Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 29, 2012

Bob Gwizdz: Good bounty at game area

BY BOB GWIZDZ, Outdoors columnist
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CHARLES — ST.The flock of mallards swung wide of our position in the standing corn at Shiawassee River State Game Area and when they zoomed in out front with no indication of any interest in our decoys, John Bakos said "take 'em." We dropped two drakes out of the flock. Brandon Bakos, John's 14-year-old son, waded out to fetch them. He brought back one gorgeous greenhead and one very odd duck. The bird had a mostly brown head — though there was a lot of green in it — and a gray, pintail-like bill. The speculum on its wings said pintail, but its feet weren't gray — they were a muted orange, almost yellow. Its hind end lacked the distinctive sprig of a bull pintail and was shaped more like a mallard's.

It must have been a hybrid, one that would have made an impressive mount had it not taken as much shot as it did.

While Bakos and his ofttimes hunting partner Gabe Graham studied the bird, a discussion ensued: How do we count it against the bag. Was it a mallard or a pintail? I figured, if we killed 15 more mallards it was a pintail. Otherwise, what did it matter?

The odds of us killing a four-man limit of mallards were probably pretty small, given how hunting has been at Shiawassee this year. Hunting has been fairly tough, despite good numbers of birds using the refuge on the area. It probably has to do with the weather, which has been about as mild as any fall in recent memory.

But we did have one thing going for us: wind. It was blowing hard out of the north and had been for the last 24 hours. It was the kind of wind that brings fresh birds, which are much more easily fooled than those who have been around the area for awhile.

We'd drawn well — fifth or sixth overall of the 40-some parties who signed up for the afternoon hunt — and gotten the field we'd wanted: all the way upwind, where the birds had been working the evening before.

"There's enough wind to push those birds all the way to the back," said Bakos, who has about 40 years experience hunting at Shiawassee. "You don't want to take that field unless there's a real strong wind."

Problem was, it was in our faces, not at our backs. We'd put four dozen duck decoys — and about a dozen Canada goose floaters — out in front of us and strung them out near the far end of our waterhole.

"It's not good to use that many decoys unless you've got a lot of birds," Bakos said. "But anytime you get a strong wind like this, you know you're going to get new birds.

"If we didn't have this wind, we'd have put out one dozen."

We were hoping they'd try to drop in in front of us, but it was no such luck: There just wasn't enough open water for the birds to work the dekes in that high wind. What saved us was the sheer volume of mallards in the air. There were ducks all over the place.

Despite the fact that they wouldn't finish, they did look. And when they came within shotgun range — we had to make a fair number of 40-yard shots — we took them. We generally faced away from the decoys and took birds that were flying into the wind, despite the fact they never stuck their legs out to land.

A single widgeon came zooming across the decoys and Graham took it. A handful of teal skirted the set and Bakos scratched one down. Otherwise it was all about mallards — which, generally speaking, is what Shiawassee is all about.

They came by as singles, as pairs, in small flocks and, occasionally, in good numbers. Whenever they got a little too close for their own good, we'd pick out the greenheads and shoot them (though Bakos told his son to go ahead and take a hen if he wanted).

There were birds in the air a fair portion of the time — I think we had one one-hour lull — but only a fraction of them came in for close enough look to offer shooting. Still, with 10 minutes of shooting time remaining, we had 15 mallards along with the widgeon, teal and now pintail.

A pair of mallards swung wide. I knocked down the drake and we figured we were done. Bakos went for the boat, Brandon and I started wrapping up decoys while Graham went to retrieve the limit mallard. Turns out, it sailed beyond the ditch — which we couldn't cross until we were in the boat — and we never found it in the growing darkness.

Still, 18 ducks? Not so bad, especially this year when the hunting has been uncharacteristically tough at Shiawassee.