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Great salt hunt

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WILLARD, Utah -- There were thousands of ducks -- way too many to get an accurate estimation -- and they were everywhere.

The Duck Trek was skimming along in some of the three-inch-deep of water that makes up Willard Bay on the northeast side of the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah.

PHOTO GALLERY

Utah

It's possible the birds were scattering because they saw the large skull and crossbones sign on the middle of our airboat that reads: "Dead Ducks Tell No Tale."

The sign wasn't the only ominous piece of flair on the airboat Troy Thompson and his 18-year-old son Taylor built from the bottom up. A sticker above the windshield said, "It's all about the Bling," and the flaps on the back of the boat featured a skeleton in a pirate's hat holding a dead mallard. The skeleton has a boot on his left leg and peg-leg right leg wrapped with a duck band.

If that wasn't enough to instill a fear of gun in the surrounding waterfowl, the treasure chest of bands at the foot of the skeleton should send a clear message: If you fly and quack or honk, someone in the Thompson family will shoot you.

In fact, they had proven as much all morning. These ducks were scattering on the triumphant ride back to the ramp. It was hard to decide which was more amazing, the clouds of ducks that just kept coming and coming or the Rocky Mountains they were flying in front of -- probably both.

Wind blowing in his hair and ear phones on tight, Thompson pointed to one of the larger groups of mallards, turned around and smiled. It was hard to decipher exactly what he was trying to say, "Isn't that a beautiful sight," or "Man I'd like to shoot those," -- probably both.

Salty stopover

Driving in northwest Utah is pretty easy. There just aren't that many options.

To the west are the Promontory Mountains, which stretch about 35 miles north from the Great Salt Lake. To the east is the Wasatch Range on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains. There are only a handful of miles in between, which means there's not a lot of east and west, it's pretty much all north and south. On both sides of the ranges, and in most of the rest of Utah, it's desert.

The result is a funneling of the people -- and the waterfowl -- to this one skinny stretch anchored by a 21,500-square-mile salt lake and more than 200,000 acres of delta marsh.

"The Great Salt Lake and the delta is the hub of migration," said Tom Aldrich, migratory bird coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Services. "It's the single biggest freshwater marsh on their way south so it's built up a tradition of use."

Referencing work done by legendary waterfowl biologist Frank Bellrose, Aldrich said they have 3 to 5 million waterfowl come through Utah from northern breeding areas every year. Most of the birds continue their journey west down the Pacific Flyway, but some, in particular redheads, head east down the central flyway.

Aldrich said they have little to no wintering birds -- they almost all leave after the freeze -- but when you're dealing with saltwater, that freeze takes its time. The salinity of the Great Salt Lake moves east to west, with the far west side of the lake with the most salt and the far east, where the delta begins, having the least amount of salt.

The key is finding the brackish areas with just enough salt to delay the freeze but enough freshwater to offer food for waterfowl.

"There isn't a whole lot of food resources associated with salt," Aldrich said "Except for greenwing, shovelers and goldeneye that have adapted to feeding on brine-fly larva and brine shrimp cysts. They'll go out and sit on these giant floating egg masses and feed out there."

Frozen water was not a concern when the Duck Trek rolled through Utah. For the most part, it was an unseasonably warm 70 degrees and sunny. It wasn't the most ideal conditions and typically, when your season is 107 days as it is in Utah (Oct. 2 - Jan. 15), you can pick your spots.

Following the migration south on a schedule doesn't afford us that kind of flexibility.

"We don't usually hunt this time of year," said Thompson, who works for himself as a plumber and volunteers with a Delta Waterfowl chapter in Utah. "But I bet we'll see some birds."

Lots of birds

The Lady Leg Iron, Thompson's airboat, was skimming over 3 inches of water in Willard Bay, but in the darkness of morning, it didn't look like 3 inches, it just looked like a lake. So as it shot straight toward what looked like shoreline with no plans of slowing down, there were moments of panic.

That's what most of the 15-mile ride south toward the edge of the Harold Crane WMA was like. Panic mixed with awe, which was then interrupted by more panic.

As the sun worked its way over the top of the Rocky Mountains, a familiar scene started to show itself: marsh. The same type of marsh we hunted in a week earlier in Canada and the same type of marsh we saw in Michigan on the trek two years ago -- everything from the cattails to the dreaded phragmite.

"The phragmite has been trying to take over for about the last 10 years," Thompson said. "It's been a battle."

[Phragmite is an invasive species that takes off in a marsh environment and doesn't do much for the waterfowl. Find out more from our 2008 story on the weed.]

Eventually, Thompson stopped near a patch of cattail and three-cornered bulrush, threw out the decoys and set up five lawn chairs that sunk to about butt level into the marsh. Everything was set -- almost everything.

Around the time the first set of mallards started working the decoys, right at shooting time, was when we first realized that not one of the five guys decked out in camo with shotguns in hand remembered a set of duck calls.

This was a direct result of the Duck Trek being in town. Judging by Thompson's boat, his children and the time he invests in the sport, he doesn't forget duck killing tools often.

"I don't do a lot of other types of hunting," Thompson said. "I told my wife I'd choose one, so I took the one with the longest season."

Regardless, all we could do was sit and wait for the ducks to come in on their own. And they did.

The first real good sign of life came at 8:30 a.m., when a group of about 1,000 ducks came up off the Harold Crane WMA about a half mile away. At 9 a.m., two mallards, a drake and a hen, tried the decoys. Both Taylor and Thompson's other son, 13-year-old Austin, went for the drake.

The next half hour was spent arguing over who had the kill shot, but they did agree on one thing.

"We let the hen go," Austin said smiling (and lying), "good management principles."

At 9:45, Taylor stopped another drake mallard cold in his tracks, but Austin declared that duck as "handicapped."

"That's the only reason you were able to kill it," he told his older brother. "It still had its training wheels on."

The ducks came in bunches about every half hour for the next two hours, and most of the time, they hit the Thompson family wall.

At around 11, with four mallards down and enough action to satisfy a family of duck hunters, the trek loaded up and started to make the long, eye opening drive back to the ramp. About halfway home, Thompson decided to stage a photo with him, his boat and his two sons.

With Taylor and Austin smiling on either side of him, it was hard to tell what made Thompson happier, his hunting companions or the small pile of mallards on the deck of the boat -- probably both.