"For the life of me," he began, as he pulled an ever-present toothpick from between his teeth, "I can't find one thing that's the same about this duck hunt today and the duck hunts I remember as a young man in the late '20s and '30s except for maybe the pure pleasure of being here."
A low-flying drake cut across the goose decoys, set its wings, and McNeel sent it to the ice with a single shot. He stepped out of the blind and collected the duck himself, leaving the young yellow Labrador in her kennel. He was anxious to resume his story.
"Everything has changed so much. Our group of hunters never used these blow calls. We never had to, and the reason we didn't is in those plastic ducks out there. We didn't
With fingers bent awkwardly by bull ropes from rodeos past, he fiddled with a call. "These darned things hit sour notes and freeze up from your breath in cold weather. None of our calls ever froze up. They always sounded like real ducks because they were."
McNeel was born in 1914 in North Platte, where he grew up hunting along the Platte and its north and south tributaries. He has witnessed great changes in hunting and wildlife, and watched a remarkable transformation of the rivers, especially after Kingsley Dam was closed when he was about 30 years old.
"The rivers were so wide here, even the North Platte was wide and without trees," he recalled. "It was a long distance crossing the river. There were shallow channels everywhere and islands barely big enough to put a blind on. On each side of the river there were wet meadows clear to the hills. The dam, for all the good they say it's done, ruined the river.
"The south river would overflow every spring, and we lived at 306 South Pine Street. There would be water from our doorstep to the state farm [today's University of Nebraska West Central Research and Extension Center] south of town. When I was a little guy, we had a big one [flood] in about 1920, and I took an old wash tub and broom, and pushed it off our front steps . . . and tried to paddle around in the water."
McNeel remembered the Platte River shoreline below the confluence of the north and south rivers had no trees, just willows and cattails and small islands that he called towheads.
"We built our blinds on the towheads," he said. "They were sandbars that caught a little brush, and sand would build up allowing it to grow some grass. Anyway, at the top end of one of these towheads, we'd fashion some driftwood and willows and rushes into a blind that the wind blew through all day. They weren't warm blinds, and we didn't know what a catalytic heater or camp stove was. When we tried to add a little heat, we used a bucket of sand soaked in kerosene and a splash of gasoline to get it started. Duck hunting was a cold experience then because we really didn't have the clothes that we have today. We didn't know what Thinsulate was. We wore handed-down wool shirts and sheepskin-lined coats. Most of us couldn't afford waders, so we shared."
A cold blind was the least of concerns for McNeel and his hunting partners. McNeel said a trip to the river began early, ended late and required a great deal of effort.
"We hunted on the Platte near Maxwell. Now Maxwell is only 12 miles down the road, but we'd get up at two in the morning to be ready to shoot at first light. The first order of business was to light a fire in a bucket of cobs soaked in kerosene and set it under the engine of the Model T Ford. When the oil began to warm, somebody would start turning the crank, and we'd get it running. Then we'd slowly pour water into the radiator. She wouldn't freeze now, so we'd pull the warming bucket out and back the T off the blocks and head down to the duck pen where we kept our call ducks."
McNeel talked fondly about the call ducks.
"They were pretty important to us. We'd take about 35 birds on a hunt and would load them into the decoy boat by shaking a Prince Albert tobacco can full of corn and
The homemade decoy boat had two 1x12s cut eight foot long like sled runners for the sides and four-foot pieces across the back and front. The bottom was made of metal from a local tin shop and chicken wire was stretched over the top with a trap door.
"After those ducks loaded up, we set the boat, ducks and all, into the back of the Model T and pulled a canvas from the top of the windshield to just beyond the back seat. We removed the top floorboard, which exposed the engine and provided us with a little heat that was held in by the canvas. Off we'd go."
Gas stations were closed when the hunters hit the road, so on the previous day the hunters always made sure they had a full tank. The Model T had a ten-gallon tank under the front seat. Gas was five cents a gallon, so they could fill an empty tank for 50 cents. McNeel remembered when gasoline went to nine cents then 13 cents and finally 20 cents, and recalled, "That's when everybody said they had to quit driving because it was getting too expensive."
McNeel said that the trip to Maxwell was short, but not easy.
"There wasn't a highway then. It was mostly all mud or snow, maybe both, but that old Model T only had 3½-inch-wide tires that stood 30 inches tall, and they would dig right in and go. We'd back her right up to the riverbank and push the duck boat off into the water. Now, before we could do anything, we had to drain all the water out of the radiator and the engine block so it wouldn't freeze while we were hunting. Then, if it was warm enough, and
McNeel said they always put out a few wooden decoys, too. The live decoy flock might have stayed where the hunters wanted it because of the wooden decoys, but McNeel claimed that the live ducks would have stayed without the wooden decoys because they knew the hunters had corn. The hunters pooled their money and bought Mason Premier block decoys at Montgomery Wards for $6.95 a dozen.
"We kept three ducks in the blind with us, two mallard drakes and a domesticated wild hen named Peg. We called her Peg for peg leg, because we'd caught her in a muskrat trap, and she lost her foot. The two drakes were like the rest of the ducks in our call flock, but they were real tame and we kept them in the blind to throw into the air when a flock of wild mallards came up the river."
McNeel took a break from his storytelling to work a pair of drakes close enough to shoot with his solid rib Winchester Model 12. McNeel's dad bought the gun for him in 1934, paying $15 for it at Freeze's cigar store, where it was being held on a gambling debt. When McNeel was a young kid he shot a single shot with a 36-inch barrel that was marketed under the name "Long Tom." He said he was able to get two shots off at a flock by holding an extra shell in his hand, dumping the empty round, reloading and shooting again. He said that he thought he could have gotten three shots off if the gun had been equipped with an ejector instead of an extractor.
This time McNeel let the Labrador out of her box to retrieve the ducks.
"That's another thing we didn't have then. Nobody around here started going to Labrador dogs until the 1950s. Up until then we had Chesapeake retrievers and rat tails," he said.
McNeel used "rat tail" to refer to Irish water spaniels because the breed has a heavy coat on its body and a relatively bare tail.
"I had a female dog named Brownie, and Squeak Morris had a male named Chug. We raised a lot of pups from those two, and a lot of hunters around here had them. She was the best dog I ever owned. I could tell you some stories about her, too, but you probably wouldn't believe what I was telling you, so I won't."
McNeel returned to his hunt story.
"These ducks, believe it or not, were Judas ducks. They knew and liked what they were doing. In those days, all the migrating ducks would come to the river because there were no reservoirs, and when the Sandhills lakes froze, the only available water was in the river. We'd have huge migrations out of the north ahead of or behind a storm, and sometimes you'd see a flock of 500 or more ducks coming up river. Well, at about a mile out, we'd throw
McNeel said that when the hunt was over, usually at sunset, they would pull the duck boat onto the sandbar and rattle the Prince Albert can.
"Those 35 ducks would pile into the boat like they were on a string. Then we'd give them some of the corn, drag the boat across the river and load the ducks and boat onto the Model T. Of course, we had to build our cob fire again and pour water into the radiator. Off we went for home."
Despite the work involved to hunt ducks in those days and to care for a flock of call ducks, McNeel was not an exception in North Platte in the 1920s and 1930s.
He said, "Everybody who hunted had call ducks and some had geese as well. Most men hunted in those days, because it was another way to put food on the table for the family, so there were a lot of call flocks."
McNeel pulled a brown paper bag from under the bench in the blind, found a pencil in his shirt pocket and began mapping the town of North Platte. With remarkable recall he laid out the streets, addresses and names of all those who had call flocks between 1926 and 1935. When he finished sketching his map, he had counted 36 call flocks within the city limits of North Platte.
"That's just what was within the city limits." McNeel said. "If you wanted a real experience, you should have been here in the spring of the year when migration was underway. As ducks and geese passed over the city on their way north, all of these call flocks would let go at them, and the wild flocks would be calling back. I can still hear the ruckus in my mind. I'd lay in my upstairs bedroom on South Pine, my eyes wide open with excitement."
Although there were a lot of call geese in pens around town, McNeel said his group used only ducks.
"Remember, back then there weren't many chances to shoot geese in this area. I only had one pair of call geese ever. I bought those from Sig Scott. We'd put out a few tin silhouettes in case a family bunch would come up the river, but live goose decoys were a lot of work and they didn't behave as well as the ducks," he said.
By the 1935 season, all live decoy hunting had been banned nationwide and McNeel said hunters gave them up. Although some hunters did so reluctantly, most conformed to the new regulations.
"Remember, some of us had been hunting with live decoys since the time we began hunting. When I was a kid, I'd take five or six call ducks in a crate on the back of my bike and ride down to about where the main entrance of the hospital is now and hunt ducks with my Long Tom. I also shot a lot of ducks over live decoys right where Wal-Mart sits now. That was all marsh then. The point is, many of us didn't know any other way to hunt ducks. We all thought that the ban would only last a couple of seasons, and then we'd get back to business as usual. There was a lot of enforcement when the ban went into effect, and hunters never really tried to get around the law. Some of them might have taken a duck or two to the blind with them
Some hunters turned to making goose decoys, and McNeel became fairly talented at putting together a canvas decoy. With the effort and care he put into the process, McNeel said it took a full day for him to put together a single goose decoy. He had developed a canvas pattern and a system for putting the decoys together, stuffing them with hay straw that was steamed over a washtub full of boiling water. Each decoy was hand sewn and painted after being treated with pine resin.
"Those types of decoys were being made before they outlawed live geese, and sometimes you'd see a mix of stuffed-canvas decoys along with call geese in a decoy spread," McNeel said.
Other hunting opportunities developed from hunter disappointment over the crackdown on waterfowl hunting. In North Platte pheasants got a lot of attention, and these flashy game birds were literally at McNeel's doorstep.
"From 1938 to 1940, I worked at the Chevrolet garage. My wife, Mary, would pick me up at noon and bring a lunch, my dog and a shotgun. I'd usually have my first pheasant by the time we got to Phillip Street, and I'd have my limit of five roosters before we reached the south river bridge. She'd have me back at work with time enough to spare for a cup of coffee before my noon hour was over."
North Platte has always been a hunting town for McNeel. "Remember I told you about riding my bike out by where the hospital is now to hunt ducks. Well, I also used to park my bike over on First and Oak. That was a farm when I was a kid, and I'd take off from there, walking west in a hay meadow shooting prairie chickens. I shot chickens right where the high school was later built in the '30s. I went to Catholic school, and I remember in fifth grade there was a big migration on.
"I was sitting in class looking out the window at flocks of ducks when Sister Patrick said to me, 'Jodi McNeel, how's come that you can't put two and two together to make four, but you can count ten ducks going by quicker than I can?'
"Well, the next day, I skipped school and went hunting."