Stood Up

Hunters set up blind dates with the ducks last season, but went home jilted. Is the same thing in the cards for this year?

When I was in sixth grade, going into seventh, I had a crush on Sandy. In fact, I even went steady with Sandy for one short afternoon.

When we decided to go steady, or rather she decided, there was this sort of liaison of ambassadors that carried out our communications.

They would start, “Sandy says she likes you. Do you like her?”

Of course my boyish heart would shyly reply in a nervous excitement, “Yyyahhh, I like her.”

The idea was to attempt to remain cool, but what was really happening inside was plain stupid. It didn’t take long for stupid to come out, and in one fleeting afternoon, the relationship was over.

I am so glad I never have to relive those pubescent years. They were god-awful lessons that tore at my insides emotionally and left me with little joy. Yet, with that being said, I am grateful for the bride of my youthful 20s, who never thinks what’s inside of me is stupid.

Unfortunately, as an avid duck hunter, it is I who has so often mistreated her. I confess — I have had many affairs with the annual duck seasons here in Louisiana.

I can’t seem to help it. I have fallen so passionately in love with them over the years; my actions are reminiscent of those pubescent boyhood days. I get all crazy inside, and stupid wants to come out all over again.

With the first cool northern breezes of fall, there is a spring to my step and lover’s smile on my face. I whistle out in the shed, while making sure each sack of decoys is aligned just right on their respective shelves. I caress them and dote over them, checking lines and anchor weights to be sure they are all ready when the season starts.

I am enamored by the possibilities of camouflage arrangements, the enticement of decoy spreads, and preparations for the pending dates. After all, each year, each day on the pond is sort of like dating around.

Some dates are better than others. Some are the warmth of the first-split opener, where the rays of sunshine glow like a halo around the eastern sky’s cirrus clouds.

Others are sassy, where the crisp wind-swept drizzle causes you to cuddle up next to your Lab.

Still, others are as cold as ice, and you’re ready to go home.

Certainly, some dates you scratch and never get to first base, not firing a shot.

Then there are dates where getting to first or second base is a chore, and all you’ve got to show for the effort is a couple of teal.

But on those dates you hit the home run, taking a limit of green-headed mallards — va va voom — there is nothing like it. Wanting to do it again is only natural.

Unfortunately for Louisianians, the last few years have left us with too many dates not worth remembering, in spite of liberal recommendations from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The question we have before us as we stand on the eve of the first split of our east and west zones is what will this year bring?

Like most avid duck hunters, I pore over every piece of information relative to waterfowl. I am trying to sneak a peak at what might turn into a perfect 10 for one of my scheduled “duck” dates.

Unfortunately, I have come to learn that most of these dates will be blind dates, thanks to Adaptive Harvest Management.

Biologist D.R. Anderson defines AHM this way:

“Adaptive Harvest Management describes the ability to make a sequence of decisions, in the face of uncertainty, that is optimal with respect to a stated objective, recognizing some constraints.”

Some of the constraints and uncertainties that go into AHM science are breeding-pair estimates, pond counts and moisture conditions across all of the flyways. The early summer reports, while sneaking those peeks, indicated that duck number and habitat survey estimates were below those of the previous year.

Those early reports didn’t bode well for Louisiana waterfowlers. Louisianians are used to disappointments from their professional football team in New Orleans but not the Sunday morning duck hunt prior to kick-off.

Nonetheless, there remained cautious optimism.

As mid-summer approached, the 2003 waterfowl harvest and hunter activity estimates were released. When the numbers were compared to the previous season’s harvest, cautious-optimism and disappointment changed to malcontent.

The proverbial stuff hit the fan, and the crescendo of outraged sportsman’s voices could be heard around the state. Most agreed, they didn’t know where the numbers came from, but somehow it didn’t include them and, therefore, couldn’t be right.

The tensions seemed to subside somewhat when a July news release from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that the framework recommended for the Mississippi Flyway’s upcoming season would again be 60 days and six ducks, with specific species restrictions.

This was another liberal season, albeit by the thinnest of margins.

Keeping in line with the framework, Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries set tentative season recommendations in August, ultimately agreeing to these dates for our current season.

A shortened, nine-day early teal season produced mixed results.

The calls I made to several hunting clubs across the state that included Gueydan Hunting Club, Doug’s Hunting Lodge (Gueydan) and Hackberry Rod & Gun Club (Hackberry) indicated a decent number of birds prior to the opening day of Sept. 18.

“We aren’t seeing the big flights of teal yet, and most of the birds we are seeing are along the coast,” said Buddy Oakes of Hackberry Rod & Gun.

The Monday following opening weekend, Kirk Stansel of Hackberry Rod & Gun said his clients had great success on opening day.

“We killed our birds,” he said. “Nine out of 11 blinds limited, and a 10th should have.”

Stansel also indicated the shooting dropped off considerably Sunday and Monday.

“We are not seeing the birds we normally see at this time of year,” he said.

Other clubs like Doug’s Hunting Lodge reported it being slow opening day, but that the action picked up on Sunday.

Reports I got coming from Atchafalaya Delta WMA also were similar, with some getting limits within minutes Saturday, followed by a drop off Sunday.

I spoke with several groups of hunters coming out of Humble Canal Landing, near Montegut, who hunted Pointe Aux Chenes WMA and some of the surrounding areas.

Their report was just the opposite. They said it was slow Saturday, but Sunday picked up quite a bit.

For the optimist like me, there are silver linings in everything. The sub-aquatic pond vegetation in the areas both private and public that I hunt is abundant. I was able to get a good feel for this during some late-season frog hunting.

The hunting season dates set by the Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries are optimal for particularly the second split statewide. The potential for some late January cold weather is there. This could allow us to see some late-migrating green heads, in full plumage, sporting bright red legs.

Lastly, not all breeding numbers were down. It looks like bonus ducks such as gadwall, green-winged teal and shoveler numbers were well above the NAWMP goals.

Sure duck numbers are and have been on the decline these past several years. However, weather has played a major role in the limited success Louisianians have seen lately.

As long as snow doesn’t cover the fields that contain an abundance of waste grain up north, ducks have no reason to leave.

As for me, I am remaining hopeful. In fact, those first wisps of cool morning air in late September brought the flirtatious tease from my blind dates up north. Moreover, since then, my cautious optimism has changed into head-over-heels love again, as I prepare for opening weekend.

My dates will ride the breezes of crisp northern air to the shores of my southern hospitality. I will dress up in my camouflage tuxedo and ride to them in my limo-airboat. I will set out the decoy blocks and form an inviting spread on the linens of my vegetation pond table. I will call with the cunning silky licks of their language, and appeal to the basest appetites of their desire.

In retrospect, I am still not 100 percent sure of what happened to Louisiana’s duck season last year. I am still wrestling with whether or not I was lied to or the tease of Sandy came back to haunt me.

Whatever the answer, in 2003-04 we were stood up. Our dates never showed. And for many of us, that has never happened before.