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Banding Together for Waterfowl

On Top of the World

Wilderness waterfowling in Alaska’s rugged interior
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Reed had hardly finished shaking off her coat when her services were needed again. This time, a squad of mallards approached from the west, laboring against the wind. The ducks gradually lost speed and altitude as they slowed their wing beats to examine the spread. Nash and I each dropped a duck as the flock passed overhead, and then we watched in surprise as the remaining birds circled back downwind and lit a few yards outside the decoys.

This naive behavior was repeated several times during my trip and could only be a product of the truly wild environment these birds call home. O’Halloran’s duck camp lies within the boundaries of Minto Flats State Game Refuge. This 500,000-acre wetland is a pristine haven for wildlife ranging from hulking bull moose to nimble mink. In the spring, the area also serves as a magnet for waterfowl that return to Alaska from all four flyways  to breed and molt. In fact, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates the refuge produces more than 100,000 ducks annually, with a breeding population averaging 213 ducks per square mile.

Amid this expansive wilderness, ducks and geese rear broods and molt with minimal disturbance from humans. This translates into a unique advantage for Alaska’s waterfowlers. “One of the perks of being at the top of the flyway is getting first shot at these birds,” explained Bouchard, who is a member of the Avery pro staff. “On opening day, adult birds aren’t very wary, and the juveniles have never seen decoys or heard calling before. So the hunting can be great.”
Our guide’s words proved true all morning. Interested mallards, wigeon, pintails, and shovelers approached our spread without the usual wariness familiar to late-season duck hunters in the Lower 48. At 11 o’clock, Nash and I had nearly filled our 10-duck bag limits, and we cruised back to camp to swap first-morning accounts with the other hunters.

Minto Mixed Bag

The next morning Bouchard, Nash, and I marched out of camp through a patch of woods to an adjacent wetland filled with emergent grasses and potholes. The marsh spread before us several miles in every direction, bordered by the Tolovana River on one side and a tree-lined ridge in the distance. On the previous afternoon, we had witnessed a good number of ducks dabbling in the marsh’s open water and hopping from pothole to pothole. With this image in mind, we waded through knee-deep water and thick grass to a two-acre opening dotted with several islands of bulrushes.

With silhouetted ducks already trading above us, Bouchard quickly set out a dozen mixed decoys and two pairs of Canadas while Nash and I tucked into a nearby bulrush thicket. Our first visitors, a pair of buffleheads, caught us off guard as they barreled down the lake only inches above the water. The speedy duo abruptly stopped in the middle of our spread. But ripples on the water were all that remained by the time a gun could be mounted.

We were better prepared when a trio of blue-winged teal sailed downwind of our spread and made a hairpin turn to investigate more closely. Although low to the water, the bluewings maintained their rapid pace, showing no intention of joining our party. As they bobbed and weaved over the spread, a report from my partner’s gun sent one bird tumbling beyond the decoys.

While the sun gradually climbed above the river, our bag filled with an assortment of bluewings, greenwings, wigeon, and a bull pintail just emerging from its drab summer plumage. During the hunt, steady duck action had demanded our attention. But several family groups of lesser Canada geese had not gone unnoticed as they traded between the marsh’s open pockets of water. At one point, a series of honks revealed three Canadas flying toward us on the horizon. Fumbling for our calls, Bouchard and I soon struck up a calling duet. The oncoming geese echoed our enthusiastic clucks and moans as they fixed their wings and casually lost elevation.

Shortly before reaching the pothole, two of the geese locked on to our four Canada floaters and made a deliberate turn to my side of the bulrush thicket. Still 20 feet above the decoys, the birds lowered their feet and began descending toward the water. My initial shot folded the first of the hovering pair. As if on command, the remaining goose flared directly toward me, offering a picturesque overhead shot. 

Campfire Tales

This goose story was one of many tales traded around the campfire that week. Located a few yards from the river’s edge, the open-pit fire became the focal point of our encampment. Cold hunters inevitably gravitated to the fire’s welcoming heat upon their return from the marsh. Sitting or standing in clusters, they warmed extremities, sipped coffee, and talked about everything from waterfowling to world politics. As stories made their way around the fire, the majority paid tribute to the size, beauty, and bounty of Alaska’s wilderness. Tales about huge salmon, pike, and halibut followed animated accounts of moose, bear, and caribou hunts.

After listening to these adventures, I asked Bouchard how waterfowling fits into the busy schedule of Alaska’s sportsmen. “Most people don’t think of duck hunting when they think of Alaska,” he admitted. “But when I moved here a few years ago, I realized this place can have some of the best shooting anywhere. And you never have to fight for a hunting spot.”

Veteran waterfowler and retired Alaska game warden Dick Hemmen added that the first day of waterfowl season usually coincides with the opening of moose season, one of the most anticipated days on any Alaska hunter’s calendar. “Most moose hunters will bring their shotgun and decoys with them to moose camp and do some duck hunting too,” he said. “Winter settles in here in October; so we don’t waste any time and get all our hunting in during September.”

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