By Matt Young
An icy northwest wind rocked the surrounding cattails while two college buddies and I placed the last of our decoys on a secluded pond in the heart of a large western Montana marsh. As dawn broke over the mountains to the east, the marsh's many wild inhabitants came to life.
Canada geese honked, mallards quacked, and wigeon whistled, but rising above all the waterfowl clamor was the distinctive, monotone kack, kack-kack of countless gadwalls.
The marsh was seething with the birds, which had just arrived in the area the night before. Moments later, shots rang out throughout the area as milling gadwalls filled the air, their white speculums flashing in the pale light as they circled in disorganized formations.
During the next hour, several gadwall flocks battled the stiff wind to reach the shelter of our hidden pond, and we quickly filled our limits.
At the hunter check station, we joined other pleased waterfowlers who had also collected limits of gadwalls. Apparently, the birds were part of a large migration from a staging area on the Alberta prairies that had chosen the marsh as a stopping place to feed and rest. The area biologist was baffled because the birds were typically rare in the region.
Our hunt took place in 1989, when the gadwall breeding population was only 1.4 million birds. In 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated 3.2 million breeding gadwalls across the continent, and the birds are now quite common on the Montana marsh that I hunted as a student more than a decade ago.
The meteoric rise of the gadwall to become one of the continent's most abundant and widely distributed ducks is among the most remarkable waterfowl stories of our time.