TEKAMAH, Neb. — Driving rain long before sunrise on Saturday didn’t stop our hunting party’s preparation for the opening day of the Zone 2 Nebraska waterfowl early youth hunt.
Safe and dry inside Buddies in Tekamah, we wolfed down pancakes, breakfast sandwiches and doughnuts.
Once in the field, John Bender was so eager to get to the blind he forgot to turn off the truck lights and didn’t notice until he was a few hundred yards down the path in the dark. Keith Chamberlain was so excited for the start of the season that he couldn’t sleep the night before.
The thing is, both Bender and Chamberlain are decades beyond the maximum age of 16 to get a permit to hunt the two-day youth season. They were only along as mentors for the group of eight students carrying shotguns.
“I just love this,” Chamberlain said while hiking to the blind.
After the eight hunters and six mentors found their spots facing east in two blinds on the edge of a flooded section of wetlands, the group sat and listened to Ernie Glup as he recalled his first successful waterfowl hunt — a mere 60 years ago.
“I was using my Sears & Roebuck, single-shot .410,” Glup said. “I still have the gun.”
The mentors shared safety tips and handed out ammo. Brian Zahm handed two shells each to his three sons, Elliot, 11, and 15-year-old twins Owen and Gavin.
Glup watched the sky and then signaled that a small brace of blue-winged teal were heading toward the blind.
“Get them,” Glup commanded.
And the eight youth took aim, dropping two of the lightning fast ducks.
“I think I got one,” Owen Zahm said.
Owen, like many of the youth hunters on the trip, shoots competitive trap for his high school team.
Every eye was peeled on the sky, peeking through the vegetation used to construct the blind.
More ducks approached, and a pintail was dropped by one of the young men in the north blind.
Risking scaring away more ducks but not wanting to lose track of the downed birds, Keith Chamberlain called his 2-year-old yellow lab, Jackson, and Eric Bents summoned his 9-year-old chocolate lab, Jewell. The two dogs flawlessly retrieved the birds. Jackson bounded through the shallow water quickly and fetched two. The more experienced Jewell made her way to one of the teal, slower in comparison, but efficient.
With birds down and more rain falling, fathers and sons, grandfather and grandson, mentors and friends relaxed enough for broad smiles to replace pursed lips. Soon the blinds filled with conversation and laughter.
Stories were exchanged about grand days harvesting limits and slow days when nary a shot was taken.
Greyson Bents, the youngest of the group, inspected a tiny frog that had made its way into the blind. His older brother, Colton, cooked a pan of bacon on a small propane burner, filling the moist morning air with the aroma.
Keith Chamberlain offered to trade blinds with me, wanting to get closer to the bacon. I declined.
Soon the rain slowed to a light drizzle, and the ducks began to move as other area hunting parties along the river fired shots. Several more shots rang out and Jackson and Jewell whimpered in excitement to retrieve the future Sunday meals as more ducks hit the water.
The adults beamed as the youth hunters harvested several more birds.
Eric Bents grew up in northern Wisconsin and spent much of his youth hunting deer and trapping. It wasn’t until after moving to Omaha that he began to hunt waterfowl.
“I fell in love with bird hunting when I moved here,” he said.
He bragged about his youngest son’s first dove hunt earlier this month just as Greyson placed his new friend the amphibian down the back of his brother’s shirt.
“Mentoring hunts are a great time to bond with my sons,” the father said. “It’s a special father and son time.”
Brian Zahm, sitting on the padded bench in the blind between the twins and his youngest son, Elliot, talked about looking forward to the day when he can include his two daughters, ages 8 and 4, in the hunts.
“As soon as they can pass hunter’s safety courses, they can go,” he said.
Glup talked about his one regret for the day.
“There aren’t 25 kids out here hunting,” Glup said. “Not enough kids get a chance to enjoy hunting.”
Glup’s three sons all learned to hunt, as Glup had learned from his father. Now Glup, 74, and his nameless club of hunters mentor young hunters every year in hopes that they, too, will fall in love with waterfowl hunting.
The youth hunt ends Sunday, but the waterfowl season in Zone 2 starts Oct. 5. For more information on season dates and hunting zone boundaries, visit outdoornebraska.ne.gov.