By Gary Koehler
Back in the dark ages, while doing my best to impersonate a diligent college student, one lesson I learned was that classes at eight o'clock in the morning do not mesh well with duck season. A Professor of Latin American history taught me that lesson, if little else.
That was in southern Illinois during the halcyon days of the early 1970s, when those of us who favored whistling wings over stuffy classrooms were surrounded by a wealth of wonderful waterfowling opportunities. Who could blame us for putting our studies on the back burner as the action heated up on public hunting areas such as Oakwood Bottoms, La Rue Scatters, and Piney Point on Crab Orchard Lake?
The gear my two accomplices and I employed never matched our enthusiasm, but that rarely put a damper on our hunting or our zeal. When the weather turned chilly, we would typically bundle up in flannel shirts and multiple layers of sweatshirts topped off by plain brown hunting coats incapable of shedding rain. Rubber hip boots usually kept us dry but never warm, even when worn over three pairs of socks. Our rig consisted of a dozen bulky cork decoys and four Styrofoam mallards, all of which could be squeezed into a pair of gunnysacks. Two dozen fiberboard silhouettes served as our goose spread.
By comparison, today's waterfowl hunting gear is far superior to what was available a generation or two ago. Technology has created miracle fabrics, gas-powered machines capable of going almost anywhere, blinds that can be easily transported on one's back, and many other products. Here's a quick look at a number of waterfowling inventions and improvements that help make duck and goose hunting easier, safer, and more comfortable.
The late Harry Debo and I spent one waterfowl season during our youth hunting a harvested cornfield near Cedar Point in north-central Illinois. We would head to the field when school was over, set out a couple of dozen decoys, and lie down on a bed of burlap bags acquired free of charge from a local supermarket. Those thin layers of burlap were our only protection from the cold, muddy ground, and they did little to hide us from the eyes of wary geese. Thank heaven for modern layout blinds! Who made the first layout is a matter of conjecture, but there are dozens of assorted models available today in a variety of sizes. Nearly every camouflage pattern imaginable can be procured, and these blinds, which fold up and can be carried to the hunting site with little effort, provide creature comforts previously unavailable. Many have pockets for goose flags and gear, flagging ports, padded headrests, cradle seats, and spring-loaded pop-up covers. Layout blinds have opened up a whole new world to those who hunt agricultural fields and many other waterfowl habitats.
Long-time gunning partner Paul Gillmann and I spent several seasons hunting an open-water box blind on 2,400-acre Lake Senachwine, an Illinois River backwater. We also endured more than one frustrating morning trying to find the blind in the fog. After launching the boat in the wet-blanket gloom, we'd find ourselves cruising around in circles trying to locate the all but invisible hide. I can't help but think how much easier navigating in fog would have been with the help of a global positioning system (GPS). All it would have taken was dialing in the correct coordinates and the GPS would have provided a direct line to the blind. GPS units can be used to mark secret spots, hard-to-reach honey holes, and any other places you'd like to find or revisit. GPS is available on many smart phones, too, but I prefer the handheld specialized units, which can deliver a wealth of additional data as well as specific location information. There is no reason to get lost in the fog anymore.
Back in the late 1950s, I watched my father strike a match to two gunnysacks full of wooden decoys. Like everyone else in our neighborhood, we had a backyard burn barrel, and the decoys had been tossed in among the assorted paper and trash. "They're too heavy," my father said of his smoldering blocks that fateful day. "I'm getting some of the new plastic decoys." And he did. Years later, he complained somewhat sullenly that he might have gotten enough money to purchase a new car had he saved those old wooden decoys and sold them to collectors. Fortunately, many of today's plastic decoys offer much more realism than the old wooden or plastic models of yesteryear. Modern plastic decoys are available in all manner of poses, or attitudes. And hunters can also acquire durable, lightweight decoys that swim, dip, paddle, flap their wings, and otherwise create a ruckus on the water. As a group, today's decoys are likely the most lifelike enticements ever created.
Several years ago, while preparing to hunt Arkansas timber, one member of our hunting party was running late. We waited, waited, and waited some more. When the truant finally arrived, we hopped on all-terrain vehicles (ATV), and off we went, through water and muck, driving over logs and traveling perhaps a mile through the swamp. The upshot was that we got to our spot and were set up and ready to hunt at first light. The ATVs made this possible, saving us the time and labor of wading through a morass of blowdowns and unseen underwater trip sticks. First introduced in 1970 by Honda, ATVs have come a long way over the years. In 1982, Suzuki introduced the first four-wheel ATV and other companies followed that lead. The rest is history. These remarkable machines, whether used on dry land or elsewhere, are reliable workhorses that allow waterfowlers to gain access to all types of environments. Even when you're running late, however, you should always proceed with caution and make safety your first priority.
Back in 1991, when the federal government outlawed the use of lead shot for waterfowling, many gunners threw up their hands in dismay. The feds had concluded that too many waterfowl and bald eagles were dying of lead poisoning after ingesting the pellets. The ban created a need for alternative loads that could provide enough speed, weight, and energy downrange to cleanly harvest ducks and geese. Ammunition makers began developing a number of nontoxic loads, including steel, bismuth, tungsten-matrix, tungsten-iron, and others. Like a lot of hunters, I can remember being unimpressed with the ballistics of the earliest steel loads, but the overall performance of steel and other nontoxic loads has improved dramatically over the years. Always be sure to buy the best shotshells you can afford. Ammo isn't something you should scrimp on.
My first pair of hip boots were my father's hand-me-downs. They were made of rubber and covered with numerous patches. I wore those boots whenever an opportunity arose-when hunting, fishing, or seining for minnows. Rubber and canvas boots ruled the roost for years, because they were pretty much all that were available. Now neoprene is king. Neoprene is, however, hardly new. DuPont chemist Wallace Hume Carothers produced neoprene way back in 1931. Who knows why no one started using this material for waterfowling boots and gloves until years later? Neoprene dominates the chest-wader market and is also used in making hunting gloves. This material, properly maintained, will keep the duck hunter warm and dry. The only downside is that some folks are allergic to neoprene and can't wear that material without breaking out in skin rashes. For those seeking alternatives, much-improved rubber and canvas boots remain a viable option.
My first experience in a boat powered by a mud motor occurred on Georgia's Lake Seminole over a decade ago. My gracious host gave me an extensive tour of this beautiful body of water, including forays into seemingly inaccessible areas. I was amazed at the motor's power and versatility in getting us back and forth to some incredible hunting spots. Mud motors and jet drives are now relatively common in parts of the country where duck hunters navigate swamps, shallow water, stumps, thick vegetation, and other obstacles. A great idea blossomed into an entire industry, as numerous manufacturers now make a variety of these shallow-running motors that take waterfowlers nearly anywhere they want to hunt.
The nation's waterfowl hunters stood up and took notice when Robert W. Gore introduced Gore-Tex, the first waterproof and breathable fabric, in 1976. Old canvas coats fell by the wayside and companies from coast to coast began employing this fabric in their outdoor clothing lines. The arrival of Gore-Tex and the introduction of a number of high-tech insulating materials all but guaranteed that duck and goose gunners would remain more comfortable than they ever dreamed possible during the good old days. Toss in the emergence of dozens of camouflage patterns and the waterfowling fraternity had a whole new look.
The last time I hunted with my Illinois River Valley buddies I noted that neither of them carried a blind bag. I lugged my typical half-ton bag, which contained shotshells, extra choke tubes, a camera, gloves, calls, first-aid kit, a couple of knives, a multi-tool, and who knows what else. Because the clubhouse was within easy walking distance of their blinds, my friends simply stuck a box of shells in one pocket and their calls in another. "We don't need to carry all that stuff anymore," one said. "If we want coffee, we go back to the clubhouse and brew some." Not everyone has that luxury. Thankfully, today's blind bags are far superior to the old green canvas model I once carried on my shoulder. Many modern bags come with different pockets and compartments for separating gear. Most are water-resistant, and some are even capable of floating if dropped overboard into the marsh. Small, medium, and supersized bags are available to fit a duck hunter's every need and circumstance.
HIGH-TECH DUCK GUNS
While my memory is somewhat fuzzy, I still recall that my vintage pump gun served me well for several seasons before I traded up. The old slide-action kept on working despite being subjected to significant abuse during my youth. Today, young duck hunters have considerably more shotguns to choose from. The pace of innovation has accelerated, and new shotgun models appear on retail shelves almost every year. Many of these firearms feature resilient plastic stocks and forearms impervious to the elements, adjustable stocks, assorted choke tubes, camo finishes, fiber-optic sights, textured gripping surfaces, and many other options. Overall, technology has made modern shotguns lighter, shorter, and more durable than earlier models. And powerful guns that cycle 3- and 3 1/2-inch loads are now easier on hunters' shoulders thanks to advancements in recoil reduction. As product lines grow, there are more shotguns available for women, left-handers, and youth, which makes it easier for everyone to find a gun they're comfortable with.