Happy Thanksgiving from Alaska Sporting Journal!
As we all know, Alaskans have a style all to themselves, so Thanksgiving in the Last Frontier likely will be more unique than in other areas of the Lower 48 (as in, there’s a difference between a celebrating the holiday in Fairbanks compared to an old-fashioned Thanksgiving in Miami).
But here’s a hunting story that I think depicts the Alaskan lifesytle to a tee. It appears in the November issue of ASJ. Have a wonderful holiday weekend!
Story and photos by Steve Meyer
It seems safe to say that most hunters don’t wake up in the morning hoping for lots of other hunters to show up. That is, unless you happen to be hunting in the 268-square-mile Redoubt Bay Critical Habitat Area on the west side of Cook Inlet.
It’s especially true if the weather is unseasonably warm – bright blue sky, and only a slight breeze to suggest it was, in fact, the duck opener. This beautiful piece of real estate tucked away in the shadows of the Western Alaska Range is composed of tidal sloughs, freshwater and brackish ponds, and thousands of acres of wetland marsh. Home to thousands of nesting dabbling ducks, geese and cranes, and a steady influx of migrating birds, it is a waterfowl hunter’s paradise.
This much prime real estate, when coupled with weather that invites static laziness in your typical duck, means very little movement and also translates into not such great shooting over decoys. The best decoy spread in the world won’t draw birds that aren’t flying around to see them. Yet get enough hunters working the area and moving the ducks around and it’s a different story; hence the wish for lots of them.
CHRISTINE CUNNINGHAM, OUR two Labrador retrievers, Gunner and Cheyenne, and I made our way in predawn light to a blind that sat on a favorite pond. Absent was the whistle of duck wings that announced the early risers of the waterfowl world wanting a prime spot in the feeding grounds.
The problem: when everywhere is a feeding spot and there is no wind or rain to stir them up, ducks just hang out where they are. An hour in the blind after first light passed with no ducks even flying by and no shots heard in the area from other hunters. Even the dogs were losing the zest for the chase.
Since this wasn’t the first time this had happened, we headed off across the wetlands to jump shoot. There was enough stunted vegetation throughout the area to allow an unseen approach to many of the shallow ponds in the area and we had always had success hunting in this manner.
There was a wetland about a half-mile away that had ponds and the vegetation surrounding the area usually had several inches of water that in the past had always produced ducks. It was halfway across this flooded plain and still no ducks when Christine said, “Hey, there isn’t any water here.”
We hadn’t been paying much attention, nor noticed that instead of walking in 6 inches of water, the land was dry beneath our feet. We continued on and found several of the ponds all but dried up, which meant, of course, no ducks.
It’s one thing to follow a pointing dog for hours, as they do what they do. But the show is worth the price of admission even when no birds are taken. For waterfowl hunting and retrievers, the shooting of birds is a key component of the outing, and watching the Labs retrieve is the icing on the cake when a duck is folded over a pond or field. Fortunately, there was one more option.
BASICALLY, IF A waterfowler can find a route that ducks are moving on and station themself along the route within shooting distance of passing ducks, some really challenging wingshooting can be had. Redoubt Bay is somewhat perfectly suited for pass shooting. The large tidal sloughs and creeks that bisect the area have mud banks and bottoms.
As Cook Inlet’s massive tides flow and ebb into these places, the mud is covered every 12 hours. When the water recedes, it leaves behind an astonishing array of insect life on the mud surface. Ducks love bugs, and especially on sunny and calm days they sit along the mud banks and gorge themselves on insects.
When the tide is all the way out, the ducks will be on the mud near the outlets to the saltwater. As the tide comes in and covers up the mud, birds begin to move up the sloughs; this is prime time for pass shooting. When the tide goes out, the birds fly back down the sloughs and present another opportunity. The shooting is fairly steady for a couple hours on the incoming tide and about an hour on the outgoing. Patience is one of the keys to success. Another is being still.
These tidal sloughs are fairly wide near the inlet, some too wide to shoot clear across even at low water. Getting close to the water’s edge and moving up as the tide comes in keeps you closer to the flight path. A blind would be nice, but a blind won’t survive the tides. You don’t really need one as long as you (and your dog) can sit still until the birds are in range.
You can literally sit in one of those cheap folding chairs next to the water and the birds will come right by – as long as you don’t move. This is easier said than done, and certainly you’ll flare a share of them. But I’ve done this several different times over the years and know that limiting in an afternoon is very feasible.
Unlike decoying ducks or those jumped out of a pond ahead of you that aren’t going full out, in pass shooting the birds are moving along at cruising speed and shotgunning presents a bit more of a challenge. Experience – and that includes a fair number of misses – is part of the deal until you get the leads at distance figured out. Passing ducks at 40 yards need about twice what the mind initially tells you. It seems like it must be learned again each year, as Christine and I found with our first couple of shots clearly passing by the rear end of the ducks. I’ve heard plenty that if you can master this element of wingshooting, you can master any of it. I’m not so sure about that, considering I haven’t tried it all, but it definitely sharpens your shotgunning skills.
Perhaps the most critical element in the entire process is your gun dog, without which you’ll not be retrieving anything you shoot on these big sloughs. The tides are fast and either incoming or outgoing, a duck dropped 40 yards out is going away quickly. The retriever needs to be able to get out, get back and have enough stamina to repeat the process throughout the day.
One dog with two good shots is going to have all the work it can do, so it’s better to have a dog for each hunter, which we are fortunate to have. The water in these sloughs is very muddy and wounded ducks will dive and give the dogs fits trying to find them under the surface, as the current takes them away. It’s better to put a quick follow-up shot on the wounded ones, if you can get the shot off safely before the dog gets close to the wounded bird.
SINCE CHILDHOOD, I would crawl behind my dad through wet stubblefields to get close to geese; those memories of waterfowl hunting have always been of wet, cold and sometimes miserable outings that left me feeling more alive than any other time.
Back at the duck shack by midmorning of the 2015 opener, we parked ourselves on the big slough out front. Amid warm, dry and bright sun and not yet a shot fired, it just didn’t seem like duck hunting. That is, until the first pair of wigeon came whistling past from 40 yards out; it was irrelevant that Christine and I missed fabulously.
The next flight of five wasn’t as lucky, as we each took one and the Labs were once again very happy to be gainfully employed. An hour later and not noon yet, we each had half of our limit and it was time to stop until the afternoon incoming tide. It is pretty easy to shoot oneself out of duck hunting early in the day in these places, leaving the balance of the day to hang out.
A leisurely lunch and a few hours of watching the numerous birds of prey that frequent the area was a pleasant way to wait for afternoon’s incoming and more fabulous shooting.
For two days we pass-shot the slough, easily taking limits while basking in the unseasonable warm of sunny September days. While not a typical duck hunt by any stretch, our 2015 opener only amplified the need for hunters to be flexible when conditions change the game.
One could do a lot worse than basking in the shadows of the Alaska Range towering in the background; just being there is enough.