The skies whistled in the darkness with pockets of goldeneye ducks winging overhead as the trailer pushed through 8 inches of snow and the tail of the drift boat tapped the water.
It was somewhere north of zero degrees on the Missouri River near Wolf Creek as we paddled out in late December. Our plan was to “cast and blast” our way downstream, hunt ducks at first light and dabble in a little streamer action between hunting setups.
As we approached the far shore and still open backwater, about a dozen mallards decided to vacate the area in a ruckus. With the drift boat stashed and decoys spread, we tucked into the bank behind a line of shotguns and waited for shooting light.
Our setup gave us cover from upstream and lines of ducks racing around the corner. Fortunately, goldeneyes give up their approach in a trademark whistle, and Independent Record photographer Thom Bridge happens to boast a recipe that makes any duck a treat.
The tail end of a two-day storm kept a steady fluttering of snow camouflaging our blind even more. It was enough to trick a line of ducks into banking close to the decoys, and a single shot from my over-under dropped a bird at the edge of a riffle.
We continued to hunt and call, the snow mounting on the backs of our decoys and the barrels of our shotguns. The resident flocks of ducks continued to swing by, but were apparently more interested in the larger collection of live birds bobbing upstream than our dozen or so drifting in front of us in the eddy.
Finally a group circled and cupped their wings in time for another shot and a single splash. As Bridge waded out to retrieve his bird, it was the cue for every waterfowl on a 10-mile stretch of river to take off. A dark cloud of quacking and whistling ducks swirled in front of us, but none offered a safe shot.
With flights beginning to slow, we decided to push downstream to the next spot. The narrow island offered cattails to the inside and a nice spot of slack water to drop our decoys.
We floated in ill-prepared for the apparent home of three dozen mallards, and we could only watch as greenhead after greenhead bolted from the cattails, laughing at us as they streaked down the river.
Once set up again we began our wait and tried a few calls between gulps of hot coffee. Across the river a bighorn ram fed among a herd of mule deer. The snow petered out and geese took to the air, all staying well above shooting range but keeping our necks craning to the honking sky.
Another party of hunters kept birds moving downstream. Scanning just above the water, a single came streaking up the bank toward our setup, and Bridge took his second duck of the day. The sun finally made an appearance in time for Ben Webster to get his first shot and for me to blow a perfect opportunity on a greenhead.
The 10 a.m. flight completed, it was time to move onto the second phase of our cast and blast. Webster and Bridge took the opportunity to paddle and warm up while I did my best to fling a fly into nearby pools while wearing four layers.
What quickly became obvious was the weather's complexity. The worse the storm, the better the duck hunting, but single-digit temperatures make fly-fishing all that much more difficult. Between freezing eyelets, drawing wet line over thin gloves and clearly sluggish trout, our efforts proved futile. However, Webster’s catch of a beautiful Missouri River brown trout earlier in the week proved that some fine fish can still be caught this time of year.
We pulled into the boat ramp ready to peel off our frozen waders and get in front of a blowing truck heater. But the mounting snow had other ideas, and the adventure was far from over.
A couple feet of packed snow had drifted the boat ramp shut. Would we dig, or power through it with the truck? We’ll just say a fun-filled Missouri River cast and blast isn’t complete without a tow rope and tire chains.