"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold

Monday, January 30, 2012

2012 Sea Duck Tournament

“Well, that’s about enough of this BS,” I said as I wrapped the magnum bluebill decoys and shot-put them towards the shore.

It’s not like I’ve not been skunked before. Even the recurring headaches from the rowdy night before and a pair of waders that let saltwater flow in and out like a bait bucket didn’t damper my spirits. Hell, it was a fun morning drawing into a beautiful evening, standing near a mangrove island staring out into the Gulf.

And we saw ducks – bluebills, mergansers, buffleheads, redheads, and scores of Distant Black Dot Ducks, but none wanted to work the decoys, and none happened by on accident. With sea duck hunting, it’s not all that much of a surprise. It’s often a crapshoot in every sense of the term.

No, what was more troubling were the boats to the South blasting away that led to the head-shaking. For the third straight year I was on the losing end of our Annual Sea Duck Tournament, the Booze & Blast. Got half of it right - other half pretty lame. I had visions of cupping redheads and the other boys high-fiving while my BPS gathered rust, cold barreled and fully shelved with ammo. It was too much to bear.

Cole’s party dusted the hooded mergansers in some secluded area he pointed us far away from. Sawyer’s team had a pretty stout lead after the morning hunt, and it sounded like he was padding his lead, as well. It’s the luck of the draw and all of that, but God is it frustrating to hear the reports echo across the bay while you try to will even one duck to err on the side of a trigger.

We gather every year off the Nature Coast for this event. Silly as it sounds, we were in far more productive locations earlier in the season hunting serious ducks and talking about this late-season gamut that leads to a bag heavy with mergansers. The lure of redheads is enticing, and a few died this trip - just not by my hand. The friends, the wives, partying the night before, the uniqueness of the hunt – it’s an annual draw.

The morning started well, though not without its share of difficulties. Drew captained his mudboat out the mouth of the Little Homosassa River. The tide was terribly low, even for the winter. If you’ve never launched out of this area, I wouldn’t in the dark. It’s treacherous, with oyster and limestone islands and their arms of bars and rocks ready to claim their next lower unit, prop or skeg even without the extreme winter tides. We scraped and banged, luckily without totally chewing up the vessel, out to Fun Island, a location eat up last year with waterfowl.

One redbreasted merganser quickly complied with the setup, PJ dumping him in the spread. And then the guns fell silent. As the morning wore on and dreams of country-fried steaks started taking hold, we lifted our gear and proceeded back to port. Unfortunately, there was not enough water to return that way. We pointed towards the Gulf to circle back into the Big River.

That ride was revealing. One, not a whole lot of ducks were rafted in the open water per usual for this time of year. With a mild, mild winter, it just didn’t seem many ducks got down here, or perhaps kept pushing farther south, as we’d heard good reports of bluebills towards Tampa. But, we’d also heard tales of non-mergie divers towards Crystal River.

That afternoon we towed the boats north. A man at the ramp said there were a few redheads around but not in any large groups. But I didn’t pay much attention to him – I was more focused on the two chaps wanting to launch their 24-foot wooden outboard into this maze of rocks and crags. They reminded me of the two fellows from “Jaws” who used a wife’s roast to try and catch the shark – they had an inkling of a plan, but no solid idea of what they were getting into, and just may have to swim back to safety if things went wrong.

So Cole and Sawyer hunted south, and we elected to hunt near Crystal River. If there’s one tip I can offer about this style of hunting it is this: Don’t sea duck hunt with me. I am an albatross. White pelicans hooted and grunted behind our island, and cormorants were steadily pouring over. But the ducks gave us nothing to work with. With about an 1 ½ of daylight remaining, we picked up to try another island, scattering a couple healthy flocks of bluebills and mergansers.

I expected the bluebills to return, as they are wont to do. But, a fishing boat rode in and whooped and hollered as the sounds of distant gun blasts tore at my nerves. Enough was enough. And we couldn't wait out last shooting light with the tide now steadily rushing west. Sawyer’s team gathered the championship for the weekend, actually getting out of bed to hunt Sunday while the rest of us slept in. And duck season was over for me.

As always, we’re planning for next year. We were late with a logo for the tournament shirts but should have that ready for 2013. And we’ve commissioned a trophy to be fashioned with a redbreasted merganser standing on an Evan Williams bottle to pass around to the winner in the years to come like the Stanley Cup. It’s gonna be cool. Hope to win it one year and cover myself in glory.

If anyone lets me board their boat again.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An Open Letter: I Hate You, Bowhunting

Dear Bowhunting,

You clumsy b***h! Why must you make everything so eff-ing difficult? Really! From having to tune you, to your annoying wrist release that clinks on any piece of metal it can find to the point I’m convinced it’s magnetized, you are a chore. Anyone who claims they prefer you over a firearm I have to scan with a Jeweler’s Eye, seeking out that skin-deep flaw that'd betray a symptom of the obvious internal psychological or physiological defect that’d cause someone to say something so foolish.

I prefer a rifle. I am a Cowboy, not an Indian. Take this last weekend. After months of deer hunting, finally, a buck trots by my climber, albeit, behind me. Instead of quietly spinning around and clicking off a safety, I have to rise from my seat, draw back, and try to squeeze an arrow through a maze of twigs and branches. He didn’t wait long enough for me to even straighten my knees. Deader than fried chicken with my .300 or even my .45-70.

Then, as the memory of him fades, a line of does creep down the same trail. This time I was ready. But as I focused in on a gorgeous chocolate-coated nanny, I guess my binoculars knocked the nock because when I hit full-draw, the arrow fell from the string, tinging onto the Viper’s rail as carbon met aluminum, and the does high-whitetailed it out of there.

And if that’s not enough for a day of suffering, consider the evening hunt. An old, old doe came creeping from the palmettos nervous as can be. As luck would have it, she managed to slip right into the one clear five-foot shooting lane I had in that direction. At fifteen yards, she should be between a hamburger bun cozied up with a slice of cheddar right now, but instead, she’s still out enjoying life as the Rage greased her back hairs and planted into the sandy pine soil. Whisker Biscuits, Pendulum Sights...these aren’t harmless consumer products, they are the names of torture devices.

You are a sadist. It is not sportsmanship, as others proclaim, it is lunacy. I personally like venison in the freezer and antlers on the wall, and a bullet is the most efficient means of achieving these goals. I mean, for the time and money I invest chasing a smart animal in his own backyard, I gotta send my best when opportunity arrives. If someone has a great round of golf, they don’t go out the next day with half a bag of clubs and whiffle balls. Chess players don’t say, “Ah, screw it! I’ll play without my rooks today.” If I were a star NFL wide receiver coming off the game of my life and I decided to play the next tilt with one hand tied behind my back, coaches, family, and friends would pull me aside and counsel me on destroying my career and reputation. To choose bowhunting over a rifle for any reason other than paid endorsement or a large wager is impaired judgement. Smell the air for alcohol.

But here’s really the part that chaps my behind – I neeeeeeedddddd you. You are the Belle of the Ball. You get me into these exclusive, A-list hunts on great public lands. Somehow I’m the blight in this relationship, and it...

Forget it; I’m done with you for a near-length of a baseball season. If you think you’re going hog or gobbler chasing with me this Spring, you are the delusional one. Enjoy your stay in the dark of the case in the darkest corner of the closet.

Peace be with you. Until August.


PS – Tell your cousin, Crossbow Hunting, I said hello.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Last Days of Whitetail Season

Travis and I cornered a 90-degree turn on the local hard road that halved our hunting property at the time. It was a cold, wet, blustery mid-January weekend, and the stand hunt that morning did not pay off. The rut had ended in November, and the rubs and scrapes were stale. So, as we headed back to the fire to dry off and warm up, I was astonished to see a spike lingering around a myrtle bush a few dozen yards off the road.

We parked his Chevy a hundred yards down the road and crept back onto our property and stalked up to the buck. He wasn’t alone. With him were another couple spikes and a young four. The eight-point that popped up after T had shot the four-point was the best buck I’d taken so late into the year – an unexpected treat. These bucks were far from any stands or anywhere we’d even considered placing a stand. They were basically camped out here in the far corner of the land, away from our intrusions – though, apparently, vehicles didn’t seem to bother them. Too bad for them I still have an eye for antler at 45MPH.

These are difficult days for deer hunters. The crops have been harvested, the hunting pressure has mounted, the rut is over (in most places), the underbrush and browse has largely dried up and fallen away, and the deer just don’t move as much or have gone nocturnal. Late-season deer hunting is a trying exercise. But - unless you are especially cruel on your deer herd - there is still game left and, staring at the calendar, the fall is a long ways off.

Late-season deer hunting is not without its merits. It’s always a fine time to round out your freezer with a doe, or a younger buck, if the spirit moves you. Possibly even a wall-hanger. The weather is tolerable for scouting. And it gives you the opportunity to try other hunting methods you wouldn’t normally attempt during the prime times.

So let’s take a look at a few ways you may be able to bag that last deer of the year, or at the very least, improve your knowledge of the property and woodsmanship.

1. Deer Drives and Still-Hunting – When the season starts and I’m hanging from a tree, I’m very timid about hunting pressure. I want fresh fish and not stink up the area or unnecessarily spook my quarry. When there’s nothing left to lose, why not switch up tactics? In places where it’s possible – namely smaller blocks of pines or hardwoods or dry swamps – it’s common practice to organize a deer drive.

It’s not like you need to hand out pots and pans and raise a holy racket to drive deer. Stage two or three pushers – in blaze orange, is a good idea - upwind of the area you are driving and sit a couple blockers downwind. Space everyone out and slowly slip the pushers through the woods. Often time the pusher will get a shot – and the blockers benefit by the jostled game.

Likewise, if you’re hunting alone, still-hunting from the downwind side can often produce. The gist is to get otherwise bedded and holed-up deer on their hooves and moving towards a barrel. By the time next season comes around, your stink will be long gone. Unless you really smell, dirtball.

2. Scouting – While you’re walking around doing either of the above activities, it’s likely you’ll notice things about the property you’ve missed before. As I said, the underbrush is gone and game trails become more obvious. You can locate hidden rublines or a lone oak or persimmon or honey locust in the middle of everything that’ll produce feed for hidden deer in autumn.

I can’t tell you the number of times – no matter what state I’m hunting - I’ve slapped my forehead and thought, “Damn, I should have been hunting in here back in October.” It’s highly unlikely you’ll find, or want to seek out, such places in the heat of the summer.

3. Hunt the Weather – Those gray days of winter get depressing, for sure. Still, the leading line of the foul weather that accompanies cold fronts will have deer and other game animals up foraging before the bottom falls out and they hunker down to wait out the storm.

I wouldn’t suggest sitting on the borders of an open field, but trails inside wooden edges of fields that head in and out of bedding areas are solid bets. And any place that serves up munchies such as wet areas that still support green grasses or cold-hardy vegetation. Or corn feeders.

4. Discover the Secondary Rut – This phenomenon is tough to get a bead on. In the South, the rut is often so stretched out that it’s hard to define when a secondary rut occurs. In northern states, I’m told, it’s a little easier as the rut is condensed to just a couple weeks during the fall. Then, the secondary rut comes in about a month later when unbred does go back into estrous. Many of the same strategies that are employed during the rut, but after a month of cracking rifles, the deer are a bit touchier and hunting areas discussed above is prudent.

5. Hunt Places with a Rut – Sections of Texas, Alabama, SW Georgia, NW Florida and stretches of Central Florida all have late ruts that run through January and into February, in some instances.

I try to be a Rut Groupie. In the past, I’ve traveled different states trying to hit the prime times. These are typically clustered around October and November, but I know it’s not worth a late December North Carolina hunt when the Georgia lease is still host to rutting bucks. When January rolls around, Central Florida still has a rut. (In fact, you could hunt the rut almost every month from August to February just traveling through Florida.)

Deer hunting, by and large, just isn’t a productive in January as it is when the leaves are still falling. Yet, the deer are still there. It just takes a little more planning, a switch-up in strategy, and more than a little luck.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bush Pigs and Brush Deer

Last week PJ and I set out for a coyote hunt on our little lease in Central Florida. Largely scrub land with orange groves bordering two sides, this property is rife with predators. Turkeys were not outside the realm of possibility when we signed the lease, but certainly not what sealed the deal. It’s just not a turkey-ish looking place. Which made the land all that more exciting when a flock of hens and jakes tripped a camera before Christmas. As a far-gone gobbler crank, I couldn’t get these birds out of my mind.

So anyway, we were out to try our hand at the dogs. But wouldn’t you know it, the orange groves were being plucked of fruit. The reverberations of trucks and machinery complemented by the plastic thuds of citrus tossed into tubs were punctuated by the deep bass of Latino music. Not exactly how they draw it up in the Coyote Hunting Handbook.

Still, nothing ventured and all that. We went ahead and set up in a shallow drainage that descends from the Western grove into the only swampland on the place. PJ and company lured in a dog here a month before that slipped into their laps before they realized he was coming. I wallowed under an oak seeking a decent seat, digging though the spiderweb of intertwined weeds and branches surrounding the tree. I’d have one shooting lane to the front towards the swamp. The orange-dotted green of the grove was off my starboard shoulder, obscured and high of my eyeline thanks to the contour of the land and the brush.

PJ hit the remote to the caller, and that God-awful wailing rabbit call came from his new FOXPRO. I immediately spied movement to my right, up towards that grove - slate-colored with a bobbing motion like a flock of hens.

I broke cover from the low elevation of the drainage to get a better glimpse of the birds and count the flock. Instead, from a now-unobstructed view, I witnessed a field-worker in blue jeans hauling a ten-foot weather-worn aluminum ladder horizontally on his shoulder, the rungs perpendicular with the ground, rising and falling with his footsteps.

What a boob.

This spit happens in the field. Some combination of excitement and low-light and fragmented views of objects has a way of distorting reality until it conjures images of what’s not actually there. The dourest amongst us will quickly point out that this is how hunting accidents occur - shooting at things without getting a clear understanding of what’s being aimed at. And these people would be correct.

More often, thankfully, these incidents end with a funny story. And no hunter I’ve met is immune. One of my favorites happened 8 or 9 years ago – sadly well before YouTube. Typical for this time length, some details are murky but, really, no one should seek the absolute truth and interfere with the crux of the humiliation.

This boy - and I believe he was hard-of-sight which should excuse him, but who are we kidding – was hunting on private land with a couple pals in South-Central Florida. He was fairly inexperienced as evidenced by his revolver and Bowie knife strapped on his belt. He spotted a hog at the end of a palmetto flat. His buddies weren’t convinced and tried to wave him off, but the guy persisted and, much to his accomplices’ delight, began his stalk, hunkering over and creeping close to the ground, slipping out to his prey.

Well, when he got close enough, he gave that hog a half-cylinder of .357’s. The pig wasn’t all that impressed. It didn’t flop over. Or even run off at the shots. The poor guy slinked up to his target and discovered it was a charred pine tree stump. D’oh! Those charred stumps will get you every time! He did the walk of shame back to his buddies who were all too understanding and sympathetic…wait, that’s not true. His name is, still today in certain hunting circles, synonymous with this gaffe.

Don’t think I’ve not given a stump – or tractor tire or dark culvert pipe – a three-times-over with the binoculars when I’m fired up on a hog hunt. To date, I’ve not pulled the trigger.

The thing is, even without pistol rounds whizzing by them, hogs move quite a bit. If there are any doubts, just wait a minute and you’ll catch movement and assure yourself of the target. But when movement is added to inanimate objects, it’s easy to be decoyed.

I call them brush deer and bush pigs. These tend to creep out at first light or right at dark. That right wind-whipped weed or fern or jostling bush in the shadows is enough to catch your attention and get the pulse racing. Most of the time, they’re easily dismissed, but every once in a while you’ll catch yourself intently dedicating the binoculars on this phenomenon.

It happens to even the best hunters. A few years back, I watched, with much amusement, a bobcat stalk a cattle egret in my folks’ horse pasture. The large cat would hunker to the ground when the bird stopped moving. When he thought his prey wasn’t paying attention, he’d scamper forward. Then the wind would blow and the egret would scoot further away.

After ten minutes or so, the cat got within pouncing range. As you may have already surmised, the cattle egret was really a white plastic grocery bag that was slowly tumbleweeding through the back yard. After his attack, it looked exactly like you think it would if you were letting a bobcat out of a bag. Last I saw of that wildcat was him clearing the five-foot back fence in obvious haste to distance himself from that embarrassment.

Spend enough time in the woods and you’ll eventually be hoodwinked. Should this occur, keep in mind three critical things:

1. Always be sure of your target before pulling a trigger. No need for injury. Seriously.

2. If you find yourself running afoul, pray to the Heavens no one is watching. Social media is a very real threat these days.

3. If you find yourself in the company of someone who has run afoul, it is your responsibility to call as many people as soon as possible and relay the story in as much exaggeration and enthusiasm as you can muster.


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Walk-In Duck Hunting

As I wrote in my last post, Travis and I had set up in a little slime pond hoping to bust a few beaks the morning after Christmas. We’d known of the spot, as we knew mottled ducks and whistlers knew of the spot. Our hope was a few teal would swing through, as well.

It didn’t happen. We spooked the whistling ducks early and had a few woodies fly overhead but it was pretty lame - which made it all that much better that I was able to bust a gorgeous mottled drake. I guess you could say I limited out since the bag for mottleds is one, but it wasn’t the duck hunt we’d hoped for. But, if you did read my last post, a little additional scouting remedied this problem as that evening a pile of whistling ducks and a few teal met their demise. For the record, my personal bag for the day was the one mottled duck, a bluewing teal, and 4 whistlers - awesome for this style of hunting.

Over the last three weeks I’ve about run gamut of Florida ducking hunting opportunities. Hunted the bigger lakes of central Florida for ringers and teal. Per usual, there were plenty of ducks and a few have died, but as also typical of a mid-December hunt for these birds on public waters, they were rather shore-shy from being blasted at for a few weeks especially having had no recent cold fronts blow down fresh birds. I hunted Lake Okeechobee one afternoon and was perplexed by the lack of birds I saw there, though a party did well the next morning, blasting ringers and teal.

From there, I hunted STA ¾ and had an exciting shoot, again increasing my bag of ringers and teal. December 26th will go down as a memorable day for all the whistling ducks, but a few days later, I hunted up by Cedar Key for sea ducks – bluebills and bufflehead. What a neat place to give waterfowling a go! I scratched down one hen bluebill – my first - and a common merganser, but the action was limited. That’s a lot of water out there, and it didn’t seem a lot of these ducks had arrived south yet. When you don’t have many sea ducks in that expanse, the shooting is typically limited.

It’s been fun, though, my limited knowledge of duck hunting increasing with each venture. I don’t want to disparage hunting from a boat with a large spread of decoys, mostly because I really, really enjoy a boat full of buddies emptying to their plugs on passing ringers. And I really, really want to continue to be invited on these hunts. With all the rivers, lakes and shorelines in the state, the ease of opportunity is there, but the most successful hunts I’ve been on have involved no motorized boats and far less hunting pressure. And that’s what I want to focus on today: increasing duck hunting opportunities through walk-in hunts on private and public lands, not only in Florida, but really anywhere you may want to pop a duck or three away from the crowds. These places are shallow water venues that require merely a pair of waders to retrieve birds and are fine spots to innoculate that Duck Hunting Disease

So, let’s delve through this spectrum of possibilities. The whistling ducks and mottled duck died on private land. The land is largely South Florida prairie pockmarked with sloughs, wet-weather ponds, flag lily ponds, and cattle ponds. All of these features are attractive to puddle ducks including the aforementioned mottled, but also whistlers, wood ducks and teal. The duck hunting has been fickle over the last several years due to drought that allowed tall dog fennels and other weeds to thrive in these depressions, choking out the ducks. The main trick to success has been finding where the ducks want to be and adjusting accordingly, as my opening tale related.

To take it out of the state of Florida, we did something similar in Montana last year. We hunted flooded shallows on the edges of wheat fields. Ducks rafted on the nearby river would shuffle over in the mornings and evenings to feed. 2010 was sort of a down year for our trip, but a group this year pounded mallards and other puddlers that came into water barely ankle deep.

I mentioned wood ducks earlier; they are extremely conducive to walk-in hunting. Here, they’ll settle in cypress swamps and creeks surrounded by oaks. In Georgia, I’ve blasted them in beaver ponds and probably could when I visit North Carolina each year if I weren’t so fixated on deer. It’s quite an experience to have a flock of woodies whistle down through the treetops first thing in the morning. Like above, the trick is figuring out where they want to be. I believe woodies - even more so than other waterfowl - wake up in the morning knowing exactly where they’re headed and little will sway the stubborn buggers, so not each puddle will hold them.

This all translates on public land, as well. You know, mottled and whistlers are largely unique to Florida, and many WMA’s share the same features of the private ranch I’ve hunted. And duck hunting is allowed on most WMA's during open seasons for deer, hogs, or small game hunts. Many more WMA's have an abundance of cypress swamp land that woodies call home. The Green Swamp, Chassahowitzka, and Lake Panasofkee are a trio of public lands where I’ve noticed a plenty of wood ducks recently. And since most folks are concentrating on deer and hogs, the potential is there for great shoots.

For the ultimate walk-in hunts on public land in the state, the STA’s are the cat’s meow. These lands are designed to clean runoff water before it reaches the Everglades and is loaded with a variety of ducks. If you live anywhere outside of South Florida, it is a haul to get down there, but it is worth a trip or two a year if you draw the tags.

The STA’s require a touch more planning than a few of the other options. Last year, we waded through the hydrilla to a line of cattails. We got a limit easily but ached like Hell after slogging through that mess, dragging weeds behind us like wet wedding dresses. This year we toted kayaks down which made it a lot easier to get hunters and gear in and out.

But that’s as complicated as these hunts should go. Typically we’ve hunted with few decoys, if any, in the case of wood ducks. If you’ve done your scouting and know – or reasonably hope – the birds will be there, tons of dekes are burdensome. A couple decoys and a Mojo Duck never hurt mallards or teal, but sea duck-like spreads of them are unreasonable. For blinds, just cut surrounding vegetation (check regulations on WMA’s!) and put those Boy Scout badges to work. In Florida, cutting long palm fronds and planting the stalks in the mush is a popular method of concealment. Of course, care must be taken on where you splash the birds; most of these joints are wader-friendly, but the deep spots may require a retriever - either by canine or by a fishing pole with a snatch of some variety.

Duck hunting, oftentimes, is what you want to make of it. As I said, I certainly enjoy hunting from a boat on the lake with buddies and hoping for a limit of teal and ringers. It does happen, especially early in the season and after cold fronts when new birds wing South. There is something to be said for going beyond this formula, though. Not everyone is gonna get excited about that one bird limit of mottled ducks. Or even three wood ducks.

But it’s reasonable to expect, with a little scouting and luck, to enjoy a day of waterfowling without worry about other hunters or hauling a boat around.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Hunting Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks

The pre-dawn morning after Christmas, Travis and I snuck out to a wet-weather slime pond with a handful of decoys, a teal Mojo, and palm fronds to prepare an assault on the local waterfowl. In Florida this time of year, one could reasonably expect mottled ducks, teal, and black-bellied whistling ducks arriving to feed in the pinky-deep water on duck weed and other aquatic grasses.

The whistlers had beaten us there. After we’d left the truck, we could hear them peeping and chirping and, yes, whistling, in the reeds. Our arrival spooked three separate flocks up and out of the marsh, each group consisting of a couple dozen birds. We hurriedly fashioned the palm fronds into a makeshift blind in a swath of reeds and awaited daylight, convinced the birds would return.

They did not.

As the morning lengthened, T and I listened to the chorus of birds that had settled in another wet area to the north. We backed out of our set-up and crept up to the other pond. There, a flock of 30-40 whistlers were in a holding pattern over the wetland. As they dropped down, another flock of 20 popped up, those bold white bands on their wings flashing brightly in blue of the morning. This continued for 20 minutes as we watched mesmerized as flock after flock of black-bellies would rise and fall into the marsh. Hundreds of birds. I’d never witnessed anything quite like it in Florida - the afternoon would be a great hunt.

Black-bellied whistling ducks, also known as black-bellied tree ducks, are odd birds. Taxonomists categorize them closer kin to geese than true ducks. They don’t dabble. They don’t dive. They wade in shallow water with their spindly legs and use their long necks to bend over to graze on grasses and aquatic vegetation. Beautiful in flight, these dark chestnut-brown birds have bright-white wing patches with a pinkish-orange bill and feet that hang behind them. Hens and drakes share similar patterns with a slight deeper contrast in color for the drakes. While flying, they can not be confused with the buff-colored fulvous whistling duck also found in the same regions – or any other duck, for that matter.

Whistlers don’t migrate, in the true sense of waterfowl, but they flock up in oftentimes huge groups to travel back and forth across their range. As the moniker “tree duck” implies, they nest in holes of trees, and their webbed feet have needle-sharp talons to help them perch on branches. There’s also a reason they are known as whistling ducks. They are very vocal; their peeping whistling while in flight betrays their approach (listen here).

These birds are found in great numbers across Central and South America where, in some locales, they are referred to as “Cornfield Ducks” as they plague grain fields and are treated as such. In the US, their range is limited to Florida and the southern limits of the Gulf Coast states, though wayward birds have been found in northern states. Their population is actually increasing in these areas and bag limits of six represent their availability. In Florida, they’ve become rather commonplace on golf courses and around cattle pastures with a little bit of freshwater and year-round availability of fresh-growth grasses.

From a hunter’s standpoint, whistling ducks are user-friendly. Since they do not migrate and endure the salvoes of gunfire from Canada south, they aren’t particularly hunter-savvy. Also, they don’t get a lot of hunting pressure locally because they prefer environs that differ from the standard-issue ringneck or teal. While I'm sure several are splashed each year in such places, whistlers aren’t likely to decoy for a ringneck spread on the bigger, hydrilla-covered public lakes and rivers popular to state duck hunters.

To purposely hunt them, waterfowlers should focus on areas where whistlers can wade for their food. The STA’s in South Florida hold their share of birds. I’ve witnessed flocks of thousands flying around Lake Okeechobee where they’ll settle down in the shallow marshes. Wet-weather ponds, flooded cow pastures, dug ponds, and flag lily ponds surrounded by trees will attract their share of birds.

As these birds expand, more will be learned about hunting them in the future. I’ve seen them decoy, but suspect we were just where they wanted to be more than them being attracted to teal dekes. If you can get their calling pattern down, I’ve watched folks mouth-call birds around to investigate, but no commercial calls are available that I’m aware of. Whistlers aren’t all that tough to bring down, either. Number 2’s or 4’s is more than enough from a 12 gauge, 3-inch chambering. And their meat is very good, indicative of their diet grasses and grains and avoiding long-distance travel that’ll make migratory birds a touch gamey by the time they hit the Sunshine State.

Travis, Don, and I gave them the full nine yards that evening. As we scrambled to set up a Mojo and a handful of Big Duck decoys, the whistlers were still there doing their thing, circling and rising out of the marsh like a busy airport. After the first shot, hundreds of birds flapped their way out of the flag pond like something you’d see on a wildlife documentary about Africa. Between the constant whistling, the passing flocks of so many birds, and the frantic re-loading, it’s tough to honestly detail the flurry of action. We splashed our limit – and a couple bluewing teal – in short order.

I badly wanted one for the wall, but none I could claim that afternoon were worthy. They lacked the deep roseate pink bills of a trophy. That drake came, though, the next morning. We returned with a few other hunters and added to the weekend bag, though the action was not as steady as many of the birds retreated for happier grounds after the first few blasts. I’d put one on the ground, and as I walked to retrieve it, a lone drake cupped into range and the BPS folded him without so much as a ruffled feather when it hit dry land. Sadly, my Nikon took a swim that morning which prevented me from getting a picture. But he’s in the freezer now awaiting a taxidermy trip.

It is beyond me why so many birds were congregated in that small marsh. No one who had hunted this ranch had seen anything like it – it was truly a special opportunity that quickly snuffed out any thoughts of deer hunting. I will say, it’s an exciting thought knowing the populations of these birds are healthy and expanding. As I said above, if this trend continues, we’ll know a lot more about hunting whistling ducks in the future.

They are unique waterfowl. It is a unique hunt.