BY BOB GWIZDZ, Outdoors columnist
ROCKWOOD — To tell you the truth, I wasn't all that optimistic about our chances. Not only did we get a late start (9:30 a.m.; my host Joe Robison had "dads and donuts" with his daughter that morning at school) but the sky was clear blue and there was almost no wind.
But Robison, a Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who oversees southern Michigan's managed waterfowl areas, was confident we'd get some shooting. A little wind would be better, he said, but the high skies? No problem.
"I love a sunny day," said Robison defying the conventional duck-hunting wisdom. "Those ducks can't see as well. They've got all the shadows and the glare and the sun in their eyes. They can see you a lot better on a cloudy day."
We motored out in the Humphries Unit of Pte. Mouillee State Game Area, just off of Lake Erie. The 1,187-acre tract offers open hunting every day. It's first-come, first-served, unlike the managed zones on the area where you have to draw for spots.
Robison piloted his flat-bottom boat, powered by a Go-Devil ("The four-wheel drive of marine engines") into a pothole, where we jumped up a pair of mallards. We went to the next pothole where there were two pairs. At the third pothole, we flushed up eight or 10, but while we were debating whether to set up there, a huge flock of teal got up and set down in the next pothole. That made up Robison's mind.
"They're close enough," he said. "Usually I like to try to find a spot that's got a hundred birds or so, but this as good as we've seen.
"You don't just go to the first place you see," he continued. "If you do a little scouting, you'll find where the ducks are. If you see other hunters out there, you don't want to mess them up, but there aren't other hunters out here today — most guys don't even think about hunting on a day like this and if they do, they come out for an hour or two in the morning or an hour or two at night.
"You have to think differently than the Average Joe does. There are some good hunting opportunities in the middle of the day and a lot of guys aren't taking advantage of it." Having chosen our pothole, the next task was getting into it. The water was so shallow that even with the high-floating rig and Go-Devil, we were high-centering on the phragmites hummocks. We were out pushing and — despite temperatures in the 30s — we were down to our T-shirts by the time we got the boat back in a corner with tall vegetation to hide it.
"You've got to work for them sometimes," Robinson said.
It was 11 a.m. by the time we got situated with two dozen decoys out downwind (slight as it was) from the boat. But we had no sooner pulled up the Fast Grass blind around the rig when here they come — a quartet of mallards from out of nowhere. The birds swung wide of our set on Robison's side. When he called "take 'em," I was out of position to shoot, but Robison scratched one down.
Then came a trio (two hens and a drake) and we killed the drake. A short time later, a pair of mallards came right over our head and we dropped them both. By noon we had a half a limit of mallards.
I was impressed; we'd already had as many (or more) birds as I'd thought we'd get.
Of course, Robison, who is an excellent duck hunter, had everything in order to maximize our opportunity. He had brand new, beautiful decoys (made by Avian X) with a feature I'd never seen before — a cinch point on the keel, which allowed the dekes to move around on a short tether with just a breath of wind. And Robison also had a couple of decoys on a jerk cord, which helped bring in the mallards for a closer look.
"I'd rather have a jerk cord than a Robo-duck," Robison said. "Everyone's got Robos, but a lot of guys don't think about the movement in the water. The ducks can see the ripples and the splashing. Anything you can do to put movement in the water helps." It slowed way down. We went three hours without seeing anything, when some teal started passing through. They came in low — not decoying, but apparently looking — and we shot a green-wing and a pair of blue-wings as they passed.
About an hour before quitting time — mindful of how much work it took to get into our hole — we started talking about picking up, when ducks started flying again. We each took a mallard out of a small bunch and then, a dozen or so came in but swung wide on my side. I picked out a drake and popped him.
"There's one we won't get," Robison said as it fell well back in the phragmites.
"Wanna bet?" I could hear it splashing in the vegetation. The phragmites were tall enough they could hide Bob Lanier — standing on Wilt Chamberlain's shoulders — but I fought my way back there and found it, dead as a rock. When I returned to the boat, a pair of mallards bit, we killed the drake, and we had a limit of mallards (and were just one bird short of our six-apiece limit).
But it didn't seem to be worth waiting until dark in hopes on another teal (the only the birds we saw besides mallards) would pass. We got out of there.
But I learned a lesson: There's no reason to fear a late start. Or a sunny day, either.