GREAT BEND, Kan. It's rarely good news when you answer the telephone and hear the words, "You ain't gonna believe this."
Going into town for pizza sounded like a great idea. We'd been in the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area since daybreak, without sufficient quantities of snack foods, and there were few ducks to distract the mind from a grumbling gut.
Hunting two holes over the course of the morning and early afternoon, the closest inspection of our decoys came from two hoodwinked birders in a gray minivan.
Nobody protested when we sacked up the decoys and left.
Dave Holle and Jeff Herschbach took the lead, bouncing down one of the area's gravel access roads toward Great Bend with Holle's 20-foot aluminum boat in tow. Scott Bailey and John Schuh were right behind them in Bailey's rig, while Duck Trek photographer James Overstreet and I looped through the area to snap a few quick photos before joining the gang for a late lunch.
Overstreet and I hadn't made it to the paved county road when Bailey's call came in.
"Holle just got creamed right in front of us," he said.
"Some dude just crashed into Holle's rig right in front of the motel," Bailey explained. "You better try to find another way into town, 'cause we've got traffic shut down for miles in both directions."
You can't make this stuff up.
Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area covers just less than 20,000 acres, and even with its numerous walk-in accesses, having a boat greatly improves the odds of reaching the places ducks want to land. With six hunters, two Labs, several dozen decoys and assorted other gear, a boat becomes a necessity.
At 2:30 p.m. on our first full day in Kansas, our vessel lay crippled across two lanes of U.S. Highway 56.
On his way to the pizza joint, Holle decided to stop at the motel to grab something from his room. He was slowing down for a left turn into the parking lot when another vehicle smashed into the right-rear corner of his boat. The trailer jackknifed, the result of a 90-degree bend in the steel frame just behind the tongue. The back tie-down straps and front winch strap snapped, launching the boat into two lanes of oncoming traffic, mercifully vacant at the exact moment the big boat went airborne.
The boat's Pro Drive mud motor bounced off the asphalt and came to rest in the middle of the highway, along with several large decoy bags and a sundry collection of other duck hunting paraphernalia.
"My first thought was, 'Oh, s***!' " Holle said. "I cannot believe that just happened."
Police cruisers and wreckers arrived on the scene to sort out the mess. Holle's boat blocked the eastbound lanes of traffic; his truck and the other smashed-up pickup hindered the westbound flow. With U.S. 56 serving as Great Bend's main east-west thoroughfare, traffic was backed up as far as you could see in both directions. And it was only getting worse.
Bailey and Schuh dragged the boat out of one lane of the highway, allowing eastbound traffic to trickle through the scene. Holle's truck limped into the motel parking lot on its three remaining good tires. The other vehicle left on a wrecker, as did Holle's boat, trailer and mud motor.
When one of the tow truck drivers asked if there was anywhere particular we wanted him to take the boat, Bailey didn't hesitate.
"Can you drop it in Pool 2 at the Bottoms?"
Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area is one of the most important wetlands in the Central Flyway, serving as a major stopping point for hundreds of species of waterfowl and shorebirds. It's part of a 41,000-acre natural land sink just northeast of Great Bend, a few miles from the geographical center of Kansas.
Kansas acquired the land in the 1950s and built a system of dikes to retain water in five pools. The state later built dams and canals to divert water from the nearby Arkansas River and Wet Walnut Creek, an effort to supplement water from two intermittent streams, Blood and Deception creeks.
Thirty years later, the area fell on hard times. Water flows into the Bottoms weren't sufficient to keep the productive wetlands wet, and many conservationists feared the Bottoms were drying up.
In 1984, the late Jan Garton of Manhattan, Kan., and other members of the Kansas Audubon Society's Manhattan chapter started an extensive, grass-roots campaign to save the wetlands. They visited with state officials in Topeka, made t-shirts and bumper stickers, and distributed bright orange stadium seats with a picture of a duck and the words "Save our Bottoms" to every Kansas lawmaker. The result was a several-thousand-page study of the Bottoms and their hydrology, a lawsuit that changed water-rights allocations to give the Bottoms a priority right, and a management plan that's still in use today.
During the 1990s the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Department implemented extensive renovations to divide the area's pools. The state also built pump stations to increase management flexibility and provide better control for water-level manipulation.
The result is one of Kansas' most important ecosystems, and one of the Central Flyway's major waypoints for migrating waterfowl. The Bottoms have been listed as Wetlands of International Importance by the multinational Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
Cheyenne Bottoms is a vast wetland complex, a mosaic of different aquatic habitats covering more than 30 square miles. It looks more like a Gulf Coast marsh than something you'd find in the middle of Kansas. There are huge pockets of open water and other areas filled with vegetation. The Kansas Wildlife and Parks Department supplements the natural vegetation with plantings of millet and wheat and controls undesirable vegetation with burning, mowing and disking when the pools are dry.
The diversity of habitat and the area's uniqueness compared to surrounding farmland make it a magnet for ducks. And duck hunters.
Hunting pressure gets intense in the Bottoms, and KWPD points out in the first paragraph of its Cheyenne Bottoms brochure that hunters should consider weekday hunts.
Though the area is vast, two pools and part of another serve as refuge areas where hunting is prohibited. And because the Bottoms temporarily harbor endangered whooping cranes on their way down the flyway, other sections of the area are subject to closing when the whooping cranes arrive.
Guess what showed up just in time for the Duck Trek's stop at Cheyenne Bottoms.
Freelance public duck hunting has its advantages. The private-land hunter sits and waits, and the ducks either come or they don't. The freelancing public-land hunter scouts for the most productive areas and stays on the move until he finds the ducks.
But there are disadvantages, too. When the Duck Trek arrived in Kansas, kiosk bulletin boards at the entrance to the Bottoms alerted hunters to the presence of whooping cranes and the corresponding closure of a sizable chunk of real estate in two productive pools. The closures were in addition to the refuge areas that are always closed to hunting.
It wasn't good news. But after traveling hundreds of miles, we weren't about to turn around and go home.
Our game plan called for an initial day of scouting. After catching up on some rest, we set out the first morning in Holle's big boat, its powerful Pro Drive mud motor easily pushing five hunters, two dogs and a small sporting goods store worth of gear deep into a weedy part of the big marsh. Water in the Bottoms rarely exceeds two feet, so mud motors are useful tools for navigation.
Two hours of mostly duckless skies precipitated a move to another spot, which proved to be an exercise in futility. But the trip wasn't wasted. The new spot did reveal something we had feared since first learning about the whooping cranes on the area the largest concentrations of ducks, as well as tens of thousands of white-fronted geese, seemed content to loaf and feed in the closed pools where the cranes had taken up temporary residence.
From our second set-up, near the border between open and closed areas, we watched helplessly as thousands of ducks swarmed over the refuge pool. Several flights appeared to be coming closer to our hole, but each time they'd turn at the last second, as if they knew exactly where the boundary lay between safety and danger.
Then came the calamity on the highway, and a much bigger problem than closed areas.
We weighed our options. We traveled a long way to hunt ducks in the Cheyenne Bottoms, and we weren't about to let the crash end the trip. So we took off to find a walk-in area.
We spent the rest of the afternoon driving around the Bottoms, glassing the marsh with binoculars. The southern end of Pool 2 showed promise. We'd seen groups of mallards and pintails feeding there earlier, and now they seemed to be cruising around looking for a place to settle for the night. But getting into the area posed a problem. The footbridge over the deep borrow ditch was a good piece down the road, and then we'd have to march several hundred yards through mud and water with scads of gear.
Our map of the area showed a road and parking area about a mile north of us, a spot that appeared to offer a jumping-off point deeper in the marsh. When we stepped out of the truck and climbed up a 10-foot mound, we saw the most ducks we'd seen yet in an open hunting area.
The sky wasn't exactly black with ducks, but it was a start. A small hole in the reeds about 200 yards to the north held a couple hundred teal. The best part was the accessibility, 100 yards of walking on dry ground and another 100 through shin-deep water.
Finally, something was working out in our favor.
Back in the game
We pulled in to the parking area a half-hour before shooting time. It was cloudy, and warm by duck hunting standards. And the lack of wind belied our location in what is typically a blustery place.
It was an easy walk into the hole, and roughly four dozen decoys were floating in a matter of minutes. We took up hiding spots in thick reeds, sitting on plastic five-gallon buckets or milk crates. And we waited.
It was slow to brighten, but soon ducks were checking out the decoys in the dim early light. When shooting time finally arrived, a big group of pintails came low down a chute between patches of reeds. The first ducks of the Duck Trek's Kansas stop hit the water in front of us.
The next victim was a redhead drake that was beginning to show his finer colors. He came in low and fast, and Herschback's black Lab, Spook, made a quick retrieve.
When a big group of gadwalls showered into the hole, it presented the best opportunity yet for all six guns to get in on the action. I fired at a duck in the middle of the pack and pumped my shotgun for a second shot on the fleeing remnants. And then something went horribly wrong.
I was holding the Remington 870's loose fore-end in my left hand, the magazine cap dangling from the end of my sling. The spring shot out of the open magazine tube and, quite luckily, landed in a patch of reeds, the makeshift grease pencil plug still encased within the loose spring. I wasn't as lucky with the breech bolt and slide block. I looked down at the self-disassembled shotgun and realized they were gone, presumably somewhere in the muddy water around my feet.
"Houston, we have a problem," John Schuh said. "That doesn't look good."
It wasn't, but if this trip could survive a busted up boat, whooping cranes and poor weather conditions, I could survive this mishap.
I retrieved the spring and plug from the reeds and set the gun down on my milk-crate marsh chair. Down on my hands and knees, I started feeling around the mucky bottom for the two pieces of the bolt, making a mental grid and dissecting it by plunging my hands into the thick mud in search of the small pieces.
Ten minutes later, I found the breech bolt. But the slide block wasn't anywhere to be found. Bailey offered a hand, and amazingly discovered the tiny chunk of metal buried in the muck in a matter of minutes.
I wiped down the various pieces and reassembled the gun, using a piece of Overstreet's camouflage gaffer's tape to secure the magazine cap. I was back in business before the next ducks showed up over the hole.
For the next several hours, sporadic appearances of ducks provided just enough action to keep it interesting. There were gadwalls, a few teal, shovelers and more pintails.
Herschbach left around noon to drive Holle into town to untangle the mess with his boat and trailer. He had insurance adjustors to call and claims to make, and there was a flat tire to fix on his truck.
While Herschbach was gone, a lone specklebelly goose came over the hole just a little too low, putting another fine-tasting specimen of waterfowl in our daily bag.
By the time Herschbach returned with a sack full of McDonald's cheeseburgers and apple pies, the group's collective hunger caused a mad rush. Combined with a dearth of activity between the hours of 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., it also had a soporific effect on the hunting party.
The hiding spot took on the look of a whack-a-mole game, with everyone alternately standing up and sitting down to keep from falling asleep.
"We're gonna whack 'em right before sundown," Bailey kept promising.
There was a little more action before the sun set, but we never did whack 'em, although it was enough to bring us back to the same spot the next morning.
By the time the Duck Trek picked up and headed south, a hodgepodge of some 20 ducks had fallen victim to our guns in the Cheyenne Bottoms.
It wasn't exactly a blowout, but it beat the hell out sitting on the sidelines and whining about bad luck.