Packing in shells is harder than carrying out ducks

John Schandelmeier

It is coming up on duck season. For many of us, this is the highlight of fall. We finally get to hunt!

Understand that it costs more for the first duck than it does for a moose. Also be aware that you will get much wetter and walk farther.

There will be times when one is not quite sure what was shot or what it will taste like. If you have your favorite dog along, he will love you for the hunt. After he bounces into your face a few times, giving you licks with teeth and feathers, he might not be so high on your list.

One of the perks of hunting ducks is that you almost always come home lighter than you left. I have hunted with some pretty good shotgun folks who may do better than that. Should that be the case, let them carry their own birds back.

If you don't know how well your hunting partner shoots, stay on the far side of the lake from him. He won't be able to make fun of you when you miss. If you have enough shells and can identify the birds you shoot, the duck limit is far beyond your ability to carry shot shells, or stand up to the recoil of a 12-gauge.

A 12-gauge pump is my personal gun of choice; an auto burns up too many shells. They also tend to get clogged when my dog sprays mud on them. Some guys swear by a 20-gauge, but they are better shots than I. The reach on both guns is similar, but the 12 puts more lead in the pattern. 12-gauge shot shells are more expensive but well worth it.

A box of steel shot, best if 2s or 3s, will cost you $12 to $15 most places. Add your hunting license, federal and state duck stamps and the first shot will cost you around $100. Add in hip boots, a shell vest and dog food, and you've got a real investment. The first duck you actually hit will cost a lot more, depending on your marksmanship.

Knowing what you have shot is a plus. When I was a kid, I proudly brought home a common merganser. My dad made me eat it, so I quickly learned to identify ducks.

Along the Denali Highway, near the Susitna and Maclaren Rivers, there are a huge number of waterfowl species. Common puddle ducks include pintails, widgeon, mallards, green-winged teal and shovelers. The Maclaren has a few blue-winged teal; this is one of the few places in Alaska where they actually breed.

There are quite a number of diving species on the Denali also. Lesser scaup, sommon and barrows goldeneye, white-winged scoters, old squaw, and buffleheads are familiar species. Persistent hunters will see an occasional ring-necked duck or harlequin.

Surprisingly, while we have all of these ducks, the goose population is limited to a very small number of breeding Canadians and an occasional white-fronted goose.

There are few migrants in this country. Almost all of the waterfowl one sees are local birds. The upper Su, the middle Maclaren and Tangle Lakes drainages have one of the densest concentrations of breeding ducks in the state, with more than six pairs per square mile. It is common to be on flocks in excess of 300 birds the first week in September.

Common, that is, if one doesn't mind walking, or owns a good boat. There are several locations in the Maclaren drainage within a mile of the Denali Highway. The upper Tangle system is relatively easy to reach by canoe. The majority of the Monehan Flats, on the upper Susitna, is accessible only by riverboat.

Whatever the choice of access, one will be pleasantly surprised by the variety of ducks and the quality of the hunt. Bring your duck-hunting buddies, because it takes a few guys to keep the birds moving and rarely will you see other waterfowl hunters. While the caribou and moose hunters are here in droves, seldom does one hear a shotgun near the lakes. Maybe they don't like packing in all of those shells?

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Paxson. He is a commercial fisherman and a two-time Yukon Quest champion.

Wild berry fun Kenai National Wildlife Refuge will host a Wild Berry Family Fun Day from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. Enjoy tasty snacks while participating in activities and crafts at the Refuge Environmental Education Center in Soldotna. All activities are free to the public. You might even win a door prize. Guided berry identification walks will be held throughout the event. Walks cover 1/4 mile and last 30 minutes. Pre-registration for walks is required. (260-2807, -- Joy Guest

By John Schandelmeier