Towering, leafless cottonwoods filter the rising sun into hundreds of yellow and orange shafts that knife into the dark waters of the marsh and eventually land on our backs.
Even dressed in long underwear and heavy marsh clothes, we welcome the warming touches. They cut down on the creeping cold that’s already settled in the floor and on the bench in the sunken pit blind at Crooked Creek Duck Club.
I’ve been hunting here for several years thanks to the generosity of owner Jack Brittingham, who has built a paradise for migrating waterfowl on the 1,000-plus acres of prairie he purchased years ago. By planting summer crops of corn and rice and millet, and then flooding the marshes as the season approaches, Brittingham and ranch manager Justin Mace have done something most landowners only dream about: create a must-see winter stopover for the hundreds of thousands of mallards and pintails and teal and redheads and other duck species that pass over Oklahoma on their way south to the Texas Gulf Coast and on down into Mexico.
I’m sitting on the end spot in the blind, the rim of which sits just above water level in the marsh on the northern edge of the property. Ducks are beginning to appear overhead, heading out to feed in peanut fields and wheat fields and in the flooded corn and crops on Crooked Creek.
Just a week before our arrival, Mace had estimated that there were 10,000 mallards on the four large marshes at the ranch. Each marsh is set up with multiple hunting locations to take advantage of variable winds and flight conditions. Today there seem to be almost no ducks in the air compared with previous hunts, when six and even eight hunters in the blind could count on taking a daily limit of five mallard drakes and usually their sixth duck allowed under federal limits.
I’m wondering if there’ll be any ducks when Mace begins calling to “ducks out front.”
We begin peering through the corn stalk dressed fencing used to create a diversion for the ducks, so that they can’t see the hunters looking up and in their direction.
The birds drop down over the cottonwoods ahead of us, to the north, using the brisk southern breeze to control their landing. The flaps go down and Mace calls, “Take ’em.” The front walls drop down, and we stand to take our chances with the mallards, which are flaring left and right and high overhead now. “Watch the hens,” Mace yells over the shooting, warning hunters not to shoot the couple of hens that came in with the greenheads.
A single drake is streaking off just to my right, and I miss him with the first barrel, but the modified choke on my second barrel reaches way out and knocks him for a loop, far out over the marsh and on the other side of a cottonwood tree about 60 yards distant.
Brittingham allows hunters to use only 28-gauge shotguns on the ranch, buying the hard to find ammunition and even providing the shotguns for hunters who come unprepared for the change. Many think the little guns won’t kill ducks, but they find that the only thing required is to get the barrel pointed in the right direction.
The light recoil is a welcome change from the usual 12-gauge 3-inch Magnum pounding duck and goose hunters’ faces when they head out into the marsh. If there’s any doubt about it, consider the shot I just made, in which the duck landed at least 75 yards away from the blind. I knew I was on the bird, which was flying away and took the full load from behind. It was long and deadly and as good as any shot I’ve ever made with a bigger bore shotgun.
Shotguns aside, and even with the smaller numbers of ducks on the marsh thanks to recent warm weather, two groups of us still managed to take 41 ducks on the first morning of our hunt. That worked out to an average of more than four ducks per hunter.
In the afternoon, we hunted quail and pheasants along the fence lines and creekside areas of the ranch, stopping at sundown for a cold beer and a manly hug on the tallest point on the place, a western hill that looks down on the marsh ponds with Crooked Creek snaking its way through toward the south.
Not a bad day for a bunch of Texas guys.