Another duck season officially ends Dec. 16. Most of the birds have already headed South from frozen sloughs and ponds on the Copper River Delta. A few hardy ducks – mallards in particular – still hang around in saltwater areas.
Hunting down Eyak River and Alaganik Slough was unusually slow most of this fall. There seemed to be far fewer locals birds, and many were quite immature at the start of the season. Plus the big northern birds were slow arriving, perhaps due to warm weather throughout much of September and early October.
Nonetheless, many enjoyable mornings were spent at my blind on a pond near our Pete Dahl cabin. There were some beautiful sunrises, and considerable time to ponder the vagaries of duck hunting.
As a group, water fowlers are probably guiltier of anthropomorphism, which is the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal or object, than any other type of hunters.
While what motivates ducks most is dining, propagating and making sure their rear ends don’t get frozen in the ice before migrating to warmer climes, we bird chasers assume their wily behavior is an intentional, mocking affront to our obviously higher level of intelligence.
I cannot tell you how many times in over six decades of hunting ducks I have sat still in my blind for an hour; finally became bored, stood up to stretch and watched a half dozen green heads suddenly come out of nowhere to land in my decoys.
Or better yet, after drinking six cups of coffee from a thermos, moving outside the blind to frantically undo five layers of camouflaged clothing, for obvious reasons; only to flinch as the biggest flock of widgeon I have seen all year banks into the spread with a whishing sound that is the biggest thrill of the sport.
Curse you, you clever beasts, is a printable translation of what is then uttered.
Of course, after my pulse rate drops 100 beats and I sit back down in the blind, not a bird comes by in the next hour.
Actually, what happened, when examined more logically, reflects a very basic fundamental of waterfowl behavior: birds are attracted by the motion of their brethren.
From afar, it was my movement, and ensuring ripples on the pond, that garnered their interest.
Ducks and geese are a gregarious lot. Why else would we have dozens of decoys sitting out in open display, hoping to bring them near? And what would make these decoys more visible than motion?
Well, the agents at Waterfowl Central Intelligence Agency, AKA Cabela’s, with a second headquarters at Mack’s Prairie Wings (MPW), have come up with the answer in the evolving battle of wits between man and spoonbills: battery-powered motion decoys.
In the ’50s and ’60s, we hunted with a half dozen Deeks. These collapsible rubber duckies would fit in the back pouch of a shell vest. Each had a metal ring in its bottom, and when dropped onto a pond, would inflate into life-like birds that bobbed merrily in the breeze.
The ducks loved them. And so did we. Although unlike today’s solid plastic shell decoys, they were impossible to patch if wayward No. 4 shot happened their way.
Soon a broad variety of much more life-like molded plastic decoys hit the market. Of which, one can never have enough. On a clear windless day this fall, I counted 77 in front of my blind: 17 mallards, 15 widgeon, 11 pintail, eight teal, four spoonbill, four canvasback, and 18 geese. There was no partridge in a pear tree.
Luckily, the pond was big enough to hold them all. However, it took considerable time to arrange them in groups by species.
Yet, in a speedy illustration of Survival of the Fittest based on Natural Selection, which would confound even Darwin and his Theory of Evolution, waterfowl have begun to ignore even this magnificent display. The average life span of a wild duck is seven years. How have they become so smart in just eight generations?
So now I have battery and wind-powered motion decoys. Some are mounted on poles, and the flashing white underside of their rotating wings can be seen 500 yards away. I also have two splash ducks, which operate on D batteries. They float on the surface, with bright orange paddle feet that spin and stir up the water, making the other nearby decoys bob about.
I set up two of them close together, and for the first week of this season, mallards loved them. Then they didn’t. Who says ducks are dumb?
My wife and I are well beyond trying to surprise each other with Christmas presents. We just tell each other what we want.
Page 42 of the MPW 2017 Waterfowl Catalog is neatly folded over. Carefully circled in ink is Item WONDC, Drake, alias the Wonderduck Cyclone.
“This feeding duck butt creates tremendous water motion!!! Comes with two opposite rotating 500 rpm motors that run 15-plus hours on two D-cell batteries, and orange, weedless paddling feet.”
Boy, are those mallards in for a surprise.
And I know someone who thinks someone is dumber than a duck.
Ho, ho, ho.
And a very Merry Christmas to all – including my fine-feathered friends.