Too many ducks! In the rice fields of Arkansas, a blizzard of birds exerts a much stronger pull than a few dozen decoys.
Riding in the back of the Polaris, I was the last one in, or so I thought until a black Lab jumped up beside me. Unlike many guides' retrievers, this one was not all business. He was young, friendly and craved attention.
"That's Foreman," said Drew Whiting, a guide at Buckshot Duck Lodge in Gillette, Ark. "He retrieved 140 ducks the past three days."
We were riding into a storm, according to lodge owner Greg Hackney.
"There have been 40,000 to 50,000 mallards feeding in the rice field you are going to hunt," he said. "When they get up, it looks like a black tornado."
Most hunters would think such an enormous number was good thing, but Whiting was apprehensive. As the ATV approached the field, Foreman's ears perked up. He was hearing mallard music over the noise of the engine as thousands of ducks flushed from the rice. In the darkness, it was rustling wings and constant calling that broadcast updates on their locations. Some flocks settled back down, while others quacked away.
Seven-dozen floating decoys were already resting on the water in front of the pit blind. The rice near the blind had been harvested, creating a wide opening that ducks circling overhead would surely find to their liking. Whiting added three spinning-wing decoys to increase the spread's allure.
Whiting slid inside the pit, with Foreman climbing down to a platform beside him. The platform was high enough for Foreman to look over the blind's sides and beneath the lid, a black silhouette of a sentinel standing guard against the onslaught about to begin.
"There's another blind with hunters on the other side of the field," Whiting said. "It's always a waiting game and we want them to shoot first. That will chase the ducks off the rice and, hopefully, to our decoys."
* MALLARD CHATTER In the blind was Mark Estrada, senior product manager of Under Armour, chatting us up on the new UA hunting lines before shooting light.
"Most people are familiar with Under Armour's extreme sports garments," Estrada said. "But we recently launched a new line called Skysweeper especially tailored for the needs of waterfowl hunters. I wanted to be here for the field testing."
UA's clothing is renowned for warmth without bulk and the Skysweeper jacket was no exception. Its thin suppleness made maneuvering in the tight confines of the pit blind a breeze. I loaded my Remington 11-87 and mounted it just to check the stock's cheek fit. I heard actions open and shut as other hunters did the same.
The conversations of ducks grew louder overhead, reaching a crescendo as the waterfowl we had flushed in the darkness returned en masse. We picked out the subtle quacks of gadwalls and teal, along with peeps of wigeons and whistles of pintails. Flocks of snows and white-fronted geese honked on high. But mostly what we heard were quacking susies and wheezing mallard drakes.
When shooting time arrived, shots from the other blind sent up the black tornado of ducks as forecast. After that, returning ducks would appear to be interested in the decoys at first, then noticing the remaining real ducks splashing and dabbling in the rice, veered away to join them.
"Too many ducks," Whiting said. "It can really be a problem this early. Don't worry, though, the situation will improve. When the sunlight hits the decoys, those ducks will start piling in. Decoys don't look realistic enough in the darkness."
In the beginning, it was exciting although disheartening to see all of those ducks skimming by, just out of shotgun range. But eventually, the sunlight torched the decoys to bright colors and a mallard drake set his wings. My friend and fellow writer, Ken Perrotte, downed the bird. Then I missed a green-winged teal.
"We need a few teal to fill our limits," Whiting said. "But they are hard to hit."
I had no excuse for missing the green-wing, other than the excitement. Looking down the line, I saw everyone else shaking. Foreman was shaking the most, excited after retrieving our first greenhead.
* BONUS BIRDS During the course of our morning hunt, eight species of ducks were taken, along with a lone specklebelly. Five hunters took six-duck limits of mallards mixed with gadwall, green-winged teal, wigeon, shoveler, pintail, redhead and ringnecks. Mallards dominated the bag and the second most abundant duck in the lodge's rice fields was the resurgent grey duck.
Whiting prefers hunters to leave the blind by mid-morning, but, during most hunts, bag limits are filled long before then. The speed at which a dog must find ducks and bring them to the blind without interrupting the flow of the hunt requires a dog in peak physical condition.
"We used to have our hunters walk through the rice field to the blind," Whiting said. "But some hunters couldn't make it. Those that did were so tired and sweaty it made for some uncomfortable hunting."
Nevertheless, dogs must retrieve ducks under those conditions. The water is shallow, about a foot deep. The bottom is sticky loam, which threatens to suck boots from feet at every step. A dog can't swim in water that shallow and cannot get a good grip with its feet against the soft bottom. Rather than swimming or running, the dog surges through the water to bull its way to downed ducks. It is a more demanding workout than required of a run-of-the mill duck dog accustomed to working only on Saturdays.
Whiting handled Foreman to many blind retrieves and helped him chase down a few cripples by anchoring them with well-placed shots. Whenever a crippled mallard made it into the standing rice, it was extremely difficult for Foreman to find. Imagine all the scent left by thousands of mallards during the night and try to visualize how confusing it must be for even a seasoned hunting dog to unravel the scent trail of a single cripple.
Foreman made dozens of retrieves, including blind retrieves requiring multiple whistle stops and hand signals, for all of the hunters in the blind anxious to fill their limits quickly. Add in another 140 ducks retrieved over the previous three days and even Foreman, with his conditioning, failed to enter the water a time or two and refused occasional hand signals. But he is a still young dog, being asked to perform tasks that would give a 5-year-old fits.
Aside from being trained to handle blind retrieves, a rice field dog must be subjected to intense conditioning workouts prior to the hunt. The biggest problem is the enormous amount of energy a dog burns during a single morning, which means it requires a boost in its caloric intake once hunting season arrives.
Our hunt took place following the worst cold snap of the season. It certainly brought the ducks buzzing down the flyway, but it also brought some icy conditions.
Initially, Whiting kept the blind lid closed, calling to the ducks through the narrow viewing port between the lid and the blind rim and sliding it open whenever ducks worked within shotgun range.
However, as the sun rose, it cast a shadow across the blind. At that point, he rolled the lid fully open. We watched in amazement as flocks numbering in the hundreds spiraled down in a vortex, with nothing between us but open sky.
"They can't see us as long as we don't move around too much," he said. "Isn't that a beautiful sight?"
A pair of canine eyes locked up tight on a flock of mallards. Foreman obviously agreed.
RELATED ARTICLE: About Buckshot Duck Lodge
Located in Gillette, Ark., Buckshot Duck Lodge offers more than the comforts of home. The 10,000-square foot lodge sleeps 28 hunters. Meals are furnished and waders are provided for hunters traveling by air.
The owner and operator, Greg Hackney, said his lodge hosts approximately 720 hunter-days for ducks and geese each season on more than 15,000 acres of standing and harvested rice fields and flooded timber areas. Pit blinds are set in the rice field dikes and access to them is via ATV. Each pit blind accommodates as many as eight hunters, but four or five is optimal.
For more information, call 870-548-3334 or visit www.buckshotducklodge.com.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 2013|
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