A Fisherman Goes Fowling

From Delta Waterfowl Magazine, October 2020

An intro to fly rods is repaid with a fast-paced foray into duck hunting

Max Inchausti and I met during my freshman year of college through our school’s fly fishing club. I was a novice to a fly rod and Max was an experienced trout-bum. Over the next three years, he and I became close friends. We explored all over central and western New York chasing anything that swam with a fly.

We trailered his boat down to Florida for a week and fished the flats for species neither of us had ever seen before. While poling deep into the mangroves looking for snook, we came across an old duck blind with a moldy blue-winged teal decoy not too far away. We got to talking about hunting.

If Max is a trout-bum, then I guess I’m a duck-bum. Every fall, I struggle to explain why I can’t make many of the steelhead weekends because I am off somewhere in a swamp with face paint on. Max casually hunts deer and turkeys, but had never pursued ducks. I’d been bugging him to get his New York hunting license since freshman year, particularly because we attended a New York state university, which enables non-residents like Max to purchase a license for the resident price. As our senior year rolled around last fall, I told him it’s now or never. My persistence paid off, and I was able to convince him to put down the rod for two days in October to see what a sunrise in the marsh is all about.

First Impression Pressure

I didn’t have time to scout the week before opening day because of classes, so I hunted opening weekend with my dad up north. When I got out of my morning class that Monday, I threw my kayak on my car and headed toward a piece of public land I found on the map. After a two-mile paddle, I found a flooded hole off the main creek. I flushed five woodies and a black duck, thinking we would have our work cut out for us.

I longed for it to go well. My dad took me on my first duck hunt when I was 12. The excitement of motoring out to the spot, the sound of wings whistling overhead, and the image of a black duck with wings cupped coming right into the decoys is what I remember most. In many ways, it was the perfect hunt and it hooked me for life. I understand the importance of a first hunt and how it can shape the future of someone’s entire hunting career. Not to mention, the first time I went fishing with Max, he put me on a 36-inch tiger musky. It's safe to say I felt the pressure.

Winding Trek

The morning of our first hunt we both had afternoon classes we had to make it back for. Max had chemistry and I had a paper due for journalism, but we acknowledged on the drive to the marsh that there was a possibility neither of us would be in attendance.

We left early in anticipation for an hour car ride and a paddle to our spot. We arrived at the put-in to see we were the only hunters there. As for now, we had the marsh to ourselves. In order to keep Max from being discouraged, I left out the fact that we had a one-hour paddle ahead of us in the dark. When he asked in the car, “How far is the paddle?” I simply replied, “It’s not too bad.”

As we began our trek through the winding creek, the occasional noise from 18-wheelers on the highway began to fade to silence, leaving only the sound of phragmite grass blowing in the wind and the periodic splash of a beaver tail.

I could sense the excitement in Max’s voice as we continued deeper into the marsh. His questions became more frequent, ask-ing about our hide, decoy positioning, and whether or not I think birds are in the area.

My headlamp guided us down the small creek that split off to the flooded hole, and soon I was tossing out the dekes. We pulled our kayaks into the cattails and waited for shooting light. “It’s going to happen fast,” I told Max. “Just don’t move, and stay quiet.”

"They're Everywhere"

I anxiously watched my phone as shooting time approached, without seeing a single bird in the sky. The time came and we loaded up. As each minute went by without seeing a bird, I became nervous this was going to be the worst first hunt in history.

Then like a light switch, it turned on. Woodies were everywhere, teal buzzed through the decoys, and big flocks of mallards and black ducks appeared over the horizon. What were just empty skies transformed into waterfowl paradise, and I couldn’t help but smile as Max simply said, “They’re everywhere!”

The first group of woodies came barreling in like a freight train.

“Take ’em!” I yelled.

We both emptied our guns without touching a feather. The baffled-yet-excited look on Max’s face said it all.

“We have to be quicker next time,” I said with a laugh.

The rest of the morning followed a similar pattern of missing, not being ready, making fun of ourselves, and laughing so hard I’m pretty sure the archery hunters on the nearby ridge could hear us. Once the sun broke over the horizon, it lit us up like a flashlight and the birds started flaring. I managed one beautiful drake wood duck, and we continued shooting more times than I am proud to admit. I felt bad that Max left empty-handed, but once he told me that I had to skip my class the next morning so we could return and set up with a better hide, I knew he was hooked.

Max now knew what to expect, and we were hoping our shooting would come around. Like clockwork, the magic time hit and I spotted a group of mallards falling out of the sky on a string into our spread. The birds were dropping so fast I barely had time to tell Max,“Right here! Take ’em!”

I folded a drake and missed the next two shots as the ducks did an emergency backpedal out of range.

The action only got hotter as the morn-ing continued on. Our hide was almost too perfect, as many times we didn’t even see the birds until they were in the decoys. I managed another drake wood duck, though our shooting was still not up to par. I could see the disappointment in Max’s face, frustrated with his performance.

“At least you have the excuse of it being only your second hunt,” I consoled him. “I’ve been hunting my whole life and still can’t hit a thing.”

“I’m going to hit the next one,” he said, smiling.

I wish I could say that a minute later a big drake mallard dropped in with wings cupped and that Max folded it, but in reality, we continued to miss wood ducks all morning to the point of hysterical laughter. Don’t even ask about the few teal that gave us a look.

Like a genius, I only grabbed a half box of 20-gauge shells that morning, somehow thinking that my shooting the day prior would evolve into Olympic form — or maybe it was part of that mental game nonsense I’ve come to believe. Either way, my shooting improved only marginally and I was out of shells by mid-morning.

I put my gun back in the case and turned to Max.“It’s all up to you now.”

The flight slowed down and we settled into our cushioned kayak seats trying to avoid thinking about the work we were missing in class. Max was now in a comfortable supine position ready for a nap when I caught a glimpse of a bird coming in fast to our right.

“Duck right here!” I said.

Max fumbled to get up from the kayak like a kid late for school woken up by his mother. Luckily, the bird made a big hook right in front of us and locked its wings as it circled back around. I caught a glimpse of a big white patch on the speculum and knew it was a gadwall. The duck cupped up and came right in. Max jumped up and made a perfect shot, dropping the gadwall in the spread.

We high-fived, yelled, and smiled at the great shot and what a fun two days it had been. I paddled out, retrieved the duck and handed it to Max. He stood there with a big smile examining the bird — like every hunter does with his or her first duck. I showed him how I was able to identify it as a gadwall, and briefly talked about waterfowl biology before I snapped a few photos.

The paddle out was with high spirits and sore arms. We relived the past two days of missed shots and the stupid stuff we did — often having to stop because we were laughing too hard.

I don’t know if Max’s first gadwall com-pares to my first musky on the fly — maybe it would had it been banded. But I did recognize that look on his face when he held up his duck for the first time: the same expression he shows on the river when he holds up a fresh steelhead. We couldn’t stop reliving the hunt for days afterward, and he thanked me many times for taking him out. After all the fish he’s helped me land over the years, I was more than happy to finally return the favor. It wasn’t my first time introducing a friend to duck hunting, but it was one of my favorites.

Change a Life

The importance of sharing our waterfowl hunting traditions with new hunters is at the core of conservation and securing the future of waterfowling. That’s why Delta Waterfowl’s HunteR3 programs aim to recruit, retain, and reactivate waterfowl hunters throughout North America. The HunteR3 initiative has many components, including First Hunt, the largest waterfowl recruitment program in North America; the University Hunting Program, which targets future wildlife professionals who lack a hunting background and may be unaware of hunting’s crucial role in waterfowl conservation; and Defending the Hunt, a Delta program that defends against threats to waterfowl hunting across North America.

This season, take a moment to think about your first hunt or some other moment that hooked you on ducks for life. Remember the memories you’ve made over the years and all those mornings filled with sunrises in the blind. Consider how much you would’ve missed out on, if nobody had taken the time to show you the ways of waterfowling.

And in the months ahead, if you’re able, introduce someone new to waterfowl hunting. It may change his or her life forever.

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