Cranes at Sunrise
—by Steve Lekwa
A longtime hunting buddy and I spent a morning last week in a duck blind at Polk County Conservation’s Chichaqua Wildlife Area. It was my first duck hunt in two years, and it felt good to be back in a place with 35 years of memories. Polk County allows hunting in designated blinds in this refuge area on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday until 1:00 in the afternoon. Blinds are normally reserved by phoning the refuge office. There’s a drawing to see who gets first choice of blinds an hour-and-a-half ahead of legal shooting time which is a half hour before sunrise. It means getting out of bed pretty early even with daylight savings time. It’ll be an hour earlier when we’re back on sun time.
There is a certain magic in quietly watching the world awaken in a wild area, and Chichaqua is one of the wildest areas in central Iowa with over 7000 acres of riparian forest and restored wetlands and prairies. It stretches through northeast Polk County along the Skunk River floodplain from just south of Story County to a point not far from the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Jasper County. Scattered and oft-times hidden oxbow ponds and constructed wetlands are present throughout the area in most years. Some are designated as inviolate refuge areas that cannot be entered even if not hunting. The area normally offers waterfowl all kinds of options for places to rest and feed. This year the only water is in the designated hunting area, thanks to the flow from three large pumps. Even the river bed is dry.
Ducks are most active between first light and an hour or so after sunrise. With no concentrations of waterfowl anywhere nearby this year, it’s important to be in place and ready long before sunrise. There aren’t many ducks wandering around from other holding areas and the dawn flurry of activity can be the only chance you get all morning. It worked out that way for us, but ducks aren’t the only thing to watch in such an area.
Most of the area’s blinds hold memories of hunts past, and six is no exception. Some of our memories are of nearly magical moments. A flight of tundra swans once made several low passes over blind six on a gray and dreary late fall day. I don’t remember if we saw any ducks that day, but the sight and sound of those swans sweeping through the cold, misty air will never be forgotten. We’ve watched silver-gray goshawks flash low over the marsh nearby and had wild turkeys slowly walk not many feet away. Sunrise last Thursday gave us another magical memory. We heard the distant calls of sandhill cranes well before sunrise. The calls began to move just as the sun broke the horizon and began to splash golden light on distant tree tops. We spotted three cranes low on the southern horizon heading our way. They were only 100 feet above the blind as they passed, still making their wild, rattling calls. Although we were still in deep shadow, the rising sun turned their normally gray bodies into gold. The magic held for several moments as we watched them and listened to their calls fade off to the northeast. A pair of cranes has been using the Chichaqua area for several years. It’s possible that the birds we saw were that pair and the chick they raised there this year.
Hunters are said to go through several stages as they mature. There’s the shooting stage, the limiting out stage, the trophy stage, the method stage, and finally the sportsman stage where success is measured by the total experience rather than just the number or size of the game taken. I think I’d add yet another stage for my friend and me: the grandpa stage. It’s marked by sipping coffee while sharing rich memories of hunts past. Some of the friends we’ve hunted with are gone. The kids are grown and either too far away or too busy to hunt with us, but we’re excited that there are grandkids that we hope will have some great memories of hunting with their grandpas.