Montezuma's Magnificent Muck Ducks

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Photo © Eric Call

By Lee Salber

Black ducks, mallards, and pintails flock to flooded fields in New York's Finger Lakes region

As Northwest flight 690 descends into Hancock International Airport just north of Syracuse, New York, my thoughts are of greenheads fresh out of Ontario. I daydream of making difficult shots on big black ducks just beginning their migration through the Finger Lakes. And as long as I'm daydreaming, I decide to add a fine drake pintail worthy of mounting to my imaginary bag.

Hey, daydreaming never hurt anyone, and I've always thought it's a fun way to start an outdoor adventure. Of course, the actual trip never works out quite like I envision. That's OK, though, because I never really believe all those daydreams will come true. But, then, once in a very great while . . . From Syracuse, I head west to the small town of Waterloo. This is where I will be staying while I hunt the farms surrounding the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, located in the middle of one of the most active flight lanes in the Atlantic Flyway.

The two people who helped me plan this mid-November weekend trip meet me for dinner at the Deerhead Inn. Sheila Sleggs is Ducks Unlimited's New York regional biologist, and her fiancé, Paul Hess, is a wildlife biologist for the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. He is also a part-time waterfowling guide. I ask Paul the inevitable first question. "Well, how does it look for tomorrow morning?"

He responds with a disappointing, "Warm weather has kept most of the birds up north." Then, with a grin he goes on to say, "Until this week, when a cold front pushed the first good wave of ducks into the area." Paul notes that we will be hunting a flooded muck field in the morning.

I learn that there is quite a history behind the muck fields in the area. Sheila goes on to explain, "The muck fields were originally marshlands that were drained for farming, thanks to the building of the Erie Canal in 1825." If I remember my American history correctly, the 363-mile-long canal (OK, so I had to look it up) linked the Hudson River to Lake Erie. It allowed for the shipment of manufactured goods to the West and raw materials to the East.

Sheila says, "Farmers were able to drain 70 percent of the Montezuma wetlands through a system of ditches and canals that lead to the Erie Canal. The resulting muck farms prospered from plantings of potatoes, onions, corn, and soybeans." She goes on to say, however, that problems developed. Exposed to the air, the rich muck soil oxidized, and winds blew it elsewhere. Over time, the productivity of the soil decreased, and muck farmers began putting out the For Sale signs.

"That's when Ducks Unlimited and other conservation organizations became involved," Sheila points out. "They began purchasing these properties and converting them back into productive wetlands. I'll take you to a DU muck project after you and Paul finish your morning hunt."

It is 5:30 a.m. and Paul is right on time for my hotel pickup. The temperature is just above freezing, and the sky is spitting rain. We opt to pass on a full breakfast and settle for a quick cup of coffee and juice. This is just fine with Cora, Paul and Sheila's young black Lab, who is eagerly awaiting our departure. The hunt club is only a short trip from the Magee Country Diner.

Here we meet our host, Jack Dwyer, a veterinarian and avid waterfowling club member. Most of the half dozen other hunters have taken shelter under the shed roof to avoid what is now a downpour. As Paul and I pull on our chest waders, Jack draws first choice for a blind and selects one on the north side of the club. Jack says, "This blind is usually really good, but hey, this is duck hunting, so who knows." The air is filled with sounds of nearby mallards, and since the blinds are only a few hundred yards away, I am developing a really positive feeling about this hunt.

As we wade the two-foot-deep water out to the blind-with a gear-laden canoe in tow-I can't help but comment on the awful smell welling up from the flooded muck field. Paul says, "It isn't the muck. It's the rotting corn stubble that stinks. The club plants the muck fields with corn and then floods them after the harvest." The overcast day is slow to offer shooting light even though it is now sunrise, the club's self-imposed hunting time. Not more than a minute or two after we settle into the cornstalk-camouflaged blind, a flock of about a dozen mallards works across the gray sky. Paul starts calling, and I know we are in good shape. I'm no expert when it comes to judging callers, but it is obvious that Paul is flat out good. No, fantastic, actually.

The birds swing our way, and both Paul and Jack make it clear it will be my shot. I appreciate their generosity, but am always a little nervous about performing solo with people I've never hunted with before. At least if everyone is shooting, I reason, my misses won't be as obvious. That is why I feel pretty good when I cleanly fold a mallard right over the decoys, and Cora is sent to bring it in.

By the time Paul calls in the next group of mallards it has lightened up slightly and I can more clearly pick out the greenheads and swing on one. I hit him on the first shot, but he keeps going. I am shooting a borrowed Remington 870 pump, and the gun jams. I'm not used to shooting a pump and probably short-stroked it. In any case, I lose precious time fumbling to reload. Jack backs me up on what is now a long shot and sends the drake down at the far end of the muck field. Paul and Cora head after the bird, and the Lab is quick to make the retrieve. I'm glad we are able to bring the bird to hand, but have to keep a case of envy in check as Paul hands Jack the banded drake.

More birds work the decoys. Groups of pintails, more greenheads, teal, and that most wonderful of all Atlantic Flyway ducks, the black duck, answer to Paul's vocal magic. I ask Paul about the call he is using. He says it's a single-reed Arkansas call. "I need a loud call," he goes on to say, "to compete with the other two blinds and their robo ducks."

Mixed groups of mallards and blacks swing in range, but a new heavy cloud formation reduces them to silhouettes until they are right on top of us. By the time I can pick out a drake mallard or a black, they are past us. Over the next few hours, we pass up many opportunities for this same reason. I do, however, finally manage to take three greenheads, bringing me to my four-mallard limit. Conveniently, the weather breaks, providing the light needed to more easily identify the ducks at a distance.

As a group of pintails eyes our setup, Paul comments that we are seeing more of them than usual. They are spooky, though, and seem to stay just out of range. This time, however, Paul is successful in enticing the sprigs just close enough. A beautiful drake stands out bright against the blue sky as I pull on him, and he drops just outside of the decoys. Cora strains forward with anticipation, but does not break until given the command to fetch. She brings the bird back, jumps up on her seat, and holds the pintail until asked to drop it. The drake is a dandy, except that its namesake tail feather is not yet fully developed. OK, so the mountable pintail part of my daydream doesn't come true. But, another part does.