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Finding the right candy for a duck hunt, and calling out to a friend

Half of the decoys were on this side of the bend. The other half is around the corner
Kevin Woster
Half of the decoys were on this side of the bend. The other half is around the corner

Traditions matter in a duck hunt.

They matter a lot.

Which is why I was driving from store to store the day before my duck hunt last week, hunting for candy.

The right candy.

Rolos, to be exact. Yes, Rolos, as always. And this year, for the first time, Turtles, too.

Start with a Rolo, work on to a Turtle. Makes for a good duck hunt
Kevin Woster
Start with a Rolo, work on to a Turtle. Makes for a good duck hunt

Not that it was my first time to eat Turtles. I love them. I’ve been eating them for years. But it was the first time I’ve included them in my duck-hunting essentials.

Call it a bit of a departure from tradition, or perhaps the beginning of a new one.

Now, obviously, the main reason I went duck hunting was to, well, go duck hunting, with the hope of shooting a duck or two.

But the process matters, too. It matters a lot. Most duck hunters know this. Especially old duck hunters, the kind who cherish the traditions of the hunt and tend to be persnickety about the details of the process.

The old process matters. The old decoys matter. The old duck call matters. The old waders matter. And the old duck-hunting spot matters.

They all matter to the old duck hunter. In this case, to this old one.

To clarify, I’ve always been more of a pheasant hunter than a duck hunter. Through years with three hard-hunting springer spaniels (as well as a Lab-water spaniel mix that was a lousy hunter but a good pal), ring-necked pheasants have been my obsession and the way I’ve spent about 80 percent of my hunting time.

The remaining hunting time was split unevenly for many years between the pursuit of prairie grouse, ducks and geese.

Since I moved to the Black Hills 21 years ago, my hunting time outside of pheasant hunting has been split between ruffed-grouse hunting and duck hunting, with the ruffies getting most of the time afield — or, more accurately, time in the aspen groves. The glorious aspen groves.

Which doesn’t mean the duck hunts didn’t matter. Things that are few in number can still be things that are meaningful. Valuable. Rewarding.

And my two or three duck hunts a year have been that.

Getting back in the fields, and the duck blind

I didn’t have any duck hunts last year, however. I didn’t do any hunting at all last year. I was having some health issues, which this year have improved.

I’m grateful for that. I celebrate it. So I’ve gone out on four pheasant hunts with my old, arthritic springer spaniel and shot four pheasants. I might get out once or twice more before the pheasant season ends at sundown on January 31.

And I was thinking maybe the pheasant hunts would be enough for this year, this sort of comeback year. Then I thought of Rolos, and duck hunting.

I’m awfully fond of Rolos. And how could I not be? A caramel nugget dipped in mild chocolate and packaged eight to a roll.

That’s a perfect setup for spending a few hours in a duck blind, a term I used loosely here. These days, my duck-hunting “blinds” are usually just conveniently located patches of buckbrush or wood piles or creases in creek banks that offer some concealment within shotgun range of my decoys.

Settle your fanny down into one of those spots and wait a while. Who knows what will happen?

Rolos are great diversions. You can spread the sweet nuggets out throughout a duck hunt, one Rolo at a time, along with hot tea — usually green, but I’m not opposed to others — to help pass the time in delight while you monitor the decoys and wait for the ducks to come.

Or not.

Either way, the Rolos taste the same. Which is to say, great. But then everything seems to taste better in a duck blind, or something resembling a blind.

Waiting for the ducks; considering the landscapes of the past

The hunt itself is an exercise in patience. You sit quietly in one degree of concealment or another not far from a dozen phony ducks tenuously tethered to the bottom by anchor weights and lines.

And you wait. And you sip. And you munch. Or, with Rolos, you let them melt in your mouth, one at a time, with plenty of space in-between.

While you’re waiting for the ducks, you can watch the marsh hawks. Or the bald eagles. Or the kingfishers. Or the muskrats. Or, depending on where and when you’re hunting, the brown trout moving in and our of shadows in the creek.

This old decoy, a gift from outdoor pal Dick Brown, gets out at least once a year with the other newer dekes
Kevin Woster
This old decoy, a gift from outdoor pal Dick Brown, gets out at least once a year with the other newer dekes

You have time, in a duck blind, to consider a few things, beginning with the landscape that surrounds you the landscapes you’ve known throughout your life. That’s a lot to think about.

I started my duck hunts “jumping” stock dams on and around our farm near Reliance, including some down in the Missouri River breaks. Then I bought some hip boots and a few decoys and learned a little about hunting ducks at Red Lake, southeast of Chamberlain.

In college, I hunted and marveled at the vast reaches of waterfowl-filled marshlands in northeast South Dakota. Then, as journalism jobs took me to Sioux Falls and Pierre, I learned a bit about the ducky places that those regions offered.

It has been a while since I’ve planted a wader boot in the sucking muck of an East River marsh or lay in a snowy cornfield in Missouri River country and waited for ducks to spiral down from the clouds to feed. The memories of those times linger, however, and they warm the heart when pondered.

By this time of year, the duck season has long since closed over in eastern South Dakota. And the later High Plains Duck Season out here in the western part of the state ends this week.

Since I moved west, I’ve done some duck hunting down along Angostura Reservoir, before it freezes up in the fall, and along the nearby Cheyenne River. More often, I’ve hunted ducks along a couple of trout streams that I fish during more temperate times of the year.

Those streams stay open for almost all of the year, especially as they escape the hills and snake out onto the prairie.

Calling out to a friend lost, and wondering if he heard

I have “doubled up” on a couple of those streams during the High Plains season, hunting ducks in the morning and fishing for trout in the afternoon — often with my friend, Keith.

Ah, my friend, Keith. I should note here that Keith isn’t with us anymore, at least not in the mortal way of being. He died suddenly of a heart problem on May 8, 2020.

I don’t have to look up the date. I remember it. I’ll always remember it, and the call I got the next morning from Keith’s father-in-law telling me Keith had died. As my wife said when I told her: “Your outdoor world just got a lot smaller.”

It did. A lot. For the better part of 20 years, Keith and I hunted and fished and generally goofed around together in the outdoors. He was an exceptional companion afield, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, a man who rarely began or ended an outdoor adventure without a boyish grin.

He enlarged every outdoor experience we shared.

I miss him. I miss him a lot. And I said so when, for the first time since his death, I returned to the stream we so often fished and hunted together, set up my decoys, settled in on the bank and began to wait.

“Wintersteen, I miss you,” I said aloud.

Under the layers of hunting gear, a t-shirt tribute to my late friend Keith Wintersteen
Kevin Woster
Under the layers of hunting gear, a t-shirt tribute to my late friend Keith Wintersteen

I wonder if maybe he heard, off somewhere beyond the human mind’s limited range of comprehension. It felt like maybe he did, sitting there along the stream with the decoys sliding smoothly back and forth in the current.

Down beneath several lawyers of clothing, I wore a t-shirt given to me after Keith’s death by his wife, Jeana, and their daughter, Kelsey. The artwork on the shirt is of pine trees, a jumping fish and two fly rods crossing above the fish.

Over it all is the word: “WintersteenStrong.”

I like the shirt, and what it suggests. And the essence of everything Keith was seemed as real there along the creek as the distant call of Canada geese or the muskrat out for a joy ride on the surface of the stream along the opposite bank.

I was just a bend or two downstream from a place Keith and I hunted often. There I once watched him rise from concealment and shoot three drake mallards — boom, boom, boom — carefully selected out of a flock of 50 or so that came to our decoys not long before dark.

I didn’t shoot, because I didn’t have a gun. That’s right. No gun. I had remembered everything we needed, including snacks — Keith would eat Rolos but he was partial to Snickers — but I forgot to bring my 12 gauge.

Keith was delighted by that oversight, which, we agreed, was a fairly significant one. But when I said I’d enjoy just watching him hunt and snapping some pictures, he overruled the idea.

Instead, we took turns shooting the old 12-gauge Winchester Model 12 pump that was gifted to him by his Jeana’s grandfather, Herbie.

Each time a duck or ducks would come in, one of us would shoot. Next time, the other would shoot.

Keith and I each shot a mallard drake or two and missed a few, as I recall, taking turns with Herbie’s old pump gun. But it was that three-drake sequence of shots — boom, boom, boom — by Keith to end the day that I’ll remember most.

I’ll also remember his deep howl of delight every time he told someone the story of me forgetting my gun.

I really didn’t feel like cleaning a duck anyway

That was all plenty to consider last week as I sat there along the creek with my shotgun across my knees, a Rolo in one hand and a Thermos-top-cup full of hot tea in the other.

It was a sunny, warm, winter day, hardly prime duck-hunting conditions. But at 71, I’m more interested in personal comfort than I am in pulling the trigger.

So I had a few wisely spaced Rolos and, later in the day, one of the Turtle patties from a pack of three.

It was the traditional Turtle, by the way: caramel and pecans covered with chocolate. Milk chocolate, of course, and not that dark stuff.

Oh, yeah, I know, the dark stuff is supposed to be healthier. Who are we kidding? It’s chocolate. With caramel. Healthier?

If you like the dark stuff, have at it. I don’t. And I’m not going to diminish a duck hunt with the wrong chocolate. Besides, I don’t eat a lot of it. Just enough to enhance the hunting experience.

But it was essential, which is why I was out going shop to shop the day before the hunt, to get the right candy.

I always feel like food consumed during a duck hunt can’t hurt you. I don’t have research results published in a medical journal to support that theory. It’s just a hunch. And it really seems to make sense out in a duck blind, when the Rolos come out.

Followed, this year, by the Turtles. And I decided they fit in pretty well with the Rolos, and the duck hunt.

The candy and the tea held out almost until shooting hours ended at sundown. But the only two ducks I saw were a couple of mallards that came in too late to shoot.

That was OK. And I didn’t really miss pulling the trigger that day.

But, oh, I sure missed my pal, Keith, a Snickers man who understood the value of duck-hunting traditions, and of friendship.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.