The day’s journey begins on the banks of the Nanticoke River. At a public boat ramp, actually. It’s inky dark. And there is something frightening about stepping off a concrete abutment into the darkness, feeling below with my foot for a boat that may be no more than a rumor. There are only the shadowy figures of my companions and their voices to use as reference points. Oh yeah, and a black Lab named Peach.
Spencer Waller, a Ducks Unlimited biologist for more than eight years, is at the tiller of the big johnboat. The river run is uneventful, which is good news, but Waller voices concern over the tide level, which is much lower than he anticipated.
“We are going to have to watch the tide closely, and if it starts to drop, we are going to have to get out of the marsh, and quickly,” Waller says. “Because if we don’t, we could get stuck back in there and have to push the boat out. That’s no fun.”
Waller maneuvers into the mouth of a tidal creek, which leads to more than a hundred acres of private marsh that he and a group of friends purchased some 15 years ago. The big outboard labors in spots, boring through thick mud. A couple of twists and turns later, we arrive at the blind, which has been set high on the bank in consideration of extreme water level fluctuations.
The company is a veteran mix. Joining Waller and me are Joe Rowan, a DU staff member for 21 years, and John Taylor, who just happened to have won the World Goose Calling Champion of Champions title in November in Easton. My call will remain stashed in my blind bag. Promise.
“We live and die on flight birds here,” Waller says. “They come in on a front. Unfortunately, we haven’t had that type of weather lately, and the tide is down a couple of feet lower than it should be.”
There is not a breath of wind. The temperature is somewhere in the 50s. There’s a light, hazy fog. And this is January.
“This weather is typical of the 2005-06 season,” Rowan says. “The only time the wind blows it comes out of the south, and that doesn’t do us any good. It’s hard to get birds to finish when there’s no wind. It’s so much easier when the wind is right.”
As if on cue, a pair of mallards gives us the once-over before sailing maybe 80 yards wide to drop into a tidal pond hidden from view.
“They’re spooky,” Waller says. “Real spooky. The ducks that have been here awhile have seen it all and heard it all.”
Suddenly four teal arrive with a swoosh. Three fall to a flurry of gunfire. And then things really start to get interesting.
A Canada goose lands in the decoys, suddenly appearing from thin air, it would seem. Its partner skirts the far edge of our decoy spread. A flock of 25 mallards and pintails are hesitant to fully commit but receive due attention. A lone black duck is lured within gun range at exactly 9:30. And Taylor single-handedly calls in a pair of Canadas from, well, at least a mile away. That these two geese were pulled from a flock heading out to feed makes the feat even more amazing.