OCONTO, Wis. — There wasn’t a bugle in sight, but in the hands of the right person, a duck call is all it takes to play reveille.
The last “quacks” were still echoing through the hotel’s courtyard when the full group assembled at 4:30 a.m.
“That was a short night,” said Ty Schleppenbach.
“More like a short morning,” said Josh Walker.
There’s usually time to catch up on sleep. There are never enough days, though, to live well and enjoy the camaraderie of others in the outdoors.
And for a pair of Wisconsin men, there are never enough opportunities to thank America’s military veterans.
When Dean Crom and Mike Thun thought about what they could give to veterans, they opted to share what they know best: waterfowl hunting.
The pair of Lake Michigan waterfowl guides decided to host an annual hunt in appreciation of veterans.
They call it “Red, White and Bluebill.”
The inaugural hunt was held in 2011. I joined the group for the 2012 edition of RWB in Oconto in late October.
The weekend included six veterans: U.S. Army veterans Joe Mershon, 28, Katey Tess, 31, Josh Walker, 35, and Dave Weber, 65, and Marine veterans Randy Gordon, 31, and Ty Schleppenbach, 36.
Crom and Thun, who run Big Water Outdoors Guide Service, brought their “mother ship” and layout boat to the event.
In addition, assistance was provided by Todd Lansing, a waterfowl guide who hauled his boat to the event from Ferryville, Wis.; Rick Renard and his son Alex, who motored their boat up from Green Bay, Wis., and donated their time and equipment for the hunt; and Bill Pauley, who came up from Phowler Boats in Clinton, Iowa.
And Cameron Pauli of The Sportsman Channel and Jim Crowley of Hook & Hunt TV.com were on hand to help record the activities.
The weekend began with a Friday night fish fry in a mess tent erected in the hotel’s front yard.
The occasion allowed the veterans to get acquainted and discuss plans for the Saturday hunt.
Just to the east, tens of thousands of divers, mostly scaup (bluebills) but also redheaded ducks and buffleheads, were rafting and feeding on Green Bay.
The birds are in the midst of a southerly migration along Lake Michigan. The relatively shallow waters of the bay allow the birds to easily access beds of zebra and quagga mussels and other food.
After doughnuts and coffee in the mess tent, the group headed to a nearby boat landing about 5 a.m.
As Crom and Thun put out dozens of strings of decoys, Lansing ferried two-person teams of hunters to waiting layout boats.
“This feels familiar,” Walker said as he squeezed into a layout boat in the dark. The 6-foot-3-inch, 280-pound former infantryman was no stranger to vehicles and equipment built for smaller soldiers.
He also exclaimed how good it felt.
“Really cool to get to try this,” Walker said.
Walker served in the Army from 1999 to 2007. During a tour in Iraq, his vehicle was “blown up” by an improvised explosive device.
He couldn’t walk for two years; he couldn’t write for another year after that.
He’s now back to a level of health that allows him to participate in some of the outdoor sports he loves.
As Walker is handed his shotgun and the mother ship departs, someone tells him to “shoot straight.”
“I better, I’m infantry,” Walker said.
A half-mile away, Mershon and Weber are loaded into a double layout boat.
Weber served in Vietnam in 1967 and ‘68. He was trained as a sheet metal specialist and once in Vietnam also got pulled into duty as a “Sunday gunner.”
He accumulated 400 hours of combat flying as operator of the machine gun on the side door of a Huey helicopter.
When he came home, Weber said he was an adrenaline junkie.
“Flying at 100 knots about 100 feet over the trees will do that to a person,” Weber said.
The country was different, too.
Weber said the music, culture and support for veterans had changed in just a matter of years. He was called a “baby killer” and spat at.
“I put my uniform in a closet and tried to blend in,” Weber said.
Weber grew up hunting and fishing but didn’t take the activities up when he returned from Vietnam because he was “still figuring out who I was.”
It didn’t happen overnight.
Weber said he “came home” when Milwaukee hosted a veteran’s parade and concert after the first Gulf War.
He marched with other veterans in cadence through downtown. He remembers tears streaming down his face as crowds cheered.
Americans today are much more appreciative of the military, Weber said.
“I still am a little taken aback when people thank me for serving,” Weber said. “I think about the guys who gave the ultimate sacrifice and sometimes I still ask: Why did I come home?”
He quickly follows up the question with a smile.
“It’s very, very nice to hear the words of appreciation,” Weber said. “And when people like this put an event together to thank us, it’s awesome.”
The morning started with gray skies and sporadic flights of ducks. The two Marines, Gordon and Schleppenbach, were positioned right beneath several early flocks.
Within the first half-hour of shooting, the pair had six ducks.
Crom, Thun, Lansing and Renard moved decoys, changed setups and shuttled hunters throughout the morning. Tens of thousands of birds had rafted to the north and were visible as specs on the horizon.
As the morning wore on, the clouds departed and the sun shone brightly on the bay. Enough ducks kept moving, however, to give all the veterans a taste of the excitement of layout hunting on the big water.
The wind was mild, allowing for safe and comfortable hunting.
At about noon, the decoys and hunters were collected and brought to shore. Lunch was served.
Tess, who has been in the Army for 12 years, said many veterans get out of the military and have difficulty accepting they will never be back in.
“These events are extremely helpful to allow vets to connect with others and share a new experience,” said Tess, who served in Iraq from 2004-06 and now works as a recruiting noncommissioned officer in Greenfield, Wis.
As the veterans shared lunch, the banter was light and laughter was the order of the day.
“It’s not about how many ducks we get,” Tess said. “It’s about the experience. This was outstanding.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services