Steamboat Springs By virtue of simply showing up, by answering the 5:40 a.m. wake-up call and by willfully trudging into a cold, dark morning, I felt I had earned it. Still, I had to work for the actual act of shooting a duck last month during a trip back to my home in Kansas.
Flocks had come and gone that morning from the water in front of our blind on the shore of a farm pond that holds an almost sacred existence in my soul. Our group already had three birds tucked in with us, alongside shotguns, gloves and camouflage jackets, and although we were eager for more, the action seemed to have dried up.
So I set out with my brother, Eric, to check on a flock we suspected may have set down outside our view at the far end of the pond. He saw them first, whispering for me to keep quiet while he knelt in a grove of trees and peered through a wall of naked, gray branches.
“There they are,” he said, pointing.
There they were. We didn’t have long. I had time to pull up along side him, shotgun at the ready, but the dozen ducks lingering on an unfrozen patch of the pond heard us and took to the air.
We blasted away. I emptied my gun; the first shot, as always, was fairly random into the flock as excitement got the best of me. The next two always are more accurate as I regain control. My duck didn’t explode like a MiG on “Top Gun” or collapse like a broken kite. It kept flapping but slowly lost altitude and hit the water almost gently, webbed feet first. He seemed to die on the spot.
“I think I got him,” I said.
“Yeah,” my brother said. “My gun jammed.”
A MudCats paradise
“The pond” — it needs no other name for my family, though it has one — lies about 600 yards behind my childhood home and has played host to more of my memories than I could ever count.
My parents long have hosted Fourth of July parties there, complete with barbecue and fireworks. We ice skated there in the winter, and I spent many summer days prowling the shore and connected thickets with my Red Ryder BB gun looking for sparrows.
According to family history, it was dug in the 1930s by the Work Projects Administration as a part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. Buried behind a half-mile of wheat and milo fields, generations of my family and others have treasured its seclusion, and when it was built, it was known as Hidden Lake. It even inspired a local baseball team, which my grandfather Ray Reichenberger and others played on.
When they weren’t playing ball or farming, the MudCats spent their summer days swimming and fishing.
I haven’t lived there — about 20 miles northwest of Wichita and five miles from the small town of Andale — for more than a decade, and plenty about the area has changed.
Wichita has crept ever closer, the west end of Kansas’ largest city exploding with development. Andale, too, has changed. It once comprised 500 residents who seemed to really come alive only for wheat harvest and high school football games. Now, there are new subdivisions every time I visit, and as we drive through the streets, my parents point out houses owned by my elementary-school classmates.
The pond, though, is frozen in time.
We’ve hunted the pond as long as I can remember. We’d sit on buckets beneath the trees near the water in September to hunt turtledoves, and we’d string out in a line and march through the fields in November in pursuit of pheasant.
It always was good for both, yielding enough doves to keep things interesting and occasionally enough pheasants to inspire astounding stories we trot out every year: “Hey, remember that time ...”
There are deer, too. A family friend brought down two with one shot several years ago, dropping his intended target and unwittingly another standing directly behind the first. My dad recently set out a trail camera and counted five bucks walking by.
And there are ducks, though I’d never successfully hunted them before this trip home. Plenty have. Several derelict duck blinds linger near the shore. People frequently ask to hunt the ground, and my dad will give most people who ask the chance but oftentimes makes them wait until we’ve had a go and at other times takes them up on offers to tag along.
That’s what happened the week before I drove home for Christmas. One of my best friends, Dean Leahy, asked to go with his dad, Phil, and brother-in-law, Brad. They invited my dad, and together they had one of those hunts they’ll tell stories about, with all four reaching their six-duck limits by 10 a.m.
Despite knowing the long-established fertility of the spot, I woke before the sun Dec. 28 with decidedly limited expectations, unsure what to expect from a planned hunt with the Leahys, my dad and my brother.
Worst case, I figured, it’d be a good morning with friends and family and an opportunity to devour one of my mom’s delicious breakfast layouts.
By dawn’s early light
I somehow already was awake when the wake-up call — my dad’s knock on the door — came. The Leahys are much more avid hunters than anyone in my immediate family and arrived at 6:15 a.m. to begin building a makeshift duck blind near the pond’s dam. We all helped and loaded our shotguns as the dim light of the sun to the east slowly began to spread across the sky.
Before it was able to warm up the day, the ducks began to come, a half-dozen swooping in and landing right in the field of decoys we’d laid out.
“So, uh, when do we start shooting?” I whispered to no response.
We waited for a little more light and a larger flock, and soon it came: 15 ducks floating in over our heads. We popped up and popped off, unloading our shotguns and felling the first three parts of what would become a barbecued dinner one night later.
The success paled in comparison to the haul from a few days earlier — a portion of which came back to my family in the form of duck breakfast sausage — but I was happy. It was a good hunt on a good morning. Trips to “the pond” almost always are.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com