Thomas O. Wansleben
This is not the movie. It’s better. I’m an avid waterfowler. “The Fever,” as it’s referred to in my family, starts at the end of summer and doesn’t end until the last day of the season when I have exhausted all of my hunting options and, usually, my wife’s patience.
For me, this was less than a banner year for waterfowl in New Hampshire. During the first half of the season, there were little to no ducks in my usual hot spots and the geese seemed to avoid the fields they packed themselves into last year. That meant that I had to travel and scout a lot more. My hope was for a better second half of the season. The last two years were very disappointing as we had unusually warm weather and the ducks remained scattered on every beaver pond and puddle. I waited for the freeze that never came. This year, however, things changed. The second season saw the weather turn cold and then colder. All the ponds froze over in a night and the large, and usually fast flowing, Connecticut River was growing ice like ticks on a dog. I was only able to get in a couple of hunts before that too froze and pushed the ducks out. My only hope left was the sea coast where the regular and impressive tides keep the waters open and the ducks flying.
For the last few years I have traveled to the New Hampshire coast to do a hunt on the salt marsh or the Great Bay. Early December was chosen this year because it not only looked like a good option, but was my only option to hunt ducks before the season closed. Last year I had an exciting, but birdless hunt on the Great Bay, and I was anxious to try again.
I had purchased a new duck boat this fall. It was a low profile layout type that I had made by a fiberglass craftsman in Alabama. It was lightweight, roomy, and perfect for the marsh. A layer of Fast Grass completed the package that made me disappear like an old magician’s trick. It can be paddled, rowed, or because of a square stern, use a motor. I had mine rigged with an electric that moved it along quite well.
Timing for a coastal hunt always seems a little more difficult. It isn’t the sunrise/sunset pattern that fresh water hunters are used to, but incredibly dependent on the tides. I hooked up with two hunting buddies, each with a similar boat. We had to pick a time with favorable tides and try to coordinate that with time off from work. This finally seemed to come together about a week before Christmas.
Trying to get the most out of our time we decided to jump shoot at low tide and then hunt from the boats on the incoming tide. We got a late start because, one of the hunters, John, was coming off a night shift. That actually worked out for the better, as we had an ice storm the night before and the forecast was for warming temperatures.
When John arrived we loaded up my truck. This was not an easy task. One boat went up on the rack and another in the bed. We had to pack all our gear, decoys, motors, batteries, etc., around it. I have an extended cab and we filled that space, leaving just enough room for John’s dog, Puck, to fit. Finally we were on our way.
By the time we reached the motel the rain had slowed. We quickly checked in and got into our hip boots to do jump shooting. Shortly thereafter, we met Steve, our third hunter and a wildlife biologist, and headed for the marsh.
Jump shooting on a salt marsh is a challenge. The marsh itself looks like a grassy field from a distance. Trying to traverse it, however, is another issue. It is criss-crossed with channels that range from one to three feet wide and require jumping over. Coming up short puts you in a crevasse that’s deeper than your hip boots, an unpleasant experience in December. There are also wider ones that you must circle around. The object is to sneak up on the bends of the large serpentine main channels. These are 10 feet deep and have been carved out by the tides. At low tide the ducks are tucked down in these channels and it is possible to sneak up and flush them within gun range. When the tide is in they sit up on the top of these channels and can see you a mile away. Because a duck can drop into the channel or on the other side, a dog is a must to retrieve downed birds.
Steve, his dog Rolf, John, his dog Puck, and I started across the marsh in a light rain. The first few bends did not produce any ducks. Eventually Steve got off some shots but came up empty handed. After a couple of hours the tide was too high, and the only duck we managed to get was a crippled hen that Puck found and dispatched.
The original plan was to take the boats out on the Bay with the rising tide, but by now it was raining a bit harder and a gusty wind was coming up. We decided to hunt the same marsh, but with the boats from a different direction.
We unloaded the boats, gear and dogs. John and I had motors, Steve paddled. The current in the channels was strong and pushed us back into the marsh quickly. John had opted to not hunt this particular time, but concentrate on dog handling (a choice he’d later regret). We set up at the intersection of several channels. The decoys were placed. Steve had some super magnum Blacks that would be duck magnets. Once we had the decoys set I pulled my boat into the marsh grass and got in. All the marsh would eventually be covered by the incoming 10 foot tide. You had to be very careful if you were walking, as there was no gradual slope to these channels. There was the shore and one foot later there was, at this time, over six feet of cold saltwater.
By now it was raining harder and the wind was picking up. The sky behind me had turned to the color of my gun barrel and we could hear thunder and see lightening in the distance. As the angry dark sky approached the rain increased to a downpour, and the wind started to howl, making a horizontal deluge. This, as many of my other adventures had, made me question my sanity. I could feel the rain seeping through my hunting coat and hood as I scanned the horizon for some ducks. As I waited the sky grew even darker with increasing wind gusts. In a futile attempt to avoid the storm I slouched down further in my little boat. Just when I thought we’d made a huge mistake, and that I was going to either freeze or drown, two big Blacks came sailing in to my decoys. I pulled up on the lead bird and fired. To my amazement both ducks dropped like a pair of bricks. Steve hollered and waved to me, sending his dog after them as they had fallen on his side of the channel. I assumed Steve must have fired at the same time and dropped one of the two. Since they came in from behind him I thought he had made one heck of a shot. It was only after we got back that I found out that he had not shot at all and that I had killed both ducks with a single shot!
After that it was wave after wave of ducks coming in, both Mallards and Blacks. Steve got off several rounds but failed to connect. Another single greenhead fell to my Benelli and #2 steel. We were trying to pick out Mallards; not an easy task in near hurricane conditions and fading light. By this time I was soaked through and the rain was buffeting us like a hammer, but I couldn’t have been happier if I was on a sunny beach in the Bahamas. We had more ducks circling us than I had seen all year. One of the big greenheads dropped into the channel. John sent his dog, but the duck dived and I feared it was lost. Puck wasn’t about to give up that easily and kept at it. Finally his persistence resulted in a fat Mallard.
By now we had approached the end of shooting time and darkness was closing in quickly. Even as we gathered up the decoys and headed in, the ducks were still circling. A rough trip back to the landing against the still incoming tide in the dark, near frozen and with soaked clothing and gear seemed to matter little. After all, doubling on a single shot would give me at least a year of bragging rights. This indeed, for me, a happy and probably mentally deranged duck hunter, was, truly the ‘Perfect Storm’.