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High Desert Waterfowling

A Nevada duck and goose hunt
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Lovelock Cave’s Hidden Treasure

So this is where it all began—in a desert valley cave measuring roughly 150 feet long and 35 feet wide, overlooking a barren landscape dominated by alkaline soil and scraggly vegetation. It’s hard to imagine this desolate locale covered in water and harder still to imagine hunting ducks here. But even now, I’m told, in wet years, when the snowmelt is significant, the scenery changes dramatically.

“I know it must be difficult to picture, but I’ve hunted here off and on for years,” says Nevada native Elmer Bull. “Right out in front of us, and about as far as you can see in either direction, it’s all been underwater. And the ducks love it. Hunting can be spectacular.”

Bull, along with his son Wayne, accompanied me to Lovelock Cave, a decoy collector’s and waterfowl historian’s nirvana. This is, after all, where the oldest handmade decoys known to man were dug from a pit in 1924 by California anthropologist Llewellyn L. Loud and Mark R. Harrington, who was sponsored by the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, of New York.

Loud worked at this site 12 years earlier and had unearthed thousands of archeological specimens. Harrington elected to take a more detailed approach during his time at the historic dig. Using small picks and trowels, they unearthed artifacts that were later found to cover a span of nearly 9,000 years.

Among their findings in a relatively untouched corner of the cave were 11 decoys made of tules, or bulrush stems. Resembling canvasbacks, the decoys measured approximately 11 inches long and had heads with bills, and white feathers were attached lengthwise to the body. Eight were complete, and three were unfinished. Radiocarbon dating has put the decoys’ age around 2,000 years old.

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