RENO COUNTY — Dean Watson stood in the gradual brightening of Saturday’s dawn and listened to coarse cackles of rooster pheasants in nearby grass and the giggling honks of white-fronted geese passing overhead.
“This is my favorite time, when everything is coming to life,” Watson said. “It’s a new day.”
A few moments later a 30-second stacatto salvo of gunfire sounding from the nearby Quivira National Wildlife Refuge was a reminder it was also a new duck season for Kansas’ low plains late zone, one long-awaited by many hunters.
Last year the 20,000-plus acre wetland system was largely dry because of a Sahara-like drought. That left the public land hunters low and dry. Those on private lands, like Watson, his son Corbin and host Walt Malone, had sporadic hunting at best.
But with the new season came much better conditions. Quivira has had good water for months. Friday, the refuge staff estimated about 97,000 ducks were using the area, the most many locals can remember in years.
But only within the past week had Malone seen ducks on the two wetlands he manages barely a mile east of the refuge. Common logic said Saturday’s heavy hunting pressure predicted at Quivira would scatter the many flocks of pintails, gadwalls, widgeon, blue and green-winged teal over the country side and Malone and his guests would enjoy a good day.
But limits weren’t his primary goal. “The main thing is to get Corbin a duck,” Malone had said the night before, referring to the teen’s hope of getting his first waterfowl. “That’s really what we need.”
Friday evening, Russ Clopine, Tom Hoover and the Watsons met Malone at a comfortable lodge he’d tucked into an end of a metal storage building for an annual opening eve celebration.
Dean Watson grilled a wide selection of wild game, including his homemade pheasant and duck brats, both stuffed with fruit, and wild boar burgers pretty enough to be cookbook covers and flavorful enough to qualify for a franchise. There was also a little in the way of libations and a lot in the way of laughter and sporting tales.
An hour before dawn, Hoover and Clopine spread decoys on one wetland, while Malone and the Watsons on the other. Some soft but raspy quacks from a few teal on the pre-dawn wetland gave them hope for pending action, as did a few small flights of teal that buzzed in and out of sight at the start of legal shooting time.
Eventually Malone spotted about a dozen ducks descending softly. Shots sounded a split-second after his “We’d better take ‘em.” Young Watson wore a wide smile as Ellie, Malone’s Lab, delivered a gorgeous drake widgeon the teen had shot. Malone and Dean Watson had also dropped a bird from the flock.
Shots continued to sound from nearby private marshes and sometimes sounded like thunder rolling from Quivira. The hunters expected squadrons of ducks to arrive at any time, but a lone mallard was their only other addition. Clopine and Hoover never fired a round on their hunt.
Things were different within the refuge.
“There were more ducks than we’ve seen all year, more than anywhere,” said Jarrod Martin, who was hunting Quivira with his brother, Nick, and sister-in-law, Cassie. “It sounded like a war zone, especially the first half-hour.”
The Martin’s have been “weekend warriors” since teal season began in early September, and have hunted the past several weekends in some low plains early zone public areas since that region’s season opened earlier this month.
It was their first trip to Quivira, and Nick Martin said hunters who’d arrived earlier had some of the best spots taken. They totaled six ducks between them. “That’s a lot better than zero,” Jarrod Martin said. “It’s been a really good year … way, way good.”
Based on Saturday morning’s success, many of the hunters checked by Phil Kirkland would probably agree.
“The duck hunters did very well, a lot of them had limits (six ducks per hunter) early,” said Kirkland, a Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism game warden who worked in and around Quivira. “They had some good hunts this morning, and there were a lot of duck hunters out. I didn’t have to work any (hunting) accidents and didn’t issue a citation … it was a very good day.”
Hunters began leaving Malone’s property barely an hour into the new season, heading to the Kansas State football game. Still, those that were hunting kept thinking the flocks would still come.
Malone theorized some wind might help the hunting, while conditions were so calm whisky tops of switch grass didn’t even quiver and decoys looked lifeless. As well as making the fake ducks bob realistically, a sizable breeze could push ducks from some of Quivira’s wide-open wetlands.
A north breeze finally came as Malone was gathering decoys and within about 15 minutes three flights of teal had given his wetlands close, multiple passes.
“Sorry, it looks like we didn’t pick the best day for you Corbin,” he’d said as the boy and his father left the blind earlier. “We’ll have to do it again.”
“Oh, yeah,” the smiling teen said, before again thanking his host for the hunt.
It was just the first day of a new season, and one that holds plenty of promise.