Wood Ducks

Few things in hunting sound as “wild” as a hen wood duck squealing before daylight. Turkeys gobbling and elk bugling both have their own mystique and are maybe more impressive. But hearing a wood duck always reminds me of my earliest duck hunting endeavors in sloughs and creeks that seemed to be miles from anything.

I grew up in west-central Kentucky, where wetlands and duck hunters were few and far between. This was rolling hill country. Whitetails and turkeys were king, and small-game hunters focused on squirrels, rabbits, and quail. But we had a few wood ducks around, and I was fascinated with hunting them. I’ve crawled many a mile along creek banks, stalking small flocks of birds that I’d spotted from a distance, my dad’s B-80 in tow. I quickly learned to use bends in those creeks to my advantage. If things weren’t playing out to get close enough for a shot, I could stand up and flush the ducks from a distance. If they weren’t spooked too badly, they’d usually just fly around the next bend and sit right back down.

But even more fun than those early jumpshoots were later hunts in sloughs when I discovered duck decoys and boats, and took the time to learn a little more about the birds’ habits. Wood ducks typically hung around just long enough to catch them on the Thanksgiving opener, and those wintertime drakes were trophies. From time to time, I’d shoot a mallard or black duck as well, but the setup always focused on wood ducks. The only problem was the best spots were hard to get to, and with a two-bird limit, the day was often over in a few short minutes.

Most of my hunting time is spent on bigger water these days, but sloughs and wood ducks have definitely been on my mind this year with the new three wood duck limit in Kentucky and other states in the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways (check the 2008-2009 waterfowl hunting regulations in your state for specifics). An extra bird would make the effort involved to get to some of those places more worthwhile. And, I’ll have all season to hunt big water. Most of the wood ducks will be gone soon after opening day. Time will tell what I end up doing. Are any of you guys altering your hunting strategies this season to focus on wood ducks?

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Deep-Fried Lawyer Duck

My buddy Eric’s son, Caleb, is a typical 10-year-old kid. He’s a product of his Louisiana environment and loves duck blinds, duck calls, guns, 4-wheelers, gumbo, mud, and frogs. He also has the culinary preferences of a 10-year-old, meaning he’ll eat cheese pizza, but not much else, and only then if he’s not busy with something else.

The three of us had enjoyed a decent shoot in Eric’s pit blind one morning late last season, and were piddling around camp that afternoon, watching snow geese trade back and forth, and smiling as ducks funneled into the flooded millet field next to us, many of them near Eric’s blind.

Eric was working with Caleb to get duck sounds through the double-reed Wench he had dangling around his neck. I was thinking about food. “What do you guys think about duck nuggets for supper?” I asked. Eric shot me a skeptical eye, afraid that cooking them would be a waste of time for Caleb’s dinner, especially given that the quick-stop up the road sold pizza. But soon, we were washing breast halves from birds we’d shot that morning. We had some mallards and teal, but we also had several shovelers.

I’ve never really agreed with the shoveler stigma. They decoy in a lot like teal. I’ve eaten a bunch of them, and while they’re not my first choice for the table, none have been especially wretched. But few game animals suffer from poorer reputations or have a longer list of ridiculing nicknames.

My favorite of these nicknames isn’t a mainstream one. It came from my dad, who was an attorney for 30 years, and had no qualms about shooting shovelers during a trip to south Louisiana he was invited on 15 years ago. Dad hunts and fishes for about everything in North America, but has never really cared for duck hunting. Quail captivated him in the wintertime. He attended this trip to be with his buddies and catch redfish in the afternoons as much as anything.

So, when Dad was hunting the first morning and saw ducks coming to the decoys he did what he assumed he was supposed to do and shot them, despite protests and laughing from the young guide with him (who had such a thick accent Dad could barely understand him). Dad knew the faster he killed his limit, after all, the faster he could quit duck hunting and go catch redfish. The head guide at the club was quick to create a new moniker for the birds when he saw Dad’s full limit of shovelers—lawyer ducks. I’ve used it ever since.

Eric and I began trimming the lawyer duck breast halves into small strips, free of sinew and fat. Once we were done, I mixed up a bowl of Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, a little garlic, some Tony’s (that’s short for Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, which is basically salt in Louisiana) and soaked the pieces down.

An hour later, after they’d been rolled in seasoned flour, the pieces were dropped into a skillet of hot grease and fried for a few minutes, just long enough to turn them golden brown and crispy.

Caleb stood next to us, avoiding the popping grease and continuing to practice his call until Eric gently suggested it was time to put it away for the evening. I had four or five nuggets cooling on a paper towel draped over a paper plate. “Try this,” I told Caleb, swinging the plate down to him. He did. And smiled.

“He never eats like that,” Eric said later as we sat outside, picking at the dwindling stack of duck. Caleb was on his third pile. He’d procured a bottle of ranch dressing at some point, and seemed to especially enjoy sopping his duck nuggets in that. Stars were out now, and we could hear a raspy suzie out-talking everything else in the field, even with a melody of peeps, quacks and whistles in the background.

There are many good recipes for cooking duck, and most of them require more skill and effort than our camp recipe that evening. But those deep-fried lawyer ducks, notorious for their “foul” taste, did an admirable job of filling a picky 10-year-old’s belly. Perhaps there’s a lesson there.

—Will

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Opening Day on Public Land

I have the alarm set for 2:30 a.m., but at 2:10, I step out of bed and stumble down the hallway. It’s officially Thanksgiving Day, and I know I’ll be in sleepless agony by dinner tonight. But there’s no time to think about that now. I’m focused on 30 minutes before sunrise.

Two of my buddies, Seymore and Jay, crashed at my house and are still asleep. Seymore evidently carried in a sleeping bag, rolled up his hunting coat for a pillow and stretched out on the floor. Jay managed to pull the bed out of the fold-out couch. I make no attempt to be quiet as I turn on the kitchen light and make coffee, so Jay and Seymore promptly wake up. Maybe a minute later, the smack talking begins. The topics are predictable: poor shooting, poor calling, who gets cold the quickest, who can drink the most coffee at 3 a.m. before getting sick, why Seymore prefers hot tea over coffee, whose shotgun is best, etc.

The three of us have hunted together every opening day for the past six seasons. Over the years, our settings have changed, and other buddies have joined us here and there. For the last three years we’ve hunted public land. Average and slow days have outnumbered the great ones, but the great ones are easier to remember. Last year on opening day, five of us limited out on green-winged teal, mallards and gadwall.

The starter on the old boat motor isn’t enthusiastic about working this cold morning. Tim, another buddy in our crew and resident mechanic of the group, is on his way to the lake, but won’t be here for another hour. I know we need to get to our spot early. Other folks have seen the birds we’ve seen. We don’t think of those guys as enemies, and will swap stories with them at the ramp later on. But right now, in the dark, when we’re not yet set up, they’re definitely the competition.

Summoning all the mechanical knowledge I’ve acquired myself over the years, I whack the starter with a hefty crescent wrench (a crucial tool left in my boat two years ago by Robey, another buddy) and hit the ignition button again. The old 2-stroke grumbles to life in a small cloud of acrid smoke. Another year on this motor, I think to myself, and it’s going to be time for a new one. I sucked some milfoil into the intake last summer while fishing and actually set the thing on fire, but only briefly.

After a short boat ride, we’re there. Layout blinds and decoys set, I check my cell phone with one hand, and sip a cup of coffee with the other. It’s 4:15, and I’ve missed a call from Tim. I try to call him back, but no answer.

Soon, we hear another boat motor and see lights coming toward us. We flash our headlamps, and when the boat doesn’t stop, we know it’s Tim. As he gets closer, the water becomes too shallow for him to run, and he has to step out and slog through the mud. Before he gets to us, he shines a spotlight across the decoys, grumbles about the arrangement, throws out a few more blocks of his own and readjusts most of the spread. We give him plenty of smack talk for sleeping in while we claimed the spot, but he counters with the fact that he had to tiptoe around a sleeping 2-year-old at home.

At 5:00, another boat approaches, and we flash our lights at it to reveal ourselves. These guys got up early to get this spot—just not as early as we did. They’re respectful, and motor on to another area. Tough luck. I’ve been in their predicament many times myself.

Finally, we have the spot secure, and the moment is here. Thirty-two minutes before sunrise, and a half-dozen gadwall are hovering over the spread. They soon splash down, the drakes chattering amongst themselves. We watch them and wait. Shortly, we hear distant gunfire rumbling across the lake.

“It’s time by my clock,” Tim soon whispers. My clock matches his. We all rise, the gadwall flush and the blasts in the early-morning light are nearly blinding. Four ducks on the water, on public land we’ve scouted, 30 seconds into a new season. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Gear Up for Teal

I love September teal season. It’s an easy-going style of hunting, and I can usually bank on shooting a few birds. A plate of crispy-fried teal breasts and cold beer after the hunt is tough to beat. Required gear is pretty minimal for teal hunting, but aside from my shotgun and waders, there are some small items I consider necessities.

For years, one of my favorite tools for cleaning teal, doves, squirrels, quail and other small game has been a good pair of game shears. I’ve always been partial to these Gerber shears myself, but admittedly, I’ve had no need to try any others. I’m sure good shears are made by a variety of cutlery companies.

Shears make short work of snipping off a teal’s wings, legs and head. From there, the bird can be easily gutted and skinned or plucked. If you’re looking to reduce the mess at home or at camp, it’s an easy matter to snip away everything but a wing for identification purposes and clean the rest of the bird in the field. Often, I take care of this at the truck immediately after hunting and get my birds on ice before heading home, an important step in September heat. Game shears work for larger ducks as well, although a sharp, stout knife is a better choice for mallard-sized and larger birds, since their wing bones can be on the heavy side.

Another useful item for hunting in September is the ThermaCell. A buddy introduced me to that magical little device during a Fourth of July party several summers ago. Mine gets a continuous workout throughout the year while turkey hunting, fishing and bowhunting, but I’m most proud to have it in the teal marsh. Teal hunting takes place on shallow mud flats with abundant vegetation in my neck of the woods, and mosquitoes can be unbearable in these places. Bug spray helps, but a ThermaCell turned on and placed nearby works wonders. The aggravating critters not only avoid biting you, they avoid buzzing around you.

To learn more about teal hunting, check out the feature article, “Tips for Early Teal,” in the September/October issue of Ducks Unlimited magazine. In the meantime, I know there are a bunch of teal hunters out there, and you probably have a few little overlooked items you consider essential. What are they?

–Will

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