by Doug Larsen
A lot of folks keep "to do" lists for their adult lives. For some, the list is studded with sincere goals or accomplishments and may feature such endeavors as "finish master's degree" or "bicycle through Italy." Others compile lists that are more adrenaline charged; they want to check the box next to "scuba dive with sharks" or "bungee jump."
But if you are the kind of person who would rather be in a duck blind on a bright November morning than anywhere else, you don't want to jump off a perfectly good bridge anyway. In your world, bungee cords are meant to hold duck boats in pickup beds. So when the editors of Ducks Unlimited asked me which items I might include on a duck hunter's "life list," I compiled the following summary of 10 defining tasks and unique destinations for waterfowlers. Perhaps my suggestions, presented here in no particular order, will inspire you to create and pursue a list of your own.
1. Hunt the Canadian Prairie in Early Fall
Whether you choose Manitoba, Saskatchewan or Alberta, an early-season trip to Canada will change your perspective on ducks and duck hunting forever. Hunting seemingly endless prairie dotted with sapphire potholes is truly magical. And this isn't like duck hunting at home; you can't just put out your decoys and wait. In Canada, you must go to the birds. That means driving the countryside to find them and then making plans to be under them before they return the next morning.
You can hunt ducks on big water or small potholes, but what defines prairie waterfowling is dry-land hunting in immense agricultural fields. Once you have been under the milling vortex of hundreds or even thousands of mallards pouring into a pea field or have seen the golden sun set across a sweeping horizon of cut barley, then you can say you've experienced the prairie in the fall, the place where the migration begins.
2. Train Your Own Duck Dog
Training a retriever is an important step toward becoming a complete duck hunter. At some point in a waterfowler's career, he or she has to decide that having a good dog is a priority, which then makes waterfowling a year-round endeavor. This, of course, is the beauty of dog training. Not only does it provide you with a new best friend, but also it puts you in a hunting frame of mind every day.
Training a puppy until he is a conservation asset in the duck blind is a daunting and sometimes frustrating task requiring the patience of a kindergarten teacher and the persistence of an encyclopedia salesman. But there are many books and videos on the market to guide you, as will hunting friends who have solid water dogs of their own. All those hours of training will prove worthwhile when on opening morning your young student is steady to the shot and brings back that first bird of the year. Your pup's tail will wag furiously, and you'll be so proud of him that if you had a tail, you'd wag it pretty hard too.
3. Hunt Diving Ducks from a Layout Boat
Every duck hunter should try this style of hunting at least once. If up to now your duck hunting has consisted of sitting in the farm pond blind with Uncle Clarence, jump in the truck and drive east or west. Stop when you smell the ocean. (Or you can head for the Great Lakes; they are crazy about layout boats up there too.)
There is nothing quite like slipping over the side of a big, warm tender boat into a little almond-shaped sliver of fiberglass. Once the tender pulls away, it's just you and the decoys on a rolling green sea. By virtue of the boat's low profile, and the fact that you are lying inside it, you'll get a diving duck's view of the world. With any luck, you'll have high-speed ducks working just off the bill of your cap and skidding into your decoys at point-blank range. Usually, layout operators put only one boat in the water at a time, so when it's your turn "in the box," the show is all for you.
4. Teach a Kid to Call
If you are a parent, you know the joys of teaching a skill to a youngster. There is no feeling in the world like seeing recognition of a skill completed on a small, smiling face, whether it is catching a ball or solving multiplication problems. But if duck hunting runs hot in your family, fan the flames in your youngster by teaching him or her to blow a duck call.
We are all familiar with the "take a kid hunting" theme, and whether it is your child or a neighbor's, taking the next generation hunting is essential to keeping our tradition alive and thriving. Teaching young hunters to call ducks or geese is a vital piece of the participation puzzle, and it may be the key ingredient in turning them from bystanders at the end of the blind into true participants.
The day they call a wary mallard to the spread all by themselves will be worth all those hours spent squeaking and squawking in the cellar. Okay, maybe it won't be worth it to other members of the family, but a duck call is still better than the cymbals.
5. Hunt the Arkansas Timber
There is flooded green timber in other states, but Arkansas has the most and the best. You really cannot understand the special attraction of hunting "the woods" until you have seen it firsthand. Little in waterfowling provides the up-close-and-personal spectacle that flooded timber hunting showcases, and most first-timers ask the same question of their hosts: "You really think a duck is going to land in here?"
Standing thigh deep in water and hugging a tree trunk in a dark gray sea of limbs does not sound, on the surface, like a very special experience. But then you glimpse a group of mallards over the treetops, and a well-timed comeback call brings them back around. If all goes according to Hoyle, soon they are fluttering down among the trees, breaking off sticks and leaves as they descend, and in the silence of that one moment, it will all make breathtakingly good sense. Meanwhile, no state welcomes the duck hunter like Arkansas, and each November every motel, steakhouse and roadside joint hoists a sign that states, "Welcome Duck Hunters."
6. Visit the Eastern Shore
Perhaps no region of the country is as steeped in waterfowling tradition as the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Market gunners in sailboats plied these waters hundreds of years ago and filled wooden barrels with canvasbacks for the market.
These days, the Canada goose is king, and guides in this region are fastidious about decoys, blinds and hunting techniques. They commonly hunt geese over decoy spreads that would fill a hay wagon, and some use rigs composed entirely of "stuffers" that taxidermists have mounted in realistic poses.
The Eastern Shore is rife with quaint hotels that happily accommodate muddy boots, and hunting-friendly proprietors always seem to wink and look the other way if a well-behaved dog sneaks toward his owner's room.
Aside from great hunting, every store that sells antiques or knickknacks seems to have an old decoy or two in the window. It's great fun to knock around and browse while your geese are at the picking house.
7. Hunt Staging Snow Geese
First the good news: There are a lot of snow geese. Now the bad news: There are a lot of snow geese.
The white goose resource has never been richer, and spring hunting from Missouri to Manitoba can be an amazing experience that extends your season. A weeklong March or April trip provides hunting opportunity that didn't exist just over a decade ago, and spring hunts mean more time in the field with your friends, more shooting and more retrieves for your dog. While getting underneath the "white tornado" can be a staggering display, with literally thousands of geese making a deafening racket overhead, snows and blues are on the move in the spring, and hunts are often a feast or famine proposition.
But experienced spring hunters learn to stay the course. Drilling a few dry wells will be worth it on that one gusher day when every goose in the county wants to be exactly where you've set your decoys.
8. See Ducks Unlimited Headquarters in Memphis
Those who love the movies and music of Elvis Presley swoon when they contemplate a visit to Graceland, home of the "King." But waterfowlers visiting Memphis also should set aside some time to stop by Ducks Unlimited's headquarters.
This is where wetland and waterfowl conservation begins, and many hunters find that a visit to DU headquarters helps inspire them to consider the difference between just duck hunting and really giving something back.
During your visit, you can talk to someone at DU about all the different ways to help the ducks, from volunteering to assist with a local DU event to donating a conservation easement on your property or planning a legacy gift. There are so many ways to get involved, and all are rewarding.
And while you're there, don't miss the complete collection of federal duck stamp prints on display at DU.
9. Learn to Hunt with a Camera
There was a time when bringing the family Instamatic on a duck hunt was a dicey proposition at best. Even if you kept it dry enough to take some photos, you still had to take the film to the developers. With any luck, you got a scrapbook photo or two. But times have changed for the better, and in addition to recording your hunting memories in a journal, consider joining the technological age by investing in a good digital camera and a waterproof case so you can record your hunts as they unfold.
A good rig will cost about the same as a good semiautomatic shotgun. With digital cameras, the learning curve is rapid, so you'll start taking spectacular photos almost from day one. Better yet, that hen mallard swimming in your spread is no longer an extra decoy but a subject for a close-up.
Tip: The sporting world does not need more photos of your hunting partners holding up dead ducks in the garage. Take photos in the blind with water or a blue sky as a more fitting background than the family sedan. Also, to take great photos, you have to put down the gun. When you do so, you may find that "shooting" your friends shooting ducks is as much fun as swinging a shotgun, and hanging your own photos on the den wall is icing on the cake.
10. Read the MacQuarrie Trilogy
Far from a homework assignment, reading the three collections of "Stories of the Old Duck Hunters" by Gordon MacQuarrie is one of the greatest fireside pleasures that a duck hunter can enjoy.
MacQuarrie was a masterful storyteller, and probably could have brought a smile to your face or a tear to your eye if he had written about paneling his basement. Fortunately, hunting waterfowl was one of MacQuarrie's true passions, and he wrote about ducks and the people who pursue them in a way not done before or since.
Many veteran hunters reread MacQuarrie each season. If you are new to MacQuarrie, start with "The Day I Burned the Oatmeal." Trust me when I tell you it is not really a story about preparing breakfast, and you'll be on your way to enjoying another of waterfowling's great traditions.