Fowl Line: Paying it forward

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The author (right) helped establish a memorial scholarship for his friend, Steve Bierle (left), who died saving his son from drowning. For more information or to donate to this worthy cause, please email Outdoor Forum editor Andrew Johnson at [email protected] Photo by John Pollmann

By John Pollmann

I love when I hear mallards before I see them. Case in point, here’s a quick story about a favorite hunt from several years ago.
Set up on a peninsula jutting into a shallow wetland, my friend Steve Bierle and I were lounging in our layout blinds when the sound of air ripping through the primaries of mallards reached our ears. We had taken our spots just moments before, having helped a group of clients shoot their limits of greenheads earlier that morning in the same spot. The day before, a few thousand mallards choked these waters. We had only seen a fraction of that number return and hoped that there were more to come.
The sound of mallards descending from high in the sky soon turned into the sight of a flock banking against a northwest breeze to set up on the decoys. Steve and I could tell that it was going to be one of those mornings.
“Let’s take turns,” Steve said. “You take the first drake.”
Letting me shoot the first bird of a hunt was a frequent courtesy of Steve. I rose from the blind, put the bead on a greenhead feet-down over the decoys and squeezed the trigger. I barely had enough time to close my blind doors when a pair of drakes appeared. Without thinking, I rose again and dumped both birds. My yellow Lab was on his way back with the first mallard when another flock appeared.
“Johnny,” came a plaintive voice from the blind to my right, “Stevie likes to shoot mallards, too.”
We both laughed. I kept my blind doors shut for a bit, and we picked away at a limit of big drake mallards over the course of the next half-hour. To this day, the hunt remains one of my favorites. The October sky was a deep blue, the air crisp and the mallards bent to the call. More importantly, I enjoyed it all in the company of my best friend.
It has been just over three years since Steve Bierle died in a tragic accident. Every time I recall the details of his death, I’m humbled to call him a friend.
Just moments after getting out of the car at the start of a family vacation on the coast of northern California, a large wave pulled his young son into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Steve jumped in and somehow managed to push his son back onto a rock ledge. The next wave struck Steve and forced him under water. A short time later he reappeared some distance from shore. Steve’s last act on earth was to save the life of his son, and he died a hero to his family and friends.
For more than a year, I wrestled with the best way to honor the memory of my friend. On a quiet ride to work one morning, I considered Steve’s background in biology at South Dakota State University and his work guiding hunters on dream hunts based on his knowledge of waterfowl. His career path eventually led him toward a business helping landowners develop habitat on their properties, and, ultimately, he found himself on the edge of Yellowstone National Park leading clients on whitewater rafting adventures and fly-fishing day-trips. Steve was always helping others craft memorable experiences in the outdoors.
Those of us who spent any time with Steve know how deep his love ran for the outdoors. Watching him cast for trout on a cold stream or decoy mallards over a slough was watching a man in his element, living out his dreams. But he wasn’t content to simply pursue his own passions. Steve was often the one to plant the seeds of inspiration in others, nudging them to actively seek a path toward living a life full of what they love.
With the approval and support of Steve’s family, I am directing a fundraising campaign through the South Dakota State University Foundation with the goal of establishing the Steve Bierle Memorial Scholarship Endowment to be awarded to a student in the field of wildlife management. It seems fitting to pay forward all that Steve has done for others and to honor his passion for wildlife and wild places by supporting the education of students who share similar dreams of working in, through and for the outdoors — work that will impact even more hunters and anglers in the years to come.
Since launching the fundraising campaign last summer, more than $6,000 has been donated by a host of generous people from all over the country. Steve’s parents have recently announced that they will match the next $5,000 raised, which will bring us significantly closer to the goal of $25,000.
If you enjoy reading my pieces in the Outdoor Forum or if you simply appreciate the sound of mallards cutting through the sky on a perfect October day, please consider making a gift to this fund. I would be forever grateful, just as I am for my friendship with Steve and all of our hunts together.
If you are interested in learning more about the Steve Bierle Memorial Scholarship Endowment, please send an email to [email protected]

About the Author: Waterfowl columnist John Pollmann is from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.