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No ducking need to learn

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- In tight formation, a dozen mallards veered along the treetops by the Kankakee River on Thursday morning.

It was legal shooting time. I was alone in my blind, nobody around to laugh at my calling. What did I have to lose- So I quacked a couple of times with camouflaged gloves covering my mouth. Beyond all probability, they banked sharply, reversed flight, came back and cupped up.

I couldn't believe it. And nobody to witness it.

Cupping is when ducks cup their wings to brake and extend their feet before landing.

I slipped into my shooting crouch behind the brushing of my blind, ready to pop up when they landed in my decoy spread.

It was too perfect to believe.

I wasn't going to hunt Thursday, but then I saw the forecast for stiffening north winds and figured it might be worth setting decoys, even for only an hour of hunting.

The mallards gave me early hope, but they dropped 100 yards away, well out of shooting range, in the main river.

All the same, I had called mallards down. Not a guide. Not a hot-shot caller. Not one of my gonzo buddies, who practice calls in their sipping time in their basements or garages. I had called mallards down by myself.

Hyped up, I waited to see if they would swim into my decoys.

I dreamed of such a moment at the end of July, when I threw my name into the draw at Kankakee River State Park. Improbably (there was a 1-5 chance), my name on a folded note card was drawn by David Starnes. The young kid from Lisle pulled the names for wildlife biologist Bob Massey.

By then, only one blind accessible by wading remained. But it had fast current. Massey said it's the kind of blind where a good dog is really important.

But I gambled that I could make it work with a good partner. Those who draw a spot have to build and brush a blind. In my case, it was an area where flooding regularly wipes out blinds, so no blind existed. But Massey gave leeway in building a leaner blind. Steve Palmisano, who partnered with me, used the technique an old-timer taught him. We put it up and brushed it early last month.

Every time we worked on the blind or visited it, there were Canada geese around. So we had high hopes.

Waterfowling is not my forte. In a good year, I'm lucky to get out three times for ducks or geese. It's different with your own blind. In the first six days of the central-zone season, I've been out three times.

Opening day Oct. 30 had special rewards. Ken Gortowski joined Palmisano and me. We had flocks of mallards and a quadrant of wood ducks pass, but none worked our decoys. Then Canada geese passed near, but out of range.

Mostly, we talked. Then a small buck appeared out of the rising sun and walked into our spread. We were stunned. But not as stunned as the buck was when he sniffed a decoy. He spooked so badly, he dashed to land in spraying water.

There's a learning curve.

A few days later, I invited Jeff Lampe, the new owner of Heartland Outdoors (where I also do a column). We had a pair of woodies and three mallards fly over from an unexpected angle.

By Thursday, I had learned to pare to one big sack of decoys, my gun case and a small wet bag. Maybe less is more.

An hour after the mallards had landed and floated off, I knew: It was time. I cased my gun, packed my stuff, then walked toward the river to sack decoys.

The mallards exploded in perfect formation about 25 yards away. They had swum back up along the shoreline toward my decoys. I never saw them until too late.

There is much to learn.