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Chris Banish reports from Michigan

In their infinite wisdom, the Department of Natural Resources of the great state of Michigan promulgated their waterfowl hunting regulations earlier this year, and to the delight of some and the consternation of others, two opening days of duck season were set for different regions of the state. I was among the delighted, as it meant that I could travel to enjoy the earlier opener in the northern part of the state, and a week later have a similar experience downstate. I did just that, with wildly differing results. As is often the case in duck hunting (does that Americanism cause Brits to picture us yelling "tallyho" and spurring after a mallard, preceded by a pack of howling Labradors?), the results achieved did not in any way match the time and effort expended on each effort.

The earlier opening day was set for September 29, for the northern part of the state. The evening of Friday the 28th found my friend and I on a five hour drive from suburban Detroit to my Grandfather's cottage in the northwestern lower peninsula of the state. We arrived about 9:30 pm on Friday night, and commenced our preparations for the morning.

We settled the camouflage rowboat on the trailer, with all of the accoutrements of duck hunting nestled inside it: a bag of 30 or so decoys, a military surplus camouflage net, and oars in case the outboard conked out. In the bed of my pickup truck sat a 10 horsepower outboard motor, a full gas can, and two pairs of neoprene waders. In the cab were two shotguns, camouflage jackets, hats, duck calls, and a shell bag. After a couple bottles of beer, we were ready for bed. Of course, we carefully set the alarm clock.

At 3:15 am, the buzzer jolted us awake. We shook the sleep from our heads, got dressed, and jumped in the truck. We had only a few miles to go to the marsh, and it was important to be there early. Opening day is popular enough, and I knew it was bound to be even more so this year, as the opening day of archery deer season is always October 1 in Michigan, and there would be a lot of deer hunters with nothing to do. Well, we were the first to the marsh, and made it out to the little break in the cattails I intended to hunt. We sat around in the boat for the couple of hours before legal shooting time commenced (which in Michigan and most other states is determined by a table based on the time of sunrise for each day), occasionally eating a sandwich or waving the beam of our flashlight to warn other parties of our location. We tested the wind and set the decoys. The water is thigh deep, and one sinks into the mud that lies beneath the cattails. Once we got settled among the reeds, we found ourselves up to our high waists in water. It proved to be a difficult position to see or shoot from.

About half and hour before the shooting time came, another party of hunters motored past us, shined their light on us as were setting up decoys, and then set up fifty yards away from us. The stupid and the arrogant can be found pretty much anywhere. There was nothing we could do about but yell at them, so we didn't bother. Not that it mattered in any event.

The sky was perfectly clear, the wind very calm, and temperatures rising toward the high 60s F. Not a good day for duck hunting. Birds were moving around, but we found ourselves in an awful position: in the middle of the marsh surrounded by other parties. Any duck that was headed our way was shot at or worked by other groups, and we missed other opportunities due to our less than ideal position in the mud. It was a depressing and irritating morning, topped off by losing in the cattails the one duck we managed to shoot. We headed in for lunch and a nap.

That afternoon approached the ridiculous. We traveled to a large lake that empties out into Lake Michigan via a short river channel. Again, there were lots of hunters around, but we figured we could find someplace to set up. We investigated a nice looking inlet on the lake side of a long spit of land thrown up by a large river which feeds into the lake. The grass is always greener, however, and we decided to head across the bay to a little cattailed point. Well, we arrived there only to find another group of hunters. Upon deciding to return to our original inlet, we turned around and saw that another group of hunters had moved in behind us and set up shop. It's hard to hunt in a parking lot ( I mean carpark ) full of other hunters, so we were forced to pack it in and head back to the boat launch and home. It wasn't such a bad alternative, as I was starting to cook inside my neoprenes from the sun and warm temperature. We had dinner that night in town, in a riverside restaurant. Over the rims of our pints we watched the flights of mallards moving up and down the river with impunity.

The next Saturday was the opener in the southern part of the state, and my Dad and I decided to decided to hunt a small pond about 40 miles north of Detroit that we had hunted several years previously, but never since. We did it mainly to avoid the large crowds we knew would be all over Lake St. Clair, just northeast of Detroit, one of the prime duck hunting areas in the entire Great Lakes region. We arrived early again, to beat out any other freelancers, and discovered that there was only one other party setting up on the pond. They had walked in, and we brought a boat, which allowed us to set up a nice distance away from them, so we all could get some good shooting if the birds cooperated. We spent twenty minutes or so throwing out our decoys, then pulled our boat into the bushes on the shore, and tucked ourselves behind the low branches of pondside maples and oaks. Again the predawn sky was clear, but the days before had brought cooling temperatures, and above all, a good steady wind. Those conditions persisted this particular morning, and we were optimistic to see a few birds.

The pond was long and thin, running from southwest to northeast, and we were nearly at the northeastern end. I checked my watch, and with a few minutes to go until we were legal, I pulled on my camouflage facemask. We scanned the treetops, and, as if a switch had been thrown, the birds started to move just at shooting time. A flock of seven wood ducks, known for their acrobatics and erratic flying, came over the treetops, dropped down to a few inches above the water, and buzzed our decoys. We were surrounded by tall trees, with ridges rising behind the shore on both sides. The woodies were almost impossible to pick out against the trees on the other side, and they flashed in front of us before we could raise our guns. They fooled the other guys on the pond as well, and swooped up over the trees at the far end without a shot being fired at them. Moments later, three mallards dropped in at the end of the pond, just beyond our range. I decided to sneak along the shoreline to jump them, as I was upwind and they would have to cross in front of me to get enough altitude to make it over the trees. At the moment I started crouching towards the end of the pond, the other party shot at some ducks, and the ones in front of me jumped up and flew across my front. I fired and dropped a mallard, and my Dad knocked down another.

The birds kept coming in little groups, some investigating the decoys, others flying on. Another pair dropped at the end of the pond, and again I started sneaking towards them. This time it was I who jumped them, and I dropped both as they flew across me. We picked up a couple more singles as the morning wore on.

All in all, that morning on the pond was very exciting. Birds everywhere. For a moment there was a bit of confusion as we were reloading, running our boat out to grab the downed birds, and the other party's dog was splashing through the water as its master was calling at circling ducks. Despite many minutes poking through cattails and the tall grass on the shore, we lost two more cripples, which convinced me that it was when, rather than if, I would find myself training a Labrador. Even with that disappointment, the morning was a good one, and what started as an "oh what the hell" sort of trip turned into a memorable hunt. The experience of turning a mallard with some calling, watching it turn downwind, losing it as it crossed the treeline, only to pick it up again as it came down with cupped wings towards my decoys would have been worth the trip, even if we hadn't taken any birds.

For the first opener, I drove over 500 miles there and back, used up an entire weekend, and spent a good chunk of change on gas and food only to sink in the mud, get crowded out by a guy who thinks you spell "ethics" with a K, and to take a pleasure boat ride to look at the all the hunters saturating the area. At least I won $20 playing blackjack at the local Indian casino. The next Saturday I drove 30 miles, spent $2 on some bottles of water, and received in return a morning full of exciting shooting, decoying ducks, acrobatic woodies, a dry-land hunting position, and a sustained and gusty wind.

I learned a couple of lessons:

1) I need a dog, and 

2) I don't need to spend all my time on the big, well-known waters to get some good gunning. I will certainly be heading out into the large public hunting zones across the state, because they produce some excellent hunting if conditions are right, but I'll keep my eye out for the small waters as well. 

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