Born to Duck Hunt

By Steve Weisman

To say a diehard duck hunter is a breed of its own is, well, definitely not an understatement. After all, who else would be excited about waking at 3 am in the morning, facing below freezing temperatures, battling strong northwest winds than one of those crazy diehard duck hunters hoping that this weather system will bring a migration of ducks from up north…and 69-year-old Greg Drees of Arnolds Park is definitely one of THOSE!

Greg, who grew up in Carroll, says, “Duck hunting is in my blood – introduced to me by my father. I started going with my dad early. I still remember it like it was yesterday, when I shot my first drake greenhead at age nine. Even now, I get the same excitement and rush 60 years later that I did on that day when I was nine years old.”

According to Greg, his Dad was the first duck hunter around that area to cornfield hunt for mallards. Although there were other hunters that decoyed ducks on the water, the elder Drees was adept at scouting mallards in the morning as they left the water, then following them to their field. If the wind remained in the same direction the rest of the day, he would pick Greg up at school and head out to the cornfield hoping the mallards would return that evening to feed.

Greg remembers taking a dozen of their Herter floater decoys in gunny sacks (no decoy bags in those days) and putting them out to attract the mallards. “I carried a single shot 410-gauge Stevens shotgun. Dad was a freak when it came to gun safety, and I had to carry around a Daisy air rifle for a year, before I got to carry the 410. On that memorable afternoon, the mallards did come, and my Dad gave me this advice. I can still hear him say, ‘I’ll tell you when to shoot, and you take the closest greenhead’.”

Greg continues, “I can still see the mallards with cupped wings coming right at me. I shot that first greenhead at 12 yards, and when we got home, my Mom took a picture of me and when it was developed, she wrote Greg’s first mallard at the top of the picture. I carried that bird around for two days, before my Dad finally told me we had to clean it.”

Did he ever feel cold? After all, those were not the days of the Gore-Tex and Thinsulate insulated clothing! Nope, it was just layers of regular everyday fall/winter clothing and waders without insulation. You know the ones you always had to keep patching to stop the leaks. “Certainly, I must have been cold, but I don’t remember the cold at all. I was doing what I loved doing the most: duck hunting!!”

As for using a 410, that meant the ducks had to be close. Many ducks were shot over that 410, and that lesson of in-your-face shooting stuck with Greg even after he advanced to a 20 gauge and then to a 12 gauge. Greg carries on the Drees tradition today as he shoots his Dad’s Belgium Browning and calls with one of his Dad’s Faulk calls. That set the stage for the next 60 years. “Over the years, no matter where I have lived, I’ve never lost the drive or desire. I can’t wait for each fall to arrive so that I can once again experience the excitement of mallards approaching with their wings cupped.”

Four legged friends
Although Greg often hunts by himself or with a partner, he always has his favorite Labrador retriever with him. “I’ve spent my entire life around Labrador retrievers. My Dad had five Labrador retrievers over the years, and now during my adult years, I have also had five Labradors.” His favorite color is the yellow, and Clare, a 10-year-old yellow Labrador is his current partner. “She is my partner, and even at 10 is really on top of her game.”

Over the years
From those early school years, Greg has been part of the ups and downs of the duck hunting seasons. There were years where drought struck from Canada through the Midwest and without water and habitat, the duck population plummeted. Even then, when the numbers were sparse and the sky was not filled with migrating ducks, Greg followed his duck hunting passion. “In those dry years, the duck numbers really dropped, and the limit was only two mallards. To me, it’s about the total experience, so even in those years, I still loved being out there duck hunting.” Then there have also been the years of an over-abundance of water, duck numbers soared, and flooded wetlands and flooded cornfields brought with them incredible duck hunting.

Another wrinkle came in 1971, where Iowa duck hunters bagged ducks based on the Point System where different species, and in some cases sexes of a given species, were given various point values up to 100 points. Ducks in relative short supply and in need of protection were assigned high point values; more abundant species were assigned lower point values. The idea was that this system would be better for the hunters rather than the conventional species management regulations that required hunters identify ducks before shooting to avoid the possibilities of a violation. The point system offered the advantage of hunters only needing to identify the duck in the hand to remain legal. The point totals were to add up as each duck was bagged, but hunters often manipulated the system to organize the bagged birds so that the duck with the highest point value was “taken” last – even if it was not.

No longer does Greg field hunt for mallards. He simply cannot compete with the big commercial operations or the hunters with hundreds and hundreds of decoys. “I just can’t compete with that, so I’ve gone more to hunting water. Although I have two hunting boats, my favorite is a 14-foot boat with a custom built blind and a door for Clare. I’ve also gone from getting up at 3 a.m. and getting to the slough early to now not getting out there before the sky begins to get light. Some sloughs will have too many trailers in the parking lot, and I try to hunt by myself if I can. Sometimes, I will take a few decoys and hike back walk-in secluded wetland.”

How the flight has changed
As agriculture (crop farming) has expanded and evolved from Canada down through the Midwest, the migration pattern has also changed. “As a kid, when we got a cold front with a strong northwest wind in mid-October, we knew that there would be a push of ducks in the Carroll area. That has changed as the farming has changed. Now the flight has changed and with all of the harvested fields, the ducks hang around until the weather pushes them out of the area.”

For that reason, as he has reached his senior years and has more time off in the fall, Greg, in some ways, follows the migration. “I’ll start out spending a few days in North Dakota, then do the same in South Dakota, try to hit the migration here in Iowa and then end up in Missouri the week before Christmas.” Now that’s what I call a true passion for the hunt!

The future
It is this love that Greg wishes for the next generation. “I worry about the future of duck hunting. It seems that each year we are seeing fewer and fewer youngsters duck hunting and very few women duck hunting. I fear that the world of technology is robbing us of the excitement of duck hunting and at the same time the opportunity to witness the beauty of the outdoors.”

In his own words
As a true conservationist, a gifted freelance writer, a former member of the Iowa Natural Resource Commission from 2007-2013, who spearheaded the approval of the Iowa highly popular dove season in 2011 and a longtime member of the Okoboji Protective Association, let’s read one of his reflections on why duck hunting has been so important to him over the past 60 years. It is entitled “Ties”…

After five decades of doing this, I should have it right. After all, I had the best teacher, my father, gone now four fall flights ago. Waterfowling is the deep connection I still feel to him.

Jupiter was aligned with Mars on this one, late in the last duck season. An Arctic below-zero blast had moved the last birds from Canada. Racing through the Dakotas with a northwest wind and horizontal snow, the tempest would bring to me heavy greenheads, bull-necked and scarlet-legged, the last of the migration.

Waiting it out in the Iowa Great Lakes region, I paced the floor on the morning of November 30, the storm still a day out, the wind hard but out of the southwest. Then I remembered a day long ago at Artesian Lake in Carroll County when Dad and I sat in a blind under similar conditions. The day had been bird-less, but not unpleasant, enraptured as we both were in a duck slough.

Suddenly Dad spotted a wedge of birds high and sluicing the blue sky southward. “Travelers,” he said, “new birds.” He was right, of course, as migrants have that instinctive urgency in flight. “Seems strange, though,” he said, “with this south wind.” But it was just the first of many sightings to follow over the next hour. And suddenly 50 mallards spiraled from the sky, wind roaring through their pinions, hanging over the decoys like a gift swiftly granted. We shouldered our guns together…Later Dad said, “There has to be a big storm up north, and these birds are moving ahead of it. Tomorrow we will see the real flight!”

With that memory lingering, I scrambled to throw gear into the duck boat, the clock already ticking past noon. With literally dozens of places to hunt waterfowl in the Lakes area, I chose one just 10 minutes from home, pointing the truck to a lake on Spring Run. As the motor sputtered to life, my beloved yellow Lab, Clare, whimpered at my side. The wind was still southerly, but a flock of Dad’s “travelers” hurried through the bright blue sky. As I rounded the point I intended to hunt, the noise startled a large flock of mallards from their midday roost. There were birds on the move.

A significant migration was underway against a south wind, a scene eerily reminiscent of that day 30 years ago. I had just settled into position in the boat when the roar of wings alerted me. A flock of 75 mallards corkscrewed from the sky and were backpedaling over the blocks in seconds. There was no need to take more than one greenhead at a time. There would be more in a moment, I was certain.

When Clare delivered the last drake to me, the western sky was already turning plum, and the wind was edging into the north. I couldn’t wait for the morning. It was setting up to be a flight to be remembered.

I busted skim ice at the boat ramp the next morning, the wind numbing and narcotic and gusting from the northwest. This was to be a different hunt, the classic migration a duck hunter dreams of. Once set up, I hunkered against the cold and watched the eastern sky turn pewter.

The wind was ripping at 40 mph, I guessed, and with it flock after flock of mallards and Canadas rode the gale. Just to witness the grand passage was reward enough, but I was granted more.

The first flock came on a sound like ripping canvas, spiraling down to the marsh from an unfathomable height on set wings. Just one shot at a time, I thought, make it last. The first drake delivered by the delirious Lab was a jewel. Emerald head crowned in ebony. Wing speculums like feathered sapphires. Feet like webbed rubies. The smell of Canada was still fresh in its feathers.

I collected four such treasures, and waiting the waning day deep into the dusk, watching the mysterious migration wax eloquently.

Back at the ramp, the work of hauling the boat onto the trailer went quickly, but I was in no hurry to leave. I walked back to the water’s edge, the platinum sky embracing me. Hunting wild birds in a place of water, sky and wind had made me as free as it is possible to be in this world.

The poignancy of the moment, the connection of a day like this to my father, gripped me. I did not want to let go of the end of the year, the end of the season, the end of his life. I would have been in no other place on earth that day!