Duck Camp

A handful of years ago, my friend Brandon decided to organize a group duck hunt on Castle Rock Lake in Central Wisconsin.

I’d be lying if I told you I remember exactly what sparked that initial trip. And, in the name of honesty, many of the details of our trips have started to blend together now that our treks to Adams County have become an annual event.

What I can tell you, however, is what keeps us coming back. It’s a beautiful mixture of quality hunting opportunities and social time with a great group of friends.

Our first year, Brandon and I hopped in a truck with our friend Marc after work and began the drive over to the cheap hotel we were staying at. Once there, we awaited the arrival of the remainder of our hunting party: Ben and Adam, who were coming up from the Madison area.

It was early November and there was snow in the air as we saw a pickup truck pull into the hotel parking lot. The large canoe they had rented was haphazardly strapped to the top of the truck, extending far out the back of the bed. It seemed like the canoe was consuming the pick-up. Brandon, Marc, and I couldn’t control our laughter.

Once we were settled, we walked down to the restaurant that was attached to the hotel and enjoyed a traditional Wisconsin fish fry of perch, french fries, and a few pitchers of beer.

We hashed out our plan for the following morning between the laughter and time spent catching up on each other’s lives.

That night, I shared a room with Marc and his dog Ford, a golden retriever/lab mix, as we tried to catch a few winks of sleep before heading out to our spot.

We scratched out a handful of mallards that morning. But before we departed, we were all well aware of the potential that Castle Rock Lake held. We were already discussing plans for a more extended hunt the following year.

Castle Rock is unique in that its layout provides the chance for you to choose your own hunting adventure. Want to chase diving ducks? Sit on the big water and wait for the bufflehead and goldeneyes to come screaming through, just feet above your decoys.

If puddle ducks are more your style, you can sit on backwater in one of the many sloughs or channels that showcase the presence of mallards and the like.

If you know what you are looking for, it will only take a hunt or two to dial-in on where you need to be on a given weekend. We often use our first hunt of the trip as a de-facto scouting trip. Sure, we generally shoot a few ducks the first day. But our eyes are glued to the distant horizon, noting where the ducks are going and, more importantly, where they are landing.

With that in mind, our trips to Castle Rock have become longer. We often spend four or five nights in the area these days to maximize our chances of putting ourselves “on the x.”

Rather than staying in a hotel, we started renting houses for the extended weekends. This gives us a little more space and the amenities necessary to make our trips as comfortable as possible, such as a full kitchen and a washing machine and dryer.

Having a home base within a short drive of the boat launch has been a game-changer. Though we are out on the water from the wee hours of the morning until the early afternoon, the rest of the day is spent at the house preparing meals, playing cards, watching movies, and enjoying the company.

As the trip has grown, so has our gear collection. We rarely roll up with fewer than eight dozen decoys (I believe our record is 12 dozen). Our small armada now consists of a pair of canoes, a duck boat with a mud motor, panel blinds, and a dog blind.

The meals have become more extravagant too. Rather than dining out, we bring enough food for full-blown dinners like t-bone steaks, massive pots of chili, and eight pounds of chicken alfredo.

This adventure has quickly become a highlight for each of us.

Marc sent me a message before this year’s trip that read, “This and gun deer season are my two favorite weekends. Christmas doesn’t even hold a candle.”

This year, Adam, Brandon, Ben, and Marc arrived at the house on Wednesday night. I joined them the following afternoon.

The four of them scored a trio of mallards on Thursday’s hunt.

When I arrived at the house around 3 p.m. I found the gang sprawled out on couches watching a Lord of the Rings movie. It didn’t take long for us to clear off the kitchen table, grab a few beers, and start playing Sheephead.

The following morning, we slowly rumbled our way down the dusty logging roads that lead to the boat launch. With headlamps on, we began unloading boats and getting the gear situated.

Marc’s waders sprung a leak in one of the legs the day before. He fashioned a patch out of yellow tape that he briefly attempted to darken by using a black marker before thinking better of it.

With the boats loaded, we started off toward our spot. I was riding in a canoe with Marc. Brandon was in the other canoe with his fox lab Kelso. Adam and Ben were in the duck boat.

In the early morning hours, it is impossible to ignore the plethora of stars that dot the sky as soon as you leave the boat launch. The lack of light pollution in the area makes for excellent stargazing. Shooting stars are a common occurrence, as are crystal clear views of numerous constellations.

At one point, Ben admitted to allowing his boat to veer off course because he was so taken with the starry sky.

Eventually, we all made it to our spot for the day. It was a channel off the main water that ended in a water-filled cul-de-sac. Our blind was situated in a narrow strip of woods, just behind a few rows of cattails.

We started setting out decoys as soon as we were legally able.

Before long, sunlight began to crest the horizon. I have yet to encounter another place that consistently provides the dazzling quality of sunrises that Castle Rock does. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one there that qualifies as anything less than spectacular.

It took a little while for the first birds to work our spread. But, once they started, the action remained consistent for the rest of the day. We never went more than 20 minutes or so without at least seeing birds in our vicinity.

Around 9 a.m., Ben and Brandon snuck back to the brush behind us and fired up the camp stove so they could begin preparing breakfast. Our usual fare includes two pounds of bacon and a dozen eggs. We also had a steady supply of blind snacks.

Every hunting group needs a snack guy. If you don’t have one, get one.

Adam is the member of our group who holds this prestigious title and he does a fabulous job. From jerky to Pop-Tarts, Zebra Cakes to Lay’s Stax, if you go hungry in the blind or back at the house, it’s your own damn fault.

As the day went on, we dinked and dunked our way to a total of eight birds. Seven mallards to go along with a black duck.

One of those mallards was harvested after Adam pulled off an incredible stalk. The hen landed in the wider pond-type water to our left. Once she disappeared into the tall grass, Adam walked across the channel and methodically worked his way down the far shoreline to the bird.

Though none of us in the blind saw the bird get up, Adam did. And that was all that mattered. We heard the shots ring out and the bird fall from the sky.

In my experience, jump shooting birds is a low-percentage proposition at best. But Adam was able to make it happen and watching him do it was the highlight of my day.

We picked up our decoys at noon. We loaded the boats and headed back to the launch.

A wicked crosswind had developed while we were out and it made the trip back a bit treacherous. At one point, Marc and I nearly tipped our canoe. It was then I looked down and realized there was a substantial amount of water at my feet.

Though it wasn’t happening rapidly, it was clear we were taking on water. We made our way to shore as quickly and safely as we could.

Once there, we lifted the canoe onto a flat rock to search for the source of the leak. It didn’t take long to find a gash at the front of boat that spanned a few inches.

We packed up and headed back to the house with a few projects on our hands. Birds were cleaned, waders were hung out to dry, and the canoe was repaired.

With our chores handled, we enjoyed some cold beer, cards, and movies followed by a fabulous dinner. The time spent fooling around, shooting the bull, and listening to music at the house has become just as much a part of the experience as the hunting itself.

It seems that every one of our trips includes a song that gets stuck in our heads and then gets played multiple times throughout the weekend. Last year, it was “Deeper than the Holler,” by Randy Travis. This year, it was Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight.”

With that ear worm thoroughly lodged in our brains, we headed off to bed.

The following morning, we set up just down shore from the spot we hunted to the previous day. It was slow going.

We picked up a hooded merganser that came in with a group of two others right at opening. A little while later, Adam dropped a hen mallard.

After breakfast, another group of mergansers came in and we picked up two more. That was all the action we got.

We headed back to the house, cleaned the birds, did the usual chores and fired up a round-robin ping pong tournament on the table in the garage. Little did I know, our group is littered with solid ping pong players.

Ben spotted me five points and the serve and still beat me handily. Adam spotted me 10 points and quickly waltzed his way to a convincing win.

Once the tournament had concluded (I couldn’t even tell you who won), we set up a table in the driveway and played cards while enjoying the sunshine on a warm fall day.

At some point, it was decided we would take one last trip in the morning. Originally, we planned on sleeping in. But we wanted another crack at the birds before leaving town. We came here to hunt, after all.

With an 8:15 a.m. curfew, we headed to a spot on a back slough that was quite good to us a few years back. We nearly limited out on mallards on a cold morning. It was the best hunt we have had on this annual adventure.

On this day, we were only able to harvest a hen mallard and a blue-winged teal. But at least we could say we dropped every duck we should have.

We headed back to the launch one final time. I quickly packed my things because I needed to be back in Sheboygan County by noon to sight-in my deer rifle for the upcoming season.

Handshakes were exchanged and, before I knew it, I was on my way home.

All told, we ended the weekend with 14 ducks and a trio of hooded mergansers. It certainly wasn’t a treasure trove of birds, but you won’t hear me complain about several consecutive successful hunts.

More importantly, we enjoyed another celebration of nature and good friendship. A reminder that, though life may take us down separate paths at times, we will never drift too far apart before finding our way back here.

When I finished putting my stuff away at home later that afternoon, I took off my black Crocs. I noticed some of the dark brown dirt from the boat launch still fixed to the soles.

It made me realize that, before too long, we will have the dusty earth of Central Wisconsin beneath our feet again.

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