December 19, 2011
KEARNEY, Neb. -- Two middle-age men dressed in camouflage sat in the cab of a Chevy pickup truck, heads bobbing clumsily to the beat, singing George Clinton and Parliament's hit song from the 1970s, "Tear The Roof Off The Sucker (Give Up The Funk)."
"Ow, we want the funk,
"Give up that funk.
"Ow, we need the funk,
"We gotta have that funk."
It wasn't a pretty sight. More importantly, why would two grown men act this way?
"Duck hunting" is the answer to that question.
"That's why not that many people do this, because it's stupid," said Duck Trek photographer and truck cab musical artist James Overstreet.
He was talking about duck hunting, not singing funky music, white boy.
And what we'd just done would register at least 8 out of 10 on the stupid-ometer for most people: crouch among the weeds in a marsh, calling ducks while a historic low-pressure system roars through the Midwest, turning rain into a sideways-blowing, stinging sensation with its steady 45 miles-per-hour wind, with gusts.
"We gotta have that funk ..."
Check out the Nebraska photo gallery:
Yes, there is Funk in Nebraska
Oh, we had the funk. Not only were we five minutes from Funk-y town -- literally, the town of Funk, Neb. (pop. 204) -- we were hunting in the Funk Waterfowl Production Area (WPA).
Making it even more funky, we were hunting ducks with a guy named Fish.
We had swatted mosquitoes when we met 43-year-old Mark Fish on a sunny afternoon, shortly after our arrival in Kearney. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, Fish had volunteered to take us hunting on Nebraska's famed Platte River.
Fish has a blind on Jeffrey Island in the river. It's a lease from Central Nebraska Public Power, located about 20 miles west of Kearney.
But with mosquitoes flying freely, that was 20 miles too far. On Sunday, the Platte River looked about as ducky as Overstreet and I were funky.
"You could try the Funk," Fish said.
What the Funk?
First Fish had to explain why he wasn't going hunting with us in the morning, like we'd planned. The previous Friday night had dealt the Fish family a gut-wrenching blow. One of Mark's three sons, Taylor, a quarterback for Kearney High, had suffered a knee injury.
Mark had to take Taylor for an MRI Monday to determine the extent of the damage. The knee injury wasn't going to make the baseball coaches at the University of Nebraska happy; Taylor was supposed to be a candidate at catcher for them.
Honestly, it was probably the mosquitoes more than the MRI that had Mark Fish hesitating on his offer. The classic picture of Platte River duck hunting features snow along its banks. The Platte River needs snow beside it before ducks start using it.
"There are some years when we slaughter them on opening weekend," Fish said, "but not very often. Our best hunting is usually mid-November to mid-December."
However, as we were about to find out, there's always the Funk.
A Civil War veteran named P.C. Funk came to Phelps County, Neb., and bought 160 acres of land in 1877. Ten years later, thanks to a nearby rail line, the village of Funk was platted. Today the Funk WPA dwarfs the town for which it is named.
At 1,995 acres, Funk is the largest of the 61 Waterfowl Production Areas in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District. That's a fancy name for a big wetland restoration project of historic importance.
Geologists have differing views, but at one time there were at least 100,000 acres of wetlands in this area of south-central Nebraska, and maybe as much as 200,000 acres.
Beginning in the early 1800s, settlement, drainage and farming quickly shrunk the wetland acreage. Since 1962 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been purchasing and managing wetlands here, and now counts 24,000 acres under its control, almost all of which is open to hunting.
This acreage features the real estate motto "location, location, location" when it comes to migratory waterfowl; it is located in the neck of the hourglass-shaped Central Flyway.
It gets funky with waterfowl here: 50 percent of the Central Flyway mallard population, 30 percent of the continental pintail population and 90 percent of the continental white-fronted geese population rest and refuel here in February, March and April before continuing north to the nesting grounds.
Those same ducks and geese travel through the Rainwater Basin in the fall, too, but they don't congregate in great numbers; they're simply passing through.
"When they're coming south, the weather is pushing them; when they're going north, they're pushing the weather," explained Jeff Drahota, who has 20 years experience as a Rainwater Basin wildlife biologist.
Suddenly, the weather started pushing waterfowl a day after unseasonable warmth.
Overstreet and I checked out Funk WPA before daylight. We heard a few mallards, gadwall and teal that were using this moist soil management area that is a grocery store for waterfowl. Funk WPA is full of duck food, like smart weed and barnyard grass.
Although there wasn't another hunter on Funk WPA that morning, it was obvious there had been the previous weekend, when Nebraska's "Low Plains Late" season had re-opened. The ducks in Funk left just as shooting time started, as if they knew what happens then. We left shortly thereafter.
Monday was one of those days when people die due to weather. At 2 p.m. Overstreet and I were still in shirt sleeves, exploring a sandhill crane sanctuary on the Platte River (where photography blinds rent for $150 a night in the spring).
But we could see dark clouds building on the northern horizon. And the now-always-at-your-fingertips weather forecast told us that a low pressure system was getting close, and most like would push some ducks into the Funk.
Mark Fish dropped his son off at the house after his MRI, put on his hunting clothes and loaded his Labrador retriever, Gunner, before meeting us at Funk WPA.
Nothing like a little cold weather to make you hot for duck hunting. Before Fish arrived, Overstreet had found a small open-water area of Funk WPA where the ducks wanted to be.
Usually ducks will group in the middle of open water, away from dry land and its predators. But getting out of the wind, which was now blowing 45 miles an hour, took priority this day, creating a perfect place for two hunters and a dog to hide in the chest-high weeds after putting a few decoys out.
When Fish unloaded his dog and gear from the bed of his pickup truck, the last thing out was a medium-size hard-plastic "waterfowl sled." I'd never seen one of these before. When you're used to hunting from blinds or timber, there's always some place to put your stuff, whether it's a shotgun shell belt or a hunting vest or a shotgun.
But in a shin-deep marsh with nothing sturdier than a cattail stalk, we'd have been a bit inconvenienced without Fish's sled. We didn't have to pack in the decoys or the spinning-wing decoy (and its battery). Everything fit nicely and pulled easily in Fish's sled.
On the 200-yard walk to get to the north side of our pond-sized pool of open water, other examples of wildlife's relationship to these wetlands flushed in front of us -- at least a dozen pheasants, one-by-one, took to the air, most of them flashing the long tail and red wattles of a rooster.
There were exactly two hours until sunset after three decoys and the spinner had been set out, two men and a dog had hidden in the brush, and ducks started filtering back into the pond.
There were ducks in sight almost that entire two hours, including some big bunches of teal and smaller groups of mostly pintails and gadwalls, interrupted occasionally by a vocal mallard hen leading some green-headed friends.
I have never seen ducks quite like this -- fighting their way through such a stout Great Plains wind. It was some of the most enticing but unproductive time I've ever spent hunting ducks.
The howling wind that was so obviously our friend -- we saw more ducks in the first 10 minutes than we had the previous 24 hours in Nebraska -- also gave the birds a long time to stare at us, wings cupped, ready for landing, but held high in the sky.
"We should have shot them on that last pass," Fish said.
"It looked like they were committed, and then they never got closer," I replied.
We repeated something like that a half-dozen times in the next hour. In an ordinary wind, those cupped ducks would have been shot, or at least shot at, as they fluttered into the decoys.
In this wind, the ducks seemed to hang in the air, about 50 yards away, looking like they would be in our faces any second, but instead getting a good, long look at us crouched in the brush. They never seemed spooked, like they'd seen us, just wary enough to make the next pass at a safer distance.
Fish finally knocked a gadwall out of the wind, after it seemed to hang in the air, awaiting that second finishing shot.
Funk a duck. That was our bag on this day that nevertheless ended with a bang.
As we walked across the shallow pond back to our trucks, the dark clouds lifted their western edge to allow a sunset. The rain still came sharply out of the north. Suddenly a rainbow appeared in the eastern sky. Then, about 100 yards away, two whitetail deer went leaping through the pond.