Late Friday morning, folks started arriving. Eight of ten would be in attendance, plus ex officio members of distinction; three significant spousal units. There were smiles, handshakes, and hugs all around. Family reports and updates, and food for the afternoon feast. The long-awaited 2023 waterfowl season had arrived.
For 22 years, this simple patch of ground which lies in the middle of other wetlands which lies within the Golden Triangle of north Missouri has been converted into an amazing place. Restored to a functioning model private wetland, a small hunt club, a birders paradise, and a place of gathering for friends and family. A place where stories are recalled and told, conservation is discussed and practiced, and a legacy is made – a place we call duck camp.
Temperatures had dropped enough with a chilly breeze off the marsh to give us fair warning of things to come. Earlier rain had turned hard dirt and dust into the ubiquitous sticky mud that will be clinging to tires and boots for the next week. Potholes on the levees were now water filled. But most importantly, the first winter storm of the year was moving across the Dakotas. The ducks were arriving.
Saturday morning brought about an odd feeling as I stood outside in the chilly morning darkness. A year had passed since I last donned my camo and waders, yet the voices, smells, sounds of waterfowl, and stars in the sky told me nothing had changed. It could’ve been an opening morning like any other. But somewhere in the back of my mind was the reflecting reality of knowing, someday soon it’ll be different. Old members and their stories gone forever. A familiar dog no longer making the retrieve. A new name and face in the duck blind. Different, unfamiliar stories being told, sounding too fresh and contemporary to be real. In the waning darkness I stood on the cusp of unthinkable change.
Four of us headed out together well before dawn. The Hunter’s Moon hanging in the western sky gave us just enough light to see the magnificent chaos of ducks in the air. Walking to the blind, bags, guns, and wading sticks in hand, the timing couldn’t have been any better. The northern cold had pushed thousands of birds down into Missouri, and before any triggers could be or would be pulled, even as the guns of autumn boomed in the south on nearby public ground, we watched and listened to a grand display of wild fowl. Ducks in the decoys. Ducks winging by in every direction. Ducks everywhere we looked - teal, gadwall, woodies, widgeon, shovelers, pintails, and a few mallards. We watched and smiled and passed on takeable shots, no one wanting to spoil the moment. A moment silently understood by everyone, except maybe the dog. The stars had aligned nicely, and over the next several days there would be heavy game straps for many, six bird limits, six different species, with an occasional greenhead for good measure.
As the fourth week approached, the newness started to wear off. The cold weather that pushed ducks south three weeks earlier was a blurry memory. Educated birds now flew precisely from one pool to another, planned, synchronized flights along invisible highways in the sky. Their days beginning and ending with deliberate movement much like the members of our small camp, with one difference. Each morning we concoct a new strategy for ambush and capture. The ducks, however, have seen it all before, and on cue, perform, dazzle, sing and wing leaving us begging for more. Standing ovations in the marsh as our shotguns sit cold, idle, and silent. The birds are patterned.
The Beaver Moon approached signaling the closure of the first 30 days. Specks and a few trumpeters now grace the sky a little more frequently. Snow and Canada geese are increasing slightly. But the mallards, which should be more prevalent in our sights by now are still oddly in short supply. Cold weather and ice slowed us down a bit but did little to discourage a few egrets and seven ibis who have made our wetland home for the past month. The coots, however, wisely moved on. Fingertips tingling, we slid away sheets of ice to hunt open holes, we watched the skies and saw the usual – pintails dared us to take the first shot, teal taunted, gadwall, widgeon, and smiling mallards buzzed us, and a few greenheads snuck in to give us false hope.
On day 30, Mother Nature revived her traditional role and momentarily transformed the landscape. Three inches of wet snow stuck to the trees and marsh vegetation as the sky hung heavy and gray, and for the first time, it felt characteristically seasonal. Would today be the day? Some ventured out to experience the moment and wait for the arrival of the multitudes yet to grace us with their presence. And I would go home to check the mail, rest, and get ready to do it all again. The report at the end of this day? Everyone had a great hunt. Only a few ducks fell. And there’s 30 more days to go.