A day in the blind just south of Corvallis, Oregon, with Rice's Waterfowl Service offers a look at the area's hunting opportunity from a legacy of Willamette Valley hunters.
James Rice and his Black Lab Retriever, "Gauge," have both been hunting all their lives. Rice started guiding clients in the field in 2007 after studying Agricultural Business and Turfgrass at nearby Oregon State. At the time, Gauge was just a pup, learning the ropes from his predecessor. Rice says that he likes to think that each of his dog's gray hairs represent a duck he's fetched. If this is true, Gauge has put in a lot of work during their career together.
Rice grew up on a family farm just a mile or so from the Greenberry Tavern, about 10 miles south of Corvallis, Oregon. I met him in the morning prior to our hunt at his guide shack to get suited and booted. Far from any "shack," and more like a luxurious man cave, it's as warm, dry, and comfortable as any living room. Photos of clients and friends cover the walls as a testament to his abilities not only to put ducks in front of hunters, but that people who visit his piece of paradise leave with smiling faces.
Gauge has his own bed in front of a fireplace. A Honda ATV with a trailer built to carry hunters and gear to the blind rests underneath an adjacent carport. We load up and he heads off to one of several blinds on a pond with such a diversity of decoys that any species of waterfowl flying overhead could mistake any group of them for their own.
Less than two miles south of the blind is the Finley Wildlife Refuge, a reserve of 5,791 acres of land, much of which is managed with crops for goose forage and 366 acres which are classified as "wetland prairie." The vegetation within the refuge is managed specifically to control woody growth and encourage the diversity of native plant species.
The surrounding area is a mecca for grass seed farmers like Rice and his family. As the rains come, fields flood and waterfowl flock to the refuge seeking the plethora of food sources in the area.
As we get to the water, Gauge takes his place out in front of the blind, and sits quietly, attentive to the sky above with a watchful eye. "Most of the time he'll spot the birds before I do," says Rice. "The wind is blowing to our left, so they should circle around and come in from the left side." He adds that ducks will often face the wind when they're trying to land on the water.
By the time I recognize birds overhead as ducks, Rice has identified the species by it's flight patterns. "Those have a bit of a square tail and they're flying along the treeline quietly, so they're probably wood ducks." Rice throws a few different calls in their direction anyway. "It's hard to get wood ducks to take an interest in a pond in the field if there's not a lot of trees around," he adds as they continue flying away.
A few ducks begin to fly in right out in front of us, and as I lift my shotgun, he says, "Those are divers. Let's wait." As a hooded merganser lands out in front of the blind, he adds "Let's wait for something that eats seed." Sensing my frustration at wanting to fling some steel in the air just to get the edge off, he adds, "Those are almost too pretty to shoot at." Explaining how diet affects palatability, he simply says, "...but they're like a garbage bag with wings."
With the anxiety of ducks flying but none dying, Gauge starts getting restless. The rain had been pretty incessant all morning. Just as I began to think that even a little adrenaline from some gunpowder igniting might warm our bones, a group of widgeon come in close enough for us to get in a few shots, and one falls. "That'll make him happy!" says Rice. "Now we're on the board!"
It's not long before a few more fall from the sky, and Rice points to the wind playing a factor in the movement of the birds. "This is good duck weather."
During a few short lulls between volleys and a few poorly placed shots at a pair of nice pintail, Rice strikes a chord with my southern roots and we start talking about his passion for bass fishing, as well as all other things outdoors. "My big move was about 2 miles from here to my grandpa's old place. I don't plan on making any more moves either."
Having grown up on the very property we were hunting, he points to another blind across the southeast corner of the pond, and a pit blind he had just finished installing. "I'm going to let the grass around it grow a little more before we start using that one," he says.
As he's explaining the short history of the blind we were hunting in, Gauge continues to scan the horizon during the downpour. "He sat right there and looked at the sky the whole time I was out here building this," he chuckled. "There wasn't even any water out there."
Because most of the ducks that flew in low were flying solo that day, we put down one here and one there, then a group finally came in low and we doubled up. "Alriiight! That's a C-Note!" exclaimed Rice, celebrating a personal best of a hundred ducks for the month of October, with several hunts with corporate clients in the month left to spare.
With a big grin, he says, "Watch Gauge bring them both back in one trip," pointing to the efficiency of his hunting dog being a product of both age and experience.
As the hunt winds down, we wander back up to the guide shack, refill on coffee, shed a few layers and sit by the fire, recapping the day. While there's plenty of duck hunting opportunity in the immediate area, it's difficult to match the level of comfort, professionalism, and luxury of a hunt with Rice's Waterfowl Guide Service. Whether it's a father-son outing, group of friends or coworkers, James Rice is seasoned at satisfying hunters, and it's difficult to leave his piece of paradise without smiling.
Late fall and early winter are prime time for hunting, with an average of 500 birds being taken from his blinds between Thanksgiving and Christmas. You can book in advance at 541-753-4605.