Picture this. You've had a good opening to the duck season. But now the season has been underway a while and you haven't had any cold fronts or strong south winds to bring in new birds or shake things up. They sky is blue-bird clear, and has been for days. The water is so calm you can float a saucer on it. There are no ducks, at least not on your lease. You know they are somewhere, but they aren't where you are. Sound familiar?
So what do you do? If you're like most duck hunters, you loyally trudge back to your lease when the weekend rolls around, somehow hoping for a miracle - one that seldom comes. You sit in the sun and bake. You joke with your hunting partners - "That's why they call it hunting, not shooting."
But you really aren't happy - this isn't what you signed on for.
This might be you, but it's not Andy Johnston. This 38-year-old hunter has learned to roll with the punches.
He has developed a network of cooperative friends with leases who work together to provide the best shooting for the group.
"When I don't have birds on my lease," Johnston said, "the first thing that I do is pick up my cell phone and start calling. I find out who's got birds and who doesn't. Duck hunters all have the same common interest and have only 60 days to get it done."
Johnston's approach is aided by the fact that waterfowl hunters are a talkative bunch. Two duck hunters in a room of a hundred strangers somehow always find each other. Then everybody else gets ignored while they gabble about where they hunt, how they hunt, and their successes and failures.
At first thought, Johnston's approach sounds like it could backfire and result in the birds being shot off of good spots.
But the pressures tend to work out and balance.
"If a friend's lease is covered up (with ducks), you won't shoot it out," he said. "They will leave on their own at some stage, anyway. If your friend is barely getting limits, we won't hunt his lease.
"Another plus is that the leases not being shot are getting a rest from hunting pressure. The bottom line is that we go where the birds are."
In Johnston's case, that could be his lease in Delacroix or others' leases in Myrtle Grove, the east bank of St. Charles Parish, Pecan Island, Hopedale, Reggio, Lafitte, Port Sulphur, Buras or Bayou Dularge.
For variety he also works in public-land hunts on Pass A Loutre, Pearl River and Biloxi wildlife management areas, and Delta and Big Branch Marsh national wildlife refuges.
Here’s how it works.
The morning looked like it was going to be a bummer. It was hot enough to worry about mosquitoes, and not a breath of wind stirred.
Johnston and one of his ace hunting partners, Capt. Feleciano "Junior" Mendoza (owner of Shallow Water Charters; 504-258-2131), were practicing what Johnston preaches, hunting a freshwater-marsh lease relatively close to metropolitan New Orleans.
Before daylight, Johnston nestled his popup blind-equipped Gator Trax aluminum boat into a nook in the marsh grass surrounding a large pond. Mendoza stuck up a few willow branches behind the bow of the boat to break his outline. He settled his 65-year-old body down between the stick-ups and the boat’s bow, using the bow as a shooting table.
Johnston sat quietly in the stern end of the boat. Neither moved to pick up the sides of the popup blind.
"I leave it down the first 15 to 30 minutes or so of shooting hours," he said. "The birds can’t see us well in the poor light, and we have much better visibility to spot incoming birds."
The two veteran hunters were obviously excited, and began counting down the minutes in muted tones.
"Ten more minutes; five minutes left; only two more minutes."
Then bang, bang, then another bang a couple seconds later.
Two greenwing teal down, followed by a bluewing. Mendoza’s yellow Labrador retriever, Ginger, began the first of 12 missions.
The pair worked their calls as soon as birds were spotted, alternating mallard and gadwall quacks with pintail peeps and wigeon trills.
A beautiful male scaup and his mate bit the dust, followed by another teal. Half a limit for the two men was made. None of the birds acted in the least bit wary.
But the tale would be told later, when the more-cautious gadwalls begin working.
During the pause in the action, I got to know my fellow hunters a little better. Johnston is, with his father and former Louisiana Sportsman columnist Hank, co-owner of the Boat Doctor Inc. The pair sells Gator Trax boats and Mud Buddy motors to duck hunters and shallow-water fishermen.
"Fourteen years ago," he said, "that was a nice little sideline to our main business, which was an independent repair shop for outboard motors and stern drives. We started selling the duck boats for offseason winter income.
"Now we are known as well for our duck boats as for our repair service."
The duck boats come equipped with their own pop-up blinds, custom built for each boat out of tubular aluminum framing webbed with nylon netting that is covered by Fastgrass and raffia grass.
His hunting partner on this day, Junior Mendoza, has a burnished bronze complexion and a full head of hair that he got from his Filipino father. Off course, a dash of American Indian thrown in on his Irish-Italian mother’s side didn’t hurt, either.
Mendoza has retired twice, once after 31 years (25 as a principal) in the Jefferson Parish School system and again following 10 ½ years as a parish human resource director.
Three weeks after he retired, he got his licenses to begin charter guiding.
"I get paid to do things I enjoy. When I am not charter fishing I play golf. But I take a sabbatical from golf during hunting season. I hunted 61 of 60 days last year," he said before catching himself, grinning broadly. "Of course, that counts teal season."
Johnston takes it all in, and then explains further.
"Junior really got his charter license so that he can tell his wife he is working when he goes out fishing 5 days a week," Johnston saiid.
The chatting stopped quickly.
"Bird at 2 o’clock," hissed Johnston.
It didn’t take long after the gadwalls made their appearance. They came willingly, even though not a breath of wind was stirring the sunbathing-worthy day. At 8:20 a.m., the men dropped the sides of the popup and cased their shotguns.
They made it look too easy.