(MCT) — WICHITA, Kan. — For decades, the Ontjes family has made a big deal of the opening weekend of their favorite bird hunting season.
That passion is still there, but the birds they’re hunting have changed.
“For years all we hunted were pheasants and quail,” John Ontjes said as he talked of his childhood. “Now it’s mostly waterfowl. I don’t think we even hunted pheasants last year, maybe once.”
Ontjes was out early with his father, Jim, and 13-year-old son, Max for Saturday’s opening of the low plains late zone duck season.
A reminder of why the three generations share so many waterfowl hunts came less than five minutes into the new season when a flock of mallards swung over their blind, and Max dropped a hen. The hunters were barely reloaded when about a half-dozen green-winged teal came low over a surrounding wheatfield and then the water, buzzing over the decoys like Star Wars fighters.
Two of the flock splashed down dead after a volley of shots.
Consistent action isn’t uncommon for the Ontjes family, especially on opening day.
Hunting about 40 minutes from their Hutchinson homes, the private pond they hunt is only about two miles from the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and a number of sizable private wetlands. Through the summer, John and Jim Ontjes worked to prepare the spot, pumping water when needed and covering pit blinds with bundles of cane on a 105-degree summer day.
Though the location is ideal, conditions weren’t Saturday morning. Quivira’s Little Salt Marsh, from where many of their ducks normally come, has been dry for weeks. Passing flocks were common Saturday morning, but close shots often were not.
Unlike most people who stepped outside into Saturday’s 20-something degree cold, John Ontjes didn’t appreciate the calm of Saturday’s dawn. “We could really use some wind,” he said. “Our decoys are just sitting there.” Indeed, they lacked the realistic movement a breeze would have given them.
Another problem is that usually ducks land into the wind, so Saturday’s stillness meant they could come to the decoys from any direction. Several flocks came from unseen angles and were in and out of shotgun range before the three generations could react.
But there was enough action that the ground in front of their blind was soon littered with empty shells and their take grew steadily.
John Ontjes shot a nice double on two pintails that landed near his side of the blind. Max made a nifty shot on a drake greenwing while wading out to retrieve another bird. Another time three gadwall came low after circling at least five times and the family got all three.
In between flights the family enjoyed something that’s much more difficult on spread-out marches for pheasant or quail – lots of conversation.
Talk between three generations included shotguns, past hunts, sports, best dog breeds, retriever training, and more reasons why the family does more hunting for ducks and geese than upland birds.
John Ontjes mentioned the closeness to home of quality duck hunting compared to quality pheasant hunting, and the growing difficulty of gaining access to prime upland coverts. He also likes that it’s much easier for his son to move around in waders than through dense stands of Conservation Reserve Program grasses.
There’s usually less time involved, too.
“You can go out and only hunt ducks for an hour or two if you want,” Jim Ontjes said. “With pheasants, you almost have to make a full day of it.”
That’s especially important through the fall and winter for John Ontjes, the women’s basketball coach for Hutchinson Community College.
His wished-for wind came at about 9:30.
“Figures, we get the wind about the time the ducks quit flying,” he said.
Through the morning the family and a guest totaled 17 ducks of five species. They started picking up decoys at about 10 a.m., and were easily home and settled by lunch.
They’ll be back to the same pond, and several others, many more times this season, possibly within the next few days.
“That’s another good thing,” Jim Ontjes said with a smile. “You’re not nearly as sore the next day after a duck hunt as you are after a pheasant hunt.”