Journey to 41: Pursuing the Waterfowl Slam

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Passion Drives This Hunter's Multi-State Quest

From humble beginnings to far-flung adventures, Ben Cole remains consumed by his goal to take all the major North American waterfowl species. Photo © Garrett Lassiter

Looking back on the past 20 years, memories of hunts good and bad fill my mind, but it has been a great journey. Completing the waterfowl grand slam has been a longtime dream, and the realization of completion becomes stronger with each year. To date, I’ve taken 29 of the 41 North American waterfowl species, and my plan is to finish within the next five years.

At the Start

In the mid-1990s, my waterfowl hunting journey began with my dad driving us to hunt divers on opening day. I didn’t get anything but coots, but that was a huge accomplishment for a child. After that hunt, I drove my parents crazy constantly talking about hunting and wanting to go more. At the time, we didn’t have a boat or many decoys, so we were forced to use walk-in areas along banks. We spent many mornings walking back to the truck empty-handed because of my inexperience with a shotgun, but the thrill of the hunt prevailed. Dad always wanted my brother and I to shoot first, which generally sent birds out of range before he could shoot. I’ll always remember Dad saying, “Never kill any animal you do not intend to eat.” Even today, he lives by that and questions me after every hunt.

Through the years, I’ve experienced many outstanding hunts, but only a few earned the title of most memorable.

Years ago, during the bitter cold of December, we set up on a red clay bank that canvasbacks were using frequently because of a shallow shell bed nearby. We placed about 10 dozen decoys, and everyone tucked away in a makeshift cane blind. Out of nowhere, the sound of wings came from behind us. As the birds made their final swing, we quickly realized they were canvasbacks. As they approached the spread, I called the shot and took my first bull can, which sent me on a retrieve that consisted more of a dance.

As time passed, my passion grew stronger — so strong I was consumed with hunting ducks. One morning, as the smell of hot coffee and spent gunpowder filled the air while sitting in a pit in the Mississippi Delta, a lone specklebelly announced itself with a shrill cackle. As it approached our spread from the east, my friend Ken leaned over and said, “This one is yours.” Without hesitation and with one successful shot, the goose fell just shy of the pit. Soon after, a beautiful shoveler banked hard into the decoys, landing just shy of the spinner. No one wanted to “waste” their shells on the bird, but I saw meat for the freezer and another species to check off the list. Before long, the bird realized the decoys were fake, so I pulled up and fired a couple of times, dropping it outside of the decoys.

Later that season, the alarm clock failed, and I rushed to make it to a local swamp before daylight. Although my efforts were good, I arrived after sunrise. Still, I couldn’t go home, so the 200-yard trek began. During the walk, I thought several times, “Boy, you have messed up getting out here so late.” After looking down at Fed, my black Lab, the sound of a mallard drake softly echoed through the swamp. I gave him a couple of simple quacks, and he pitched down close enough for a shot. Boom. Boom. “My goodness, I’m going to miss this bird,” I thought. Boom. Finally, after the third shot, the drake sailed into some thick brush. “Fed” I shouted and watched him work. As he made his way back, I noticed what looked like a band on the mallard’s leg, but I didn’t believe what I was seeing. When Fed delivered the bird to my hand, the dancing and shouting began, because my first band was in the books. All my negative thoughts vanished, and the hunt was finished. I hadn’t taken a limit, but the band was worth far more.

More Stops Along the Road

After that epic season closed, the grunt work of spring and summer began, and re-rigging decoys, patching waders and fixing broken blinds consumed the agenda. However, the off-season proved to be fruitful, as I received an invite to hunt Massachusetts. After saving for the trip, the day arrived, and I packed my truck and headed north for a week of chasing sea ducks with friends. While driving 17 grueling hours, my mind raced constantly, playing out various scenarios of how the hunt would be. When everyone arrived, we spent several hours prepping the boat for the morning’s hunt. However, the weather didn’t cooperate, with bitter wind gusts of 40 mph.

We quickly tossed the original plan and headed to hunt Cape Cod Bay, which is known for wintering large populations of eiders and other species of sea ducks. With darkness fading fast, everyone scrambled to place long lines at the point of a sandy shoreline. Thousands of birds were flying, but most wanted to land in the middle of the bay because of the terrible wind, which created punishing blasts of sand. Although conditions were not favorable I managed to take a beautiful red-breasted merganser. However, soon after I radioed for the tender boat, a seal popped up and engulfed the bird. As I sat there astonished by what had happened, a group of eiders followed the long lines to our spot. Unfortunately, they were all juvenile drakes. With the day drawing to a close, defeat was in the air, and fatigue set in.

As the week progressed, the weather became more brutal. In fact, 15 inches of snow fell during the night, and temps were below freezing as we approached the boat ramp for a layout hunt. While I floated in a small layout boat, watching waves violently crash against the rocks, a common scoter flew down the long lines. Chris yelled from the other layout, “Hey, do you see that bird?” When the boat crested atop the wave, I pulled the trigger and watched the bird fall into the spread. Fortunately, the tender boat retrieved it before a slippery seal made it a snack. Not long afterward, a huge drake eider passed by, but after three shots, he flew away into the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean without a scratch. Of course, I thought I wouldn’t have another chance to harvest the main species that had brought me there.

What are the 41 Major North American Waterfowl Species?

Puddle ducks: mallard, northern pintail, American wigeon, gadwall, northern shoveler, wood duck, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, cinnamon teal, American black duck, mottled duck, fulvous whistling duck, black-bellied whistling duck.

Diving ducks/mergansers: canvasback, redhead, greater scaup, lesser scaup, ring-necked duck, ruddy duck, common goldeneye, Barrow’s goldeneye, bufflehead, hooded merganser, common merganser, red-breasted merganser.

Sea ducks: king eider, common eider, long-tailed duck, surf scoter, common (black) scoter, white-winged scoter, harlequin duck.

Geese/Swans/Brant/Cranes: Canada goose, cackling Canada goose, tundra swan, sandhill crane, snow goose, blue goose (note: Snow and blue geese actually belong to the same species, Anser caerulescens), Ross’s goose, white-fronted goose, brant.

As the final day came to a close, I looked up to see a huge drake eider flying along the rocks. Without hesitation, instinct took over, and the bird fell at 40 yards, struck by one pellet. Excitement filled the air, and shouts of joy filled the bay, as I felt like a superhero for a brief time. The next morning, we parted ways, heading back to the reality of work, but there was an unforgettable high from that trip that keeps the fire alive.

The next season, I made a nine-hour drive to Florida. I’d spent several hours talking to Brian Hardy, and he introduced me to some local friends who had permits to hunt one of the state’s stormwater treatment areas and Lake Okeechobee. The mottled duck, black-bellied tree duck and fulvous whistling duck were the prime targets. However, a full-plumed blue-winged teal was also high on the list.

Because of recent hurricanes, our target birds were scarce and scattered. But as the sun rose over the swamp, birds filled the air. Hundreds of bluewings worked the spread throughout the day, but our target species remained elusive. The next morning, after harvesting pintails, bluewings and wigeon, we made a long boat ride with Mark through narrow channels only passable via mud- or airboat to reach a shallow-water destination notorious for holding mottled ducks. After setting out decoys, we sat back, telling stories about adventures and hunts gone by, waiting for the sun to rise. The experience was a blast, but the birds had been pressured immensely, and only a few were flying. Then Mark said, “Ben here comes your mottled.” However, I whiffed three times. Soon afterward, I had another opportunity. Someone made the point that missing wasn’t an option, and the bird fell. With species No. 29 in the books and the world watching, I broke it down with a signature-species dance accompanied with a little rap beat.

Continuing On

After all the years and time afield, my passion remains strong. It keeps burning when birds don’t work or through mornings that end without firing a shot. Although most of my success has come from immense trial and error and the help of friends, I will be forever grateful that Dad took the time to teach me how to be a hunter and create a passion that will be passed on to the next generation of Coles.

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