My ideas always seem so much better in theory than in practice.

A recent weekend was a good example.

Taking my friend on his first waterfowl hunt I decided to avoid the usual boat float. That way I wouldn’t have to deal with loading and unloading a boat, falling into the river from a boat, possibly putting a hole in a boat and sinking — all of those cold-water hazards that it’s good to avoid in December.

Instead, my brilliant idea — conceived as I tossed and turned in bed the night before the hunt — seemed much easier: a duck walk.

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Sunrise

The rising sun strikes cottonwood trees along the Yellowstone River.

Public access

Between Billings and Columbus are several Fish, Wildlife and Parks fishing access sites. My scheme was to start at Duck Creek FAS and work our way west. That would greatly reduce the gear required, the work involved and possibly put us onto some waterfowl since we’d be moving around to different areas at different times of the day.

In theory it's pretty sound, right? And initially it looked like I might be on to something. The first place we stopped we saw a small group of mallards. Unfortunately, they saw us too and flew off to Miami Beach for a little rest and relaxation.

I was philosophical about it, figuring if we would have dropped a few ducks at the first place we stopped that would have been too easy. The next four stops proved I didn’t need to worry about that. We came up empty at Duck Creek, Buffalo Mirage, Holmgren Ranch and Fireman’s Point. Zero. Nada. Goose egg.

Maybe there's a reason they call them fishing access sites and not duck access sites. Hmm. I wonder?

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Sneak attack

A waterfowl hunter attempts to sneak up on a small group of ducks on the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River.

Duck’s luck

Turns out the first ducks we saw were the only ones we’d see all day. We spotted numerous large flocks of geese sitting in farm fields as we cruised down the highway, and one large bunch lifted off from a nearby field around 11 a.m. that must have numbered around 300 geese.

But on the river and side channels, many of which were frozen solid, there was no sign of ducks or geese either flying or lounging in the slower waters. There were, however, a lot of hawks and eagles cruising the river. Maybe they were scaring the waterfowl off.

On a last-minute whim we decided to take one last walk which, like all of the earlier ones that day, simply seemed like a good way to stretch our legs and see some more frozen country. Then, just as light was dimming from the sky, the mournful honks of a group of geese sounded to the west. Dropping to our knees we kept our heads down as a flight passed over, set their wings to drop to the river and — for some unknown reason — flew farther upstream.

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Iced up

Many river side channels are frozen solid, reducing the number of easily accessed waterways for ducks and hunters.

Dang! That was so close. We shook our heads in dismay as another flight started honking in the distance. Again we squatted down in hopes that the geese wouldn’t see us. This time, they set their large wings and glided to the river.

Voila!

Hiding under some overhanging Russian olive branches we scrambled to put on waders and boots to cross a ditch and close the distance on the geese. Unfortunately, this section of riverbank had a long, rocky shoreline. We were busted by the geese before we closed the distance and the honkers took flight.

For some reason, the geese again took pity on us as we stood on the bank looking dumb-founded and dejected. This time a smaller flock came in. Unfortunately, I had tried to outsmart them by splitting off from my friend. I had figured that if we split up, no matter where the geese landed, we would have an opportunity.

The prior two groups of geese had landed upstream, so I sent my buddy up there. Naturally, this last group sat down right near me. In the fading light I frantically tried to wave my friend closer. As he crept downstream, the geese spotted him and again took off.

Walking back to the car in the dark — on a shortcut that ended up taking longer — I was again philosophical. At least we had gotten into some geese.

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Frozen tracks

Raccoon tracks are frozen in the sand along the Yellowstone River.

Determination

Never one to give up on a notion, I decided we had just been in the wrong place. The following day we set out in a blizzard to explore the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. My thinking was that the Clarks Fork — being a smaller, winding river — might be a better location for us to put the sneak on some ducks or geese. I also figured that maybe it would receive less hunter pressure, and therefore the waterfowl wouldn’t be so wary.

Again, the first stop looked promising. We spotted two ducks upstream and bee-lined through a field to hide our stalk. Popping out onto the riverbank the ducks had already vacated the premises. Then more ducks flew overhead, landing on nearby private land. At least we were seeing ducks, we both thought; that was some consolation as the wind-driven snow felt like icy needles jabbing our frozen faces.

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Angling for a different section of river, we were walking through a row of Russian olive trees and brambles when out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of bronze. Turning I was surprised to see a rooster pheasant nestled in the snow. I figured it had been shot by another hunter who failed to find it. Just as I turned to point it out to my buddy the rooster got up and high-tailed it for cover.

I’ve never seen a pheasant play dead like that before. It totally took me by surprise. As I fumbled to raise my shotgun I found out my gloves were too fat to fit inside the trigger guard. Finally jamming a forefinger in I squeezed off a hail Mary shot and trimmed some of the surrounding bushes.

After that, it was one busted setup after another. No matter which way I looked on the water, the ducks were always in the opposite direction and quick to take flight once I saw them. At one location we hadn’t even poked our heads out from the brush, and I could hear the duck’s wings whistling away, even though I still couldn’t see them.

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Loaded

Steel shot is required for shooting waterfowl.

Scene of the crime

Thinking that the goose spot might be golden again, we hustled back toward Billings and rushed to the river to ensure we could set up closer to the water before the flights came in. We shouldn’t have hurried. All it did was make us work up a sweat that slowly turned to a nice, cold dampness that settled into our bones as we hid behind clumps of driftwood while snow fell and a winter wind blew.

After 45 minutes and no geese, I stiffly stood up to leave, shaking my head in disbelief. Once again the idea that there is no “sure thing” in hunting was being hammered into my brain. And just then the mournful honks of an approaching goose flight caught our attention.

Unfortunately, they had come in low and upwind, possibly masking their honks, and we didn’t see them until we were hustling back to the scant patches of cover on the bank. Hunkering down we thought maybe they hadn’t spotted us. They continued to fly closer, but then slowly turned back the way they had come and disappeared.

“No Christmas goose for you guys!” they yelled over their flapping wings.

Unruffled

Oh well, at least we knew the way back to the car this time and wouldn’t take the dreaded short cut that nearly resulted in a blown-out knee or ankle when I danced erratically through some snow-covered downfall that tripped me up.

My other goose-hunting friend, who is actually successful, said he would invite me along to shoot this winter, but they wanted to actually get some geese, implying that I'm bad luck. I resemble that remark.

I’m still holding on to the belief that my theory about duck walks is valid. We just had bad timing. Earlier in the season would be better, before all the side channels were frozen solid, before it’s snowing and blowing and when I will have had time to rest up from the 13 miles we slogged through cattails, brambles, bushes and snow on a fruitless search for fowl.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good flight … of geese or ducks, whichever you prefer.

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