Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
Youth Hunt - A Mentor's View
Midwest Region, November 29, 2010
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We, the dog and I, arrived at Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge at 4:30 a.m. I had the honor of having keys, and the curse of having to get there earlier than everyone else so that the gates are open and lights on.


Before too long the parking lot is full of trucks. Piles of decoys, eager dogs, and people struggling into waders are silhouetted in headlights. At the last minute, warm clothes are exchanged for warmer clothes. Then, each group marches off in a different direction, swallowed up by the prairie darkness.

"Orion, the hunter, watches over us from his spot in the southern sky. It’s chilly, but not cold, with a light wind at our back."

After an eight minute walk, my group arrives at the edge of the cattails. Another fifteen yards and we’re at the edge of the water. I unshoulder the decoy bag and begin tossing decoys into the water. What is it about the sound of decoys splashing in the inky blackness of a marsh morning? By the time I’m done, the others have mashed down some areas a few feet back in the cattails and are in position.

There are eight of us hidden amid the mud and cattails, two youth hunters, two parents, two mentors, a photographer, and a mud colored Lab. This is my favorite part of the morning. There are as many stars in the sky as there are blades of grass in the prairie. Orion, the hunter, watches over us from his spot in the southern sky. It’s chilly, but not cold, with a light wind at our back.

The eastern horizon is touched with rose-colored light as the black sky overhead resolves into cobalt. The invisible whistle of wings takes the shape of black silhouettes. Several teal land in the decoys, our mirror smooth water now rippled. Others land further out and paddle in. I know what my heart rate is right now, and I can’t imagine the surge of adrenalin in the kids. Finally, it’s two minutes to shooting time. They have asked several times in the last ten minutes. They are both allowed to load their guns.

There is so much to see on a marsh morning; mallards, green-wings, blue-wings, shovelers, woodies, gadwalls, canvasbacks. Greater yellowlegs repeatedly fly into the decoys. Common yellowthroats and marsh wrens dart among cattail stalks. As the air warms, thousands of swallows descend onto the wetland, hawking insects from just above the water’s surface.

Three hours later we have four ducks, two very happy kids, and a tired dog. Before we leave the cattails, I give everyone a quick lesson on aging ducks. We have two juvenile and one adult. That indicates a good year of reproduction.

We get back to the barn, and breakfast, by ten. Each group gets back at a different time, giving everyone a chance to tell their story individually. After breakfast, a lesson in how to clean a bird, and how to transport the birds legally. Trucks pull out one by one with happy parents behind the wheel and, I imagine, sleeping hunters in the back seat.

As they were leaving, several people thanked me. I say “you’re welcome,” but I’m really not sure why they are thanking me. To review… My dog was able to retrieve four birds this morning. We’ve been working with canvas bumpers for the last month, but cold canvas in the yard is no substitute for warm feathers in the wetland. I was able to see people I haven’t seen since the hunt last year and catch up. I was able to spend a beautiful sunrise in a duck blind. What’s that saying, even a bad day in a duck blind is better than a good day…where? Well, just about anywhere! I was able to talk to the next generation of hunters, duck stamps buyers and voters. As far as I’m concerned, all of this was done for purely selfish reasons. No altruism here. And there’s no need to thank me for being selfish.

-Mentor Greg Hoch, Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District


Contact Info: Ashley Spratt, 805-644-1766 ext. 369, ashley_spratt@fws.gov
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