Integrity check

Opening morning in the east zone started with great anticipation this weekend. We awoke with enthusiasm and, like a well-oiled machine, my son and I dressed, threw the gear in the truck and quietly slipped out of the house like thieves in the night. We timed it just right, and got into the blind a few minutes before first light and were settled in early. That’s when we began to experience the heart and soul of duck hunting. The sound of wings in the darkness on opening morning!

As the darkness faded to dim light, I began to see birds darting in and out of view. Passing over the decoys that I knew were there, but couldn’t yet see. It was a great experience, and I know my son was just as excited as I was. The increasing light gave hints of the excitement to come. Birds were flying like someone swatted a wasp nest, diving and darting in from the left, right, and from behind. It was a real test of wills not to begin shooting, but I told my son to wait until we could see where they would fall so we wouldn’t lose the birds we knocked down.

Finally, the time came to launch the assault and the order was given: “FIRE AT WILL!” For the first 10 minutes, it really seemed like a video game that so many of the kids are fixated upon these days. So many birds, it was a challenge to pick one and follow it through the shot without crossing another, possibly closer and more tempting shot. Many shots were fired, and a few birds fell. Then the light progressed a little more and reality set in. The majority of what was buzzing about our heads was not ducks, but the infamous coot, or poule d’eau where I come from.

I have never seen that many coots take to the air like this morning, so my first assumption was the dim-light birds were ducks. I have seen that many rafted up before, but these were swarming like flies on road kill!

Well, I don’t care to waste any game, so my son and I gathered up the coots and settled in for the ducks that we were sure would pass. We let a few coots pass now that we were scrutinizing the birds a little harder, but the duck wave never made it onto the beach. After an hour of watching most of the ducks head for the open pond next to us, we decided to enjoy the morning and sharpen our skills on the coots that were still flying around.

We ended up the morning with only three ducks, but 17 poule d’eau. I certainly hoped for a few more ducks than coots, but honestly, my son had a great time and I did, too. And, to me, that is the true value of the hunt. It’s not so much the meat on the table, but the memories in our minds that matter to me. I wouldn’t trade a mallard for a memory any day.

While sipping coffee in the blind, I noticed the distinct flash pattern of mechanical decoy wings peeking between the brush in the field next to us. This is the same field that I have been watching close to 1,000 ducks feeding and resting for the past two weeks. The same field that attracted the ducks like a lighted airstrip guides a plane landing in the fog last weekend for the youth hunt. The thought crossed my mind “Why would you put out a Roboduck when you obviously have what the ducks are already wanting?”

I consider myself to be a traditional hunter. I like to pit my skills and talents against the game without the advantages of modern technology. And I will admit, many times, the game fools me more than I fool it, but I feel in some way that is how it should be. And when birds hit the water and go into the bag, and I know that it was a fair chase, I have a true feeling of accomplishment.

I also must say that I am human, and like many hunters, I got a mechanical decoy several years ago when they were the rage. I used it a few times and had some success, but also saw that it flared some ducks. But somehow the hunts felt different, and after a few hunts, I put the decoy in the shed and that’s where it has been for quite some time.

My first couple of hunts in the rice fields has led me to some conclusions: At this point in the season the ducks seem to like the open water (which I don’t have), and they are in large flocks at high altitudes. In the marsh I am used to hunting, most of the ducks I hunted in years past were in flocks of six or eight, and they were at heights that made them fair game. They flew in low enough in the marsh that you could see they had an interest in finding a landing site, and they were more “callable.” They seemed content to find a pothole of water in the marsh, but that doesn’t seem to be the case yet in the rice fields. Much of my calling thus far has been in vain. Not that I consider myself a calling champion, but I have been able to persuade a pair or trio of ducks in the marsh at times.

The past two hunts in the rice field have been very humbling. I also did not hear a single quack from a duck call coming from the pond next to me, but I sure heard lots of gunshots.

My early observations seem to prove that in the rice field, visual senses may be much more vital to ducks than the audible signals. Despite the hunters not calling much at all, the ducks seemed to respond to the open water next to me or (dare I say it, the mechanical duck in use), and they shot quite a few ducks.

Now I have to wonder, what was more attractive to the ducks: the open water that they have flocked to for weeks or the mechanical duck decoy put out just that morning?

Another dilemma presents itself to me. Being the human that I am, I pulled the old Roboduck out of the shed and dusted it off. I charged up the battery and, yep, it still spins like a top. The only attention it needs is a new gasket to serve as the little drive belt and it will be ready for action. And, my son saw it on the counter and was immediately excited. Like most of the youth today, he wants gratification and doesn’t mind taking a shortcut to get it. I don’t blame him; that is to be expected.

But I am not sure I am ready to use it.

Like any other hunter, I like to have opportunities and take some shots. I want my son to have a sore shoulder and great stories to tell his friends and his children in years to come. But I also feel like I am disrespecting the sport in a way by resorting to such tactics. There is no doubt in my mind that the accomplishment is tarnished on a hunt where the advantages go to the hunter. I feel like the ageless battle between the game and the hunter deserves the utmost respect, even in this day when society focuses so much on immediate reward and self-gratification.

So I have a decision to make: compromise my respect for the hunt and deploy the modern technology, or stand firm on my principles and struggle to compete next to hunters who don’t share the same beliefs as I do.

I would love to know what you guys think about the situation, and look forward to hearing from you.

Good luck in the field this week. I hope you shoot straight and shoot often!