Into Fish Springs

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My wife likes to give me a hard time about some of my music. She’s not a fan of movie soundtracks or live versions of songs. I like them because I can picture the movie or feel the energy of the crowd when I hear the artist interacting with the crowd. Maybe it has something to do with my teen and early adult years and playing shows and playing in the pit orchestra during musicals in high school. She also likes to torture me with constant backstreet boys when she drives. This may seem like a tangent, but this hunt had my mind on the music that I listen to. Some days I have a county music playlist going as I drive out to hunt. Johnny Cash and his train like voice speak to me. Part of it might be because I have a raspy voice and that gives me some hope for my nonexistent singing abilities. This hunt, I chose to just put my iPhone on shuffle and not skip any songs. The soundtrack for “Into the Wild” came on. Not the song soundtrack but the actual music was written for the movie.

That soundtrack came on at the perfect time. At this point, I had been driving a couple of hours and I was in the middle of the desert. I was in the wild, driving to a waterfowl refuge that isn’t super busy since it’s in the middle of the desert. In the book/movie, the main character makes his way through the desert at one point. I felt a similarity to the movie and my situation. There are only dirt roads getting to it and having a truck is almost a necessity to arrive at this spot. The road to Fish Springs is full of abandoned mine shafts from a time long ago where prospectors searched for riches on the hills of the west. Feelings like the road would never end, I used OnXmaps to make sure I was on the right track. It’s easy getting lost going anywhere out in the desert. Especially when you’re going somewhere you have only been to in the middle of the night. Fish Springs is a place where spending anything less than two hours is just a waste of time. The drive alone is three hours.

68ee5e09-e647-4e9b-8521-4bef30799940Being on the road for that long can take some of the excitement away. As if the managers of the land knew, they placed a big sign by the entrance. Seeing the sign brought the excitement back. In Utah, the waterfowl season is broken into two sections. That means that we have two openers. One for the northern zone and a week later for the southern zone. Fish springs sit in the southern zone. My friend Chase went to Fish Springs on the southern opener and told me that there were thousands of ducks out there. In my mind, this was still early in the grand scheme of duck season, but I had to see what it looked like this year. Things change from year to year and this year; the land managers had filled ponds that they left dry last year. I don’t know much about land management and how they make decisions, but I do know that it affects my duck season.

Pulling into Fish Springs, hunters are required to stop and check-in. There had been no one checked in for the day and I was about to have the refuge to myself. Fish Springs is populated by more than just ducks. Coyotes also make this place home. As I got my waders on, I saw a lone coyote watching me, undoubtedly hoping I’d lose some cripples for him so he could get an easy meal. Coyotes out there are bigger than most other coyotes. These coyotes live the good life. They can’t be hunted with rifles and they have an endless supply of duck meat. We were in competition and I was determined to bring as much duck meat home as legally allowed.

Fish Springs is an interesting refuge. Parts of it are closed to hunting and others are open. The signage marks out where you can and can’t hunt very well. The refuge has a series of canals that are used to fill different ponds and create different habitats for migrating waterfowl. Most of these ducks are coming from the Great Salt Lake and stop in Fish Springs before continuing their journey south. The unique layout creates a few different hunting strategies for hunting at fish springs. One of the strategies is to jump shoot ducks from the canals. I was taught to drive a bit, stop the truck and use my binoculars to spot ducks and then walk up and try to jump them in the canal. The other strategy is to walk away from the roads and look for hidden pools that are holding ducks and jump shooting them there. The third is to watch the ducks move and set up in places that the ducks are landing. This last strategy can be tricky in such a large area. 17,992 acres to be exact. With the lack of pressure, it does make it difficult to watch ducks move.

a9473d56-88ab-4512-8662-20ef4b921637My approach involved all three strategies. I parked my truck by a spot where I expected to find a duck. Walking up I saw a gadwall hen. She was swimming along a canal and didn’t seem to mind me. I watched it for a bit and watched it try and take off. That’s when I noticed that she had been winged by an earlier hunter. I’m sure she got lost in the weeds and swam away as he tried to look for her. I debated if I should shoot this gadwall hen or leave her to become coyote food. Not surprisingly, there was a coyote nearby watching me. Choosing a quick fate, I pulled my shotgun up and got the first duck of the day. Recovering that duck proved to be a different challenge. The canals are deep and there was no way I could just walk across the water and pick her up. I was able to shoot the water and get the gadwall hen stuck in some weeds across the canal from me. I ran back to the truck and thought of how earlier that day one of my friends was giving me a hard time for not taking a fishing pole with me. I thought “Really, my first duck I shoot I needed a fishing pole for”. It only made sense.

Instead, I grabbed a ratchet strap and hoped it would work. Quickly I found that throwing a ratchet strap would take more talent than I had. I ended up having to walk around to the other side of the canal to try and recover the duck. I got close enough that I was able to make the ratchet strap work and I got my first duck in hand. This gadwall looked rough. She must have had a heck of a time staying alive after being winged. That coyote nearby must have made a few attempts at this sure to be an easy meal. Gadwall does have some interesting head feathers. They look like they’re fuzzy but they’re normal feathers. They just have that appearance.

I was ready to find more ducks; I had been told of thousands of ducks. So far, I had seen a few, enough to make me know that there may be more ducks hiding. Eventually, I came across a pond that was loaded with ducks. There were coot everywhere too. That wasn’t surprising. Coot seem to dominate all the waters around us, and some ducks like to hide in the middle of the coots. I took some mental notes of what I saw and moved on to a different spot. I didn’t see as many ducks as I expected and with all the big water around, my hopes had shrunk for the day. If I had seen the ducks move in the morning, I could have seen some spots to set up to start the day. I decided to park the truck and walk along some reeds that I know hold ducks. My first stop was a pond that I had shot my pintail hen on the previous year. This year it was full of Coot. I was expecting there to be some teal hiding in the middle of the coot but not this time. Looking at the reeds I was hopeful that the hidden ponds would help me and be holding some ducks.

img_4505I moved on to the second strategy. Walking along the reeds was going to work. Most of it was empty. The big water was only 200 yards away and it wouldn’t make much sense for ducks to be away from a large, safe, group. As I walked closer to some reeds that were as tall as me, I heard the flush of ducks and turned and shot a drake mallard. It had snuck up on me and I was shocked at my shooting. I had connected on my first shot. I never shoot that well. Quickly I marked where about the duck had landed and I began to make my way through the reeds and marsh water. There were nests everywhere and the marsh was more open than I had expected. I found about where I had shot my duck. Feathers were everywhere but there was no sign of the Drake mallard I had shot. Again, those coyotes came to my mind. I searched all over for this drake. I hate losing ducks and I had lost a drake mallard in the same area last year. The only thing that made me feel good was that my percussion filters from decibullz had worked perfectly. I love being able to protect my hearing and still hear subtle things like flushing ducks.

The drake mallard was gone. Maybe if I had a dog he would have ended up in my hand. I did watch some other ducks fly and land a few yards away. The plan became to go try and jump those ducks and circle around and get back to my truck in time to set up some decoys. Walking along the reeds, I wasn’t expecting much. That lack of expectation almost got the best of me. I heard a flutter of duck wings taking off from a pond about 20 yards ahead of me. From the beginning, this was a shot that I’d hesitate on taking. With the ducks flying over some solid land I picked out a duck and took a shot. I watched that duck wobble as I reloaded and pulled the trigger again. The duck dropped and bounced on the cold ground. The rest of the flock made their way to that big water where it was clearly a haven for the waterfowl in the area.

a5444fd5-1c88-4c32-93c4-30dbe486002dI carefully walked over to my latest kill. Now I knew that ducks may be holding where I was walking, and another duck would add to the meat I would bring home. Luck was not on my side but soon I had caught up to a beautiful Mallard Hen. Returning to my truck I only had an hour left. My goal was to set up and hopefully get some ducks to decoy in. The numbers were there. There were plenty of ducks in this large open water. The challenge would be to get them to want to land in my decoys. I didn’t have enough time to really pick out a great spot. I ended up picking a spot near the ducks and coots. I set up quickly but mainly I watched the ducks. Ducks started moving around as the sky went from blue to different shades of red and orange. The sun was setting, and my last hope was for the ducks to all pick up with the temperature dropping. They did just as I expected. Unfortunately, they took off heading north and not anywhere near close enough for my little decoys to get any attention.

At this point, hunting was no longer an option. I instead took the time to watch the ducks move in clouds off the refuge. My mind was back to the soundtrack of “Into the Wild”. Being out in the wide-open skies, with mountains changing from brown, to red, to purple. I thought of those that make their lives spending it outdoors. The song of geese and ducks and their wings became a soundtrack of their own. Taking our time to watch our surroundings is probably what made that guy go into the wild. I don’t blame anyone that chooses to be out in the world exploring it. Sometimes, we just need to take the time to listen to the music of nature.

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