Duck hunting is a lot like bottom fishing a reef or wreck. You get your spot, toss out some baits – in our case, decoys – and await the action. Most times, you’ll get at least a few nibbles from a variety of species. After a while, you come to expect what’ll show; but once in a while, something special unexpectedly screeches that drag. Those are the days to remember.
Travis and I set sail for Lake Toho Thanksgiving morning. It is a budding ritual. Last year, we shot several ringnecks and bluewing teal – standard fare for the area. Turkey day ’11 was my second outing on Toho this season. The morning before, our crew of four splashed 8 ringers. Not shabby for a public lake that’s hit hard the first week of the season But, we saw plenty of ducks, and I was cranked up for the next day, though I’d have to meet T by 3:45am to beat other hunters to the ramp.
T motored the boat to a floating mass of aquatic plants caught in a massive flotilla of hydrilla, a preferred duck food in these parts, mercifully not yet sprayed by the FWC. We got our decoys - a spread of a couple dozen ringer dekes sprinkled with a few teal fakes and a teal Mojo - deployed an hour before shooting light. We lined the boat with pre-cut palm fronds thrust into a PVC tubular rail along the gunnels of the boat, fashioning an effective blind. The time then came to sit back and await shooting light, enjoy the crisp November morning of coots and assorted water heints, with the occasional shooting star or airliner coming or going from Orlando International for the full sensory overload.
About 10 minutes before legal light, a flock of a dozen teal wheeled over the decoys, flipping and flopping in the air as they are trained to do. Soon, a lone ringer swam across the channel, scooching through the decoys like a wind-up toy. It was just about Go-Time.
I promptly missed my first duck, a passing ringer that barely cleared the horizon. When ducks of that fighter class zip out of the gloaming, shots are all too often fleeting and desperately late – which made the circling flock of big ducks all that more exciting.
Big ducks, in these parts, are typically mottled or whistling ducks. Whistling ducks are gorgeous, but slow as snot, loud as Hell, and prefer soggy ground to open water. So, it was evident this flock circling the decoys to Travis’ hail calls weren’t whistlers. Mottled ducks are very common, and that was the thought when they locked up on the decoys as we stood to shoot.
In two blasts, we had four of ten birds splashed. Which sounds great until you realize the limit on mottled ducks is one per person. With an over-abundance of law on Toho, we were in a bit of a pickle. No biggie, though. Friends were close by, and if they didn’t have any mottled ducks, we could swap out with ringers or something.
It was an honest mistake. And not the only one we made during that assault. The morning progressed with the ringers, clearly shore-shy from a week of hunting, keeping to open waters. Travis pounded a beautiful drake wood duck. But as the sun rose, our encounter with the mottled ducks took on new light as well.
For one thing, mottled ducks are pretty vocal. They quack and chuckle like your standard-issue mallard. These ducks were stone silent, I thought. These birds floated smaller in the water. Then Travis said something that really stuck – “Hey, mottled ducks don’t have white on their wings, do they?”
“Nope, blue or green.”
We decided to call the morning early to satiate our new-found curiosity. Wigeon were possible.
By Gadfrey, they’re Gadwall.
For those not in the know, such as me prior to Thanksgiving morning, gadwall, or gray ducks, are medium-sized ducks more common to the Mississippi and Central flyways. They are drab in color, but with striking white speculums and reddish wing plummage. Of course, I'd seen pictures of them in books and read about them in the Hunting Literature, but they are much more pretty birds than either describes.
I’ve heard of hunters harvesting them in Florida, notably along the East Coast where you find more pintail and wigeon, but these were the first I’d laid my eyes on. And coupled with my lack of overall waterfowling experience, the low-light, and being similarly colored birds I’d never figured they were not mottled ducks. We were relieved to keep things legal, but disappointed by the missed chance to shoot to the plug on a lucky draw of birds.
Of four, we retrieved only three – one was lost to the hydrilla or turtle or gator or something. We’d been keeping our eyes on it for the morning, yet it all but vanished when the time came to retrieve it despite searching for half-an-hour in every reed bed and grass patch nearby. So we were forced to settle with two drakes, one with almost-full plumage, and a hen, the female as pretty as the males, in my opinion. For sure, I’ve had more spectacular shoots, but this hunt was for the memory bank.
Now I have a drake gadwall in the freezer awaiting a trip to the taxidermy man. It may not be a big deal to those in other time zones who see them regularly. Odds are I’ll catch up with more before the grave. But on this lake, on Thanksgiving, and the surprise of learning their identities…events like these makes duck hunting worth the early mornings.