SOMETIMES, THE BEST parts of a hunting trip have nothing to do with having a gun in your hands, the sounds of shots in the air, the excited commands to dogs or a full bag of game.

Sometimes, the best parts of a hunting trip involve the aroma of duck breasts bathed in sauerkraut, onions and beer slow cooking their way to deliciousness, stories told by good friends and the essence of being surrounded by nature at its best. They are sometimes just watching three young dogs romping and play fighting for hours on end or enjoying a beautiful sunset at the end of a wonderful day.

Sometimes, it’s just thinking about the good days of hunting ahead, of driving around the countryside looking at old, falling-down barns and feeling the difference between recent 80-degree days and suddenly chilled mornings of 30 degrees with a wisp of snow on the ground.

My sojourn to North Dakota this year began five days before duck season even began. Newly retired and enjoying every minute of it, I headed west to try a little fishing in the area of the Turtle Mountains, to look over the country, new and old pieces of it, and to simply sit with my dog at the edge of a field watching prairie life go by.

My first day, I found not only a good fishing hole — where a fellow, if he wanted to, could catch a walleye, northern pike, perch, bluegill or crappie on any given cast — I also discovered a neat little park and campground just outside the tiny village of Bisbee, N.D., where for $15 a night or $25 a week a person could set up camp and live the good life on the open prairie with what amounts to at this time of year a private beach, boat landing, playground and campground with nothing but occasional hawks wheeling overhead, a duck or two dabbling near the cattail shores and a passing flock of Canada geese honking overhead for company.

For my first supper at the little white house on the prairie I stuffed myself with a New York strip, garlic bread and mushrooms fried in butter; a meal fit for a king. I might add that it is good to be the king at the end of a day like that, even if your only subject is a loyal yellow lab whose only purpose in life at the time is putting in a concerted effort to beg a bite or two of steak and a round of garlic bread. He was successful on both counts.

For the next two days, I had my kingdom to myself. Hundreds of ponds and sloughs were checked to see if they held ducks and geese. Many of them did. All set to let Gordie out of the truck at one point for a hike along a prairie road, I changed my mind quickly when a skunk waddled across the trace 15 feet in front of us. We took our walk at another place.

Another leisurely day went by until my son, Brooks, arrived, bringing with him my belated birthday present: 4 pounds of huge, nay gigantic, king crab legs from Alaska. When the rest of the crew arrived the next day, they were warned in no uncertain terms that anyone touching those treasures of the sea would be summarily executed by decree of the king.

Not a day went by throughout those five leading up to opening day that I didn’t see something worth seeing on my rambles around the country. At one stop it was Gordie sneaking to the edge of a slough where he jumped around in pure joy as about a dozen blue-winged teal sitting no more than 5 yards out from the cattails stared at him with looks that seemed to say “What kind of court jester is this idiot?”

The afternoon before opening day, Brooks, Gordie and I sneaked close enough to a pond to see it contained a healthy collection of mallards, assorted other ducks and 20 or so Canada geese. Listening to them quack and honk and dabble was a joy in itself, one that needed no gun in hand to make it even better.

Driving around the prairie country we found some ponds, that have been deep honey holes in past years, be nothing more than dried up mud holes this year, while others a hundred yards away were filled with water and ducks. Go figure.

I savored every moment of that day as the time for hunting drew nearer by the hour. Every bunch of ducks we watched, every flock of geese winging overhead, every pond we passed made my imagination work overtime in anticipation of opening morning.

The eve of the hunt, the Illinois boys found their way to duck camp. Only three strong this year, Greg, Tommy John and Curt were ready and rarin’ to have at ’em the next morning. 

After a big supper of baked ham and several fixings, the rest of the evening was spent discussing plans for the ’morrow, telling tales, most of them repeats of at least a dozen times, of hunts gone by, all accompanied by a few dollops of Crown Royal or chilled glasses of ale.

And yes, all wonderful things of a non-hunting nature notwithstanding, there was the matter of putting ducks on the table for dinner at the end of the first day. We split up in the morning, Brooks and I to a favorite starting place, the Illinois boys to theirs.

I will say it was one of the best opening days of my life. In the morning, as usual, I did my share of missing, but I did manage to put one drake mallard and one redhead in the game bag.

We filled out our morning by just driving around looking and formulating an afternoon battle plan. We came up with a good one. Without going into detail, let it be said that this old duck hunter did more than his share of putting ducks on the dinner table that evening. Four more mallards, three greenheads and one Susie fell to my trusty 12 gauge. Brooks finished off his daily bag limit as well and that evening, all five of us heartily attacked duck breasts slathered with sweet cherry sauce, a score of Illinois dove breasts wrapped with bacon and grilled to perfection, and a side dish or two to boot.

The week of actual hunting goes on. To paraphrase the ’60s era song by the group “Looking Glass,” I will love this day of duck hunting more than yesterday, but not as much as tomorrow’s.