Like golfing, gambling and playing pool, hunting is an obscure and masculine sport that I’ve never taken much interest in. Getting up when it’s still dark out isn’t appealing to me and having to be quiet for extended periods of time is not something that I’m good at. However, it occurs to me that hunting is a cultural relic of Northern Michigan and something that I should try as someone living in Northern Michigan. Most folks that I have made friends with or have talked to up here have gone hunting at least once, whether they liked it or not was a different story. I am lucky enough to have made a new friend who is well versed in hunting, and he did me the honor of showing me what duck hunting is like.
Devon Ehlers and I went to a large marsh in the Petobego State Game Area this past Sunday afternoon. It was overcast, cold, drizzly and I was sleep deprived with a long day of work ahead of me. Not exciting conditions to hunt in. When we arrived to the marsh there was already a car from a fellow duck hunter parked in the woods.
“We’ll hem and haw with him for a little bit before we get in the water,” Devon said.
He and the other hunter chatted for a bit about the pickings for the day. Despite not knowing each other the two talked with an effortless rapport full of pleasantries and jargon and I couldn’t tell if this is hunter etiquette or Northern Michigander etiquette. The hunter proudly held up his catch; a Redhead with it’s graceful neck draped over the edge of his hand.
“This one won’t be for food,” the hunter said. “He’ll have to go on the wall.”
Devon and the hunter exchanged a flurry of conversation about taxidermy before the hunter drove off and left us to go find ducks of our own.
We put on waders, camo coats and hats and got into a long canoe to row out to the middle of the marsh. The marsh is off of U.S. 131 in Whitewater Township, and by the meager entrance you wouldn’t know that there was a massive marsh beyond the trees. As we rowed through the glassy, dark green water I found myself relaxed. The cattails, reeds and lily-pad like leaves moved delicately with the wind and hearing an oar methodically plunge into the water every few seconds had a quieting effect on my mind.
After finding a clearing we paddled the boat into some cattails and threw decoy ducks into the water. Decoys attract other ducks to water and have been used as a hunting aid for centuries. They come in all kinds of different duck variations and I was surprised at the level of artistry that seems to go into one. Decoys were thrown, duck calls were made and after that it was all a waiting game.
“The thing about duck hunting is, you’ve gotta bring good snacks,” Devon said as he pulled out a bad of cider donuts.
I can see why. The waiting game is the game, as far as duck hunting goes. Oddly enough, the part that I thought I wouldn’t like ended up being the part I liked most. Being out in the quiet and beauty of Northern Michigan nature felt very existentially correct on an overcast fall day.
Our waiting game didn’t result in a duck. We saw a few Canadian geese and mallard ducks fly pass, but missed the moment to shoot. I didn’t mind. I’ve still never killed anything and I’m not sure that I was ready to yesterday, especially after being so entranced with every other aspect of hunting. Even if I had been bound and determined to shoot a duck, it is illegal to do so without a license.
Duck hunting season opened October 6th and will run until December 2nd. Although we had seen mallards, waterfowl season is starting as they have started their migration. Waterfowl will require an extra license in addition to a federal duck stamp and base duck hunting license. The money collected from purchasing waterfowl licences goes back to waterfowl conservation efforts. Conservation efforts include studies on bird population and building nesting boxes for the birds on state land.
Despite not actually hunting, my first hunting experience was a success. The waders kept me warm, the boat was dry and the ritual is one old as time and there is a human connection to the traditions of survival. I don’t know if I’ll ever shoot a duck, but I do know that I’ll go hunting again.