As we head into the mangrove backcountry on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay, you can see the St. Petersburg Skyline on the western horizon and that of the city of Tampa to the north. It is late December and I am accompanying my good friend, Capt. Chet Jennings on a duck hunting expedition.
As one who grew up shooting black ducks in the salt marshes of New Jersey, this is a different duck hunting experience. But the ducks are here. This day I am armed only with a camera, and a certain amount of curiosity. I want to see what warm weather duck shooting is like.
I have covered some water around the East Coast hunting ducks. I began my waterfowling career in Easton, Maryland in the mid 1960's when it was the goose hunting capital of the world. I set a lot of decoys back then, and shot a few ducks in the Raritan Bay on the Jersey Shore where I grew up. There was also a duck hunting stint on Naragansett Bay in Rhode Island during my navy days. Following my navy career, I spent 15 years shooting over potholes and beaver ponds in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Those locations all had a couple of things in common - black ducks and cold weather.
Like the rest of the northerners who migrate to Florida, ducks seem to thrive in the temperate climate. And the mangrove habitat that holds snook and redfish is a food rich environment with plenty of things that ducks like to eat as well.
Chet had a spread of a dozen Flambeau mallard decoys with water keels, which are merely hollow tubes below the base of the decoy. Chet hunts in the shallow mangrove backcountry where wind, wave action and current are not a factor, so this type of decoy made the most sense. These decoys are lighter than those with weighted keels, which makes hauling them a lot easier. Winter tides are so shallow on Tampa Bay that no boat will get you to where Jennings sets up. It is a half-mile walk in ankle deep water, except for the occasional knee-deep creek he has to cross. Amazingly, these small narrow pockets we crossed were all full of 20-inch snook.
Jennings carried his decoys in a standard decoy bag with shoulder straps. Because hunting pressure here is so light, and the winter water level so low, he can leave the the bag full of decoys hidden in a tangle of mangroves without fear of anyone else finding them. In fact, his biggest concern is being able to find them himself in the early morning darkness.
Even though this is West Central Florida, it is still cold in the pre-dawn of duck season during November, December and January. Sometimes the mercury will actually dip below freezing, so neoprene chest waders are in order - especially on the way into the mangroves, in the dark, if you want to reach your destination without chattering teeth. If it warms up in late morning on the way out, it is more comfortable to take the waders off and carry them, wearing only the wading shoes. This gives stocking foot type waders a considerable advantage in warmth and comfort. The water temperature here rarely falls below 60 degrees, and in the shallows of the backcountry it is quickly warmed by the sun.
As we put the decoys out in six inches of water, I thought back 30 years to my earliest duck hunts on the Raritan Bay. Thanksgiving Day, 1967, I set a hundred decoys by myself from a 16-foot cedar boat that I had rowed a couple of miles from my grandmother's house. I remember the ducks jumping ahead of the boat as I rowed down the creek to the bay in the total darkness of early morning, praying for more wind. I was sixteen years old, and hunting was more important than football or girls. I was a sophomore on our high school football team, and knew I wouldn't play in the Thanksgiving Day game against Matawan, so I asked the coach if I could go duck hunting. He just rolled his eyes and said "Why not?"
The water in the bay was over my head, and the northeast wind meant long cords and lots of weight for the decoys. The quarry was primarily broadbills, which meant a big spread of decoys. Finding myself in Florida, wincing at 50 degrees, and putting out a dozen decoys in six-inches of water smooth as glass, I marveled at the difference.
We were soon set up with a stand of mangroves to our back, hidden from the front by an eight-foot length of camouflage blind material Chet affixed to mangrove branches with clothespins. The first duck sneaked in undetected, but flushed as soon as we stood up. A female hooded merganser, Chet dropped it on the outside edge of the decoys. I took some pictures as he walked back through the decoys with his duck, wishing now that I had brought my gun.
Minutes later, a Florida duck came in after a stint of calling. We also called mottled ducks. Both sexes are alike, and they look like a lighter version of a black ducks or hen mallards. The action was fairly constant, and Chet managed to shoot another duck and missed a couple more. Six pintails appeared over the horizon, and before I could get the duck call into my mouth, they saw the decoys and had their wings set. Chet was a little early pulling the trigger and they flared off unscathed.
By then, it was 10 O'clock and warm enough to cook Chet out of his chest waders. We bagged the decoys, stowed them in the mangroves, and began the walk back to the boat. On the way, I was thinking I would probably bring the gun next time. This warm weather duck hunting was pretty cool.
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