If you have never been hiding behind a tree or sitting in a blind watching a flock of wild ducks circling decoys you have missed one of the most thrilling and beautiful sights in the outdoors. I am getting everything ready for my first duck hunt next week, not expecting a whole lot perhaps. I will be sitting behind a big fallen tree in the back of my favorite cove for most of a day with Bolt, my Labrador, watching a handful of decoys before me. I’ll take a notebook with me and try to do some writing, and build a little campfire if it gets too cold. Sometime in the mid day Bolt and I will take a little walk up into the woods behind me and see how many buck rubs we can find, or if there are any good photos to be taken, maybe look for unusual rocks in the creek.
In that same spot 40 years ago, things were so different. You could actually use a duck call quite a bit, and watch a flock out over the lake respond. I wouldn’t have thought about leaving my post, with the possibility of coming back to find a flock of ducks in my decoys. Today, you won’t see a whole flock sit in a group of decoys, and you had better call sparingly and perfectly to get mallards to respond instead of flaring away. The old dull decoys with faded paint that worked back then aren’t good enough today, you had better have really convincing blocks. That word, “blocks,” was used a lot when I was a young duck hunter. It was a term for well-set decoys. You seldom hear it used today.
But if evolution is indeed a slow change, wild ducks certainly have evolved. Wood-ducks have come back from dangerous lows in the 1950s to very healthy populations now, but they leave the Midwest, where they nest prolifically in the summer, at least three or four weeks earlier today than they did back then. Gadwalls have greatly increased, but remain the stupidest duck ever created. They’ll pitch into a set of decoys with little fanfare. Mallards were somewhat like that once, but not today. They will flare away at the slightest suspicion, and so often spend 20 minutes circling decoys before they commit to them. To fool mallards, and it is always some old hen that leads a whole flock away; you had better be good with a duck call and use it sparingly. When a flock is wheeling away, you can make them reconsider if you know how to imitate an old hen, but if they are over the top of you, it is best to make no calling whatsoever or that old wary duck that warns the rest of the flock will spot you.
It was once so easy to hunt from a boat blind, but today’s mallards have just seen too many of them. By the time mallards get south of the Missouri-Iowa line, they have heard a few duck calls and shotgun blasts. In Manitoba in September, there are lots of young dumb ducks, and hunting there is great. There are almost no brightly colored drakes, as they are just forming their winter plumage.
As a kid I hated eating mallards because we ate lots of them, always pressure-cooked. Today I cut mallard breasts into cross-cut steaks. You can get four out of each side of a mallard, three from a gadwall, two from woodducks and teal. Then you season the steaks, put them on a skewer between pepper and onion slices, wrap a small piece of bacon around each and put the skewer on a charcoal grill. Or you can make stroganoff out of slices of duck meat, or fry fingerstrip slices with onions.
Don’t shoot mergansers! They aren’t any good.
I may kill a limit this week, expecting the first visits in our area from the red-legged northern mallards. Or I may sit there all day and kill none. But Bolt and I won’t come back at dark without having a great day. We will have some new photos, maybe a couple of rocks like nothing I have found before and perhaps some really pretty pieces of driftwood. And we will not spend any time in city traffic, or hear one word spoken in anger. I kind of like days like that. But if I get to wanting to eat a mallard or two, there is always the secluded ponds I know about where I can sneak up over a pond bank and collect a really good supper in a hurry.
I’ll have more to say about duck-hunting in a column to come in January – a column telling anyone who wants to work at it how to eat ducks this winter.
Let me take this opportunity to tell readers that they can order any of my outdoor books or a subscription to my outdoor magazine by calling my office at 417-777-5227. But at Christmas, I like to give away one of my books to kids who do not get much for Christmas. The name of the book is “Dogs and Ducks and Hatrack Bucks.” It is a collection of well 28 illustrated short stories, most about boys. I put it together by digging out old magazine articles I wrote when I was very young. Many of them won awards of some kind or another.
If you know a boy or girl of any age who loves the outdoors but maybe doesn’t read much, this may be a treasure for him. Just call and we’ll sign one and inscribe it to him or her if you will give us the name. All I need is the postage to send it, and if you can’t afford that, call anyway and I will pay the postage.
My website is larrydablemontoutdoors.
You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613.