Early waterfowl season offers special opportunities

Alan Charles
Friday, October 11, 2019
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Alan Charles’ dog, Teal, poses with a teal duck retrieved during the early waterfowl season.

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The dog saw the ducks before I did. He usually does. There were eight of them, small ducks with fast wingbeats, swinging wide over the far edge of the marsh and then flaring into the wind before heading toward us, coming like a squadron of fighter planes zeroing in on the six duck decoys that floated twenty yards in front of us.

I could tell the ducks were teal, most likely blue-winged teal. I knew that because of their size, and by the way they flew, little ducks with quick wingbeats, bunched close together like a swarm of bees. Blue-winged teal are common here in eastern Montana during the early waterfowl season. They are delicious to eat, among the best of ducks on the table.

My old dog, Teal, stared intently as the birds strafed the decoys, and when I shot, he jumped up, watching to see if any birds fell. But nope, I’d missed again, poking holes in empty air with both of my shots as the birds seemingly kicked in their afterburners and rocketed off in eight different directions. Teal sighed, and lay back down as I picked up my empty shells and reloaded the gun.

“It’s okay,” I told the dog. “There will be more birds, and maybe next time, I’ll shoot straighter.” I leaned back against the bush we were using as a blind, and scratched the dog’s ears as we listened to the north wind roaring through the big cottonwood trees that towered behind us. Heavy, gray clouds stacked up on the horizon, but we were warm and comfortable, enjoying this opportunity to hunt ducks and geese during the early part of the waterfowl season.

Hunting waterfowl in late September and early October is a much different proposition than hunting ducks and geese later in the year. Early birds are generally local birds, and the hunting is typically easier, requiring fewer decoys and less effort to hide. I generally hike in to a pond or marsh during the early season with a bag with six or eight duck decoys and maybe one or two goose decoys. Often, I’ll also carry along a fishing rod to use for retrieving decoys, in case the mud is too tough for me to handle with waders. A bush or log to lean against is usually all that is needed for concealment, although sometimes I’ll add some grass or leafy branches.

These early hunts are rarely fast action shoots. Depending upon the day and the place, a patient hunter can expect sporadic flights of birds, sometimes one or two ducks or geese at a time, occasionally half a dozen or more, their appearance interspersed with long periods of no activity. But that’s okay. There is always something to watch, maybe a marsh hawk cruising the cattails, a great blue heron stalking the shoreline, a muskrat swimming through the decoys.

Teal and I had already bagged some birds that morning on the marsh near Ekalaka. Three ducks lay on the grass beside us. One was a gadwall, brown speckled with white wing patches, still wearing the plain summer plumage that looks much different from the later winter feathers that mark it splendidly as the “gray duck.” Another was a widgeon, with white and green wing patches and a blue bill. The third was a teal, a bird maybe half the size of the widgeon and gadwall, with blue wing patches.

My old Teal dog lay with his head on his front paws, watching out over the decoys. But I noticed his eyelids were starting to droop. Maybe now, I thought, I’d see the next birds first. The wind roared, and the leaves rustled above us in the cottonwood trees.

It’s hard to say how many ducks landed in the decoys while we slept. I’ll bet our snoring scared them off. There are worse ways to spend a blustery autumn afternoon than hunting ducks on a little marsh in eastern Montana during the early waterfowl season.

( Alan Charles is an outdoor columnist who lives in Pine Hills.)