Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Is a Duck Smarter Today?

My grandfather, hunting ducks from his johnboat

         Things change slowly in the outdoors but if you live a while and spend lots of time in the woods and on the rivers, you can’t help but see it.  One of the things I saw early in my life, due to my grandfather, was a change in the habits of raccoons in the Ozarks.  They of course had no corn to eat before white men began to settle here, but did they ever find it to be a wonderful change from crawdads and mussels.  Then they declined rapidly a century or more ago as massive clearing and logging began to take place and den trees were eliminated all over the Midwest.  In the Ozarks, by 1940, it was tough to find a raccoon.  Trappers and hound men had helped to make them scarce as well.  Their furs were really valuable before that time.
         When I was a boy in the 60’s, grandpa said he figured that raccoons were going to be gone someday, like the wild turkey…nearly non-existent.  But raccoons did come back because they began to raise young in holes in river bluffs when den trees weren’t plentiful.  One of my teachers at School of the Ozarks College said that such an adaptation was evidence of slow evolution, that God never had stopped creating, and those holes here and there made the raccoon become a little different animal.

         Well, eating corn and raising young in small holes in bluffs surely did work, as did the reduction in fur prices.  Today, almost everywhere in the Midwest there are too many raccoons, and natures way of reacting to an overpopulation is disease usually.  Distemper, and highways have been keeping raccoon populations a little lower than their production of plenty of offspring would normally allow.  If it were not for distemper, I think we’d have so many raccoons that we would have to have a bounty on them.

         I have seen wild ducks evolve a lot like that.  A wild mallard still has a brain the same size of his distant ancestor’s brain, but brother does he ever use it better than a wild mallard did fifty years ago.  Habitat change and hunting pressure in the lower Midwest has necessitated that.  If you do not change your ways of hunting, you won’t eat many ducks during the winter.  For one thing, mallards are really decoy shy at times and setting decoys surely is a different art nowadays.  And the old decoys that do not ride right in the water, or have poor colors, are a sure way to flare away a flock that seems dead set on joining your set-up.  They have come through too many good hunting spots by the time they get here to be as easily fooled as they once were.  A mallard flying south nowadays has heard 10 shotgun blasts to the one he might have heard fifty years ago. And while those shotguns may have affected his hearing, his eyes are really, really good.  Let a flock of mallards see something that looks a little out of place and they are gone.

         Only about 30 years ago I hunted out of boat blinds back in the coves and killed lots of ducks.  Today they have seen so many boat blinds that larger flocks are all to ready to flare away fifty yards out, and they often alight out in the open water hundreds of yards away.  You had best hunt from the bank behind a really well arranged blind or find flooded timber or a dead tree out into the water to stand behind now, and the more hunters hiding the less chance you have to fool ducks.  I find that when I hunt alone, my chances are much better.   I no longer hardly ever hunt from a boat blind as I once did.

         Wild ducks do hear well enough to know when a duck call sounds like a duck call.  There aren’t many modern hunters who have mastered calling ducks, and they call way too much.  I have found that calling just a little is best, and many times when a flock of ducks is interested in my decoys, I stop calling, finding that maybe a little bit of soft quacking or a chuckling sound made by feeding ducks is all that is needed.  One thing for sure, if you have a flock of five or six ducks circling, you have a lot better chance than if there are twenty or thirty.  If a big flock like that has twenty or so young dumb ducks, it won’t do any good if there are two or three old hens that have been there and done that and they feel like something isn’t quite right. Twenty dumber young ducks follow the old wary ones.

         Grandpa use to say that when we floated the Piney behind a floating blind, sneaking up on mallards.  He would complain because it just took one set of suspicious eyes to make the whole flock take to flight.  If there were two or three or maybe a half dozen ducks in an eddy or on a shoal, we had a pretty good chance of sneaking to within 25 yards.  No, ducks aren’t smart, but they are evolving to survive.  When you try that floating blind type of hunting today it is much, much harder to get close to mallards, and then, if there are more than 8 or 10, it is darn near impossible.  They have evolved, and we hunters, even with all our modern improvements in guns and gear, haven’t figured out how to evolve better than they have.
Grandpa's old double barrel, hanging on my office wall
         My grandpa Dablemont was the best outdoorsman I ever knew, and he hunted ducks on the Big Piney with an old breach-loading double barrel shotgun. It was given to him when he was about 14 years old, after he took a wealthy city hunter on a successful turkey hunt. Grandpa always thought it was a Stevens shotgun, because the only engraving he could see was ‘Ste’.
         Well before his death, he gave me that shotgun and I was surprised when recently I found it to be a Sterling Fox double barrel, a reasonably valuable firearm. With mixed feelings, I have decided to sell it and some other guns from my boyhood at our big outdoorsman’s swap meet on March 24. 
         We have to raise money for our youth retreat we run for underprivileged children, and I have no one to leave my guns to when I am gone, so it seems to make sense to sell them to benefit a lot of kids, many of them fatherless boys.  I know my grandpa would approve.
         If you would like to know more about this swap meet, just call me at 417-777-5227.  Tables for vendors are free, and admission is free.  I hope many of you can join us.  I want to see someone get my grandfathers old gun and hear the story that goes with it.  You might also want to see my website, where we soon will have information about where the swap meet will be held.  It is  E mail me at  You can write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613

No comments: