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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Atlantic Odyssey

A waterfowling adventure down America’s most historic flyway
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By Gary Koehler

There is a degree of romance involved with pursuing waterfowl along the Atlantic Flyway. This is, after all, where our great nation was founded. History abounds. From the rocky shores of Maine to Florida marshes, hunters have been stalking ducks and geese for generations. It was time for an up-close-and-personal look. And while we could not stop at every outpost along the way, those venues we did visit proved that the gunning passion is alive and well.

Winthrop, Maine

With roughly 12 hours to go before the opening of the 2005-2006 Maine duck season, nine of us are milling around in a just-brushed, wood-framed blind on the point of an Annabessacook Lake island. The marshy bay before us is almost completely covered with a broad expanse of wild rice. We have come to watch for ducks and to get a feel for what the morning may bring.

No one can be sure because here it is, the first week of October, and there is hardly any color on the trees. Reds and yellows have yet to make an appearance. Three guys among us are not wearing shirts. Most sport cutoff shorts. So what’s up?

“We’re about two weeks behind in the weather,” says Shawn Prince, a Ducks Unlimited volunteer who lives nearby. “We haven’t even had a frost yet.”

An overnight change is unlikely. The weatherman is calling for temperatures in the low 50s. Four or five gunners, all of whom are DU committee members, will spend the night camped in tents on the island. A debate is already under way about the likelihood of fog.

Our scouting mission, which lasts well past dark, reveals black ducks, wood ducks, mallards, and a half-dozen Canada geese frequenting the bay—all oblivious to our plans for the morning.

I’m paired with DU Regional Director Bill Brown. We canoe into the wild rice before daybreak. Eighteen cork mallard and black duck decoys are scattered randomly by the light of a sky full of twinkling stars.

But a half-hour later, fog creeps in and stays with us, in varying degrees of moodiness, for more than four hours. The birds provide only fleeting glimpses from our wooden blind along the tree line.

"This fog sure isn’t going to make it any easier,” says Brown, a Maine native who has been hunting ducks here for more than 30 years. “The weather we’ve been having is not normal for this time of year. And we really haven’t seen many birds come through yet.”

Truth be known, this Kennebec County waterfowling exercise is just a warm-up for most of these die-hard gunners. They spend much more time battling cold, wind, and tides while hunting sea ducks—particularly eiders—along the coast from November through January.

Gunshots echo from across the bay. Gunnar, Brown’s yellow Lab, raises his huge head and looks longingly. His impeccable reputation is well earned. He understands the game. Gunnar has been credited with retrieving more than 400 sea ducks in a single season in one of the toughest environments a dog could ever face. This placid bay, if we shoot a single duck or 12, is little more than a refresher course for him.

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