As you all know, every year there are certain species of duck that are closed to hunting or restricted while others are open. That presents a challenge to a hunter to be alert at all times and become adept at duck identification to comply with the law.
As a young hunter, I had the opportunity to share the blind with a wonderful, experienced Cajun guide named Amos Hebert in Little Prairie. He would amaze me at how calm he would remain upon seeing ducks in the sky, and turn them to us with just a few sweet notes from the call. Most times, he would tell me what kind of ducks we were looking at even if they didn't come into the decoys or get killed. And most times, he was right. I was young and really idolized his skills, so some of my memories may be a little distorted in his favor, but he was good at what he did.
I have had some occasions in the blind where I actually saw the distinct plumage of ducks in flight and knew what they were before we fired, but honestly, there are many other times that I was certain it was a duck, but not certain of the species. The days where you are likely to make good identifications are on sunny days, where there is plenty of sunshine to light up the birds and reflect the color patterns, but the overcast cloudy days present a real challenge to a hunter.
Of course, some birds are easier to identify than others. I believe even the most inexperienced waterfowl hunters can pick out a flock of teal. Pintail have a distinct wing shape and, as they get closer, the pintail feather gives them away.
The challenge lies in the other similarly sized and colored ducks. Think about a few ducks sneaking in on you from the back side of the blind and, with only a split second to identify and shoot, you must make an identification. Think about the redhead and canvasback. Similar color patterns, with the main difference being the size and beak shape. The problem is a year ago, canvasbacks were illegal to shoot, while redheads were legal.
There are other ducks that are similar in size that present challenges to identify. The notorious black duck versus the mottled duck comes up every year. If you can pick them out in flight, you are a wizard.
That leaves the hunter with difficult decisions to make. To completely and fully comply with the law, many hunters would have to not shoot at many ducks that do not come completely into the decoy spread. Many times, that is the only way I can accurately ID them. And there are days when wary ducks will only skirt your spread and give you passing shots, but never come into the decoys. Should you sit in the blind and never pull the trigger that day?
In my lease, it is tough to pass up any shots because there are many days where my opportunities are limited. On the other hand, if you make an honest mistake and take a restricted species you have a dilemma of wasting a fine duck by leaving it in the field or risking an expensive citation.
So, what is a good hearted, ethical hunter to do?
I encourage everyone to be as informed as possible about duck identification BEFORE you go into the field. That gives you the best ability to make the correct ID in the heat of the moment, when you have a split second to make a decision. Many times, there are debates on the Web site about duck identification when the duck is dead right in front of the hunter. If you can't ID it when you are holding it, then you certainly can't tell in flight.
Take the time to look at duck ID materials and Web sites with actual photographs of the ducks. I have seen duck ID books with renderings and drawings of ducks that are not very accurate, so find pictures of the real thing. One good resourse is Ducks Unlimited website (www.ducks.org). There are others, so educate yourself on the duck species that are common to your area and you will have the best chance at staying within the law.
We have all failed to properly ID a duck in flight at some time, myself included. In my opinion, that is an inherent risk associated with the sport. When that has happened to me, I personally chose to take the game in and not waste it, even though I risk a fine. I guess it is the respect of the resource that I cannot overcome, but I can't leave a duck to waste.
I am fortunate that the few times over the years when I have made the mistake that I did not face a fine, but I would be honest with the game warden and accept the consequences. I know in my mind that I hunted with good faith and honest intentions, and that is what matters to me. Maybe there can be some modification to the laws to allow a good-faith accident to be free from prosecution someday, but until then, do your best and enjoy the outdoors.
I hope you shoot straight and shoot often. Have a very Merry Christmas. I hope you and your family are blessed this holiday season.