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Hunting for Duck Hunters

By: Steve Wright, OutdoorChannel.com

UPPER MARLBORO, Md. — It’s called “the small world phenomenon,” which is illustrated in the trivia game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

You might call our version “six degrees of bacon-wrapped duck breast.” Just as you can link Kevin Bacon to anyone else in Hollywood in six steps or less, based on their movies, you can probably link any two duck hunters in six steps or less, based on others they’ve hunted with.

Here’s the deal on these duck treks: We don’t know duck hunters in every state. So when we want to hunt in some place like Chesapeake Bay, we have to start playing the game. That’s how we got to Rick Long’s house in Upper Marlboro in mid-November.

The process went something like this: I know a guy in my hometown of Batesville, Ark., who is related to a duck hunting club member in Butte Sink, Calif. While photographer James Overstreet was hunting at Butte Sink, he met a guy who knows Long. I’m not certain how many steps that is, but it’s less than six.

Long is a retired fireman who loves to hunt and fish. He and his wife, Leslie, live in the Maryland countryside near Upper Marlboro. They’re not “out in the sticks.” There’s a paved road to their house, and they have neighbors fairly close. But Rick can bow hunt for white-tailed deer in his backyard.

This is horse country. The Longs have an old barn, classically restored, and own three horses. Leslie enjoys riding, and Rick occasionally joins her on fox hunts.

Rick had planned two hunts for us, with the qualifier that cold weather hadn’t arrived yet to inflate the migrating waterfowl numbers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

That’s the other thing about these duck treks: We can’t and don’t expect thousands of ducks to greet us upon arrival. We simply want to get a taste of how people hunt in various parts of the country. And that’s all you can get – a taste – when you’ve got two days in a place with over 200 years of waterfowling history.

Chesapeake Bay is the birthplace of American duck hunting. The Maryland General Assembly passed the first law concerning waterfowl hunting in 1833, when there were only 24 stars on the U.S. flag.

You’ve got a lot of options here on the largest estuary in the U.S. An estuary is defined as a partially enclosed coastal body of water. It has saltwater flowing into it from the ocean tides and freshwater flowing into it from the mouths of rivers.

Of the 32 largest cities in the world, 22 are located near estuaries, reportedly. New York City is an example, where the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean meet. Chesapeake Bay has Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Md., nearby. The Bay provides an abrupt departure from the bustle of big cities to the solitude of nature.

Estuaries, with their varieties of salinity, produce and attract a wide variety of fish and game. The day before we arrived, Long had been on a sea duck hunt that involved a 60-mile round trip boat ride through Chesapeake Bay. They’d had a few long-tailed ducks working near their decoys once, but no shots were fired.

The daily bag limit of six ducks in Maryland can include five long-tailed ducks, which are also known as oldsquaws. It can also include four scoters; there are three species here – white-winged, black and surf.

Not many people hunt sea ducks, although they make some beautiful and unusual taxidermy. Sea ducks aren’t tasty and winter weather on open water isn’t inviting. In the 2009-10 hunting season, the harvest estimate in Maryland was 4,830 long-tailed ducks and 11,270 scoters. Fishing nets probably kill more long-tailed ducks than hunters do, as they can become entangled during underwater dives, which can reach depths of 200 feet.

Long had planned a far less arduous hunt for our first day there. The hard part was getting up a 3:30 a.m. to make a two-hour drive to Leo Courtney’s place on the banks of the Choptank River. It was this river where James Michener centered his book, Chesapeake. The historical novel spans almost 400 years of Chesapeake Bay history, including a chapter devoted to the market-hunting era of the late 1800s.

Courtney, a semi-retired orthopedic surgeon, spends about half his time here at his “country place,” the rest at a home near Annapolis. Courtney, with the help of Ducks Unlimited, has built two fairly large ponds on his property that serve as managed duck habitat.

This would be, as Long described it, a gentlemen’s hunt, in that we practically could have worn flannel pajamas and slippers for our short four-wheeler ride to a pit blind sunk in a small island in the middle of one pond. The sky was cloudless, it was 35 degrees and windy. But it didn’t feel cold when sheltered in the blind.

We were accompanied by Adam Mattis, an Army veteran of the Iraq war who now works for Under Armour. Mattis’ Army career ended when his Humvee was blown up in Baghdad.

Shortly after sunrise there was a one-hour flurry of shooting in which Mattis showed off some long-range shotgunning skills. Maryland’s Canada goose season didn’t open until the following day, but the prospects looked good as we watched several long lines of the big birds fly overhead. The ducks, however, quit flying quickly and we were soon on our way back to some hot coffee and hunting stories at Courtney’s hunting cabin. We had killed a dozen ducks, mostly mallards.

Of the estimated 4.1 million mallards killed in the U.S. last year, Maryland contributed only 36,614, according the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. What this state lacks in greenheads, it makes up for with variety. Black ducks are a species sure to go to the taxidermist when killed in some states.

For example, Arkansas hunters killed only around 1,400 black ducks last season; in Maryland the total was 12,526. And canvasbacks are relatively abundant here too. In other words, the hunt we had on Dr. Courtney’s place that day wasn’t typical.

The Canada goose is the king of waterfowl in Maryland. Last season hunters here killed just over 200,000 Canada geese, 50,000 more than the total of all duck species combined.

With the goose season opening on the day of our second hunt, we had hopes of killing both ducks and geese. And when the sun came up that day, we had both in our decoy spread that was floating below us in the Chesapeake Bay marsh.

Long had arranged for us to hunt with three of his friends –LaMont Hall, Brecht Buchheister and Morgan Hill. We’d taken a short boat ride to the blind – a sturdily constructed wooden fortress that easily held six people. Even though the blind was big, it had been brushed up well and blended in with the now-brown cattails and bulrushes spread out along the acres of marsh surrounding us.

The most striking trait of Chesapeake Bay is simply its size. We occupied a tiny section of it, bordered in three directions by hills, in Spice Creek marsh near the Patuxent River. But we were deep enough in the marsh to get a sense of its vastness described by Michener in Chesapeake:

“In these early days he saw the marsh merely as a surface thing, a mysterious hiding place in which water and land competed. Within it he found isolated islands firm enough to be tilled, and beside them swamps which would engulf the careless walker.”

Chesapeake Bay is 200 miles long, narrowing to less than three miles wide in some areas and expanding to 30 miles wide near its mouth. Almost one-fourth of the 4,479 square miles in Chesapeake Bay is less than six feet deep. Over 150 rivers and streams drain into it.

We had another clear, cold morning to hunt, but we needed some of that wind from the day before to stir the decoys. Most of the ducks we saw were distant, out of the range of a duck call. One low-flying “V” of Canada geese seemed to be responding to our calls, but produced only a “we should have shot” moment after losing interest.

Our guns stayed silent that day. But there’s always a saving grace in duck hunting – camaraderie. We had plenty of time to get to know each other better. Hill and Buchheister are descendants of long-time Maryland residents. Hill’s Bridge over the Patuxent River was named for his ancestors. In its previous two generations, Buchheister family members played roles in Maryland’s tobacco farming history, which dates back over three centuries.

Buchheister, Hill and Hall have had some exceptional hunts from this blind, but they were usually later in the season, after cold weather brings more waterfowl from the northern sections of the Atlantic Flyway and freezes some of this vast amount of surface water.

The supreme test of a story is this: What’s the first one you’d tell your friends when sharing a beer at the end of the day? Hall, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, took first place on this trip.

With some prying, he started talking about his job at the Pentagon. He’s working with civilian and military medical researchers and engineers from all across the country-definitely some of the best and brightest minds in the world. The goal is to ultimately improve and/or produce armored vehicles that can protect its military occupants from the blast of an IED – the increasingly powerful improvised explosive devices that have caused so many U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hall’s team also works with safety experts from the Department of Transportation, NASCAR and some U.S. auto-makers, who have studied car crashes in making increasingly sophisticated safety changes to their vehicles.

The explosion of an IED has been clocked at less than 10 milliseconds in many cases– ten thousandths of a second, compared to a 100 milliseconds or so in a frontal car crash, according to Hall. University medical researchers, engineers and computer experts conduct sophisticated tests with vehicles, crash test dummies and human bodies donated to science (the same as they do for the automotive industry) to understand the complex IED explosions.  Tests gather hundreds of channels of data from electronic sensors and video that can produce up to a terabyte – one thousand gigabytes – of information during an explosion that lasts only a few milliseconds.

Hall wasn’t revealing any sensitive or classified information. The ramifications of this research and development project are immense. It could produce not only safer armored vehicles for the military, but safer autos for everyone. Another goal in the study is to create a crash test “dummy” that will accurately mimic the human body, to better test military vehicles in IED blasts.

This project highlights the priority that the U.S. military industrial complex has put on protecting its soldiers rather than simply designing another weapons system to kill the enemy.

That’s the kind of stuff you can learn in a duck blind on the Chesapeake Bay.

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