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A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.
It was a tight squeeze in a twenty-foot skiff when we left Shorter's Wharf in Dorchester County and headed for the public hunting area in the heart of Maryland's answer to the Florida Everglades. There was a slight glitch, however. We moved nary an inch, forcing us to offload like some Marx Brothers routine: three grown men, two dogs, four dozen duck decoys and assorted gear.
Once off the mud flats, the skiff moved nicely over the dark water, skidding around corners like a speed skater. Truth be told, the journey out is one of my favorite parts of a hunting or fishing expedition. The crispness of the air and the speed of the boat over water are delightful, but mostly it's the anticipation of the unknown. What will the day bring? Will the birds fly? Will the fish hit? In the coiled guts of the marsh that sensation is heightened through every S turn, and when the trip is made in the dark, that adds another shot of adrenaline.
We followed the Blackwater River looking for our mark to turn in where a slender ditch opened up to a large tidal pond. It was off this pond, in one of the many side pockets of the Blackwater, that we would set our decoy spread. Of course we had plenty of company in the marsh, typical of an opening day in the second split of the waterfowl season.
Despite being a small state, Maryland does a fairly admirable job of maintaining its natural areas for public use – be it hiking in Savage River State Forest in Western Maryland or hunting on the Eastern Shore in Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area.
Once at our spot, we arranged the mallard and pintail decoys out in front of a knob of marsh in a crescent shape separated into two groups. I ditched the boat up a small gut and hoofed it back to the group. There was about 12 feet of water between my partners and I, so I cautiously waded to the other side; but being vertically challenged to some degree, I took water over my waders. Ah, the price we pay for our hobbies.
Once set up, we waited and watched for the birds. Soon, an explosion resounded throughout the marsh – but not by our hand. After a while, our chance came, with one group of eight mallards that tolled perfectly. Though the end result wasn't as good as we’d hoped, that is hunting. It's a part of the intrigue and excitement that keeps you coming back.
Huck, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, was the author’s best friend for twelve years, a frequent sidekick on his hunting adventures. A better companion he has yet to meet. Retrievers are as much a part of waterfowl traditions as decoys and ducks themselves. [Photo by Chris D. Dollar]
I didn’t grow up in a hunting household, much less one with firearms. I came to waterfowl hunting after college, much later in life than others who share the passion. A college friend and his father showed me the ropes, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
There most certainly is something incongruent about being inspired by something so beautiful – a flock of ducks or geese in full flight, or wings cupped in majestic descent – yet simultaneously desiring to take one or two on the wing.
Perhaps this polarized construct comes down to a paradox of human nature. What other answer could there be? For some of us they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Both things can be true simultaneously – the appreciation of nature and the primal desire to hunt.
Invariably, the follow-up question is whether I feel remorse after killing another living creature. It’s a valid question and one without a simple answer because I do admire and respect birds and fish tremendously. There have been a few occasions where I’ve experienced a brief tinge of melancholy after I’ve hooked a fish destined for the cooler or shot a bird mid-flight. But it isn't remorse, exactly; rather, a moment of respect, admiration and appreciation.
There’s a strong argument to be made that hunters and anglers are first-line conservationists, though the notion is perhaps an oxymoron to others who otherwise consider themselves ardent protectors of wild environs. Sport hunters and anglers annually spend billions of dollars in support of wildlife through the purchase of licenses, stamps, tags, permits and excise taxes on equipment and gear. But I think it goes deeper, much deeper.
If you value sleep, then gunning for wild ducks isn’t for you. Oh-dark-thirty starts are the norm, though you can’t legally shoot until a half-hour before sunrise. And then there’s the weather: the nastier the better, which probably seems antithetical to most outdoor enthusiasts. When the weather turns snotty, duck hunters become monomaniacal in their quest, revealing traits found in Ahab himself. Like Ishmael, I too am infected with this single-mindedness.
So why do it? To that point I offer two of many examples. In terms of pure toughness, diver ducks could be rightly considered the linebackers of the waterfowl world. Scaup and canvasbacks are my two favorites, flying bill-first into 30 mile-an-hour headwinds and dropping from dizzying heights without flinching. The rougher the seas, the more relaxed they seem, as content as a cat on a quilt. My days spent diver hunting off Thomas Point and in the Patuxent River rank high for exhilaration.
Most of my waterfowling, however, is done in the Bay’s marshes, where I invariably find solace and joy even if the birds are scarce. Without question, some of the strangest hunts I have been on, replete with wildly intense storms and slogging through the thinnest of water and stickiest of mud, happen in these still-wild places.
Count me among those who proudly relish the euphoria that comes from outwitting a wild bird. It is the game itself that enthralls me. Through duck hunting I can, for a brief time at least, become immersed in the natural world.
“There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” ― Ran Fiennes, British adventurer
Every winter we hear of close calls and near misses, people we know or don’t know who’ve narrowly avoided disaster, or even death. A capsized kayak, a misstep in the marsh, or slip on an icy gunwale or even dock. Poor visibility, biting wind and multi-layers of outdoor clothing that limit movement – much more so compared to warmer months – are also factors that can get you sideways to trouble. Gear and equipment, even of the highest quality, can take a beating and fail when cold. Often there’s no siren to forewarn us to impending danger, unfortunately. Stuff, as the polite version of the saying goes, just happens.
Since none of us are immune to the risks involved in pursuing our winter-time sports, preparation and planning are tantamount to an enjoyable, safe experience. Waterfowl in particular are incredibly built by nature to withstand the bitter cold. Humans, not so much. Chief among these evolutionary adaptations is their instinct to migrate, perhaps the sole trait we have in common when it comes to surviving winter. But not all of us can be snowbirds. Waterfowl feathers are insulated, and their blood circulates counter-current to reduce heat loss through their feet and legs. We must wear neoprene waders and hi-tech base layers. They carry large fat reserves; some of us are skinny.
Recent statistics reported by the U.S. Coast Guard point out hunters are involved in an average of 35 major boating accidents per year, resulting in 14 deaths. Of those casualties, 80% occurred by drowning and 85% of those victims were not wearing a life jacket. The easiest and most effective safety precaution we can take is to put that life jacket/personal flotation device (PFD) on before getting in the boat and leave it on until our feet hit dry ground. If I’m wading and setting decoys in unfamiliar waters I’ll keep my PFD on. Here are a few other tips, by no means an exhaustive list:
Know you and your boat’s limits and don’t exceed them, especially when crossing rough waters and/or in deteriorating weather.
Stow first-aid, “Ditch Kit,” (flares, hand-held VHF radio, GPS, flashlight, multi-tool, fire-starting kit, and other survival items) and spare clothing in sealable “dry bags” used by white water rafters. These waterproof bags are superior to plastic boxes, plus they float when sealed properly.
File a float plan with family or friends. A personal locator beacon is also a good backup should the need arise, giving rescuers your location to start the search.
Neoprene waders over lightweight waders; they’ll help keep you afloat, especially if cinched properly with a wader belt. Neoprene also seals in body heat, helping ward off hypothermia.
Never carry a loaded firearm in the boat.
Ensure your boat and motor are in good operating condition. Carry tools, extra plugs and devices to bail water.