– Story by Nathan Sparks. Photos by Nathan Sparks and Alexis Greene –
It’s just before dawn when we step out of the truck. The peaceful murmuring of the North Platte River creates a pleasant background to the sound of our boots on the frozen ground. It’s so perfect; it’s almost like a dream. But it’s not just cold, it’s Nebraska cold, perfect for ducks. We are on the west bank of the Platte near Minatare, Nebraska. The sky is overcast, and it looks to be a promising hunt. The decoys are already floating in a nearby eddy, and the retriever is in his box at the end of the blind.
The cold biting at my face will be short-lived though, as this is a gentlemen’s duck hunt, and the heated tub blind is close by with hot coffee waiting. My hunting partners, Donnie Fain and his son Austin, settle into one end of the blind as I position myself about midway next to lodge manager Peggy Wolfe, who has agreed to hunt with us to make sure all of my questions are answered. Our photographer, Alexis Greene, and our guide are already vigilantly watching the sky for ducks heading out to feed. I warm my hands next to a heater, a stark contrast this is to the scene just an hour before as I sat down to breakfast in the High Adventure Company’s North Platte Outpost lodge.
The lodge is actually an old cattle sale barn that has been converted to a full-service outpost. Its large, laminated beams rise upward more than 30 feet to its peak, creating an almost sanctuary kind of feel. If duck hunting were a religion, the North Platte Outpost would be its church. The mark of a world-class outfitter, in part, is the level of service and hospitality they offer, and Sean Finley, the director of operations, has honed this to an art form. Our meal of aged hand-cut New York strips, eggs, fruit, and homemade biscuits will be just right for our outing today. Sean outlines the day’s activities and although breakfast is terrific, right now, what I want to see are some ducks, and after this breakfast, I am sure to be waddling to the truck just like a fat corn-fed mallard.
The blind is comfortably equipped with small propane heaters, and I am enjoying the camaraderie of my new friends. My guide has been calling and hunting ducks around here since he was eight years old, and his mastery is bringing them right to us. The lanyard holding his duck call is filled with bands from previous hunts, one of the marks of a seasoned guide. Perhaps we will be lucky enough to get one today.
Donnie and Austin are a classic father and son duo. Watching the two of them interact was reminiscent of times I spent with my dad, times I wouldn’t trade for anything. Donnie is quiet and reserved with a soft-spoken agreeable nature, the kind of guy you find yourself leaning into, not wanting to miss what he has to say. Austin, on the other hand, is full of exuberance, coupled with his own uniquely acerbic humor. I am never quite sure what will come out next, but I do know that I haven’t laughed this much or this hard in years. What is fascinating to see is the genuine appreciation each of them have for the experience they are sharing. With nothing to worry about, they are able to spend their time focused on the joy of creating memories that will last a lifetime.
High Adventure Company manages this facility we are on for the Weinreis family, and it is unquestionably one of the very best—if not the premier—mallard hunting locations in the country. The Weinreises are a family of seven brothers, and together they own 5,000 acres at this cattle ranch—one of many they operate—which covers about four-and-one-half miles of the North Platte River. They have committed one-and-a-half miles of that to a waterfowl sanctuary creating a refuge like no other where thousands upon thousands of ducks and geese rest each day. This refuge is never hunted and seldom disturbed. Sean describes how it works: “Thirteen blinds surround the sanctuary, where the guides can call in the ducks as they come and go to feed.” It’s a perfect setup. As Sean says, “We don’t shoot birds on the pass, on the swing, or on the feed line. We only shoot birds that are called in properly, with their feet set over the decoys right in front of you, so we’re not educating big groups of birds that are on the pass by shooting at them. We rest the river on Wednesdays and Sundays, so we retain our birds the entire season, which most places can’t say they do.” This type of experience may not be typical in the hunting industry, but it is the standard here. John Burrell, President and CEO of High Adventure Company, maintains that level in his operations because he wants the best for his customers.
Following a productive morning, it is back to the lodge for lunch before the afternoon hunt. After that fantastic breakfast, I can’t wait to see what “Chef Finley” will bring to the table. I am blown away as an Axis Venison Burger with confit of rabbit is placed in front of me, with melted Mexican muenster cheese, onion rings, and Korean BBQ Sauce stacked on top. It is served on a toasted Hawaiian bun with lettuce and tomato. A side of homemade kettle chips completes the plate. The meal is mild and flavorful. I finish every last bite.
Aside from his talent as a chef, one of the things I enjoy about Sean is how easily he changes roles: one minute a world class chef, the next an avid sportsman with his share of stories to tell. It’s a great part of the experience having the opportunity to listen to his tales.
Sean has an impressive amount of experience in the hospitality industry, everything from planning simple wedding receptions to leading food service operations at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, during the Iraq war where he oversaw 1.3 million meals per month. But when it comes to wild game, Sean Finley is in a class all by himself. He loves game dishes and consistently comes up with inspired creations unexpected in taste and feel on the palate.
On our second day on the North Platte, we meet guide Scott Bodamer. Donnie and Austin have a history with both of our guides, but Austin seems especially happy to be giving Scott some friendly grief. What a hoot these two are. Whatever Austin comes up with, Scott holds his own and somehow manages to make it even funnier, and that just prompts Austin to take it even further. I get so caught up in how funny it is that I forget to turn on my recorder, which honestly might be for the best.
One of John’s mottos is, “Don’t guide the guides,” so I am anxious to see these gentlemen in action. But what I really want to know is how well they can speak duck. In my opinion, the real art of being a successful guide on a duck hunt is being able to call in the ducks as they are passing by, and each guide has their own signature technique. I remember my dad’s way of doing, what he called, “a feeding chuckle,” and when Scott does a similar call I can feel my father there with me. The way this trip has pulled the past into the present for me is simply magical. As Sean says, the guides at the North Platte Outpost are second to none, and it is easy to agree.
The duck hunting is so good here that bagging a limit early in the day is pretty much a given occurrence. To round out the afternoon we add on pheasant hunting. Chukar is also available, if you prefer, and you can even opt for some trout fishing in the private spring creek. There is never a shortage of things to do at the outpost.
After the hunt, we clean up at the lodge and gather in the bar for cocktails and appetizers. Sean’s team goes to every extreme to ensure every one of us is completely satisfied and happy and that includes serving up some amazing food at dinner and delivering a top-notch level of service in the process.
Dinner is definitely one of the main events of the day. Sean comes out and describes the meal he has prepared in every detail. The complexity of the ingredients is stunning. Take for example the ale braised lamb shank, an all-day preparation served with pearl onions over yukon gold mashed potatoes and honey roasted tri-color carrots. I give it five stars on taste and presentation, but my favorite is without a doubt the confit of rabbit over sweet potato gnocchi in a brown butter sauce and southern collard greens, garnished with pomegranate seeds. The flavors are simply spectacular. There is never a moment when one of the staff is not in attendance in the background.
It isn’t until after dinner and a few bourbons that I really get to know Donnie and Austin. The stories flow more freely as the libations do, and I gain a new level of respect for not only my hunt mates, but how masterfully Sean has set everything up so we are completely comfortable. I feel at ease sharing my life stories and hearing Donnie and Austin’s in return. When things finally settle down at the outpost, Sean joins us to share some of his own experiences. Listening to these guys is like taking a trip around the world in the comfort of an easy chair. The entire experience is simply a treat, a much-needed reprieve from the goings on of the world, and I only hope more people consider embarking on this adventure.
About The Author: Nathan Sparks is an avid sportsman and writer/photographer who frequently writes about his adventures with John Burrell and Sean Finely in Cityview Magazine.
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