Refuge Hunting

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Geese flying in the sky

When you’re 17 years old, you tend to learn things the hard way. I was no exception. One November morning in Washington state. the weatherman was calling for clear, sunny skies and high winds at the public refuge I had been aching to test out. The conditions were perfect. I packed up a dozen decoys, a sled, my dog Sage and 25 shotgun shells (there was a 25-shell limit on this particular refuge).

You’re not allowed to enter the parking lot until 4:30 in the morning. I decided to get some extra beauty sleep and pulled up closer to 5:20. A little more than an hour before shooting light would have left me plenty of time to hike in. The problem was, I wasn’t the first truck in the parking lot. I wasn’t even the twentieth. That was mistake number one. I knew right away finding a spot was gonna be tough. Undeterred, I pulled on my waders, tossed the decoys in my sled and started my two-mile hike with Sage wagging her tail right beside me. I don’t have a tail, but if I did it would have been wagging too.


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12 gauge HEVI-Bismuth packaging and shotshells

A few yards in I realize my second mistake. I don’t have a headlamp or light of any kind, save for my cell phone. So, there I am, in the dark, looking for a blind that I’ve never laid eyes on before and probably couldn’t see now if it was ten feet in front of me. All around me I can see guys climbing into the blinds they had claimed an hour earlier. I manage to stumble my way to the general area where I think an open blind should be. I see a gentleman nearby and ask him if he knows the spot I’m looking for. Luckily, he informs me that I’m not far from it and that he’s hunting the blind right next to mine. He suggests that since we’re hunting so close to one another we should make a pact not to shoot each other’s birds. The pact was made, a bond was formed, and I was on my way to shooting my first birds in a new spot.

As I approach, I see a reflective marker lighting the way next to a pipe blind. It was basically two pipes coming out of the ground at 90-degree angles with hog wire across the front and back. It was partially brushed in, but I took some time to make it look right. The hole itself was long and skinny with just enough water to hunt. Maybe a foot deep. With more water it would’ve been an ideal spot.

Just as I’m tossing out my decoys, the sun is coming up and I hear feed chatter from right in front of me. I look up and see 20 mallards coming back from the corn fields. I pull out my call, hit ‘em with a lick and they bowed up like they were carrying pumpkins. They make a beautiful first swing, come all the way down and hit a wall because there’s not much water and they’re a little skeptical. I let them swing back out, and just as I’m about to break ‘em down, before my call even reaches my lips, I hear three shots ring out. One of 20 birds drops. My heart dropped even faster. I’d never felt so betrayed. My newest gentleman friend had no regard for our blossoming friendship.

I decided right then and there that I wasn’t going to lose out on another bird. I started calling more, with the intention of giving these birds less rope. I didn’t want to let them swing over the other blinds, so I had to bring them close. That’s when we got our wind. The conditions were perfect. Birds were everywhere. I called the next greenhead in tight, back flapping right over my decoys. I pulled up and squeezed the trigger. Mistake number three. I went to the plug before my discount shells left him sailing.

HEVI-Bismuth packaing being held in the dark

I’m the type of guy that doesn’t mind pulling a sled for two miles in the dark. Getting lost didn’t even bother me all that much. But watching a greenhead sail is a heartbreaker. I have so much love for these birds and this sport that there’s no worse feeling than watching a cripple get out. I managed to squeeze out a few greenheads before my 25 shells were gone. I ended up falling three birds short of a limit on a day that I should have shot out in the first hour.

I hiked out with my head down and my straps light. A little white piece of paper was waiting on the windshield of my truck. It was a note from my former friend and current nemesis. It said simply, “Don’t call so much.” Insult to injury.

I learned a few things that day.

  • If the refuge opens at 4:30, be there at 4:30 (I take it a step further and sleep in my truck outside the gate).
  • Know where you’re hunting. Apps like OnX make it easy to keep yourself informed, safe and legal. Carrying a headlamp doesn’t hurt either.
  • Be a man of your word. It’s a competitive sport, but a small one. Look out for your fellow hunters.
  • Pack light and carry HEVI-Shot. That day I came too far to miss, but missed anyway because I had the wrong shells.