Upon arriving at our hunting site, I’m hesitant to leave the airboat because I’m unsure of the water depth and the condition of the bottom, until Chesley leaves his perch. The water is ankle-deep and clear. The footing is solid. Decoys are set out by moonlight.
“The wind was out of the west all day and into the evening yesterday,” Chesley says. “It pushed water out of the marsh and into the lake. The water in the marsh has to have gone down a foot and a half. But I saw ducks in here yesterday.”
We watch as a couple of other airboats blow by on the way to favored haunts. Chesley is fussing with decoys, gets me settled on a small hump, restarts the airboat, and disappears to hide it.
When he returns and settles into a nearby space, Chesley reports that contrary to the norm, this season’s first split had been more productive than the second. The birds arrived early—corresponding to heavy weather farther up the coast—and then many left and headed back north.
A couple of hours later, we move. Shooting has been slow. And Chesley has another place in mind.
Here too there is shallow water. I’m sitting on a fold-up, just-big-enough canvas chair, snuggled up against two scrub trees to break my outline.
“Remember,” Chesley says, “Florida mottled ducks don’t respond well to a lot of loud calling. They aren’t like greenheads in that they do not circle and circle and come in with their feet down. Usually, you have to take them on the swing. They’re wary, like black ducks. It’s unlikely that they are going to come in and set.”
Chesley takes off in the airboat, headed out to do more scouting and find us some birds, if not for today then tomorrow.
He has been gone all of 10 minutes when four ducks approach from the north. They are flying wingtip to wingtip. Florida mottled ducks.
I jump up and empty both barrels of the side-by-side. A single duck falls, smack in the middle of the decoys. This will be my trophy.
The next morning’s boat ride is a touch on the chilly side if only because this time we are out on the open water as opposed to the protected marsh.
Okeechobee has many floating islands. They are comprised of vegetation but do not take root. And the islands may be in one spot for three days and gone the fourth, depending on wind and waves.
We are headed for Moonshine Bay, which is not too far removed from Bootlegger’s Island and the infamous Monkey Box. One can’t be entirely sure what the locals were doing in these parts during Prohibition, but they have left any number of clues.
My partner this day is Willie Howard, a Palm Beach newspaper scribe. Perhaps neither of us is prepared for edging off the side of the airboat to find, well, no bottom. With a little boat position adjustment, no harm, either. We eventually stand shoulder to shoulder, our backs against one of the numerous floating islands. I’m wondering if gators are lurking nearby.
Gunshots erupt from others in our party deployed to our right. But the birds are, for whatever reason, giving us a wide berth. We take turns chasing away single ringnecks and teal.
In midafternoon, after a lengthy marsh tour, we set up in another area. This one proves more entertaining. The ringnecks, at least, reveal their curious side.
“You notice the difference in the water in the lake and back in the marsh?” Chesley asks. Yes, I certainly did. The marsh was clear all the way to the bottom. Here, well, Chesley describes it as “chocolate milk with black coffee mixed in.”
“The lake has been badly degraded the past 10 years,” Chesley says.
Toward that end, Chesley, a Ducks Unlimited committee member, became involved with the Lake Okeechobee Habitat Alliance. He is also seeking support for the restoration of Curry Island in Glades County.
“If something isn’t done soon, I don’t even want to think about what may happen to the lake and these marshes,” Chesley said. “As it is, it’s going to take some time to get it back to where it once was.”
One can only hope that the clock will not run out on the Big O.