By Gary Koehler
There is a degree of romance involved with pursuing waterfowl along the Atlantic Flyway. This is, after all, where our great nation was founded. History abounds. From the rocky shores of Maine to Florida marshes, hunters have been stalking ducks and geese for generations. It was time for an up-close-and-personal look. And while we could not stop at every outpost along the way, those venues we did visit proved that the gunning passion is alive and well.
With roughly 12 hours to go before the opening of the 2005-2006 Maine duck season, nine of us are milling around in a just-brushed, wood-framed blind on the point of an Annabessacook Lake island. The marshy bay before us is almost completely covered with a broad expanse of wild rice. We have come to watch for ducks and to get a feel for what the morning may bring.
No one can be sure because here it is, the first week of October, and there is hardly any color on the trees. Reds and yellows have yet to make an appearance. Three guys among us are not wearing shirts. Most sport cutoff shorts. So what's up?
"We're about two weeks behind in the weather," says Shawn Prince, a Ducks Unlimited volunteer who lives nearby. "We haven't even had a frost yet."
An overnight change is unlikely. The weatherman is calling for temperatures in the low 50s. Four or five gunners, all of whom are DU committee members, will spend the night camped in tents on the island. A debate is already under way about the likelihood of fog.
Our scouting mission, which lasts well past dark, reveals black ducks, wood ducks, mallards, and a half-dozen Canada geese frequenting the bay—all oblivious to our plans for the morning.
I'm paired with DU Regional Director Bill Brown. We canoe into the wild rice before daybreak. Eighteen cork mallard and black duck decoys are scattered randomly by the light of a sky full of twinkling stars.
But a half-hour later, fog creeps in and stays with us, in varying degrees of moodiness, for more than four hours. The birds provide only fleeting glimpses from our wooden blind along the tree line.
"This fog sure isn't going to make it any easier," says Brown, a Maine native who has been hunting ducks here for more than 30 years. "The weather we've been having is not normal for this time of year. And we really haven't seen many birds come through yet."
Truth be known, this Kennebec County waterfowling exercise is just a warm-up for most of these die-hard gunners. They spend much more time battling cold, wind, and tides while hunting sea ducks—particularly eiders—along the coast from November through January.
Gunshots echo from across the bay. Gunnar, Brown's yellow Lab, raises his huge head and looks longingly. His impeccable reputation is well earned. He understands the game. Gunnar has been credited with retrieving more than 400 sea ducks in a single season in one of the toughest environments a dog could ever face. This placid bay, if we shoot a single duck or 12, is little more than a refresher course for him.
Our partners on the island open up again on what must have been a small flock. We can hear the hunters but cannot see them until the fog thins out. Someone's duck call is in dire need of fine-tuning. But minutes later, more shots are fired.
A hundred yards or more to our left, Prince, accompanied by his black Lab, Scout, dispatches a pair of wood ducks. Far to our right, George Diplock Jr., whose father introduced Brown to duck hunting, takes a mallard, a mallard/black duck hybrid, and a pair of blue-winged teal in relatively short order.
Teal? Bluewings are normally long gone from these parts by this time of year. "But when it's 75 degrees, why would they go anywhere?" says Wally Martin, another of the DU volunteer flock. Good point.
I shoot miserably at the few opportunities that arise. Brown is one duck better. Gunnar is noticeably bored. Maybe tomorrow.
A fine mist greets us the next morning. Canada geese rise off their roost as we make our way across the bay. Two wood ducks are swimming in the decoys. The temperature is 53. But we do gather a couple of mallards. And Prince bags a treasured black duck. By my unofficial count, in two days this bay yields 27 ducks, including those taken from the island blind.
"Winter stayed late, and we had a cold, wet spring," Brown says. "That hurt duck production, as well as woodcock and turkey numbers.
"You're going to have to come back and do the sea duck thing with us sometime," Brown adds. "That's a whole different ballgame. And, we stay near Stonington, the lobster capital of the world."
Count me in.
Rochester, New York
We could hear the truck coming up the blacktop from a distance away. When the headlights veered into the pasture where we were parked, it became obvious company was about to visit. But who? Our host, John O'Brien, who had walked to the bottom of the gentle hill to roust his nephew from his farmhouse, had not mentioned that anyone else was going to hunt with us this morning. The sky is pitch black. No stars.
The pickup pulls alongside us and stops, maybe 20 feet away. Truck doors slam shut in unison. Ducks Unlimited Regional Director David Afton and I squint to try to make out the silhouettes of the two approaching figures. We have no clue about the identity of the visitors. Who are these guys?
"I'm Vic, and that's Vito," barks a husky voice from out of the darkness. Visions of displaced Sopranos cast members flash across my brain.
Nah, as they drew near, the camouflage clothing reveals they are just another pair of duck hunters—good guys. Not a Bada Bing to be heard anywhere.
We gather on the periphery of a 140-acre private marsh the last day of October. O'Brien, who became a Ducks Unlimited volunteer during the 1960s, had set up this hunt just outside Batavia. Because O'Brien has had a hand in restoring two additional local marshes, there were other choices. But he thought this spot might provide the best opportunities.
"We haven't been seeing a lot of ducks yet, at least not as many as we usually do by this time of year, but this place hasn't been hunted in a couple of weeks," O'Brien says. "There are local ducks around, and some of them usually end up here."
Having the foresight to bring along only hip waders, and the water being too deep to ford without getting wet, I become the recipient of a canoe ride—with Afton and Vito doing the pushing and pulling. Dakota, Afton's chocolate Lab, becomes a hitchhiker.
A muskrat hut serves as our base of operations. A dozen decoys are tossed along the edge of the cattail marsh. There is plenty of open water, a slight wind, and only a sliver of moon. Canada geese gabble on an adjacent pond where they had spent the night. Four green-winged teal strafe our spread before shooting time.
At 6:40 a.m., Vito drops a drake mallard. Dakota goes for a long-distance swim. And on and off the rest of the morning, mallards, singles and pairs, make intermittent visits. For some odd reason, my call is working better than usual. Two particularly trying mallards have me winded after an extraordinarily long pleading melody. But, after they circle, circle, and circle again, we get them both.
Our group calls it quits before noon. O'Brien is scheduled to leave for Lake Erie later in the day to spend a couple of days hunting divers out of a boat blind.
"If you get over near the refuge in the next couple of days, you're probably going to get into some geese," he says.
This is Finger Lakes country, a sleeper waterfowling venue if there ever was one. Montezuma and Iroquois national wildlife refuges are relatively nearby, and between them they encompass more than 18,000 acres. These refuges, combined with western New York's agricultural landscape, can yield outstanding mallard and Canada goose hunting.
Afton picks me up at 3:45 the next morning. We have a substantial truck ride ahead of us. Somewhere in the distant darkness, Tim Furness and his Webfoot Guide Service crew are setting up the decoy spread. Canada geese will be today's targets. Hopefully.
"We like to get the geese right at your feet," Furness says in the low light of early morning. "Anybody can shoot at 50-yard geese, but why would you if you can get them in close?"
More than 200 mixed decoys surround our layout blinds. Canada goose full-bodies and silhouettes make up the bulk of the spread, with mallards comprising the remainder. A brief safety reminder is provided as we scramble to get situated. Furness leaves nothing to chance.
"We scout every day," he says. "There were two or three thousand geese here late yesterday afternoon. I think this is going to work out well."
Webfoot Guide Service leases acreage throughout the region. No one site is overhunted. In addition to geese, this outfit also actively pursues puddle ducks and divers—the right way.
"The ducks aren't really here yet," Furness says. "They're starting to show up, and we've had some good days, but in general the duck hunting has been sort of slow. The weather has been really mild."
Charlie Signorino assumes much of the calling duties this morning. Now in his third year with Webfoot, Signorino works his magic on unsuspecting Canadas from daylight until 8:45. By then, four gunners have killed 11 geese. We're one short of the limit.
All birds were taken up close and personal. And that's better than good. Breakfast awaits.
Tuckerton Bay, New Jersey
The first brant arrives as if clocking into work, right on time. The bird is flying left to right, not too high. This visitor has taken a hard left at the mouth of the tidal creek and bears down quickly on the decoys in front of our camouflaged boat blind. The tidal flow has the entire rig bobbing and twisting. Bang. One shot. One bird.
"And what's so hard about this?" I ask Fred Everson, my host and soon-to-be-named New Jersey Ducks Unlimited state chairman. "You keep telling me how tricky brant can be."
"Just wait," Everson says. "Just wait."
This was our initial shot of the morning. And it came after watching flocks of 20, 40, and 100 brant sweep by us on the way to a favored feeding hole. The big groups have ignored our decoys in favor of dining on eelgrass. Our best chances are going to come from loners or small groups.
Shots erupt from the second boat in our party when a single stools to their rig. We can't be sure if Mike Panos, Paul Psak, or Joe DeMartino did the shooting. They are out of sight, tucked along the bank a couple of hundred yards up the creek. I'm betting DeMartino was the triggerman. The bird flew off.
After the early flurry of activity, the morning turns quiet. Few brant are about. At least near us. There is a cloud of black dots alternately dropping and lifting on the far side of the bay.
"Once you find out where the brant are going for food, you've pretty much got it licked," Everson says. "I thought for sure they'd be in here today. But from what I'm seeing, they're going way up the bay on the other shore, or behind us, near the bridge."
This is my first experience with brant. And there are few more likely places to find them than the New Jersey coast. The limit is two per man. If the birds show up and our shooting remains steady, I'm figuring we'll be out of here by nine o'clock, unless we hang around and wait out the black ducks, which sounds like a good idea to me.
We are set up in a quiet spot in the Great Bay Wildlife Management Area. We see only one other boat on this chilly 32-degree morning. And the operator was likely a fisherman.
Brant number two arrives. It's Everson's turn. And he, too, makes this exercise look easy. Our boat is two for two. And then a funny thing happens—my gun barrel develops a horrific bend. I go zero for six on consecutive shots. The brant have turned into air show acrobats. Humble pie is now on the menu. Everson takes extreme delight in assuming the role of server.
"Like I said," Everson snickers, "just wait."
So now I'm trying to figure out what has gone wrong. If personal shooting history means anything, I'm probably way behind these birds. But that first one was a snap.
"They can be tricky," Everson says. "I tell people about hunting brant, and they always look at me like ‘How hard can that be?' Unless you've tried it, it's not as easy as it looks. They're usually moving faster than you think they are."
The next morning, we are joined by DeMartino and two other relative newcomers to the brant world, Steiner optics gurus Sven Harms and Frank Devlin, who has no problem as the first man up. One shot, one bird. I chuckle to myself. And then proceed to miss, and miss again.
Everson is beside himself with delight. The sea hay attached as camouflage to the boat blind side panel riffles in the breeze of his laughter. But he has seen this frustration before, all over this marsh, territory where he used to run 100 traps a day before school when he was a teenager. He knows his way around this neighborhood. And he knows brant.
Harms benefits from watching the early shooting displays. At least with his first bird. From then on, for all of us, it's either feast or famine.
Shotshells may be at a premium by the end of the morning. As the shoot unfolds, it becomes clear that this venue is a contradiction between old and new—or perhaps a melding of the two. The Seaport Museum, which heralds the area's long seafaring heritage, is within sight, as are the neon lights of Atlantic City's gaming establishments. I'm told there are no more buildable lots in the area, and smaller houses are selling for $350,000 and up. Tear-downs on nearby Long Beach Island go for half a million dollars. Yet here we sit, shooting at the odd brant and calling to black ducks as waterfowlers did a hundred years ago.
"You've heard of Harry Shourds, the decoy carver?" Everson asks. "He lived here in Tuckerton, and he's pretty famous. He may have hunted exactly where we are right now."
Somehow that makes me feel better. As great a carver as Harry might have been, I'm figuring he probably missed a brant once in a while, too.
The day's journey begins on the banks of the Nanticoke River. At a public boat ramp, actually. It's inky dark. And there is something frightening about stepping off a concrete abutment into the darkness, feeling below with my foot for a boat that may be no more than a rumor. There are only the shadowy figures of my companions and their voices to use as reference points. Oh yeah, and a black Lab named Peach.
Spencer Waller, a Ducks Unlimited biologist for more than eight years, is at the tiller of the big johnboat. The river run is uneventful, which is good news, but Waller voices concern over the tide level, which is much lower than he anticipated.
"We are going to have to watch the tide closely, and if it starts to drop, we are going to have to get out of the marsh, and quickly," Waller says. "Because if we don't, we could get stuck back in there and have to push the boat out. That's no fun."
Waller maneuvers into the mouth of a tidal creek, which leads to more than a hundred acres of private marsh that he and a group of friends purchased some 15 years ago. The big outboard labors in spots, boring through thick mud. A couple of twists and turns later, we arrive at the blind, which has been set high on the bank in consideration of extreme water level fluctuations.
The company is a veteran mix. Joining Waller and me are Joe Rowan, a DU staff member for 21 years, and John Taylor, who just happened to have won the World Goose Calling Champion of Champions title in November in Easton. My call will remain stashed in my blind bag. Promise.
"We live and die on flight birds here," Waller says. "They come in on a front. Unfortunately, we haven't had that type of weather lately, and the tide is down a couple of feet lower than it should be."
There is not a breath of wind. The temperature is somewhere in the 50s. There's a light, hazy fog. And this is January.
"This weather is typical of the 2005-06 season," Rowan says. "The only time the wind blows it comes out of the south, and that doesn't do us any good. It's hard to get birds to finish when there's no wind. It's so much easier when the wind is right."
As if on cue, a pair of mallards gives us the once-over before sailing maybe 80 yards wide to drop into a tidal pond hidden from view.
"They're spooky," Waller says. "Real spooky. The ducks that have been here awhile have seen it all and heard it all."
Suddenly four teal arrive with a swoosh. Three fall to a flurry of gunfire. And then things really start to get interesting.
A Canada goose lands in the decoys, suddenly appearing from thin air, it would seem. Its partner skirts the far edge of our decoy spread. A flock of 25 mallards and pintails are hesitant to fully commit but receive due attention. A lone black duck is lured within gun range at exactly 9:30. And Taylor single-handedly calls in a pair of Canadas from, well, at least a mile away. That these two geese were pulled from a flock heading out to feed makes the feat even more amazing.
By midmorning, there is a healthy collection of birds on the strap, puddlers and Canadas, culled from conditions far less than ideal.
"Those teal, they got us going," Waller says. "Before that, I was worried if we'd even get a shot this morning."
Not so the next day.
A cold front moves in overnight. The radio newscaster reports that Baltimore schools will open two hours late due to freezing rain and snow. The temperature has dropped 20 degrees. There is a good wind out of the west. And by 7:25 a.m., three lesser scaup have been shot from a simple box blind situated on a 35-acre saltwater impoundment just off the Chester River. Rowan is beaming. These are his stomping grounds.
"This is a nice change of pace," Rowan says. "Our gunning was much better early in the season. Then we got in a pattern of mild weather during Christmas week, and we really haven't come out of it. It's been slow.
"Even in some areas where there have been reports of a lot of birds, feeding and moving are different things," he adds. "You have to catch them on a day when there is a wind and they fly well."
We are in the midst of the second season split. Joining us is Bill White, a friend of Rowan's and a DU supporter. Rowan reports that the state counted 45,000 greater and lesser scaup in this area during the midwinter survey. We are right in the middle of the Chesapeake's largest single concentration of what locals refer to as "blackheads."
Our opportune start was a signal that all was going to be right on the marsh. Forget the balmy, sunny bluebird days that have plagued the area for weeks. Molly, the Lab, is going to be one busy girl.
From singles and pairs of greater and lesser scaup, to mallards and black ducks, to wigeon and teal, to a single bufflehead, and four gadwall. And let's not forget the Canada geese—three limits' worth.
This was a duck hunter's morning, complete with a stiff wind that had the birds up and moving. The outing could not have been scripted any better.
I had dreamed of hunting waterfowl on Maryland's Eastern Shore for more than 40 years. It was well worth the wait.
The day of my arrival, a cold front blew in, which in Florida means the temperature plunged to 64 degrees. How the drop and accompanying brisk west wind would affect the waterfowl on Lake Okeechobee, one of the southernmost duck-hunting destinations in the United States, was yet to be seen.
At 450,000 acres, the "Big O," as it is sometimes called, annually entertains tens of thousands of teal and ring-necked ducks, and it is home to the state's trophy bird, the Florida mottled duck, a cousin to the mallard. Other species, including canvasbacks, redheads, shovelers, pintails, and gadwalls, frequent the region, but the bread-and-butter ducks are much more predictable.
Captain Chris Chesley, a waterfowl hunter for nearly 50 years and a Lake Okeechobee regular since 1968, is at the controls of a seasoned airboat, the transportation of choice for those who frequent these vast waters in search of ducks. Because of the lake's water level fluctuations, airboats can be counted on to get you where the birds are, and back.
"It takes a lot of scouting to hunt ducks here," Chesley says. "You can spend hours looking for birds. Once you find them, you mark the spot and hope they show up again the next morning." That is exactly what we are counting on. Admittedly, I am completely turned around about two minutes after launching into the darkness. But Chesley is a pro. A former deep-sea fishing guide who on occasion still serves as a tournament charter captain, he now hosts both freshwater fisherman and duck hunters. He received his first charter boat license before he had a driver's license. And his knowledge of this lake goes far beyond the norm.
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.