The last string of decoys was put into place by John Van Hoff of North Tonawanda just before legal shooting time at 7:15 a.m. It was the Dec. 26 late season waterfowl opener in Western New York and for a moment I had to question our sanity. Foreigner’s “Cold as Ice” was going through my mind as the thermometer read 9 degrees. Combined with winds over 20 miles per hour out of the west, the wind chill was at least minus-10 degrees.
Before we could get everything situated in our blind, a small flock of unsuspecting mallards flew overhead as we hid in plain sight on a Wheatfield dock that extended into the Upper Niagara River current. The first “Cold Shot” of the morning (with apologies to Stevie Ray Vaughn) blasted some much-needed warmth through our bodies as the day sounded off in a flurry of muzzle blasts. It was the same crew that we had for the regular-season opener last October, also including Bob Lods from Cheektowaga, Randy Tyrrell of North Tonawanda and Paul Sawicki of Angola. What a weather difference a season can make. These were extreme conditions, easily the most severe we’ve ever encountered.
Three mallards down. Van Hoff slid into his 14-foot aluminum boat (a vessel passed down from his grandfather that he bought new in 1964), yanked on the outboard motor cord and the engine fired up. Before he could pick up the third greenhead, the group had a couple more birds down. The scene was repeated time and time again – and we ended up with our limit of mallards before 9 a.m., 20 birds. We also connected on four Canada geese, some bufflehead and goldeneye. It was a great shoot.
The sky was filled with bird activity. In addition to the wide variety of ducks and large flocks of Canada geese hanging around, there were swans, snow geese, gulls, terns and even a bald eagle cruising the air currents as we huddled to keep warm. Things finally slowed down a bit after 9 a.m., time to reflect on the past year. I asked each what their personal highlights were for 2017.
Van Hoff was quick to point out the excellent salmon fishing on Lake Ontario. When the final numbers are finally released for the open lake creel census, it will undoubtedly be one of the highest catch rates if not the highest catch rate ever. Van Hoff also had a good year with the fishing derbies, including a last-minute win in the Orleans County Rotary Derby. However, before he was finished reminiscing, his best and favorite memory was seeing his daughter Madison taking her first deer – a button buck. “I was so proud of her.”
Tyrrell did the same thing, reflecting on the excellent walleye fishing in Lake Erie, especially out of Dunkirk and Barcelona. “It was an incredible season for numbers of fish,” said Tyrrell. “While the size was down a little bit, the future looks strong going into 2018. My biggest memory for this year though was my daughter Jessica getting her first deer.” Yes, it’s truly a memorable moment when your life revolves around the outdoors.
Lods is a waterfowl fanatic. It would make sense that it was not a memorable hunt but memories of the resource. “One hunt we saw over 2,000 mallards,” said Lods. “I was in awe of the numbers of birds we saw even though our shooting wasn’t particularly memorable.” Almost on cue, a large flock of mallards came around the corner and flew overhead. “Like that.” We smiled and nodded.
Sawicki went a different bird route. “In the spring I was able to connect with two tom turkeys that sported beards of 8 and 9 inches,” reflected Sawicki. “In the fall I tricked another big tom into range and that beard stretched 12 inches, my biggest bird ever. It was a good year.”
We had many things to be thankful for in 2017. The group asked me what my highlights were the past 12 months. Yes, we had some great fishing adventures on Lake’s Erie and Ontario for walleye and salmon respectively. The Niagara River salmon run improved in 2017 and let’s hope DEC figures out why as opposed to the last 10 to 15 years. I also shared a deep-sea fishing adventure with my wife Sandy, as well as Dave and Rose Barus of East Aurora while in Florida for a few days in February. Getting Dad (Bill, Sr. at 86 years old) out for an opening-day deer hunt with my two brothers (Rick and Dave) and my nephew Kiel was also memorable. These are all great experiences that I’ve been able to share with Buffalo News readers along the way.
Other experiences have shared stories of unselfish giving, incredible accomplishments and magic moments that seem to speak more of a divine intervention then a quirk of fate or a chance encounter.
After my first full calendar year with the paper and a new website section focused on the outdoors, the online presence saw over a million hits in 2017 – more than doubling the expectations. Thank you for checking out this award-winning outdoor page. Thank you for sharing your photos and your stories. Our “Catch of the Week” is extremely popular and the credit all goes to you, the reader. I really believe we are just scratching the surface in Western New York, one of the most prolific freshwater fisheries in the world. We really do have something special in our backyard.
On a personal level, our new grandson Jamison has overcome some hurdles of his own that really helped to make 2017 extra-special. Watching him grow from 3 pounds to a flourishing 22 pounds at 9 months is extremely rewarding. On the other end of the youthful spectrum, seeing my daughter Natalie turn 21 years of age and succeeding in college makes one’s chest puff. It was a conversation we had at the end of 2017 that really has me excited for the coming year – she wants to try hunting. There will be much more on this moving forward.
As this is being written, I am starting to feel my fingers again from the morning hunt. Hopefully there will be no permanent damage from being “Out in the Cold,” a tribute to Tom Petty, one of the music icons we lost in 2017. Here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year.