column By: Lee J. Hoots | July, 19
As this is written in early May, sheets of rain are soaking the Arizona highlands, and gusting winds are buffeting trees in the neighborhood. Outside it sounds and “feels” like duck-hunting weather. Old memories are dredged up as the rain hammers down.
Whirlwind publishing deadlines often pass by so quickly that as the editor in chief of several titles (21 individual issues!), it often becomes difficult to remember in which of those 21 magazines a specific story or specific subject has been published; or, as I am wont to say, “covered.” What’s more, because the title in your hands has for several years been mainly a big-game hunter’s periodical, it sometimes is easy to overlook the fact that many serious hunters of antlered big game don’t usually limit themselves as one- or two-season hunters.
This is likely true of most hunters, even if where they reside minimizes opportunities afield. What devoted deer hunter does not enjoy pursuing quail, doves, pheasants or even geese? If a deer and/or elk fanatic ends up without a tag, it’s unlikely he or she will skip being afield for the entire fall.
Across this great country, most hunters are weaned on small game and upland birds. This begins at an early age, no matter if they grow up in New York, Illinois, California or Idaho. Count me among the legions of sportsmen who started out with a 20-gauge side-by-side shotgun, mastering swinging “through” a flushing quail or dove long before hunting deer – or at least it seemed “long before.” It also seems “long ago.”
Memories increasingly dim a little as time goes on, but duck hunting became a primary passion of mine, and it lasted into my late 30s, just prior to moving to northwest Arizona. Somewhere in a shoebox is a very fuzzy Polaroid photo of a scrawny 11-year-old kid kneeling in my aunt’s kitchen on newspaper covered with a double-handful of green-winged teal. At the time, those teal represented a personal triumph – no, a monumental triumph – for a boy who managed to pass his hunter education course several months early. Back then, hunter safety instructors had some leeway (no pun intended.)
Little other than the photo of that limit of teal, and where the birds were shot (Wister Unit, part of a state-managed wildlife area at the south end of the Salton Sea) can be remembered, though it was for certain the beginning of many years of hunting ducks and geese across North America and as far south as Argentina. In fact, duck hunting, over decoys, pass-shooting and jumping birds from small ponds became somewhat of an obsession.
Another early opportunity remains important. A cousin lived in Riverside, California, and across the gravel road from his home was a large bit of land owned by the local water district, and its barbed-wire fencing was no real deterrent to a couple of boys. Through several acres flowed a small seasonal creek loaded with crawdads (another source of boyhood entertainment), and occasionally enough water filled the sandy wash to create a small pond surrounded by cattails and trees, the varieties of which are no longer remembered. It was there two pre-teens got a bright idea to build a covered blind with rotten 2x4s and topped it off with salvaged sheets of green, corrugated fiberglass. Lastly, we gave it stripes with spray paint my uncle never knew was borrowed, then brushed it up quite a bit.
Proud of the secret “duck club,” a day later, in the middle of the season, we snuck into the makeshift blind before daylight, our boots filled with mud and water, and began shivering after hearing a flight of ducks circling the pond just as the sun provided gray light. When the gadwalls descended below the treetops in a narrowing spiral, we emptied our shotguns, my final try connecting with the last speckle-billed hen. Since my cousin Jimmy had missed his opportunities and was already more mud-caked than me, he volunteered to retrieve the bird, then got mired enough that I had to go help pull him from the knee-deep muck.
Back in the blind, still shivering from the excitement and cold water, that beautiful gadwall was admired for an hour. Of course, my aunt chewed us out for dragging mud into the house and forbid us from hunting the pond, “EVER,” but we were already bona fide “duck hunters.” My uncle, a budding taxidermist, mounted the hen and, much to the chagrin of my mother, it hung on the wall in my bedroom for years. That was only the beginning for me.
To provide a list of all the states and countries in which I’ve shot ducks would be boasting, but it’s reasonable to choose a couple of favorites based on their historic renown. Shooting greenheads as their webbed feet dangle toward ice-crusted water in flooded hardwoods in Arkansas is worth the experience. And no waterfowler should miss an opportunity to experience eider hunting off the coast of Maine. Both of these locations offer opportunities steeped in waterfowling tradition.
Like the knee-deep mud Jim and I struggled with as children, a duck hunter’s best memories are often made close to home. For example, while sitting along a dike at Wister when we were probably close to age 16, my father had walked back to the pickup to gather up lunch. For some long-forgotten reason, we boys decided to swap shotguns. Unexpectedly and out of nowhere, a small flock of snow geese decided to quietly glide over our duck decoys. Eight or 10 birds were no more than 30 yards up. Without hesitation, the double and Browning Auto-5, both in the wrong hands, were discharged into the sky.
My father heard the shooting and had seen the white geese climbing for altitude but from quite some distance. Since he had the waders, he brought lunch back to the blind but couldn’t help giggle a bit when told we hadn’t cut a feather. “How high were they?” he asked. Sheepishly, I told him, then we all laughed out loud, my cousin still holding my empty double, and I the Browning. There was a lesson there, and it didn’t need to be said aloud.
Some avid waterfowlers have hard-headed preferences when it comes to duck hunting, and green-headed mallard drakes are the most common “duck of choice.” There are several reasons for this: Wherever ducks are present, greenheads are usually abundant; they respond to good calling; mallards are large in size and can be found in all flyways; and they are among the best-tasting waterfowl in North America.
My preference, however, is the American wigeon. It, too, readily responds to calling and decoys, and its brilliant late-winter plumage far surpasses that of all North American ducks with one exception, the wood duck. There are two small, city-managed lakes and several golf course ponds near my home. They fill up with ducks and geese each winter, and when I drive to the office in the morning, I can’t help but watch the tight flocks of wigeon as they trade from one location to another. Wigeons require, no, demand study.
Just prior to moving to Arizona, my late friend Tom Seward called and said he heard the refuge near his home was covered up with these birds. Two days later, we tossed out two bags of my decoys under a heavy cover of fog and waited for sunrise, all the while listening to flight after flight of whistling wigeons circling above in the fog, unseen.
Legal shooting time came and passed, and eventually the fog began to clear. We brought down three or four birds by the time the sound of someone walking around in the reeds behind us caught our attention. The fellow eventually climbed up on a dike and headed our way.
It turned out to be a young and newly appointed game warden, and he accused me of wounding a pintail that hit the water 40 yards behind us – and that I had made no attempt to go find it. After arguing that we had not even seen a pintail and were hunting specifically for drake wigeons, and that he was now ruining our morning, he checked our permits, stamps and plugs, then walked away grumbling. I had been hunting waterfowl since age 11, knew my ducks, and never before encountered such a pompous you-know-what. When we checked in our birds at the refuge later, I mentioned the warden’s name to a state biologist inspecting the wigeon, and he simply rolled his eyes.
The heavy rain has now stopped pounding the Arizona highlands and the wind is no longer buffeting trees in the neighborhood. Nonetheless, there are more duck-hunting stories to tell, but they’ll have to wait for another day.