By Bill Nichol and Matt Young
For many duck hunters, getting wet and cold and working up a sweat before sunrise are unavoidable parts of waterfowling. In fact, the majority of hunters will put up with a degree of all these unpleasantries if it guarantees dependable shooting.
However, in today's waterfowling culture, there are hunters who are routinely willing to go beyond the norm. These are waterfowlers who don't mind hours of soggy waders, numb hands, and a wind-chapped face, who will eagerly venture beyond where the boat must stop, and who believe that getting to the ducks is always worth the effort.
These hard-chargers can be found among duck hunting communities across the nation. While facing unique challenges from their environments, they all rely on innovation and a dogged determination to be successful in the field. On the following pages, four hunters—Scott Dickerson, Shawn Prince, Mike Brumley, and Butch Wagoner—explain why they enjoy embarking on what many would consider extreme hunts.
BODY BOOTING THE SUSQUEHANNA FLATS
Any ranking of extreme ways to hunt waterfowl would have to include 'body booting' near the top of the list. Devised by hardy Chesapeake Bay watermen, this austere style of waterfowling involves wearing a pair of chest waders or a diving suit and hunkering down among a large spread of decoys in knee- to chest-deep water. 'Some of the first body booters were Elmer Simpers, Jonnie Heinz, Slim Price, Bailey Moltz, and Toots Poplar,' says veteran waterfowler and decoy carver Butch Wagoner of Havre de Grace, Maryland. 'They first started body booting for ducks on the Susquehanna Flats back in the early 1950s and later adapted it for goose hunting when this area became a major wintering area for Canada geese. Body booting was widely popular among the locals in this area. They were always willing to do it because it was so effective, and it was cheaper than renting a farm.'
But body booting is not for the faint of heart. 'It's a tough way to hunt,' Wagoner says. 'There aren't too many hunters left who are willing to stand up to their armpits in freezing water on a tidal flat in January. I've gotten so cold and stiff after being in the water for long periods of time that I couldn't climb into the boat.'
Wagoner and his hunting partners began body booting in old navy diving suits and more recently switched to lighter, more durable dry suits. For concealment and convenience, they constructed oversized Canada goose silhouettes mounted with a gun rack on one side. These customized decoys also swivel on a metal pole anchored to the bottom, allowing hunters to always keep the silhouettes broadside to approaching waterfowl. Rectangular cutouts enable hunters to watch birds from behind the silhouettes.
While a tender boat is typically kept close at hand, body booting is not without risks. 'You need to know the contour of the bottom around you, and you have to be aware of the tides,' Wagoner explains. 'We usually start out hunting in water just above our knees so at high tide the water never gets more than chest deep. But you can easily step off into a channel if you aren't careful. The closest call we ever had was when an ice floe drifted into our rig and started pushing us and all our decoys out toward deeper water. Fortunately the tender boat rescued us just in time, but if we had gotten swept under the ice, we could have been in real trouble.'
Another potential downside to body booting is that hunters have limited options when nature calls. 'Coffee and cold water can be a bad combination, especially for rookies, and there's no easy way to relieve yourself once you're suited up,' Wagoner says.
MIDWINTER SEA DUCKS
While coastal Maine is a popular tourist destination during summer months, the region's brutal winters discourage most people from visiting, that is, unless they're sea duck hunters. In December and January, Shawn Prince of Gardiner, Maine, hunts common eiders, long-tailed ducks, and scoters on small, rocky islands called 'ledges.' Only a fraction of local waterfowlers pursue sea ducks offshore, likely because of the severe weather and treacherous boating conditions.
'Temperatures can drop below 20 degrees on the coast,' Prince says. 'But the wind is the main factor that determines how rough it's going to be. A strong wind means big swells and lots of spray. The farther you go out, the rougher it gets.'
Prince hunts sea ducks with a boat that can handle some serious waves—an 18-foot Lund Alaskan V-hull powered by a 115-hp Yamaha outboard. He also never goes out alone and is always accompanied by another equally seaworthy boat. Prince and his hunting partners hunt sea ducks directly off ledges located from one to five miles offshore. 'Our group usually has six guys,' Prince says. 'We put out two long lines of eider decoys and several more lines of higher-profile wooden silhouettes. After setting the spread, we moor one boat, and four of us hide among the rocks on an island, while two remain in a tender boat to retrieve ducks that are too far for the dogs.'
But getting to the hunting area and back is always the greatest challenge. On the North Atlantic in the dead of winter, there's little margin for error. 'If you don't know where you are and where you are going, you can get into serious trouble out there,' Prince says. 'Last winter, the water temperature was 40 degrees, so if you go in the water, you don't have much time.'
Despite the potential danger and often miserable conditions, Prince believes every waterfowler should experience a Maine sea duck hunt at least once. 'Common eiders are impressive birds,' he says. 'They're bigger than a mallard and have beautiful plumage. They fly 30 miles an hour, low to the water and straight at you. That means there's only a small window to get off a clean breast shot. This kind of shooting is really unique, and I enjoy taking people who have never experienced a sea duck hunt before. They just can't believe how different it is from how they hunt at home.'
SKIING THE MARSH
Mike Brumley has earned a reputation as a guy who works hard to bag his ducks. As Ducks Unlimited's regional director for south-central Wisconsin, Brumley hunts the big cattail marshes abundant in the southern half of the state.
'The marshes I hunt span anywhere from one to four square miles and can contain as little as 10 percent open water,' Brumley says. 'Any open spots accessible by boat get hunted pretty hard. Ducks learn to avoid those areas soon after the start of the season. But there are plenty of ducks in the area from October to freezeup in November. You have to be willing to go find them.'
For Brumley, this means getting away from the crowds and exploring expanses of nearly impenetrable cattails. Facing this challenge led him to revive the lost art of marsh skiing. More than a hundred years ago, central Wisconsin's waterfowlers created specialized skis to navigate those places in the marsh that boats could not reach. The skis were fashioned out of ash and measured eight to 12 feet long and less than a foot wide.
'Marsh skis allow you to slide through the marsh. They were made long enough to distribute your weight across the cattails and to span muskrat channels. When I starting skiing the marshes, there were very few guys left who did it,' recalls Brumley. 'In fact, no one makes the skis anymore. The most common place to see them is hanging over someone's mantel.'
Judging from his description of how he uses the skis, there is little wonder why they have become obscure. 'On a typical hunt, I'll ski 40 minutes toward a number of small holes isolated in the marsh,' Brumley says. 'It's tough work. And if you fall off, you'll probably wind up in water up to your elbows. By the end of the morning, I'm usually ringing wet with marsh water and sweat.'
Because marsh skiing is a solo sport, Brumley brings only essential gear to cut down on weight. 'I sling my gun over my shoulder and wear a framed backpack filled with a spinning-wing decoy and six decoys without keels,' he says. 'I also bring a GPS to mark open holes. It's amazing how difficult it can be to get where you want to go among eight-foot cattails.'
Yet, when he arrives at a remote spot, Brumley says the ducks are usually willing to cooperate. In the early part of the season, green-winged teal and shovelers fill his bag. Yet, as winter approaches, newly arrived mallards and black ducks gravitate toward the marsh's secluded openings.
When he finds himself in a place ducks want to be, Brumley claims that his most valuable accessory is a like-minded six-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever. 'Most holes are less than 50 yards across, and it's hard to drop birds into the middle of them,' he admits. 'You need a dog with a fair amount of heart to consistently slog through the mud and bore through thick cattails and wild rice.'
WADING THE GREEN TIMBER
Originally from northern Louisiana, Scott Dickerson has hunted large stands of flooded timber in southeast Arkansas for more than a decade. According to Dickerson, mallards and other ducks seek out flooded openings in the woods to escape high hunting pressure in surrounding agricultural fields. 'Because there are fewer hunters and less pressure in the timber, ducks go there to relax and loaf throughout the day,' he says. 'Early in the season, mallards, green-winged teal, gadwalls, and other ducks use the more open holes, but by late in the year, the little ducks have left, and mallards have moved back into smaller openings.'
There is a good reason why these isolated timber holes are filled with birds and short on hunters. Dickerson makes clear that his hunting party's morning commute to the ducks is a tough one. After a mile to a mile-and-a-half boat ride, the real work begins for Dickerson and company. 'In order to get to where the ducks are, we'll wade one-and-a-half to two miles back through the woods, which can take up to an hour,' he explains.
'When we're walking, water levels can fluctuate from ankle- to waist-deep. Sometimes during high water, we've had to cross sloughs on our tiptoes. But you can't be in a hurry when you're wading through timber, because if you hit a stump or trip on a root, you're probably going to get wet.'
Weather also adds to the rigors of wading through the woods, as temperatures can vary dramatically during the season. 'During some cold stretches, we'll have to break ice the whole way out to the hunting spot, but temperatures can also be in the mid-60s,' Dickerson says.
In both hot and cold weather, long-distance wading is slow going and taxing on a hunter's body. 'One key thing we've learned over the years is how to dress appropriately,' says Dickerson. 'Most mornings, we wear only waders and a T-shirt on our way out to hunt. My T-shirt is usually so soaked at the end of the walk that I'll change into another one before putting on a camouflage pullover or heavy coat if it's cold.'
Years of difficult wading also taught Dickerson and his partners to travel light and bring only the essentials. 'Being mobile is a huge consideration when we are carrying in gear. That's why we switched from carrying hard plastic decoys to two dozen Featherflex pontoon decoys, which are a lot lighter. We also wear shell vests, eliminating the need to bring blind bags,' he explains.
Dickerson has no doubt that the payoff is worth the effort: 'When you get to your spot and things all come together, it's the finest duck hunting I've ever experienced. There is no way to describe how good it feels to work a big group of mallards down through the trees and all the way to the water.'