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Duck and Cover

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Floating in a small, concealed den on the Great Salt Lake, hunter David Draper experiences one of the world’s largest waterfowl migrations

Photography by Tess Rousey

Over the course of a season, Utah’s Great Salt Lake hosts as many as 4 million migratory birds, making it a prime spot for duck hunters.
Over the course of a season, Utah’s Great Salt Lake hosts as many as 4 million migratory birds, making it a prime spot for duck hunters.

Our airboats roar in tandem across the wide, glaring expanse. All around us, the world is table flat with no clear line separating water and sky. A few rocky islands rise from the glimmering surface, and a ways to the east stands a snow-peaked front of craggy mountains.

My partners and I are bundled tightly against the November cold, complete with oversized goggles, earmuffs and face masks. The sun shines brightly, and I can’t help but feel a little like Luke Skywalker cruising his landspeeder over the surface of Tatooine, though it isn’t droids we are looking for.

Instead, we are on a search for ducks, and our guides, Josh Noble, a pro-staffer for waterfowl outfitter Avery Outdoors, and Chuck Harsin, owner of Widowmaker Mud Boats, have found them far out on Utah’s Great Salt Lake. A long black line of birds flickers on the blurry horizon, rising and falling like waves crashing on a distant shore. Soon, Noble assures us, the ducks will start moving from there to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to our north. He urges us to move quickly as we stake a wide spread of black silhouettes — plastic sheeting cut roughly into duck shapes — into the shallow water and toss out a few floating decoys to give the raft of fake birds some motion. Among them, we arrange six man-sized tubs, aptly named coffin blinds, which we hope will keep us dry as we lie in wait for the afternoon flight.

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The crew and chocolate Lab, Jack, prepare for a day on the lake.
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Layout boats keep hunters dry as they lie in wait, surrounded by decoys.

Utah Ducks_086_smallFor waterfowl hunters, this 1,700-square-mile saltwater basin, much of it just inches deep, is one of the world’s premier destinations. Over the course of the season, the Great Salt Lake hosts as many as 4 million migratory birds, ranging from the diminutive green-winged teal — our primary target today — to the giant tundra swan. The alkali bulrushes and invasive phragmite grasses that surround the lake hide puddle ducks, including groups of emerald-green mallards and one of the nation’s largest gatherings of pintail, while the deeper waters hold several species of diving ducks.

It was the latter group, made up of redhead, scaup and the prized canvasback, that we hunted the day before, shooting from layout boats anchored in Farmington Bay. On land, the saucer-shaped discs resembled nothing more than UFOs, but with a shallow draft and painted gray, they all but disappear in the water, making them the perfect places to hide. Like the coffin blinds, a layout has room (barely) for a single hunter, who bobs among a mixed flotilla of duck decoys.

Gunning for diver ducks is typically a fast and furious affair, as the stout-bodied birds scream along the surface of the lake, not so much decoying as just giving the spread a Top Gun-type flyby. When a hunter is lucky or good enough to connect, the birds pinwheel across the water, or, as was the case for one in our group, kamikaze into the boat. Throughout the course of the morning, we took turns shooting. Every so often, a tender boat would come out to fetch our birds and ferry us back to land, where a hot breakfast and hotter coffee steamed on the camp stove.

This was my second trip to the Great Salt Lake in the past three years, and I hoped this one would finally offer up a bull canvasback. Known among hunters as the king of ducks, the big, rust-plumed bird with the Roman-nose beak is not only strikingly handsome, but also considered the best-eating duck on the wing. I spent the morning dreaming up roasting recipes and mentally making space on the wall for a canvasback mount that would surely come; however, the layout I had drawn floated in a flyway more preferred by greater scaup. It didn’t take me long to realize I had better be content to fill my limit with the blue-billed ducks, lest I go hungry.

At least I would save on the taxidermy bill.

If the canvasback is the tastiest duck, green-winged teal trails by only a feather, and I’m genuinely thrilled when the first few fly over the airboats while we’re still setting our spread. Noble and Harsin assure us there will be plenty more before they speed off to hide the boats (though there is really no way to adequately hide them out here on the moonscape and they still shimmer mirage-like as our guides trudge back across the flat). Soon, we settle into our respective coffins, pump the shotguns full of shells and wait out the flight, which commences in mere minutes.

By afternoon, the painted decoys give way to the real thing.
By afternoon, the painted decoys give way to the real thing.

Utah Ducks_133_small Utah Ducks_165_small A pair of teal is the first to come, peeling off from the thousands-strong flock floating out there and coming over for a glance at our fakes. The ducks look high to me as I lie on my back in the shallow water, and I let them pass — but it’s just a trick of the eye, and a hunter off to the left proves it by easily taking a drake down with a single shot. The blast causes the raft of ducks in the distance to rise and settle again, but not before more fly our way.

The first three to arrive fall for our ruse and cup their wings to land — this time just to my right. I try to sit up and twist my torso, but it’s an awkward shot and I miss with my first two tries. Somehow, I manage to drop one of the trio on my third shot as the duck flies into my pattern in its bid to escape. Before I can climb out of the box, Harsin’s chocolate Lab, Jack, busts by in a surge of muddy water that covers me. It’s a long retrieve and Jack is a young dog, but with a few hand signals from his owner, he soon splashes his way back with the teal held gently in his mouth. Noble’s black Lab, Teal, an aged veteran, watches intently.

The shooting continues like this for a few hours, not fast and furious like the diver hunt, but at a comfortable pace, giving us enough time between flights to relax and enjoy the day. More teal come, along with some northern shovelers, which make up for their muddy taste with beautiful iridescent plumage. We remark at Jack’s enthusiasm and watch in awe Teal’s ability to retrieve any duck that falls with no handling necessary. But mostly, we take in the view, now knowing what the waterfowling must be like if ducks fly in a galaxy far, far away.

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