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A Place in the Pageant

Dec 08, 2009

Waterfowl Hunter

Waterfowl hunters are the original cockeyed optimists


Duck hunters are a pathologically optimistic bunch. Throughout the fall, we work ourselves into a frenzy of anticipation about every cold front, however anemic. We are perennially certain that the next cold front is the one that will cause the sky to open up and rain mallards.

To make sense of this, non-duck hunters must understand that waterfowl are “birds of passage.” As summer gives way to autumn, they linger in central Canada and the Dakotas, gorging on waste grain to build up energy reserves for migration. Eventually, decreasing day length, falling temperatures and dwindling food prompt them to come south.

Most years, they wash across Missouri in several waves. But once a decade or so, they dither in the Dakotas until a slug of arctic air sweeps them up by the millions, and they rush south across the Iowa state line like a tsunami. Duck hunters are up to their eyeballs in ducks for a day or two during such a “grand passage,” and then the season ends abruptly as Show-Me State wetlands freeze and the birds move on south.

Such a quacking cataclysm is in the making today. South Dakota had an unusually wet fall, which created countless acres of temporary wetlands. It also prevented the harvest of countless acres of corn. Recent photos show thousands of mallards in and above flooded South Dakota cornfields. With all their needs met and warmer than normal weather, ducks have found little reason to fly farther south. Until now. It’s snowing, windy and 15 degrees in Sioux Falls. The mercury will be 1 degree above zero there tomorrow morning, and all the waste corn will be covered with snow. The ducks are on their way, and like them, I am unable to resist the call of the wild. It will be windy, snowing and around 25 degrees and falling in Chariton County when I awake at 5 a.m. tomorrow. The marsh will be frozen, so I will break off sheets of ice in front of the duck blind and slide them under the surface of the surrounding water to make a place for ducks to land. The hole will start to refreeze before shooting light. I already know how it will end. Around 9 a.m., I’ll turn to my golden retriever, Willa, and say, “This is pointless. Let’s go home.” Then we will stay another hour.

If we are lucky, snow will still be falling, and an emerald-headed bird will conjure itself out of the gray swirl. If not, it will be a heck of a sight anyway, and we will have played our appointed role in the natural pageant.

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