“Looks like your gun is in Chicago, ma’am. We do apologize about that. Enjoy your stay in Wichita!”
So that’s how this trip is going to go, I figured. After some back and forth with the airline agent, I arranged to have my shotgun delivered to the hunting lodge as soon as it made its way out of no man’s land, and hopped in the truck with my hunting buddies for the week. At least I had my suitcase with my camo and waders.
One exceedingly frustrating “our computers are down right now” trip to WalMart to buy hunting licenses later, we made it to Hooray Ranch, located outside Kingman, Kansas.
Now, I’ve stayed in a lot of duck camps over the years — everything from hole-in-the-wall, don’t-touch-the-sheets motel rooms to million-dollar, never-afford-in-my-lifetime lodges. There are upsides and downsides to each, and most of the time the lodging is somewhere in between. Hooray is so far toward the top of the spectrum that it falls straight off the chart. Owner Eric Dunn put us up in “The Refuge,” the main hangout lodge, complete with a bar, a wall of TVs playing every sports and outdoor channel you can think of, an enormous dining table and a massive stone fireplace with a view of the roosting lake just behind the lodge. Forget sitting on the patio and watching the roosting lake if you’d like to have a conversation with anyone — 30,000 birds out there make a lot of noise.
There are three other lodges, too, as well as a smaller hangout center and a separate wader shack. In total they can sleep more than two dozen people at a time, but Hooray only takes eight hunters at once to keep the hunting pressure down.
“Not bad, huh?” said Randy Hill, who was hosting this hunt on behalf of Hard Core Decoys. “We’ll see if we can’t find you an extra shotgun around here somewhere.”
Turns out that wasn’t necessary; after a delicious dinner and some guitar picking around the fireplace, the airline delivery guy called and said he was in the vicinity but couldn’t find the ranch (that’s how you know you’re in a good lodge, by the way — if your GPS can’t find it). He eventually found us and handed me my gun case, complete with a brand-new padlock TSA had added even though the case was already properly locked according to their own regulations. Naturally, they did not send a key, but that was nothing a pair of bolt cutters couldn’t fix.
Day One — Ducks From A Pit
Morning found me in a pit blind next to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge with fellow hunters Slaton, Natalie and Randy, as well as guide Zach Simon. Otter, Zach’s black Lab, and Hank, Randy’s young Chessie, watched the skies eagerly as birds flew high and stayed mostly noncommittal. Intense fog and unseasonably warm temperatures made the hunting challenging, but eventually the spread of Hard Core dekes bobbing in front of the blind and Randy’s calling proved too tempting, and ducks started dropping out of the fog as singles and pairs. Some we dropped and some we didn’t, but by noon we had 13 mallards and one ringneck. It was time for lunch.
There are few feelings I like better than coming in from a morning in the duck blind and crashing in front of a fireplace with a steaming coffee and a cuddly Lab, and Hooray is a great place to do it.
Dunn, a successful business owner and avid hunter, built this place after years of taking clients on corporate retreats at other hunting lodges only to walk away dissatisfied with the lodge, the food, the experience, or, most importantly, the quality of the hunting. Never finding the “perfect” hunting camp, he decided to build one himself and set about creating his personal sanctuary, sparing no expense. Clients and friends were so impressed with the place that Eric decided it was worth selling a few hunts a year, for premium prices. You can hunt Hooray if you can get in — space is very limited and reserved a year or two in advance.
“It’s never gonna be a place where we take 600 guns a season,” Eric told me over dinner. “Our limit is about 100 guns a year. Hunting was always secondary in my life because of my business, and now that I’ve sold that, hunting is primary. Now I want people to enjoy it with me.”
Eight hunters at a time and 100 guns a year isn’t much pressure to begin with, but spread out over Hooray’s 59 impoundments and 10,000-plus acres, it makes such a small dent that birds have plenty of time to rest and feel virtually no pressure. It’s all hunting at Hooray — they flood, draw down and plant all their impoundments, but none of the corn, milo or millet is harvested. It’s exclusively there for the benefit of the birds. And since this area is smack in the middle of the Central Flyway, birds take full advantage.
Day Two — Field Hunt
With the fog showing no signs of lifting and temperatures hovering around a too-warm 50 degrees, we figured our chances on a field hunt were just about as good as anything else. Setting 800 goose decoys at 4 in the morning while it’s too foggy to see much past the trailer is a chore, but goose hunters do what they gotta do.
“No blinds, no dogs; they’re too hard to hide. Put this on,” he said, handing me a white painter’s suit.
By shooting light we were laying in a long line, smack in the middle of a massive decoy spread — nine shooters with our butts in the mud and our heads resting on our blind bags. Fog shrouded the field so thickly that visibility was limited to 100 yards or so. It was a surreal experience to hear geese honk in the distance but be unable to tell where they’re coming from until they get closer and eventually emerge from the mist, nearly within gun range by the time you can identify them by sight.
It was a long morning of grinding it out bird by bird, with a steady trickle of lesser Canadas coming in small groups until we came within a few birds of the limit. “No more Canadas, just in case!” Randy hollered, so we laid back and watched the dark geese fly until the specklebellies and snows showed up. The fog made the snows nervous, but good calling brought them close enough to see us, and we were hidden discreetly enough in our spread of white that plenty of them were fooled into cupping up and dropping in.
It was midafternoon by the time we called it quits and packed up 800 decoys and 109 birds. And yes, we hauled every last bird into the Hooray garage and cleaned them all assembly-line style, keeping a few of the specks for the evening’s appetizers and packing the rest of the meat in the deep freezer, prepped and ready to be donated.
That evening happened to be Eric’s birthday, so to celebrate, the kitchen staff cooked the usual last-night-of-the-hunt dinner of prime rib, but added lobster tails in honor of the boss’s big day. The staff at Hooray works year-round and it’s very much a family atmosphere — by the time you leave you feel less like a client and more like a cousin.
“We hope that everybody gets an opportunity to join us here someday,” Eric said. “I think the legacy we’re trying to build here is it’s going to be around for a long time. Our son enjoys this and I hope that someday my great-great-grandkids are saying my great-great-grandfather built this place. It’s the Augusta of duck hunting!”
Hard Core Decoys
In Kansas we hunted over Hard Core mallard, pintail and other duck decoys, and we set out a huge spread of full-body snow geese decoys on the second day. We threw in some full-body specks and Canadas to bring the spread to life, and shot both light and dark geese for hours over the mixed spread.
With great detail and TruMotion bases to provide lifelike movement, the decoys bob and wave gently in the slightest breeze, giving just enough movement to look real without swinging all over the place. Hard Core uses ArmorCoat paint schemes for a lifelike look and extreme durability. Goose decoys take a lot of abuse over the course of a season, and the last thing you want to worry about is paint that scratches off.
Each year Hard Core branches out into more product lines, expanding far beyond decoys. The company makes durable decoy bags, functional clothing, great quality layout blinds, functional and well-designed blind bags, and all kinds of other accessories. Check them out!