Oftentimes, hunting revolves around killing a trophy. Bucks are judged by antlers, bears by weight and turkeys by beards and spurs. For the most part, ducks don’t fit into such categories.
Sure, we try to include leg bands as a way to gauge a hunter’s success, but deep down, we all know band collection is all luck. It’s true, longevity in the sport and shooting lots of birds will up your odds for collecting bands, but I know a hunter who shot two bands in one day, and it was his first time ever in the marsh.
In retrospect, when pursuing ducks, the quality of the hunt can be judged by a number of factors, often immeasurable to those who weren’t part of the crew. In fact, it’s often difficult to describe a great duck day, due to the subtle perks that make up the most memorable days afield.
A case in point, the first time I hunted my life-long favorite locale, I didn't shoot a duck. I’m sure I shot at several, but I was so shaken by the whole scene that I doubt I could have hit a moose.
Up until that point, my waterfowl experience had consisted solely of field hunts for geese, a little layout hunting, and primarily shoreline gunning for whatever flies. But the aforementioned outing was my first trip to the famed mallard mecca, Harsen’s Island. I’ll never forget that day.
The state-run hunt features a lottery draw to determine each party’s exact hunting location. While all the zones are pretty good, those nearest the island’s refuge are understandably the best. A lucky pick put us right in the action. That refuge, 100 yards from our makeshift blind that day, is only a couple miles square, yet an online check showed refuge counts over 15,000 birds.
Believe me when I tell you that, to this day, I can still hear those ducks.
Though I’ve been back to the same area hundreds of times, and hunted ducks all over the country, I’m absolutely positive that the sound I hear in my mind when I think of duck hunting; that desperate, maniacal cry that mallards make when piled on top one another during their migration; that sound is a result from my first trip to Harsen’s.
Now how, in the world of Boone and Crocket scoring, drop tines and kicker points; how do I describe the quality of that hunt to others who weren’t there?
The same holds true for my first experience in the Arkansas timber. While the hunt was no barn-burner by the standards of Stuttgart regulars, we still shot a few. However, the real spectacle were the birds that simply ignored us.
If you’re a mallard nut, and you’ve never been to Arkansas, believe me, you need to go. Probably the most incredible aspect of hunting near the White River is the sheer number of waterfowl - birds of many different species - that seem to just be hanging around. Mallards swim gracefully in road-side ditches. There’s snow geese in the field behind Wal-Mart. Park in the wrong place, and specklebellies will poop-bomb your truck.
In Stuttgart, when you take to the woods in the morning, it’s often quite the show. Sure, like most places, the ducks are usually buzzing about just before legal shooting hours, but once the sun comes up, the scene gets incredible. As ducks trade back and forth between morning feeding locations and their afternoon resting holes, the skies fill with birds. They’re just above the the timber, and most seem oblivious to the relentless calling of hunters. Sure, some slip in and help fill up the game strap, but the vast majority pass on by.
That first trip left me speechless. As my companions got increasingly more frustrated by the lack of interest in these “stale” birds, I loved them all, just the same.
Sure, most of the greenheads ignored us that day. But what if they hadn’t? What if they had all come bombing in? What, then, would we have experienced. My excitement lies in the possibilities. But, unless you’re a duck hunter, you probably wouldn’t understand.
Such just an event happened to me on a late-season, big-water hunt. Beat down on the tail end of a 60-day season, I was just hanging on. Ice had enveloped much of the Great Lakes, pushing the remaining mallards into small areas of open water. The big score was just around the corner.
A few days prior had brought high, sunny skies; dismal conditions for big-water waterfowlers. But the final day would be different: a blizzard was on it’s way.
A friend and I knew the birds would be coming. We knew if their daily migration coincided with the weather front, anything was possible. Marginal cover in the bullrush reeds required building temporary blinds, and an accidental dunk in the icy water required a trip back to the truck to thaw the guns. Finally settled, we would have just two hours to hunt.
As we loaded up, a deep, dark squall-line was visible on the horizon. We covered any exposed skin as the wind cranked and the temperatures plummeted. As the clouds arrived, on their leading edge were the birds.
Thousands upon thousands of mallards poured through the hunting grounds. For nearly two hours, there was literally no end to the lines of ducks. In the final hours of the waning season, while standing in the reeds getting blasted by waves and spray, my buddy and I shot greenhead after greenhead and nearly point-blank range. No one else was hunting.
There are duck hunts I’ll never forget. I’ve saved shell casings from several, marked with the date and tally. And I’ll never, ever forget so many hunts I spent alone with only my dog.
Big antlers are great. But when someone asks how the duck hunting was, excuse me if I mumble, “you wouldn’t understand."
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.