While thousands of Minnesota duck hunters sat in swamps last weekend, I went walking in the woods. Sitting in a blind beside a stool of decoys goes against my restless nature. If few ducks are flying, as is often the case, I soon have the urge to move on. That's why I prefer to seek out mallards on secluded beaver ponds.
Scattered across the North Shore's backcountry are dozens of small drainages where beaver dams create a series of ponds. For migrating mallards, beaver ponds are like roadside motels where they can rest and find something to eat. Not all ponds are equally attractive to ducks. The best ones are shallow with mucky bottoms and lots of weedy growth.
I know the whereabouts of a few mallard motels. Not all of them are good places to shoot ducks. The best ponds are ones where you are likely to flush the ducks within range and where your dog can find and retrieve your kill. Some ponds are either too large or too brushy to be easy to hunt. Sometimes, ponds dry up or for some other reason become unattractive to ducks. That's why I'm always looking for new ponds to add to the hunting roster.
The best beaver ponds are rarely visited by people, so you have to get off the beaten path to find them. Usually you can walk along an overgrown road or trail part of the way, perhaps even shooting a grouse or two. Inevitably you'll end up busting brush to reach the water's edge. Sometimes you'll hear mallards quacking as you sneak to the pond. More often, you pop out on the edge; look around and suddenly the mallards explode in a flush.
That's pretty much what happened last Saturday. On one pond I found a flock of blue wing teal. On another I flushed a few mallards. Along the way, the dog and I walked up on a whitetail doe that didn't smell or hear us due to a strong wind. I also found muddy wallows and battered brush left by a rutting bull moose. I shot a few grouse, too.
The hunting was good enough on Saturday that I decided to follow the same routine on Sunday morning. It was breezy once again... I walked into one pond and then another without seeing any ducks. I wondered if the northwest wind had blown the ducks out I made a short drive to check out the series of ponds where I'd found mallards the day before. On the way there, I noticed fresh wolf droppings in the middle of the forest road. How did I know they were fresh? Well, the pile wasn't there the previous day. I made a mental note that wolves were in the neighborhood, although I didn't expect to see them.
We made a long and somewhat soggy stroll over a beaver dam and through the woods, then finally along the marshy edge of large pond. Aside from a couple of mallards that flushed beyond shooting range, we didn't see much for ducks. Reaching the end of the ponds, we swung away from the water and into a dense aspen thicket, headed for an overgrown trail leading back to the truck. The dog shifted into grouse-hunting mode. Whether he's after grouse in the woods or pheasants on the prairie, Tanner is a close-working flusher. Usually, he stays within 100 feet of me, zigzagging through the cover in a relentless search for birds. The thicket was so dense he was often out of my sight, but within earshot. Keeping track of his location by sound is second nature for me. Tanner frequently pops into view as he circles back to check on me.
When stuff happens in the woods, it happens fast. We were pushing through the aspen jungle when suddenly I heard more noise than one dog could make. A wolf burst from the brush less than 20 feet in front from me, coming from the direction of the dog. I yelled, make that roared, Tanner's name. The wolf veered away and disappeared into the brush. Immediately, a second wolf came out in front of me. I roared again and it vanished just as quickly as the first one. The entire encounter occurred in seconds.
Ahead of me, I could still hear commotion from Tanner's direction, but I wasn't sure if there were more wolves in the vicinity. I called again. The dog came out in the same place as the two wolves. He followed their scent trail a few feet, but I called him over to me and commanded him to sit. Then we waited quietly for a few minutes, listening for any sound of more wolves. When I was satisfied no wolves were around, I told the dog to heel and walked out to the logging trail. Then, keeping the dog at heel, I walked back to the truck. Tanner seemed frustrated and clearly wanted to continue hunting grouse.
In retrospect, I'm not really sure what happened. Even though he was out of sight, Tanner was less than 25 yards from me when the wolves appeared. I'm sure he encountered the wolves, perhaps at a closer distance than me. I heard no growls, snarls or yelps, so the wolves didn't attack him. I have a feeling they didn't even interrupt his bird hunt. Perhaps they were deterred by my yells. Or maybe they were as startled as I was.
While I could imagine a fanciful tale of being stalked by the pack or some similar nonsense, I suspect it was a chance encounter. I've had previous close encounters with wolves, although not when accompanied by a dog. In past encounters, the wolves came on fast and made an even quicker getaway. As hunters, I'm guessing they are drawn to the sound of something: me moving through the woods, mistaking the noise for a deer, moose or some other edible creature. Tanner and I were walking into the wind, so the wolves couldn't identify us by smell. Coming upon a dog and a hunter was likely a big surprise. Perhaps the two wolves I saw were young ones, which may explain why they didn't attackTanner. Both wolves were within point-blank shotgun range-less than 20 feet from me-so why didn't I shoot them? My attention was focused on Tanner. Neither wolf was an immediate threat to him or me. Had I believed the dog was being attacked or in danger, I would have killed the wolves. However, it is sobering to think that had they attacked the dog, I may not have been able to run forward fast enough to prevent him from being badly injured or killed. Stuff happens fast in the woods.
Airdate: September 28, 2012