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?”
Photograph courtesy of Ted Haines
Of course, you can’t just go hunting on a whim. For everything there is a season, and for waterfowl hunting it’s a very defined season at that. In DEC Southeast Region Three (which includes the Hudson Valley), the season is roughly 60 days long and divided into two parts, with duck hunting running from November 8 through December 28. “The types of animals we allow to be hunted are very abundant to the extent that they can be harvested with no long-term impact on the population,” says Bill Sharick, senior wildlife biologist for the DEC. “Also, there’s a segment of the Canadian goose population that has become a resident breed and very abundant, eating grass on golf courses, pooping a lot, and consuming farmers’ grains. So we use hunting to balance the negative effects of these animals.”
Potential hunters also have to put all their ducks in row, as it were, before they even think of shooting one. The DEC requires that they obtain a hunting license, a duck stamp (available at most post offices and sporting goods stores), and a Harvest Information Program (HIP) number, which is a central registry for waterfowl hunters. Since the DEC posts bag limits for different species (it’s all on their Web site), you sure as heck better know the difference between a pintail and a gadwall before you even try on a camouflage coat.
And no matter how wonderful your dog is, she isn’t going to build your duck blind. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be fancy. “Some people use natural blinds — they just hide in the bushes,” says Ted Haines, Hudson Valley district chairman for DU. “They can be anything, just a board between two trees, or low-profile ‘coffin’ blinds that you lie down in and float. Some of the ones on the Hudson are enormous shanties that hold up to six or seven people.” Haines’ floating Hudson River blind, located a quarter mile out on the river near Saugerties, is well camouflaged with cedar boughs, which hold their green color for several months. Some hunters have even been known to use fake spray-on holiday snow for a “natural” effect.
Haines is especially keen on the Hudson: come winter, it is a major flyway for migrating waterfowl, attracting species that have traveled from as far away as Alaska and Canada’s Hudson Bay. But hunting on the river has its perils — frigid wind chills, disorienting fog, unexpected tides — that can humble even the most experienced hunter. “The Hudson doesn’t suffer fools,” says La Valley.
First-time sportsmen might head instead to the Esopus Creek, Wallkill River, or small ponds and marshes. In general, you can hunt any place where it’s legal to discharge a gun, provided you are at least 500 feet from any buildings. Just because land is DEC-owned doesn’t necessarily mean you can hunt on it — check the posted rules. Private lands, unless posted, are fair game (although the DEC encourages hunters to ask permission first). And wildlife management areas are pretty much a given; certain areas may be posted against trespassing and hunting for special reasons (such as the presence of eagles’ nests). Two Wildlife Management Areas — the Bashakill in Orange and Sullivan counties, and Tivoli Bays in Dutchess — are local hunting hot spots; the Stewart Airport Cooperative Hunting Area in Orange County is another good bet.
You needn’t travel far if you’re interested in goose hunting, which is mostly done in cornfields. Goose hunters argue that there’s more bang for the buck anyway, since a Canadian goose averages 10-15 pounds, compared to a tiny (though tasty) one-pound teal.
Waterfowl hunters emphasize that it’s not just about bagging a trophy or bringing home dinner. “Pulling the trigger is a small part of it,” says La Valley. “It’s about being out in nature, the beauty of the sunrise, and the camaraderie. You have to experience it to understand.”