The Really Great Salt Lake

Situated in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains, this waterfowling venue may be second to none

By Gary Koehler

Every so often—when the stars and moon align, the wind is just right, and the water level is at the very least adequate—ducks seem to become much more cooperative. That is, if you are fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. On Great Salt Lake, it helps when an airboat is thrown into the mix.

We motored for several miles from our Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area (WMA) launch site, traveling over open water and extensive mud flats before maneuvering into a marsh split by a narrow channel. We are surrounded by alkali bulrush, which ranks among the primary waterfowl food sources in this part of the world.

Farmington Bay WMA, a 13,000-acre complex, had provided an early glimpse of what was to come. Northern pintails, wigeon, mallards, gadwalls, teal, northern shovelers, and other waterfowl were stacked up in a rest area to the tune of perhaps 40,000 birds. Maybe more. And that’s not counting the coots.

“Really, this isn’t anywhere near the most ducks I’ve ever seen here,” says Jerald Olsen, who serves Ducks Unlimited as Utah regional director. “There are days when the whole rest area is covered. And I mean all of it.”

The abundance of ducks on the refuge was one thing, but no one was prepared for what we saw on the ride to our hunting site. There was a slight haze, which limited visibility in some places. From a distance, the humps protruding from the patch of mud ahead looked to be a collection of low stumps, or maybe geese. Nope. Tundra swans. Several hundred of them. Their mass exodus as we drew near was enough to take one’s breath away.
 
“There’s a swan season here,” Olsen says. “Hunters can take one a year. You’ll see them all over the place during your stay.”

Our focus this afternoon, however, is on ducks. Scott Farber is at the airboat controls and knows exactly where the hidden marsh opening is located. DU Area Chairman Shane Lindquist, like me, is a newcomer to the big lake, which is more than 70 miles long and mostly shallow. Locals allow that mud motors are fine, but airboats will go the distance.

Hundreds of ducks flee the channel and adjacent open-water pockets in response to the roar of Farber’s airboat engine. “That right there was worth the ride out here,” Lindquist says as he watches duck tails disappear into the midday sky. “That’s what we all work for.”

“I bet 90 percent of them were mallards,” Farber says as we begin unloading decoys, guns, gear, and a peppy black Lab named Rox. “I found this place the other day, and it was loaded with ducks. We did really well here.”

We hide in the reeds, sitting on plastic bucket chairs to ensure a low profile. There is very little wind, and the sun is at our backs. The temperature is in the 50s, which is substantially warmer than the norm for this date in November.

What will this day bring besides potential for a suntan?

A lone mallard drake arrives first, flying right to left right down the center of the channel. A single shot from Farber’s 12-gauge puts the duck on the deck.

“I think we’re going to see more of that,” says Olsen, whose high-octane energy level is enviable to all of us over 50. “And we’re going to be ready.”

And so the displaced ducks return, in singles and pairs, threes and fours. There are no large flocks, but there is a steady stream of stragglers, meandering back to the resting and feeding area they had abandoned an hour ago. Bigger flocks are spotted regularly off in the distance.

Lindquist knocks down a gorgeous pintail drake, Farber takes another mallard, and Olsen connects on a wigeon. Me? The on-loan autoloader in hand had been cleaned the night before by a party who wishes to remain anonymous. But one critical piece must have been left behind. I jerk the trigger, but nothing happens, not even a click. Fortunately, Olsen has a spare shotgun in the boat.

The afternoon is nothing less than a duck hunter’s dream. Between selective, drakes-only shooting volleys, we watch swans and geese trade across the lake. There are no other hunters nearby. We are alone. We are awash with ducks. And all is well with the world.

Not so much the next morning. Olsen and I are set up in what he describes as a roll-blind, a simple, homemade contraption valued for its portability. The blind consists of wire covered with grass and poles at each end that are stuck in the mud. The blind can literally be rolled up for easy transport. We set up at Willard Spur, a state public hunting area adjacent to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.

“Hunting can be good here if you time it right,” Olsen says. The wind is not in our favor, however, and the majority of the ducks we see refuse to respond to the call. Only a couple of shots by Olsen avoid a waterfowl shutout.

We return to the big lake the following day. This time there are two airboats. And eight hunters, plus Rox. Again, we endure a long-distance cruise. This time, however, the thermometer is on an upward climb. Temperatures creep into the 60s. Ducks must be loafing in the calm weather, because they remain conspicuous in their absence.

Our rig is placed in another marshy area, but the difference this time is that the vegetation consists mostly of phragmites, an invasive plant species that has grown increasingly worrisome on Great Salt Lake the past several years. This plant chokes wetland habitat and is capable of spreading quickly.

“It’s one of our biggest problems out here,” Olsen says. “Phragmites displaces native vegetation and offers nothing positive for the waterfowl resource. It’s like a plague.”

Still, there are ducks. The shooting schedule is more subdued, but mallards, gadwalls, wigeon, and teal all drop in. Many skirt our spread to visit small open-water holes in the phragmites. Gunners willing to battle the mosquitoes do well while hiding in the tall reeds.

“A lot of people who live in this area don’t realize what we have out here, what type of terrific resource this lake is,” Olsen says. “Great Salt Lake is unique.”
 No argument here.