Outdoors: Waterfowl Odyssey

Photo by Jay AnglinThe outdoors columnist and hunter recently admires a drake mallard and a sureal sunset.

Odyssey, noun — 1. a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune; 2. an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest. (From Merriam-Webster dictionary)

I honestly cannot imagine a better word to describe the past couple weeks of waterfowl hunting I have experienced. It’s my place this time of year. It may sound silly, but many waterfowl hunters will tell you they live for it. I don’t have many vices and certainly none of them are illegal, but I must admit that I’m a full-blown waterfowl hunting addict.

From rags to riches, then hero to zero and back again, the journey has been punctuated by elation and total exhaustion and in some cases the inexplicable drive to do it all again the next day.

On Thursday afternoon as I sat in a blind overlooking a fabulous decoy spread (if I don’t say so myself) on a La Porte area marsh, I couldn’t help but wonder what other people think about waterfowl hunters. Surely, they think we’ve gone mad. Why else would somebody sit cold, wet and miserable, waiting for a duck or goose to come within shotgun range?

As the light lake effect snow kicked in, the skies were largely void of waterfowl, where only a few days prior one of the better hunts of the season took place. This is a perfectly normal situation that avid waterfowl hunters are all too familiar with — dare I say, we’d stop doing it if it were easy all of the time. Waterfowl hunters invest their time, energy and a considerable amount of money into the sport even though they tend to deal with many more lows than highs. Of course, like anything it’s those highs that keep bringing us back.

It’s difficult to explain what the attraction is. The magic of a flock of mallards working and setting their wings to glide into the decoys is one of those things that you have to witness to understand. Ducks come from all over the place. While some birds are locals that are very familiar with the area because they live here 12 months a year, the vast majority of the ducks and geese come from distant lands. These birds migrate through, often with barely a glance at this part of the world, while others stick around for a few weeks.

I have leg bands from ducks and geese that I bagged in Northern Indiana that came from all over North America including ducks from Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. All of these birds looked just like the ones we see at the park in town during summer months but the reality of it is, they are very different birds. There is something about a duck or goose that migrates from one end of the continent to the other twice a year, that is alluring.

Some people have a hard time with the concept of migration. I fondly recall a conversation I had with a well-known local waterfowl hunter when I first moved to La Porte 16 years ago. I had mentioned that I shot a mallard drake near Hanna that was banded in Manitoba. He laughed and sort of scolded me, “Well, who says? We don’t get any migrants through this area! Those biologists made a mistake I guarantee it."

Of course, they didn’t make a mistake. Waterfowl hunting is strictly controlled by the federal and state government and a huge part of the process is tracking migration corridors and bird numbers. Bird banding plays a large part in the management process as band returns establish patterns that indicate where birds go and when among other things.

When I look at a flock of mallards or geese in the sky I often wonder how many times I’ve seen the same birds. It stands to reason that if you hunt a given area a lot that you’ll see the same birds over and over. Even more interesting, have I seen them in multiple places? Maybe I ran into a few of them while hunting in Canada or other far-away destinations.

Waterfowl often live for a long time and they really do get around. I think it stands to reason that we see the same birds from time to time. Occasionally a bird will have a unique marking or coloration to give themselves away, but that’s rare. A flock of mallards looks like any other flock of mallards regardless of where you see them.

We are coming into the homestretch as far as duck season goes, which ends on Sunday. I have a couple more hunts to squeeze in and I then I’ll be sad (though my wife is elated).

I have to admit it’s somewhat of a relief once it’s over. Long days of physical labor and short nights of little sleep are the norm. We don’t eat right and most of the time we are dehydrated. Hardcore waterfowl hunters need to rest and recuperate and the older they get the longer it takes.

Then again, we can focus on geese with a little more vigor as the season lasts well into February. In the meantime, there will plenty of wild game dinners on cold winter evenings and nothing tastes better than the fruits of my odyssey.

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