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The kings of Baffin: trophy redheads and pintails are the crown jewels of the salty south Texas coast.

SCOTT ASHTON YELLED down from his perch atop the boat rocketing across the surface of Baffin Bay's wicked morning chop: "Were going about 30 mph, and 11 miles off shore." He was smiling, looking up from a Garmin watch so technologically advanced it would have made Inspector Gadget blush. I on the other hand, had just swallowed another gulp of gulf water and was white-knuckling a black Benelli, which was already starting to rust from the salty bay water. The rough seas bounced both of us--two guys north of250 pounds--out of our seats like pinballs.

All I kept thinking about was a childhood memory of my mom telling me not to be such a wimp after our entire family nearly drowned when a rented pontoon boat, over-weighted with linebacker-sized uncles, started to sink like the Titanic on the open water in northern Wisconsin. I'd never seen so many grownups get ready to pitch out of a boat that fast, and it has stuck with me ever since.

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But the perilous ride was worth it. Once our fearless Capt. Marcus delivered us to a stretch of Texas coastline, we all threw decoys and drove holes in the sand, sticking in palm fronds for cover from the ducks and sitting in comfy lawn chairs. The hard part (getting there) was over.

Marcus was still walking back from parking the boat when a pair of redheads came irr low. The two drakes darted right into the floaters, showing their white bellies. It should have been a double but I whiffed on the lead bird. His buddy, I smashed. "It's probably banded," I joked to Scott. And to my amazement, when Jett, our enthusiastic young black Lab, brought the bird to hand, there it was: a little piece of Baffin Bay bling hanging around the diver's ankle. What a lucky/random circumstance.

Scott and I shot a few more reds, pintails and two wigeon, one a gorgeous bird meant for the wall, to complete the Baffin Bay trifecta. Jett made two mega-retrieves on sailed birds, one of which was several hundred yards. The little pup looked like a small black dot by the time he reached the cripple.

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It was a truly glorious morning, particularly for me since it took over 24 hours to get to the lodge after flight delays in Chicago and a too-long car ride in a micro-mini compact sedan. The trip got a little dicey at about 3:30 a.m. when a three-pack of zebras or aoudad or something (it was a long day) bolted across the road. If you're not familiar, Texas is loaded with high-fence exotics, and big-game hunters come here to chase African plains game without crossing an ocean.

Ted Gartner of Garmin hosted the trip and picked a unique spot to showcase an extensive line of e-collars, GPS devices and watches--telling time is the least of their capabilities. Baffin Bay is sparsely fished for trophy speckled trout and redfish in the winter, and even fewer duck hunt the undeveloped shoreline surrounded by the famous King and Kennedy Ranches. Pintails and redheads are the birds du jour, but you can also put wigeon, gadwall, teal, shovelers and mottled ducks on the strap. You can shoot mergansers and bufflehead too, but we passed on the mergs.

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There weren't any other hunters around when we were there last year, the week before Christmas. The number of boats on the water could be counted on one hand. And it's all public as long as you stay below the vegetation lines of the two ranches that encompass the Bay. The famous King produced the 1948 Triple Crown winner Assault and 1950 Kentucky Derby winner Middleground. You might recall Ford came out with a King Ranch line of trucks in the early 2000s as well. It continues to be a working ranch (over 800,000 acres), where livestock are raised and crops are farmed. They even make their own blankets and saddles on the King

Why Baffin is so sparsely hunted and fished in the winter is a mystery. Think of all the public places you hunt and all the standing in line at boat ramps or check stations you have done just to get a blind that won't offer a single shot at a duck. There is none of that here. And the sprigs and reds are thick (come in January if you want to shoot some of the most gorgeous plumed out birds on the continent). Yes, there are lulls in the season like anywhere else, but it's typically pretty darned good hunting. Up to 15 million waterfowl winter here, according to Ducks Unlimited.

It is a dangerous place, though, if ill-prepared. Wind and fog can sock you in quick, and the Bay is too shallow in some spots; it's easy to run aground. Our hosts Capt. Marcus and owners Capts. Sally and Aubrey Black of Baffin Bay Rod and Gun Club told us of watching Baffin newbies run their boats up on hidden sandbars at full speed. One day they were wade fishing for speckled trout and redfish, and some guys were thrown wildly from their boat after crashing in the shallows. One of the men was pretty wrecked up and bleeding badly--a gruesome scene.

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On the second morning Steve Smith (another Garminite) and I whacked our limits of redheads and shot a nice drake shoveler that was on the edge of full plumage; the thick green head was still patchy in spots. It was Kelly, Capt. Sally's old black Lab, that made the retrieve, her 1,000th, a cool milestone to be a part of. Many outfitters' dogs make that in a season, but the Blacks are fishermen first so their Labs don't get the same opportunities. Plus, most days you're shooting two pins and two reds, and then it's over, maybe a wigeon or mottled duck too.

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After shooting a few birds we ate delicious sandwiches on jalapeno bread and broke out the fishing poles in hopes of a few speckled trout. My fishing experience is limited to farm ponds, old strip mine lakes and those summer vacations to Wisconsin I mentioned earlier. These folks in Texas geek out over sea trout. There's actually a debate as to who holds the state record for the biggest one. A good speckled trout is 25-plus inches and called a "gator." The official state record is just over 13 pounds. One 15-incher caught itself on the end of my line that afternoon. I guess if you lay into a big one "it's like catching a dining room table," according to Sally, but none of us had much luck.

While Steve and I smacked limits of ducks, Scott and Chris Jennings of DU spent that morning trying to wade through a mud hole after their first stop for ducks was a bust. It was so sludgy, Aubrey had to circle back to pick them both up before Scott, a man who can probably bench press the boats we rode in all week, nearly sunk past his waders. So when Aubrey told us that was where we would be going in the next morning, all of us had a look of concern. Luckily the lesson had been learned and the bottom wasn't too bad when we jumped out. Just knee deep, and it wasn't far to shore.

With the palm fronds set we all tucked in and waited for the wigeon. Aubrey said this was a killer cottontop hole and we were eager to shoot some mature drakes. But the wigeon never showed; instead it was the pintail show and the four of us killed our two each pretty quickly. All were drakes except an unsuspecting hen that nearly crashed into Steve's gun barrel.

A few mottled ducks buzzed around us, but we couldn't keep the pintails out of the decoys. Watching so many float by with limits in hand was frustrating, but it's also fun to see birds work with no intention of shooting them. Big flocks of snow geese flew high above us and the sandhill cranes sounded off those high-pitched rattling cooos. Oh, how I would have loved to shoot one of those and watch it spastically tumble into the salty bay. Of course crane season didn't start until the following day, and we all had planes to catch.

As far as duck hunting locales go, it's tough to beat the south Texas coast. There are birds everywhere, and good Lord, if you could ever get permission to hunt one of the freshwater tanks on the King Ranch it might be one of the quickest hunts in history--the dabblers love them. Add awesome weather, plenty of open water and not a soul to bother you ... who wouldn't want to spend a winter on Baffin Bay?
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Title Annotation:DESTINATIONS
Author:Genzel, Joe
Publication:Wildfowl
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Oct 28, 2016
Words:1481
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