By midmorning, there is a healthy collection of birds on the strap, puddlers and Canadas, culled from conditions far less than ideal.
“Those teal, they got us going,” Waller says. “Before that, I was worried if we’d even get a shot this morning.”
Not so the next day.
A cold front moves in overnight. The radio newscaster reports that Baltimore schools will open two hours late due to freezing rain and snow. The temperature has dropped 20 degrees. There is a good wind out of the west. And by 7:25 a.m., three lesser scaup have been shot from a simple box blind situated on a 35-acre saltwater impoundment just off the Chester River. Rowan is beaming. These are his stomping grounds.
“This is a nice change of pace,” Rowan says. “Our gunning was much better early in the season. Then we got in a pattern of mild weather during Christmas week, and we really haven’t come out of it. It’s been slow.
“Even in some areas where there have been reports of a lot of birds, feeding and moving are different things,” he adds. “You have to catch them on a day when there is a wind and they fly well.”
We are in the midst of the second season split. Joining us is Bill White, a friend of Rowan’s and a DU supporter. Rowan reports that the state counted 45,000 greater and lesser scaup in this area during the midwinter survey. We are right in the middle of the Chesapeake’s largest single concentration of what locals refer to as “blackheads.”
Our opportune start was a signal that all was going to be right on the marsh. Forget the balmy, sunny bluebird days that have plagued the area for weeks. Molly, the Lab, is going to be one busy girl.
From singles and pairs of greater and lesser scaup, to mallards and black ducks, to wigeon and teal, to a single bufflehead, and four gadwall. And let’s not forget the Canada geese—three limits’ worth.
This was a duck hunter’s morning, complete with a stiff wind that had the birds up and moving. The outing could not have been scripted any better.
I had dreamed of hunting waterfowl on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for more than 40 years. It was well worth the wait.
The day of my arrival, a cold front blew in, which in Florida means the temperature plunged to 64 degrees. How the drop and accompanying brisk west wind would affect the waterfowl on Lake Okeechobee, one of the southernmost duck-hunting destinations in the United States, was yet to be seen.
At 450,000 acres, the “Big O,” as it is sometimes called, annually entertains tens of thousands of teal and ring-necked ducks, and it is home to the state’s trophy bird, the Florida mottled duck, a cousin to the mallard. Other species, including canvasbacks, redheads, shovelers, pintails, and gadwalls, frequent the region, but the bread-and-butter ducks are much more predictable.
Captain Chris Chesley, a waterfowl hunter for nearly 50 years and a Lake Okeechobee regular since 1968, is at the controls of a seasoned airboat, the transportation of choice for those who frequent these vast waters in search of ducks. Because of the lake’s water level fluctuations, airboats can be counted on to get you where the birds are, and back.
“It takes a lot of scouting to hunt ducks here,” Chesley says. “You can spend hours looking for birds. Once you find them, you mark the spot and hope they show up again the next morning.” That is exactly what we are counting on. Admittedly, I am completely turned around about two minutes after launching into the darkness. But Chesley is a pro. A former deep-sea fishing guide who on occasion still serves as a tournament charter captain, he now hosts both freshwater fisherman and duck hunters. He received his first charter boat license before he had a driver’s license. And his knowledge of this lake goes far beyond the norm.