ERIE — The Arctic weather that blew in toward the end of deer season pretty much shut down duck hunting. But when it warmed up a bit the first week of December, Joe Robison was hot to get back into his waders.
There’s a little creek that flows into the marsh at Lake Erie that often holds ducks when the lakes are locked up, Robison explained, and with a little luck, we’d be able to get some shooting. So well before sunrise, Robinson and I were carrying gear across a frozen field to the creek.
Problem was, it hadn’t been warm enough, long enough, to completely re-open the creek. There were a couple of small pools in what was otherwise a frozen landscape. But we were there, so we pitched a couple decoys into a hole, broke the ice along the bank to float a few more, then hunkered down in the phragmites to see what would happen.
Robison’s hunch turned out to be right; the birds flew down the creek from upstream and a couple looked to pitch in — though there wasn’t a lot of open water for them to work with. Which would have been fine except for one detail — the birds arrived before shooting time, either winging on past us, or splashing into an opening and then leaving in short order.
Right at legal shooting time (half hour before sunrise) a black duck cupped up over the decoys. Robison shot it. A minute later, a mallard came winging by and I took it. That was it.
For the next hour we discussed all thing of interest — from fishing to football — while waiting for the ducks that never arrived.
“Usually they’ll filter back a few at a time,” said Robison, a wildlife biologist who runs the Pte. Mouilee State Game Area and oversees all the managed waterfowl areas in southern Michigan for the Department of Natural Resources. “I didn’t expect it to be fast and furious, but I figured we’d be able to shoot six or eight ducks. That’s late-season duck hunting — feast or famine.
“Ready to try another spot?”
We moved off several miles to another creek that flowed into a marsh in the Erie State Game Area. The was strong east wind blowing — one that would blow enough water into the creek to float a canoe, Robison said — and we could canoe a quarter mile or so back into the marsh and see what was going on.
Simple enough plan, eh? Guess again. Not far from our launch point, we ran into ice that we broke with the paddles until we reached a bend were the ice was too thick to break. We got out on the bank and slid the canoe across the ice until we reached a straightway where we could get back in and resume our journey. When we reached the opening to the marsh we saw what we wanted — ducks. Mallards and blacks and a few oddball puddlers got up and milled around.
We paddled toward a small cove surrounded by head-high cattails, got out about 40 yards short of the bank — because of the ice — and we proceeded to ice-break our way back to the cover. By the time we were done — and had broken enough ice to float a dozen decoys in front of us — it had taken us almost two hours to get where we were going. We slid the canoe back into the cattails, stuck a couple of marsh seats into the cattails and were, finally, ready to play.
“Now,” Robison said, “all we need is for a few birds to start filtering back.”
A pair of black ducks came screeching in from upwind, giving no indication they were going to stop.
“The one of the left’s a drake,” he said. “Shoot it.”
A few minutes later, a pair of mallards zoomed across in front of us, looking, but not buying. I shot the drake as it flared.
And that is essentially how it went for the next two hours. Birds came by, usually in pairs — and mostly black ducks, of course, as we’d already taken our allotted one apiece — and though they looked, they wouldn’t finish. Whenever one presented a semblance of opportunity, we shot. We wound up killing seven — five mallards, a black and a single gadwall — by the time we called it quits in early afternoon. (We killed every duck we shot at, for the record, so we’d made the most of our opportunities.)
We might have hung around and finished our limits — there were a lot of mallards and a few gadwalls flying — but, it didn’t seem worth it. Nine ducks for the morning? Excellent. The boot-sucking mud in the marsh had me worn out from retrieving birds and, frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of fighting our way out of their the way we’d fought our way in. This kind of duck hunting is a young man’s sport.
As for Robison’s pronouncement that late-season duck hunting was feast or famine?
I’m saying he was wrong. It was feast AND famine. On the same day.