This year he turns 50th season away as a duck hunter. It’s been half a century since a very young child wearing very large clothes and an ear hat Elmer Fudd killed his first duck – a one-legged mallard chicken – with his father’s shotgun. Today, and any given day, I would struggle to find my way to the grocery store. But I can take you back to where I was standing in Bob Wolfe’s Beaver Swamp the afternoon when unfortunate Suzie encountered a 1-3 ounce load of #5 lead.
Over the years, I have been blessed to hunt waterfowl in some legendary locations. Most had a lot of ducks. Others were just cool for some reason. But what makes a duck hole legendary? How do you earn that title? Is it time? Numbers? Aesthetic? Reputation?
“I think it’s a combination of things,” says my friend Matthew Cagle, owner of Rig ‘Em Right Waterfowl. “It is the knowledge that surrounds a place passed down by the ancients. And it’s not always a place with the best hunting, but a place that people have talked about and talked about and talked about.” Legendary, it could mean the chance to tag a bucket-list bird – a canvas drake, a cinnamon teal or a full-grown tundra swan. Or it could include the scenery, unique challenges, or famous waterfowl that have walked that dirt in the past.
The five waterfowl hotspots profiled here are my top five, and many would argue, are at least in the top 10 of any waterfowl. I have hunted them all, with the unfortunate exception of the famous Chesapeake Bay. Some like the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Columbia River, I have hunted many times. They are places that for one reason or another, I just can’t get enough of, and that to me qualifies as legendary.
1) Columbia River (Washington/Oregon)
I shot my first red drake head in the Columbia River, and my first black scoter as well. I saw a friend shoot not one, but two Eurasian widgeon drake that same morning in a small bay off the Lower River. It was a monumental day to say the least.
There are an almost endless number of small islands and meandering marshes, along with shallow bays, open waters, tidal marshes and freshwater streams in the Columbia. If it’s a hunting style you’re looking for, there’s an extremely good chance you’ll find it there.
When it comes to species, the Columbia River is all about variety. On any given morning on the Lower River—and by “Lower River,” I’m talking roughly from the Astoria Bridge upstream to River Mile 25—it’s possible to get a mixed bag of pondweed, sinkers and mallards, along with any of the seven subspecies of Canada geese. (NOTE: you’re only allowed to shoot six subspecies, Duskies are still a no-no on both sides of the Columbia.) I’ve seen Eurasian teal, long-tailed ducks, Aleutian ducks, and even heard them say geese accidental unjust empire. I’m not saying you’ll get this mix of species overnight. But if you’re destined to put the odd ball on the wall, the Columbia River might just be your go-to.
Oh, and just north of The Columbia Bar, Willapa Bay offers a limited blackbelly season in January, depending on aerial surveys and population estimates. David Hagerbaumer hunted brant there; Mathewson is also worth it. And if you don’t know those names, maybe you should try deer hunting.
2) Chesapeake Bay (Maryland/Virginia)
Sean Mann has been hunting the Chesapeake for over five decades now. He grew up on the Delmarva Peninsula. It’s where he cut his teeth in the clothing business; where he built his first goose call, the Eastern Shoreman; and where he grew his reputation among a Who’s Who of waterfowl call makers. It is also where he won the World Goose Calling Championship (1985) and 10 years later, the coveted Champion of Champions title. Mann knows waterfowl and had this to say about the Chesapeake.
“Why does the Chesapeake Bay qualify as ‘legendary?'” he says. “Because I said so. All kidding aside, in the grand scheme of things, the Chesapeake Bay is the birthplace of American waterfowl. The Europeans landed here first. They didn’t land on the Mississippi Flyway or the Pacific Flyway.
“This is where survival and market hunting began. In many ways, Chesapeake is also the reason for all the conservation programs we have today. So it’s the birthplace, it’s part of the decline, and it’s brought conservation measures that have kept many game species, not just waterfowl, in the public spotlight and continue to thrive today.”
Thanks to these conservation measures, you can still hunt a variety of birds in the Chesapeake, including Canada geese, white geese, canvasbacks, redheads, grebes, goldeneyes, bufflehead, pintails, grebes, and a variety of mallards such as skater, long tail. ducks, and Atlantic brant.
3) Beaver Dam (Mississippi)
Beaver Dam Lake, or simply Beaver Dam, is legendary among waterfowlers because Nash Buckingham made it famous. Buckingham (1880-1971) spent most of his adult life as a prolific writer, book author and conservative. He was one of the most outspoken supporters of the Migratory Bird Treaty, a measure very applicable today. But first and foremost, Buckingham, accompanied by his equally famous Fox 12-borp mat, Bo Whoop, was a duck hunter. And Beaver Dam was one of his favorite stomping grounds. He hunted there, wrote about it and spent time with friends among the cypresses.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to sit blind in Beaver Dam as a guest of Mike Boyd and his son, Lamar, owners of Beaver Dam Hunting Services. I was hunting with Tommy Akin, one of the finest gentlemen I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. The morning began misty and calm before bat-like wood ducks darted past the blind followed by gray ducks and mallards.
It was a classic hunt with a canvas coat, wooden call and my father’s 1952 Winchester Model 24 16 gauge. That evening, we dined at the Blue and White Restaurant in Tunica; perhaps at the same table Buckingham and his friend, Dr. William “Chubby” Andrews, sat down so many years ago. At Beaver Dam, the history of duck hunting is all around you – in the cypress, on the dark water, riding on the wings of gray ducks and mallards circling overhead.
4) Pool 9 – Mississippi River (Iowa/Wisconsin)
I’ve seen it in Pool 9. My wife, who shares a two-person boat with me, has also seen it: Two hundred thousand canvases. Maybe more. The exact number does not matter. It seemed to us that it was every ‘can on the planet and then some. Never mind that we were flat-backed surrounded by 150 hand-carved cans and redhead baits. Mind you our hosts were none other than Mark Rongers, the man behind the Mighty Layout Boys line of ‘bird boats’ and his brother, John—two of the most knowledgeable duck hunters out there, especially when it comes to hunting from an urban plan. boat.
Pool 9 is a 36,000-acre block of outstanding waterfowl habitat between Wisconsin and Iowa that runs about 31 miles from Lynxville, Wisconsin, upriver to Genoa. Officially included as part of the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Pool 9 is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It has open water spaces, shallow stretches of water, an active commercial shipping channel, hundreds of islands large and small, and is filled with an absolutely ridiculous number of ducks. Foragers are well represented here – mallards, grebes, gadwalls, green-winged wagtails, and even a handful of pintails. There are also divers, redheads, bluebirds, grouse, goldfish and the occasional wacky or long-tailed duck.
But it’s the King – the canvas – that brings waterfowl from far and wide to Pool 9. It starts, usually, in mid-October, with ‘can numbers increasing at Halloween and through November until there are a quarter of a million of their trading waters and skies above the Mississippi and its patchwork quilt of islands (which, by the way, make great places to get in that big blind boat). It’s a spectacle worth seeing, even if you don’t shoot one of these regal birds. But you will.
5) Great Salt Lake (Utah)
My guides put me in a layout boat behind a dozen snow white baits. They told me to scream WWWOOOO!! at every passing bird. He told me to take my time, look at them and choose an adult. And then they motored away to hide in the bricks. What they didn’t tell me was that after that big white bird hit the surface with a splash—my first tundra swan—that I would be rocking it like an 8-year-old who just killed his first buck. And I did.
Tundra swans. Cinnamon tea. Green wings. Handsome wall-worthy shovelers. Tablets and redheads. Hell, even scooters and long-tailed ducks. They all run through the Great Salt Lake, making it as legendary and unique a hunting ground as you’ll find anywhere from coast to coast. Take an airboat and go out into the center where the water is six inches deep. Surround a coffin blind with 400, 500 or even 600 black duck silhouettes. Hide the plane in plain sight a few hundred yards away, and then watch more greenwings and northern shovelers than you thought existed fly into your reach.
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You can hunt divers in the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge or plover and swans in Farmington Bay from a traditional boat. There is also history. Duck hunting became popular in and around the Great Salt Lake during the late 1800s. Utah’s first duck club, the Salt Lake Sportsmen’s Club, was founded in 1884; and the prestigious Bear River Club was founded in 1901 and sold by its original owner, Vinson Davis, for $6,000.
But, unfortunately, there is a dark side to the Great Salt Lake – it is rapidly shrinking. In the late 1980s, the Great Salt Lake covered about 3,300 square miles; today it is less than 1000. This translates into less water for people, agriculture, waterfowl and wildlife in general. Climate change and high demand are where the fingers are being pointed, but the story of the Great Salt Lake is a long story; longer, perhaps, than her hunting history, which, with luck, will continue well into the future.