Who in their right mind would want to tumble out of a warm bed hours before sunrise on a chilly, maybe even windy and rainy fall morning, and head for a muddy old marsh? A duck hunter; that’s who! Getting up very early is part of the routine, but it’s only a small part. There’s much more to it. I have been doing that (and looking forward to it) almost every year for the past 40+ years. Perhaps some of you would enjoy coming along.
OK, we’re up. Now what? I like hot coffee early in the morning so that can be brewing while I get dressed – trying to be quiet so I won’t wake my wife if she’s still sleeping. I’ll dress for the worst weather the day is likely to bring with appropriate layers. I usually pack some snacks to take along, with a thermos of coffee. If I’m hunting with a friend, we may cook breakfast in the blind on a little camp stove. With the food and coffee ready to go, it’s time to load up the truck. There’s the “blind bag” with extra dry gloves, a flashlight, shotgun shells, duck calls, etc.. I mustn’t forget the shotgun and chest waders. I take a special wading stick too (more on that later).
The boat trailer must be hooked to the truck and checked that the lights are working. A life jacket will be needed for each occupant. I usually check to make sure there’s enough gas in the small outboard motor the night before. The closest marsh is about a 25-minute drive, but others I’ve hunted in the past can be up to several hours away. We want to be there well before first light. It takes a few minutes to get the boat ready to launch once we get to the parking lot/ramp. It’s time to put on the waders and life jacket. All the gear is loaded into the boat. The boat’s drain plug had better be installed. It’s touchy backing down the ramp in the dark. The boat is eased off the trailer and beached securely. The truck must be moved back to the parking area. Returning to the boat, I hope the motor will start as it should. The last time I was out it took several pulls, and I was beginning to think I’d have to resort to the oars that are always with the boat for just such situations. It’s important to watch where other hunters are going to avoid crowding each other.
A slow, dark trip across the marsh brings us to the spot we’ve chosen to hunt. Some hunters have blinds on their boats. Mine isn’t big enough to hunt from effectively, so I usually hunt from shore. The spot should have good cover that keeps us out of sight in shadows once the sun rises. Shore gear includes a 5-gallon bucket to sit on, the blind bag, the shotgun and a thermos of coffee. It’s time to grab the wading stick and begin setting out the decoys. Most of them should be upwind from the blind since ducks always land into the wind. A well-set spread of decoys should have the ducks landing in front of the blind. It’s still dark and a small LED light attaches to the bill of my hunting hat so that my hands are free to untangle decoy weights and lines as they’re set out. The marsh bottom is often uneven, with varying amounts of soft mud in waist-deep (or deeper) water. The wading stick helps to keep one’s balance. The boat is hidden nearby before returning to the blind.
Setting decoys and hiding the boat may take 10 to 20 minutes, and by then it’s usually getting light in the east. It’s time to get under cover. We’ve been busy and that’s kept us warm, but once seated on the bucket a chill sets in. A shot of hot coffee and maybe munching a kringla (kind of like a Norwegian donut) gets some warmth back. Legal shooting time starts ½ hour before sunrise, so it’s time to load the gun and start watching the sky. Ducks are often most active just before and after sunrise, but might choose to wait until much later in the morning to appear if they come at all. Sunrise time changes every day. A close check of the watch is important, especially on cloudy days. Shooting before legal time can land you with a citation if a conservation officer is nearby.
An early flock of ducks against a brightening sky is only a flickering bunch of silhouettes. Are they teal, gadwalls, mallards or divers? Their flight mannerisms give clues. Sounds help with identification, too. A wood duck squeals, a mallard hen quacks, and a teal or pintail may whistle. The duck call may come into play at this time if you’re pretty sure what’s up there. Identification is important because a squeal won’t interest a mallard any more than a quack will interest a wood duck. Sometimes even the right call doesn’t interest them and may scare them away. If it’s very calm and the decoys are dead in the water, it may be time to pull on a “jerk string” that’s attached to one or more of the decoys. That introduces movement as if live ducks were swimming around.
With a good deal of luck and maybe a little skill, the ducks are lured into range. There may be time for only one shot. If the shot is on target, there’s a duck to retrieve. A fully equipped hunter has a good dog for that. The rest of us rely on chest waders and that wading stick again. Another cup of coffee is good after a long wade, but eyes remain on the sky and the rest of the marsh. Binoculars are usually within easy reach. Marsh hawks and eagles may be hunting, too. Shore birds, blackbirds, marsh wrens, swamp sparrows, gulls, terns, herons, egrets and even pelicans might be seen. Hundreds of coots may be splashing, squawking and grunting as they feed nearby. A marsh is seldom dull!
It takes more time to get all the gear back into the boat once it’s time to head back. Any ducks taken must be cleaned and properly stored once we’re home. The final part of a hunt is preparing and serving the game for a fine meal. I’m always glad I’ve had the opportunity to spend another morning “out there,” even when no shots were fired.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.