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On the great salt lake: where salty waters meet the sky, ducks find heaven.

YOU HEAR ALL KINDS OF ECLECTIC descriptions of duck hunting on the Great Salt Lake, in it's oh-so-many forms. The usual pedestrian superlatives, along with "mysterious, surreal, austere, otherworldly" ... but the thing is, all the hype is true. And you can add post-apocalyptic, as far as I'm concerned.

It's a bizarre place, a giant super-saline high desert lake with fluctuating waters in which nothing but brine shrimp can live. Somehow it is rimmed with freshwater marsh and brimming with 35 species of waterfowl (up to 4 million annually) that use the lake's many habitats, including 750,000 pintails that check in on the way to California's Central Valley.

An inland sea with giant swans that hosts so many styles of hunting, from mud flat coffin blinds to traditional marsh blinds and layout boats. Maybe you seek the trophy divers on the fringes, or choose to chase the massive black swarms of teal and spoonies out on the big water, where they will find your spread between gorging on brine shrimp, and resting out on mud flats that can be hundreds of square miles (the lake's total basin covers almost 22,000-square miles).

At Farmington Bay on the eastern shore of the GSL, near where I once lived on the northwest fringes of Salt Lake City itself, it's not a peaceful scene most of the time, with ducks pouring in to the fresh water, because they must, and hunters packed into boats and along the dikes. I converged on this freshwater impoundment in the dark with Tony Poole, a duck-crazy local known as the "diver freak," who helps host this annual writer's camp put on by Yamaha, Camp Chef and GoPro. I quickly recalled the remarkable thing about this place. Even at dawn, it was sunny, too-warm, dead calm and just not ducky weather, yet it was so alive. A few sawbills and a bufflehead zizzed past, along with three very in-range bluebills as we were setting up, and I should have shot a wigeon but waited too long for it to clear the decoys (hell, they weren't my decoys). A too-far pintail buzzed me, no dice.

I settled into the little hand-made layout boat. A slicing green-wing teal was my first victim, followed by a bluebill that resulted in my best ridiculous trick shot ever. He zoomed in on my right side, where a right-hander can't shoot when sitting in a layout, and I contorted to swing as far as possible and bang, missed. But I wanted a 'bill, sooo badly, and extended my right arm fully holding the gun like a pistol, and grabbed the butt of the stock with my left, aimed at the duck that was luckily flying straight away, and half laughed as I fired. To my shock, down he went. This kind of thing only happens when you're alone.

A gorgeous bufflehead drake volunteered next, and I passed on lots of hens before rolling a big-daddy gaddy, laughing a little at each shot because the recoil pushed the teeny boat back against its anchor rope with each shot. A mama mallard got a pass, then a fat drake ruddy didn't.

The sunny day lull struck next, and I fiddled with my GoPro and slowly revisited that special gnawing hunger of your teen growth years. As we lay in the layouts, the smells from the shore lunch being cooked by Camp Chef's Matt Anderson wafted out over the water to torture us. Camp Chef's motto is "how to cook outdoors" and man can they do it. The shore brunch was the kind you remember as much as the hunting, with pellet grill fired tri-tip smoked perfectly and big breakfast pizzas on a windless 64-degree day.

Our guides were not true guides, just local hardcore hunters. Mostly, they can't stand each other, joked Anderson, but they all come together for the good of the resource to show off the area and help with the Camp Chef camp (and I'm guessing, for the grub).

Turns out, I'd been lucky that morning. It had been slow in the layouts overall, but other guys bagged a Ross's goose, a few pintails and a goldeneye. Quite a mixed bag in addition to my five species. I'd finished two shy of a limit but passed on hens and more ruddies and bufflehead, which did not thrill our the guides on such a slow day. In the afternoon, more scaup and pintails flirted with me, and I really took in the surroundings. The Delta hub that is SLC meant jets constantly roaring overhead, and boat motor noise was non-stop. Yet there's something post-apocalyptic about the whole scene. The paramilitary look of the mud motors, the airboats and their sense of purpose, the lack of anything but water and sky and dirty shoreline in sight, until you look east and those severe Wasatch Mountains climb straight outta the water.

The first time I hunted at Farmington was 15 years prior, and I had not been impressed. The dikes were jammed with sky-busters, and being from eastern Washington, where we shot mostly nice big ducks of the glamour species with nobody hunting on top of us, these Utahns blasting hundreds of rounds at everything was too much. They were having fun as ruddies and spoonies and buffies and all these "others," as we called them back home, splashed into the slimy mud shoreline covered in brine shrimp and flies, I thought, this Salt Lake waterfowling scene is not for me.

And the opener is still like that for the shore-bound, while at the same time over 100 boats hit the water, biologist Rich Hansen tells me. But the rest of the lake is beyond vast, and pressure falls way off after the opener, even on Farmington, which is just one of many refuges here. I hunted the GSL later that year far to the south on a private club with some DU guys, and it was terrific, but I'm never going to be able to afford a $25,000 elite membership at a club like that. So cool, but not for me.

This Farmington Bay experience with the diver freak Anthony was a revelation on the potential and species you can bag here, and it had been a "slow" day. Anybody with a small boat can do that. Much more my style.

Our group retired to Sportsman's Paradise in the mountains to the east, and over a few days there shot the hot hell out of pheasants and had a ball tooling around on Yamaha's then-new side-by-side Viking ATVs, motoring to different spots to battle the oversized, trout that were crammed in the streams. I trout fished Utah hard for 12 years and had never seen fish numbers like this place.

Out on the Great Salt Lake itself, I'd rediscover, that is the place for me. As loud and as crazy as that inshore scene is, when you head out on the great lake itself, you will find the opposite. Nobody around for miles and miles, dead silence, soft wind pushing the skinny water around our coffin blinds, and birds in shocking numbers. Local standout waterfowler Josh Noble and his super-dog Teal loaded us into the airboats as we buzzed across the flats skimming over four inches of water near Antelope Island, where we stuck 650 silhouettes in the mud surprisingly quickly, along with 14-dozen teal decoys and new gadwall, pintail and others by Greenhead Gear.

Spoonies and GWTs swung past our set and as we shot, some of the coolest dog work I have enjoyed unfolded next. Routine quarter-mile retrieves were like nothing in this retriever playground because the water is just a few inches deep and the bottom nice and firm. A bird would sail, and the dog would line out like a greyhound, throwing a roostertail, shattering the mirror-calm surface that reflected the sky, homing in on the cripples with obvious glee like some kind of canine mud motor. Awesome to watch, and I yearned to move back home to Utah and its vast public lands.

The birds were mostly flying outside my range and swinging toward the other end of the set, where the talented writers and waterfowl-fanatics T. Edward Nickens and Phil Bourjaily banged away. Noble hustled back out and moved decoys, got the birds cutting within 30 yards of me and that was it. I clobbered two spoonies and five teal in no time, grabbing the camera and watching Edwards and Phil select teal and enjoy the day.

It's not always a cakewalk out here, Noble explained, because the birds can be real tough to finish. They don't circle and they don't come back. He thinks it is because there are so many real ducks, and such vast areas. They don't really work, in other words, "they just swing, in give you one look and they are gone," he said.

To me, it looked vast, wide, featureless and never-ending, an overwhelming place to think about where to set up. But he'd found an X. In scouting, he'd seen piles of ducks transitioning through the spot in the afternoon because of a freshwater flow cutting through the lake from the Wasatch Front. The birds keyed on it to get a drink from the Sweetwater intrusion.

"The birds follow the water so it's a funnel, because they will not fly over land, so they are pushed in to us," he said.

The ethereal light and beauty, and best of all, silence, of that type of setting inspires all that "other-worldliness" you read about. From a distance, everyone appeared to be walking on water. And truly, the duck hunting, well it's not of this world.

Fair weather, shallow water, hard bottom, loads of green-wings ... what could be better? We kicked back in airboats and watched ducks flirt in range of our buddy's guns. The birds stage here so long they start to get rail-skinny toward late season, Noble says.

Another bizarre mystery of the Great Salt Lake.
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Author:Knowles, Skip
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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