Chesapeake Outdoors

Men and Dog vs. Birds

by C.D. Dollar

For Chesapeake waterfowlers, the mild winter has proved an annoyance. Ducks are not flying as hunters would like. Light winds, clear skies and moderate temperatures keep the birds in one place instead of in search for shelter from the elements.

In weather more conducive to fishing than waterfowling, Paul Willey and I put Paul's Labrador in the truck and trailered the skiff to Crisfield to hunt the public marshes of Tangier Sound.

The marsh is a magical place year 'round, but for me it holds a special solitary beauty in the winter. Tundra swans compete with the more aggressive mute swans for food like widgeon grass, and the ducks that roost on the salt ponds are the real deal, not bread-fed marina mallards. These wild birds - gadwall and teal to black ducks and widgeon - are slick, wary and fast.

To think you may have their flight patterns figured out is a dangerous self-deception. Generally factors like tide and hunting pressure dictate where the ducks are apt to be. Experienced duck hunters make an assumption and hope for good luck.

The birds play the tides magnificently, sometimes moving into the protected ponds during high water and then to the more open water when the tide ebbs. But depending upon the hunting pressure from the marsh fringe and wind strength, they may choose to stay up the guts regardless of the tide cycle. Ability to fly gives the ducks many choices.

Ours, on the other hand, are limited by low tides, draft of vessel and our own determination. A severe ebb tide kept us from running too far into the interior. Anchoring the skiff offshore, not in too shallow water lest we became stuck there, we canoed up a gut.

A fireball in the east filled the sky with hues of oranges, reds, grays and blues. Hunkered down among the high tide bush and saltmarsh cordgrass, we waited for the birds to fly. In the first hour, a solitary black duck pitched in, then realized his mistake and tried to elevate. A single shot from my gun found its mark, and Cedar, the Lab colored like dark wood, retrieved it dutifully.

Midday came and, though decent numbers of birds checked out the rig, none joined the fake party. With the water making up, we headed up the gut to set out the decoys off a point.

Our hunch paid off, and soon knots of gadwalls tolled to our decoys. These were fat birds for winter smoking or roasting.

For the next 90 minutes, Paul, Cedar and I were running on a rush of adrenaline that makes hunting the marsh, despite the effort of slogging through the mud, so exciting. At day's end, we skiffed back to the lodge tired and hungry, looking out across the expanse of water and wetland that was Tangier Sound. Winter's sun hung low, casting reflections of cloud streaks across the sky. It seemed the most perfect place on earth.

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VolumeVI Number 2
January 15-21, 1998
New Bay Times

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