and landed skidding through the decoys right into the grass. I grabbed the 870 “rustpress” and stood up making the two ducks jump up. One shot brought them both back down to the water. This was looking to be a good day. I waded out and picked up my two mallard hens that seemed to be awfully small. That is when I noticed the wide bills and blue “eye shadow” on their wings. I had taken my fist “smiling Mallards”. Like the Gadwalls the previous year these were a surprise for me since I didn’t think they were “northern” birds.
As the day progressed I missed lots of shots at ducks coming in to take a look. Most were following the shore from my right and were directly overhead making for tough shots. The 870 rustpress does not swing well and trying to connect on an overhead shot just didn’t work for me. It was easy to blame the old injury in the left shoulder for my lack of follow through, too.
Even with the misses and the beginning of a good magnum shoulder from all the high speed ammo I was burning up I realized that the corner was a good spot. Ducks came in small groups through out the day from all directions. The few that came right into the decoys had staid for dinner. Thankfully the spoonies didn’t have to dine alone. Most birds were just taking a look offering passing shots, but enough were close enough to make it a spot to think about when the wind was coming off the glacier to the east. If enough boats were in the larger lake to the south the birds would keep moving making this a likely spot to set down.
Over the next two seasons I hunted the corner several times both alone and with my partner. Recently I even hunted it from a boat and we took some Blue Bills and Widgeon, but that felt very alien to me at this location since we were not hunkered down in the alders like normal. The success of the spot appeared to hinge on the amount of pressure the rest of the swamp was getting and my ability to hit something. High pressure days were best. My shooting had not improved much so I never brought many birds home. I only found someone hunting at the corner one time, and that was from a boat and not from shore. Whoever had brought the plywood in had not returned as far as I could tell.
The next to last time I hunted at the corner I had brought along a long time acquaintance whom I had only met in person in the early spring of this year. We had been communicating through email and web forums about boat building for years before we finally met in person. On this morning we met at the cross roads of a small town and he followed me into the farmland back roads which provide access to the swamp.
We launched the boat and motored none too fast out the lake and then down the creek in the dark. I should have changed props to the old one. I had forgotten how sensitive the boat is to load and our speed was not what it should have been. Being passed by jon boats with long tail mud motors is not fun for the ego of a boat builder.
We eventually made it to the shore near the corner and my how it had changed. The rotten alders had fallen more and changed the landscape quite a bit. I was worried that in the dark I would not be able to find the easy path into the corner. Thankfully that turned out not to be the case and we made it without the struggle I had expected when first setting out. Finding the spot on the shore was another matter but soon my mind figured out that we were right where we were supposed to be and we started setting out decoys along the shore.
As shooting time came a single bird crossed over us and I missed it keeping up with my normal lack of skills. I forgot to mention that on this day I was shooting a new gun, a Stoeger M2000 semi-auto that is much lighter than the rustpress and does not leave me with magnum shoulder. I had greatly entertained my daughter the week before at the skeet range and figured out some of my problems on crossing shots, but evidently not the overhead ones. My friend then had an opportunity at a Golden Eye, which proved to be too much the typical wounded diver for his young dog to catch up with. She tried hard but the bird was able to move out of range faster than she could figure out where it went. For a young dog she did really well at trying to catch the bird between dives, but soon it was long gone to the other side of the lake.
The next bird was one of a few puddle ducks that came part way into the decoys. It fluttered up and then down and then up again to my side of the corner where I dropped it with one clean shot. Not the usual miss. After the shot the dog swam out and found the bird and brought it back to shore and started the puppy stuff by dropping it there and not bringing it all the way back to hand. She was very enthusiastic though and it was clear to me that given some time she would come around to what her job was really about.
The day progressed with the inevitable missed shot due to pouring coffee situation. It is always a greenhead that comes in when your hands are full of something besides your shotgun. The next bird came in on my side like the first puddle duck and I hit it, but it kept going down the point and then fell from the sky near the end about 100 yards away. The dog went with me as I struggled in the wet muck of the shore line watching the far off duck flutter on the surface of the lake. The dog was not seeing the duck out there and kept looking at me like I was doing something stupid. About half way down the point there was a shot behind me and I turn to look at what my friend was doing. As I turned to my left several birds flared up and over me just a few feet in front of my face. I was thinking that was it as I turned further to my left thinking that my friend would want his dog back. That is when I realized that there were more ducks coming at me but flaring off to my right about 15 yards out. I shouldered the gun, picked a bird and dropped it with one shot. The dog was on it in a flash and brought it to hand. I think it helped that I was standing in the water rather than on shore. My friend had already waded out and brought back his own bird, so the dog and I continued to march towards the bird at the end of the point.
By now it was dead and looked like any other piece of debris in the dead weeds. At the end of the point is a channel and I knew that the bottom here is not as firm as back at the corner. I was worried that the dog was not going to go out to the bird. Then she just started out across the channel on her own, but was about 10 feet off line of where the bird was hidden in the weeds. She was downwind though, and as soon as she was directly behind the bird her ears perked up and her head snapped around and she launched a new attack on the bird that had magically appeared in her world just 10 feet away. She was one happy dog. I was also happy since I did not have to wade that last 20 feet out into the deeper muck. The dog carried the bird almost half way back to the corner before she lost interest in what was happening with me and went back to her owner.
By now it was getting near time to leave to rendezvous with some other folks for a potential goose hunt. We picked up the decoys and marched back through the alders. When we got back to the boat I said, “This has been one of my better hunts at this spot.” My friend questioned this statement, and I was at a loss of words to really explain. We didn’t get a limit of birds, just a couple of Golden Eyes and two widgeon.
So what made this hunt one of the best ones? The new friend enjoying the ride in my home built boat and commenting on its fine points. He has built a couple and knows a thing or two about the subject. The new friend commenting on the beauty of the swamp I was sharing with him, for who else but a true duck hunter can find beauty in the drab dead colors of late fall. Me shooting at four birds and hitting three of them – two stone dead on the first shot – again not counting that too fast Blue Bill was better than any time here in the past. Watching a great little dog whose enthusiasm was infectious and whose skills improved through the morning was a joy for me. These are just the explainable reasons why this was one of my better hunts at the corner. Sitting there on an alder tussock in full view of birds as they fly right at you is something that no boat or fixed blind can give you.
During my last trip out this season I found a spot for when the wind is wrong for the corner. It is another corner on the same lake from which you can see over to the corner. I now have The Corner and the Other Corner. The march through the alders is easier at the Other Corner, but the spot on the bank to park the boat is harder to find. Next season, no matter from where the wind comes, I’ll always have a corner to shelter the decoys so that they can invite their cousins to dinner. I’ll need to invite a friend or two, and their dog. After all, it is not the number of birds, but the quality of the experience in a quality spot that makes it worth the effort.