The morning November 23, 2021 started out as many November mornings do, with a triple check of hunting gear followed by a stop at the local Kwik Trip. If you haven't hunted Wisconsin, the stop at Kwik Trip is practically mandatory. In the UP, it might be Holiday; Virginia, Wawa; Lower Michigan, Speedway (gross), but whatever the flavor, everywhere has "that spot," the local 24 hour gas station/coffee spot/restaurant/bathroom stop. It wasn't bitter cold but the below-average 14 degree temperature certainly warranted an extra layer of clothes and a dry set of gloves for the blind bag.
I got to the launch and met up with Cole Kucera, one of the owners of CNH Outdoors and Chris, an experienced layout hunter and expert tender operator. I've had the honor of knowing the CNH crew for several years, long before moving to Green Bay, and they've always been a class act. The launch was already frozen with a half inch of ice, but with an all-welded aluminum boat, we weren't too worried. After motoring out a few miles into the bay we had clear water and a healthy chop, just enough to hide the Layout Addictions Ghost 2 Man. After checking the wind direction, we set the layout and prepared for decoy deployment.
Like marsh hunting, setting the decoys for an open water hunt is an involved operation that requires communication, coordination, and teamwork. It also involves the occasional tangles and frustrated words, but those issues are minimized with a well-oiled team effort. We quickly set 6 longlines of with a mix of Scoter, Redhead, Canvasback, Goldeneye, and Buffleheads, and positioned two rafts of old squaw and goldeneye in the shooting hole. With a later season hunt, the most common birds were likely to be goldeneye, but we wanted to be prepared for the occasional straggler. Chris and I entered the layout boat, loaded up, and got ready to shoot as Cole took the 25' tender boat several hundred yards south and out of the ducks' view.
As light broke over the decoys the ducks slowly came. One here, two there. The first few (okay, maybe more than a few) helped us in warming up the barrels and several presented to the starboard side of the layout, only offering one shooter a chance (and a difficult shot to boot). The first two birds to make the boat were a hen goldeneye and hen bufflehead, both of which decoyed perfectly. After a couple more misses, Chris connected with a beautiful drake goldeneye for the wall.
"I'm going to lay down for the next bird; it's all yours," Chris noted after most birds had peeled off to his side. Bad idea, I thought in my head, but appreciated the gesture all the same. The next bird to decoy was another wall-worthy drake goldeneye, and he was given another day to live, presumably to frustrate several more hunters over the rest of the season.
Several more birds followed, all coming in as singles and nearly every bird after that was a gorgeous, fully-plumed drake goldeneye with the welcomed exception of a full grown drake white-winged scoter.
Cole swapped with Chris, and dropped another goldeneye before a group of six scoters headed our way. As they'd been doing all morning, the group peeled off the to the right, and Cole wheeled around in the layout for one of the most difficult shots in duck hunting. The first shot was a clean miss and as the scoters bunched up, Cole fired again, dropping three birds stone-dead with a single shot. Now if you've ever hunted sea ducks, they're not exactly weak birds, so we couldn't believe our eyes when all three scoters dropped, belly up in the decoys without so much as a foot twitch.
The rest of the day was slow, and we decided to pick up, finishing with 9 goldeneye, 4 scoter, and 1 bufflehead on top of the incredible memory. We slowly motored back, through the re-formed ice to the launch reliving the day, excited for the next hunt, and ready to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday.