Take One: Ducks On The Pond
Outfitter Jeff Colwell, a native of the Fort Collins, Colorado region, has been hunting and guiding the area for ducks and geese ever since he was a kid. His passion and enthusiasm to share this sport with others, I found is more like an obsession. It didn’t take much more than a nudge from Jeff with an open invitation for me to book my flight to Denver International, for an October duck hunt with Jeff.
Not knowing much about the area’s climate besides the fact that it is “a mile high”. I was pleasantly surprised to find that although the temps in late October dipped down into the 30’s at night, it didn’t take long for the hot Colorado sun to heat the area back up into the mid 60’s during the day. Arriving a day early gave me an opportunity to do a little sightseeing and let me tell you there is plenty to see!
My first trip was to a small town called Evergreen, Colorado located about 20 minutes west of Denver, in the foothills of the Rockies. Now I had always envisioned the majestic bull elk as portrayed in most wildlife prints with a mountainous setting in the background, not in a Coldwell Banker parking lot with someone's closeline wrapped up in his antlers. But I guess across the USA now we have pushed our existence into most every “wild country” there is and Colorado is no exception. Thus, the wintering grounds of this particular herd of elk was the small town of Evergreen, Colorado. The magnificent creatures were everywhere. Sleeping in the parking lots, crossing streets in rush hour traffic; they seemed more like a nuisance than a tourist attraction.
From there it was north to the little town of Windsor, Colorado, just south of Fort Collins to meet up with our outfitter and host Jeff Colwell. Along the way we stopped at a local Wal-Mart to grab our hunting license. Another pleasant surprise as non-resident Colorado waterfowl licenses are sold by the day and are a whopping $6.00 per day, along with the standard waterfowl stamps.
After sitting down with Jeff over a beer and a few appetizers at a local watering hole, I was even more excited for our upcoming hunt the following morning. Jeff shared that unlike his late season goose hunts, which are conducted in area harvested grain fields come late November and running through January, his early season duck hunts are conducted on small area ponds and sloughs and are just as productive. Jeff shared that all of his hunts are conducted on private property in a controlled environment in pre-scouted ponds that are holding ducks throughout the week. He also stated that since he has so many options, he likes to rest each piece of water for quite some time so the birds get comfortable before he hunts a particular spot again.
Jeff also noted that on all of his duck hunts he only likes to take out groups of 2 – 3 hunters at a time to ensure a more personable experience and also avoid burning out a spot in one day. Jeff ended by stating that the spot we would be hunting the following day is one of his favorite widgeon holes. He said we could also expect to see a variety of other species including: gadwalls, mallards, redheads and if we were lucky we may have a chance at a bull canvasback, but he had not seen any yet this season in that spot. As we parted ways for the evening Jeff said he would be back to pick us up at 6:30 sharp in the hotel lobby.
From there we headed back to our hotel for night at The AmericInn, which was a perfect spot for us to stay being it was clean and comfortable and better yet was located just a few minutes from our hunting destination in the morning. My partner Kevin Zonn and I were even more excited than before now and I was wondering how I was going to sleep that night with all the excitement. The jet lag must have caught up with me though as it only seemed like only 20 minutes from the time I laid my head on the pillow, before the alarm went off.
Jeff was right on time and full of good cheer when we met him in the lobby as planned the night before. After a short drive to a quaint pond in the middle of a cattle pasture Jeff drove us right up to a permanent blind he had camoed up on the northwest corner of the pond. While we unloaded our gear Jeff set up the spread for the day consisting of about 5 - 6 dozen of mixed puddle duck decoys and one robo duck. I learned that Jeff never leaves a decoy spread
set up overnight as he wants all of his customer to enjoy a fresh spot to hunt each day. I also learned that Jeff has between 10 -13 permanent blind set ups in the area for his hunters depending on the wind and species of ducks in the area. It only took about 20 minutes we were set!
As the sun came up and the mountain landscape appeared on the horizon the backdrop was breathtaking! Not something waterfowlers in most any other region of the country get to experience. While we patiently waited for shooting time to arrive we endured flock after flock of what looked to be widgeons and gadwalls swing through the decoys, land and take off. Then just as shooting time came a 5 pack of gadwalls came streaming through from left to right and Jeff yelled “Cutem Boys!” and we did!
Within minutes another 3 pack of widgeons came cruising through the decs and we had two more birds down. Jeff's faithful yellow lab Maxi was quickly in hot pursuit. Watching a good dog retrieve our downed birds really added to the overall enjoyment of the hunt and I could tell Jeff was a big dog
lover, which is an important aspect of the hunt for me personally. As the sun got higher in the sky, the birds started to fly a little higher and were a little tougher to deceive. The next flock of 6 widgeons circled 5 times and were just about to head out when Jeff hit the call hard and they turned on a dime. As the birds set in, Jeff said “Take Em” and 3 more birds splashed down in the water paddles up.
Jeff's Widgeon Hole
Paid Off Big This Day!!!
As good as we had been shooting up until that point, it didn’t take long to be humbled. Not long after we dropped the three widgeons, another three pack of redheads skirted the edge of the decoys at 30 yards and we came up empty handed. The sun continued to rise higher and higher in the sky so did the birds. We had a few small flocks of mallards give us a look but they were not willing to commit. Jeff noted that they were still waiting for a new push of birds from the north and at this point in the season the birds were starting to get a little stale. Kevin and I both smiled at each other as with the action packed morning we just had, there were no complaints on this end. Kevin willingly shared that back home in Wisconsin a morning like this would have been considered the duck hunt of the year.
We stuck it out for another 45 minutes before the temps started heating up and we knew it was time to call it quits for the day and head into town for a late morning breakfast. Over a hearty breakfast of pancakes, bacon and eggs we laughed and shared more stories of this hunt as well as past hunts. I couldn’t thank Jeff enough for the experience. He told me more and more about the incredible late season goose hunting they had yet to come and said I was always welcome back anytime. I told Jeff that I would have to take him up on his offer and we made arrangements on the spot to meet again two months later down the road…………………
Take Two: Canadas Over The Rockies
Making a return trip to the Denver area in the middle of January was not a hard sell, being from Minnesota. Remembering the stories Jeff had shared during our past outing, I had visions of the massive concentrations of Canada geese that Jeff had said winter in the area each year, ranging from 200,000 – 250,000 in a normal season and this year was no different according to Colwell. The other factor that made this trip particularly exciting for me was that this region of the country is where many of the smaller cackler Canada geese winter. Those are my personal favorites!
It seemed like déjà vu as Jeff met us in the lobby of the AmericInn hotel at 6:30 am sharp just as we had done months before. I sipped on my morning mocha while Jeff gave us the option of hunting the greater Canadas today or going after the “little guys” since he had several solid fields lined up from his pre-scouting efforts. That was a no brainer for me but being of a democratic society I let my partners Jon Harlander and Dan Johnson who had made the long trek with me, have a say and the consensus turned out in my favor- cacklers it was!
We followed Jeff and his guide Tyler into the harvested corn field just before daybreak and I could see an orange cone that marked our pit for the day. Now according to Jeff come late season he likes to cut back his spread in half and spread the decoys out into smaller sets of family groups when hunting the greater Canadas BUT since we were going after the little guys today, Jeff elected to beef up the spread and actually added over a hundred decs to his standard spread of 20 dozen full bodies, shells and silhouettes. The other trick I learned from Jeff when hunting cacklers is to put the decoys into one big mass, as close as you can possibly put them. Colwell added that the decoy set could be a real deal breaker for the smaller geese if they are spread too far apart. He noted that the big flocks of cacklers won’t even break formation if they consider the spread to be the bigger Canada geese which Colwell says they consider to be “not of their kind”.
After unloading the entire trailer of over 35 dozen decoys and getting set up in the pit, we patiently waited for the first flocks of the day to make their way off the local roosts. Having plenty of time to learn more about Jeff’s field operation. I found that Jeff shared my similiar opinion that silhoutte decoys are still very productive in creating the illusion of movement in the spread when mixed in with a full body spread. I also found out that unlike Minnesota hunting where permission is easily attained, it is common practice to lease any field you plan to
hunt in Colorado and over the past 10 years Jeff has researched out some of the most productive fields in the region and has leases and pits on many of them. Thus we were assured to see birds at some point….. However with temps dipping down just below freezing to start the day it seemed like it may be a while.
Lunch time came quicker than normal as we needed to get a little fuel back in us to endure the afternoon hunt but Jeff continued to assure us that it was only a matter of time before the birds came out to feed. He took us to a local favorite called Bruce’s which boasts being known as having some of the best Rocky Mountain Oysters in the country! The sign out front “Where The Geese Fly And The Bulls Cry” pretty much said it all. Of course we had to try an order of the local favorites but that’s about all I will say about that.
After lunch we were all fired up again ready for an action packed afternoon. As the temps warmed up to around 60 degrees, so did our spirits. We met up with another one of Jeff’s hunting partner’s Rob Cameron at lunch and had a chance to spend some time with another good hearted Colorado goose hunter during the next few hours. After rearranging a few decoys we were ready again, but the geese were not…
Finally about an hour and a half before sunset we started to see the first big strings of geese making their way across the Rocky Mountain skyline and what a beautiful sight it was. And these were not small flocks, they reminded me more of snow geese than Canada geese. Jeff also shared that with these little geese, the more calling and flagging as we could do the better. He stated that is one of the greatest benefits there is when hunting cacklers. So we started in… for what seemed like forever before the first flocks closed in on the spread and were set, wings locked and feet down.
One of the other things I really liked about Jeff’s hunt was that he did not bury us under a pit cover in the dark while the guides did all the calling. We were encouraged to slide our pit covers back far enough so that we could enjoy the spectacle. With the first few birds touching down in the spread when Jeff called the shot it seemed almost too easy, we had our first birds in the bag. The other aspect of Jeff’s hunts that I felt set him apart was that Jeff is all about his hunter’s satisfaction and thus neither him or his guides carry a gun in the field.
It didn’t take long until we were covered up again with geese. It really did remind me of snow geese in the spring as the flocks of cacklers seemed to be coming in from all directions now. As soon as you were focused in on one flock, another flock would come screaming across your sight line from another direction. It was almost too much to endure and finally Jeff gave the “Take Em” call and we jumped up again. We dropped 3 more of the little buggers and should have had a couple more. As we picked up the birds I had a chance to inspect them a little closer. I could tell that there were actually a couple different sub species mixed in as two of the birds were well under 4 pounds but two of them were around the 5 – 6 pound range and were uniquely different in their makeup. Jeff added that the “little guys” are his favorite too. He said he really likes the fact that most of the cackler geese in the area migrate all the way down from their nesting grounds in Alaska and end up in his back yard each winter.
At this point it was just getting stupid as we had well over 500 geese circling the spread at different altitudes. When Jeff called the shot on the next flock the birds were so close that I heard Jon yell I can’t shoot, their too close. And he was right, when he pulled up the goose darn near hit his gun barrel- UNBELIEVAVBLE!
I think more than just shooting birds, for me, what makes a hunt a true success is the overall experience. It was quite evident that every aspect of Jeff’s hunts are well prepared weeks and even months in advance. In addition, to be able to experience the Colorado Rockies in the background may not be a huge deal for the local hunters but for waterfowlers from anywhere else in the country it is a sight to behold. Before this past season I too had no idea of the waterfowling mecca that the Front Range of Colorado has to offer. Knowing now the caliber of hunting that Jeff has in his backyard, from the early season duck hunting- to the late season goose hunting, I feel obligated to share this new found treasure with the rest of the country and give the credit where it is due. It was my pleasure and an honor to offer Jeff the most prestigious award that we have to offer by naming Front Range Guide Service the HuntTheNorth.com 2012 Outfitter Of The Year!