On a Wing and a Prayer
Duck hunting season is here — and you may be surprised to find who’s out on the river.
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Long before the sun rises on a frosty December morning, Columbia County hunter Don La Valley is out in a boat on the Hudson River setting up a spread of two dozen duck decoys. He puts out mallards, wood ducks, black ducks, and teal, the four most common species in the Valley. Shivering, his coffee freezing over, he waits in his wood blind; his black labrador impatiently pushes against his leg in anticipation of the exact moment — one half-hour before sunrise — when it’s legal to begin shooting.
Although the predawn visibility is poor, La Valley recognizes mallards on the wing coming in to feed: the birds are much larger than other ducks, and have distinctive green and purple markings. He shoots three times, the legal limit before reloading, and the dog bounds joyfully out of the boat into the icy water to retrieve.
“If you’re a good shot, you can hit three ducks in one round, though usually I need all three shots to hit one or two,” says La Valley, president of the Columbia County Sportsmen’s Federation. “Whether or not you hit anything, it’s an adrenaline rush. But there are also periods of waiting for hours.”
By the time most of us are rolling out of bed on a Saturday morning, the hunters are already heading home (although some will return at dusk when the birds come home to feed). Defying the stereotype of the good ol’ boy with a six-pack, today’s duck hunters come from a wide swath of society. Of the approximately 35,000 waterfowl hunters statewide who will register this year, a growing number will be professionals new to hunting. “Instead of making the deal on the golf course, they make it in the duck blind,” says Craig Ferris, a regional biologist with Ducks Unlimited (DU), a national conservation organization. “These Generation X types hunt more aggressively — we call it ‘run and gun,’ ” he says. “They are competitive and use the best gear. And more women are definitely getting into it. Many are better hunters — they are teachable and more open-minded and don’t need to unlearn bad habits.” Carol Mackin — co-owner with husband Tom of the 209-acre TMT Hunting Preserve in Clinton Hollow, Dutchess County — caters mostly to Wall Streeters from Manhattan. “They come to relax,” she says. “It’s a way to bond and share ideas.”
Not everyone can afford a private preserve. While TMT is open to the public, an average day of duck hunting there will still run you anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500. At the exclusive Clove Valley Rod and Gun Club in LaGrangeville (which Vice President Cheney has famously visited a couple of times), members are thought to pay up to $100,000 in annual dues. Though sportsman education classes are available free through the state Department of Environmental Conservation (and are, in fact, mandatory for new hunters), most learn the ropes from a family member, licensed guide, or buddies from the local sportsmen’s club.
“It’s not necessarily inexpensive,” says Ferris of the sport. “You can do it cheaply with waders, but if you’re going into deeper waters, you’ll also need a dog and a boat. Once birds fall in the water, you need some way to retrieve them. You can get very elaborate duck boats and decoy spreads and potentially spend a lot of money, so it’s nice when you’re learning to hook up with someone who knows what they’re doing.” Most hunters give at least 50 percent of the credit for a successful hunt to their retrievers. “You lose very few ducks with a dog,” says La Valley. “They’re great companions. Who else is going to jump into 20-degree water for you?”