High dollar ducks

CORRINE, Utah -- A few things go through your head when you hear you're going to be hunting on a "million dollar lease."

Really, a million dollars, or is that just an expression? Total or each? Who has that kind of money? Will this be the best hunt of my life? Really, really, like a real million dollars?



As a journalist, the plan is to get to the bottom of things first and foremost. Establish the who, what, when, where and in this case, how much. But no matter who you are or what you do, the entire experience is going to be put under the microscope and analyzed by the "what would I pay for this" benchmark.

The day before, the Duck Trek had been in the delta marsh on public land northern Utah. Troy Thompson had called in a set of favors for today and gotten us on what had to be one of the most expensive leases in Utah.

Thompson, his two boys Taylor, 18, and Austin, 13, and the Duck Trek met Joel Ferry at a small gas station in Corinne. Ferry manages the duck hunting side of the ranch we'd be hunting. The 8,000-acre ranch has been in the same family for 80 years and has more than 1,000 head of cattle.

Technically, Ferry said, he's in charge of wildlife and hunts.

The roads on the ranch were dirt, not gold, and the gates we passed through were metal, not copper. It was clear early on that the trip would be no softer than any other. There would be no blinds with couches, heaters and satellite TV; just ATVs, waders, camo, shotguns and decoys you put out and pick up yourself. In other words, it would be duck hunting.

Ferry loaded his 4-year-old son Miles, Thompson's lab Duke and five excited hunters onto two ATVs and made the 10-minute drive to the blind he had recently built from scaffolding. As the decoys started making their way out of the bags, the journalist went to work.

How many blinds do you have on this property? 30.

How many people lease the land? 2.


"That way it stays exclusive and doesn't get too much pressure," Ferry said as large group of mallards whizzed by overhead.

Enough said. Names and figures became suddenly unimportant. It was exclusive, expensive (Ferry didn't put a price on it), authentic, birds were flying by and we were inside the metal gates. It was time to sit back and enjoy the show.

Although there was still one lingering question that was best left alone: Why did they let us in here?

Historically good

The Duck Trek been in north Utah for three days and it was showing all the signs of being one of the better spots the trek had visited in three years. Already, we had seen thousands of ducks on all types of land: private, public, federal and state.

The numbers of ducks killed hadn't been mind blowing, but the number of ducks seen had been just that. Conditions could not have been worse -- it was borderline hot and there was almost no wind. It was also hot to the north in Wyoming and Idaho, giving the ducks no reason to think about moving south.

But ducks were still everywhere, leaving one to think about what could be when conditions are good. Apparently, we weren't the first to have that thought.

Northern Utah duck hunting was on fire in the early 1900s, and it didn't take long for duck clubs to start surrounding the marsh in and around the Great Salt Lake.

According to utahwaterfowl.org, the papers in Salt Lake City in 1904 declared that "duck hunting could properly be called the national sport of Utah." Hunters were known to use "horses, bicycles, wagons and carts of all descriptions" to get to the hunting grounds.

There was some controversy over the private duck clubs leaving nowhere for the public to hunt, but as a whole, those clubs spent the first half of the 20th century cultivating and protecting the waterfowl as they moved through the area.

Tom Aldrich, the migratory bird coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Services, said the 225, 000 acres of the Great Salt Lake marsh breaks down a little more evenly today: 90,000 acres are owned by state, the feds manage about 85,000 acres and there are 50,000 acres in privately owned duck clubs.

"Wetland management is a big deal here," Aldrich said.

But while the management and public hunting ground has been expanding, the number of duck hunters has been, at least recently, on the decline. Aldrich said they used to have 40,000 duck hunters, but this year that number is closer to 17,000.

"You wouldn't know it going out there though," Aldrich said. "It still feels pretty crowded."

Somehow, the Duck Trek found itself on some of the still-private ranches near the Bear River, which feeds fresh water into the marsh from the north and west. And since the land has been in the same family for 80 years, it felt like we were getting a small taste of what had been.

Replace a couple ATVs for a couple wagons, and it might as well have been the early 1900s: a private club, a flooded marsh and ducks overhead.

Suffering 'the story of the state'

Ferry escorted the Thompsons and his son Miles into small, tight blind, and everyone waited for shooting time.

It didn't take 4-year-old Miles long to become disinterested with sitting and waiting, so Ferry started a movie on his iPod to keep him entertained. Maybe "early 1900s" was a bit of a stretch.

Shooting time came and went, but the birds that had been buzzing us as we set up were gone.

"There are a whole lot of birds in this area but the weather has been awful," Ferry said. "It's been awfully nice, which is awful for duck hunters."

A decent group came in about 30 minutes after shooting time and shots fired, but only one bird, a redhead, fell. Two more small groups came in shortly thereafter and they all flew away unharmed.

The Thompson family, who had barely missed the day before, was having some aiming issues.

"We're used to sitting in chairs in the weeds," Troy Thompson said. "We've got to learn to shoot out of the Hilton. It's a little different from sitting on a bucket in the marsh."

After some adjusting, which included getting the southpaw Austin into the correct part of the blind, they were back on track. Two mallards came in shortly thereafter and paid the price. Austin finished off a widgeon for duck number four and Troy took only one shot at a greenhead to put the number at five a little after 8:15 a.m.

The action was steady, but it was mostly singles and doubles. The large groups we had seen that morning, and that they consistently see in this area, just weren't around.

"It's slow," Ferry said as he put his head out of the blind for a better view of the sky.

"That's the story of the state, isn't it?" Troy Thompson responded.

The action never picked up, but the Thompsons, after making their initial adjustment, didn't miss another bird. By the time the decoys were heading back into the bags around 10:30 a.m., 11 ducks had met their fate: a redhead, six mallard, two widgeon, a spoonbill and a gadwall.

It wasn't a bad morning considering the conditions, but the circumstances made it feel like an opportunity missed.

"You need to come back around Thanksgiving when we start to freeze up," Ferry said. "They'll be everywhere."

I'd bet you a million dollars he's right.