Weird Scenes From the Duck Marsh

By author of The Duck Blog

Sometimes, strange birds and oddball shots rule the day

Every day in the duck marsh is different, but some hunts can get downright strange. Illustration © Ryan Orndorff

I don’t like out-of-the-ordinary stuff when duck hunting. You can keep strange occurrences and goofy shot opportunities. Meanwhile, I’ll stay quite happy with standard decoying or crossing mallards, bluebills or other ducks.

But if you’ve spent enough time in the marsh, you know that things can get weird. I’m not talking about hybrid ducks, of which I’ve seen a few, or even odd-looking birds, like those with missing toes or odd coloration. No, sometimes, chance, special circumstances and even stupidity unite to create campfire-story-worthy events. A quick trip through my 39-year-old waterfowl hunting journal reveals a few.

The Blind Pig

My buddy and I were chasing mallards, but a diver hunt had broken out. It was mid-October in central Wisconsin, and ringbills buzzed everywhere over the lake where we’d hidden our canoe. We’d shot a few and had missed several more but eventually found ourselves one bird short of a limit.

I glanced up to see two blackjacks bearing down on our pothole. On cue, I rose to fire, and they did a hard left across the decoys, pouring on the gas as only ringbills can do. Nothing new there. Trouble was, after shouldering my gun, I was looking at about two-dozen cattail stalks instead of the birds. Panicked, I blindly swung my gun ahead of where the birds’ flight path would have taken them and slapped the trigger. Then, I grinned at my buddy and waited for the abuse to begin.

Splash.

“Great shot,” he said.

The drake ringneck, which had only been a memory when I “aimed” and fired, was dead. Do not ask me how. Of course, I’d had no business pulling the trigger. It was actually irresponsible that I did so. Yet that day, fortune smiled on a goofball hunter, and a strap full of ringbills filled our boat.

Field Diver

Winds blew steadily at 50 mph, and snow fell throughout the morning. We were hunting in an old-fashioned South Dakota blizzard. Fortunately, we’d found a hot bean field the day before, and ducks and geese piled in from everywhere.

Mallards were followed by flock after flock of pintails. Geese buzzed overhead all morning, and even some bonus greenwings zipped past. But during this epic day, a strange bird hit the nose of our field spread and zipped by from left to right. Instinctively, I rose from my field blind and fired, just like I’d done so many times from my big-water layout boat at home.

“What the heck was that?” my buddy Joe asked. Laughing as the dog brought back the bird, I shook my head.

“It’s a ringbill,” I said. Apparently, the diver had been on its way to a nearby slough when it saw our blocks and passed over for a look. And seeing how we were freezing and almost covered in snow, I wasn’t about to pass it up. That day’s three-person bag featured two greenwings, three honkers, six pintails, nine mallards — and one ringneck.

“Who the heck shoots a diver during a field hunt,” Joe asked, shaking his head.

Me … I guess.

The Day Walker

Lake Winnebago was frozen. Not freezing over — frozen. Two-hundred yards south of our duck blind, several guys were drilling holes to find first-ice bluegills. Meanwhile, a friend and I had chopped a large hole in the ice to attract any ducks that remained in Wisconsin.

A few mergansers passed over our spread, but shooting was nonexistent. Then, at midmorning, I looked north to see something odd: a duck walking across the ice. In fact, the duck was waddling — no, sprinting, actually — toward our open-water hole.

Minutes later, the bird made a sharp right and ducked into a small frozen inlet to the left of our blind. I stood, walked to the inlet and looked for the bird but saw nothing. Suddenly, the mallard exploded from a shoreline rock and tried to gain altitude. I shot it at 20 steps, covering the ice with feathers.

Apparently, the bird had been injured and was seeking a safe place to hole up. A classic late-season mallard? No, but I was glad to have ended its suffering and get one more duck before winter closed its grip on the North.

Belle’s Bill

An epic cold front the previous night had moved loads of birds out of South Dakota. In fact, the spot where we’d killed 18 ducks in short order the day before was void of waterfowl, other than thousands of snow geese pouring south in the stratosphere.

Knowing we were sunk, I hit the road to find open water and ducks. But by about 3 p.m., I’d struck out. Normally, I’d have continued my hard-headed quest, but this day was special. My retriever, Belle, was 13, and this would undoubtedly be her final chance to hunt the Dakotas. Not wanting her to go out on a bad note, I switched gears, donned my upland clothing and headed out with two buddies for pheasants.

What a great decision. Within minutes, I’d shot two roosters, and Belle beamed as she brought them to hand. Several other birds fell to my buddies, and then I missed my chance at a third rooster when my gun stock caught on my vest.

No worries. It had been a great afternoon, and I was satisfied. Walking back to the truck, however, I noticed Belle craning her head skyward. Hmm. Some ducks had passed overhead. In fact, another bird — a drake bluebill — was heading right for us.

It was a long shot, so I made sure to swing aggressively. At the report, the ’bill buckled and sailed into the snowy field, chest-shot. Belle soon brought him back, her graying maw covered in fluffy snow.

Pictures from that day show two roosters and a little black-and-white duck resting atop a hay bale. They also reveal a grand dog on her final prairie hunt and a teary-eyed guy who can’t wipe a silly grin off his face.

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