The recent horrific news of the deaths at Reelfoot Lake in the Northwest corner of our state washed over all hunters in waves of shock and sadness. We probably will never know exactly why or how these deeply tragic and sad events unfolded but I must confess that somewhere deep in my gut I didn’t find this sort of madness surprising.
If you have any experience with hunting public land you probably have lived through more than your share of what can kindly be described as rude, unethical and greedy behavior from other hunters.
Hopefully it didn’t end in murder.
While trying to find details of the recent incident I ran across an article from a legacy outdoor media writer who described Reelfoot as a tough place, blind burnings, swing shooting, sky busting, jealous guides, boat ramp fist fights and gross crowding issues.
Words like greed and an incipient culture of wrongness were thrown around to describe so many things that not only embarrass duck hunters in general but are retellings of events and incidents that have slowly become more dangerous than waders full of icy water, overloaded boats and drowned hunters.
I’ve harbored an unrealized Reelfoot expedition in my bucket list for decades until now. My water fowling buddies tell me that Reelfoot is a duck hunters paradise, world class, blinds with kitchens and walk-in closets. They say the lake is a water fowlers Mecca when the birds are there and you manage to get the right blind before someone else beats you them to it.
They say the lake is huge but because it is open to the public it seems to get a little more crowded by the year, even when the ducks don’t show up. It’s not too far fetched to assume that in a year fraught with pandemic travel restrictions and other hysteria a lot of hunters cancelled trips to Canada and similar exotic duck hunting dream spots finding themselves relegated to public hunting grounds like Reelfoot.
Waterfowl hunting, at best, more often than not, is an exercise in in downright hard work and frustration. Birds don’t migrate like they used to in our areas, the weather has changed so much the migration patterns have apparently shifted on us. When the birds do winter in our area, if you are lucky, they are pretty visible, which is in itself somewhat frustrating. You can see them over there, and down there and normally not where you want them to be. They don’t react to your calls or your decoys, or If your are in the right spot, they occasionally circle and circle and circle just out of range only to flare off at the last minute because your dog is whining so loudly that you have to scream at him to shut him up.
There are multitudes of other frustrations like long, cold, muddy, sweat soaked predawn hikes to wet honey holes with heavy loads of decoys, freezing boat rides in dense fog, bent props, no shear pins, dead batteries and dogs that won’t listen.
If you’ve spent any mornings in a duck blind in a state of near hypothermia feel free to add your list of frustrations to this one. I’m sure I skipped more than a few Oh Brothers in misery.
Duck hunters in general are some odd lot. While they profess a love for waterfowl they denigrate some species with the term trash. Trash ducks are not preferred, some say that it is a culinary issue, yet on bad days in a blind a trash duck may be enough to save some frustrated shooter’s reputation as a duck hunter. The fact that the bird is considered trash doesn’t necessarily save the birds life. It is not too uncommon for my dog to find these ducks left behind from some other’s frustrating day of hunting.
Cast all this effort and frustration on public land around here and you more often than not have had the misfortune to encounter other frustrated hunters that want you to leave THEIR honey hole or they decide that hunting within seventy-five yards of where you are set up is their God given right after some pretty tense discussion between both parties.
Fellow hunters I know to be somewhat truthful have told me stories of scary encounters on local management areas in the predawn darkness that started as hot headed screaming matches between groups and ended with calls to local law enforcement shortly before a firefight erupted.
Why is there so much bile being dispensed in the name of shooting ducks all of a sudden? If we had to asses who or what is to blame for this gone wrong public land hunting culture where would we go with this particular problem?
Maybe it’s time we looked into the effects media, marketing and the money that is involved and the impact those particular issues have on water fowling. In general, hunting has become a mega business fueled by gun and ammo manufacturers, boat and clothing makers, decoy factories, pay-to-hunt businesses and alleged non-profit conservation organizations who all extol the wonders of the sport and the purchase of their products.
Throw in the media like You Tube and the Outdoor Channel and you have just set yourself up for 24/7 frustration. These multi-million dollar marketing machines make it look so easy. You’ve seen it, the good old boy, driving the big expensive truck, pulling a thirty foot trailer full to the brim with high dollar decoys and pop-up blinds unloads five to ten shooters into a field and by dawns early light, flock after flock of birds are falling into their laps. And there is normally some dude screaming, “KILL EM -KILL EM!”, and the birds pile up like cord wood for the big photo shoot.
What the majority of this sort of media machine fails to mention in this footage is that this sort of hunt wasn’t filmed on public hunting land around here. Just think of the frustration to those new to the sport that have digested a steady diet of this sort of stuff as they spend a day on our part of the river trying to discern the difference in seagulls, cormorants, crows and an occasional duck. If you’ve put in the effort and time to hunt a few seasons around here you’ve probably had more than one hunt where a shot was never fired at a duck.
The media an marketing boys have set the expectation bar so high that about the only way to be really successful at this endeavor is to cough up large sums of disposable income on pay-to-hunt trips or hunt on private property or buy some land that may hod a few birds. Even buying your own property is only as good as being able to out spend your neighbors spending for his superior duck dreams.
Beyond the aspect of inherent frustration in hunting ducks and the unrealistic expectations driven by mass media and marketing there are the non-profit conservation organizations who extol the virtues of saving a heritage. If you would just give them some of your money they pledge to preserve an entire lifestyle and protect the good Lords birds while they are at it. It seems to me to be a very noble cause.
One of my favorite landing spots is what one non-profit calls a migration map. This little media gadget solicits real time input from boots-in-the-marsh-guys from all over the USA interspersed with biologists reports and even has location information from ducks with radio transmitting devices so you can track the grand passage.
Even with the good intentions of this group and their ducks that are carrying radios we find a large number of volunteers on the blog that are spewing frustrations on a daily basis concerning the fallacy of unrealized expectations.
The blog blame game here is generally themed around federal refuges short stopping birds, the failure of non-profits to spend their money on public hunting opportunities, and complaining posts about other hunters as liars and purveyors of fake news. “Worst duck season ever! Worst than last three years!”, Is a pretty common post.
I still buy a duck stamp every year. Looking at my stamp collection there are more than a few that I paid only $5.00 for and I guess I buy the stamp for reasons that my come down to old notions of romance and the selfish joy that comes form the mode of thinking that I might outsmart what I consider to be a pretty smart gift. I’d like to think that we haven’t devolved into a group malevolently intent upon being solely identified as just a successful duck hunter.
I’d like to think that the reasons we chase ducks is because we can, not because we want to shoot limits and have photos made with piles of trophies or that we need some strange kind of recognition.
So the questions remain: Are a few dead ducks worth all of this? Is hunting public land something gone wrong? Have water fowlers descended into a negative culture bereft with greed, animosity and simple disrespect for others all in the name of being able to say we shot scant few birds? What motives are at work here?
At this point I wonder if anyone can provide a decent answer?
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