CLINTON, Mo. — The eastern horizon didn't show the slightest hint of the new day, but you wouldn't have known it from the chatter in Chuck Mainard's duck blind.
Imagine a small country café on a busy morning, and then drop it in the middle of a dark duck marsh. Whether you're a regular visitor or stopping in for the first time, you know the language, and soon you're contributing to the din of conversation.
And then it comes to a screeching halt.
"Listen to that," whispered a nameless voice at the far end of the blind.
The mallards were having their own animated discussion. One raspy old gal made an awful noise, a prickly call that sounded like she'd been on the hooch for too many years. A sweet-talking hen countered with a pitch-perfect comeback that would draw the envy of anyone who has put a duck call to lips. They were both sweet sounds, especially in the agonizing lag before daybreak.
Time can pass slowly in a duck blind, but waiting for the magic hour on opening day of Missouri's middle zone seemed like forever.
Talk is cheap
Conversation became a self-defense mechanism. You either talked or lost your mind guessing how long it had been since last looking at your watch.
Mainard used the time to explain the lay of the land: Our blind sat near the northwest corner of a 30-acre parcel of flooded millet and other natural vegetation. A smaller blind sat on the southeast corner of the property. A soybean field bordered the tract on the north, and a flooded bottom Mainard called "The Swamp" ran along the south side.
Judging from the noise, "The Swamp" was holding most of the mallards in west-central Missouri.
"They'll eventually get up and fly around and then come back in here later," Mainard said.
An outboard motor made the point. Gadwalls, teal and mallards took wing when an unseen boat whirred through The Swamp. It was too early to see them pass overhead, but piping wings and a pleasing medley of quacks and whistles provided indisputable proof that they were more than figments of an impatient imagination.
As the sky slowly brightened, waves of ducks kept passing high over the blind on a northward route, not so much as glancing at the spread of several dozen floating decoys or their spinning-wing counterparts.
Mainard's buddy, Mike Campbell, wondered aloud if they'd ever come back.
The green-winged teal came in first, the way teal will do, in a hurry and with no warning. The first group rocketed into the spread like a squadron of F-18s, dipping and darting across the hole. Eight guns punched through the shooting holes, spitting fire and steel toward the targets. Several crashed in the hole. The survivors exploded straight up, desperation shots fast on their shrinking tail feathers.
The next wad came in hotter, handcuffing us with a direct, inbound approach. They were on top of us or worse before we could even shoulder our shotguns.
"I shot, but it was just a joke," Mainard said. "I don't know why I shot."
Opportunities for redemption came soon and often. A steady stream of greenwings buzzed the hole for an hour. Campbell and his son, Nate, picked up ducks at 7:30 a.m. and came back to the blind with 13 greenwings.
The mallards came back a little later. A solo hen worked perfectly to the calls and came in with cupped wings and legs down smack in the middle of the hole. Minutes later, a pair of mallards passed high over the top of the blind, but not high enough.
Campbell and Richard Bradfield, Mainard's uncle, added three teal to the bag with the next volley. Two more teal escaped after landing in the decoys. Nobody saw them. Everyone was mesmerized by a solitary greenhead that worked around the hole three times in a wary, discerning approach.
It wasn't a bad way to kick off the season. Or the Duck Trek's Missouri stop. And it was far from over.
If you build it …
Mainard and his cousin, Chris Bradfield, own a little piece of paradise. Eight years ago, they bought 30 acres on the fringe of the South Grand River bottoms. It's part of a large wetland complex near the upper reaches of Harry S. Truman Reservoir, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake roughly 100 miles southeast of Kansas City.
The property is on low ground at the margin of profitable agricultural land, a location that suited it for enrollment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wetlands Reserve Program. A system of levees and water-control structures allows the landowners to capture and manipulate water and effectively manage the place for waterfowl.
In duck hunting terms, it's the kind of place that's not outside the realm of possibility for many duck hunters with a modicum of discretionary income. It's not too much to handle, but it's big enough for a small group of hunters to manage right and enjoy the fruits of their labors.
"We saw it in the newspaper," Brian Mainard said. "We had been leasing an area for $6,500 a year, and we started thinking about putting that money into something that was ours. It's just 30 acres, but it's 30 acres in the right spot."
Brian is Chuck's son, and if he's not the official land manager or caretaker, he's the consumed duck hunter with ideas and the drive to carry them out. He puts in countless hours converting the area from a spot ducks like to a spot ducks can't resist.
"He lives for this stuff," said Stump Fuhr, a long-time hunting buddy.
The Mainards and Bradfields, along with a core group of friends, selectively cleared buttonbush and reeds, broke up the ground to promote growth of native barnyard grass, and planted Japanese and brown top millet.
The place isn't just attractive to ducks. It also sucks in hunters. The meeting spot up the road from the hole looked like a parking lot.
Using a four-wheeler and small trailer, Brian ferried a steady stream of family and friends from the parking area to the spot's two blinds. There were multiple generations of at least four families, along with a collection of long-time friends.
Mainard and company also extended their generosity to the Duck Trek. A spot in a virtual stranger's blind is prime real estate on opening weekend. But sharing a blind with this crew felt like hunting with old friends, complete with a dose of friendly harassment after having a Kamikaze ringneck eat your lunch.
They can handle accommodations, too. Situated beneath a stand of oaks, about 30 yards behind one of the blinds, is the Duck Shack.
Brian built the roughly 20x12-foot structure in pieces at the Mainards' home in Oak Grove, Mo., and then put it together on site. It sits atop a dirt mound just a couple of feet above the surrounding flood plane. It's rustic by any standard a crushed rock floor, four homemade bunks and a wood-burning stove. A small generator behind the shack powers a microwave, television, videocassette recorder and a few lights. The electrical outlets are six feet up the wall in case of flooding.
"It's my home away from home," Brian said. "It's pretty nice having mallards in your bedroom. It's good motivation."
Fork in the road
Brian Mainard didn't hesitate when asked why his family's hunting area has so much potential.
"Truman," he said.
That's Harry S. Truman Reservoir, Missouri's second-largest lake at 55,600 acres. An impoundment of the Osage River, Truman Reservoir works together with Lake of the Ozarks, Pomme de Terre Lake and Stockton Lake to provide flood control for the Osage, Missouri and Mississippi river floodplains. Though its open water is probably more well-known among bass and crappie anglers, the small tributaries on its western end serve as important areas for migrating ducks.
When water inundates the bottomlands around streams like South Grand River or Deepwater Creek, the shallow flooded habitat attracts waterfowl. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Missouri Department of Conservation manage much of the land around the lake, using tools such as prescribed burns, plantings and agricultural leases. Nearby private lands play an equally important role, accounting for the vast majority of the thousands of acres of wetlands restored in the area over the past two decades.
"That area has an abundance of wetlands," explained Andy Raedeke, a waterfowl biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "There's an abundance of shallow water habitat that provides a lot of food sources for ducks."
This part of Missouri receives most of its ducks from the upper reaches of the Central Flyway. They migrate southward from the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan and, especially this year, North Dakota and South Dakota, which last summer experienced abundant rainfall and snowmelt that created plentiful potholes and subsequent duck production.
The Missouri River, which takes a big left turn near Kansas City and eventually finds the Mississippi River near St. Louis, is an important migration corridor that brings birds into the area. The upland geography of the Ozark Mountains to the south means most of the ducks either follow the Missouri or stay west of the Ozarks and migrate down through Oklahoma and Texas. Others hit the Arkansas River in Oklahoma and head east along its path toward the well-known wintering areas of the Mississippi alluvial valley. West-central Missouri is a veritable fork in the migratory path.
When ducks set up shop in these parts, they find an abundance of habitat on managed private wetlands like the area where the Mainards hunt, as well as large state-owned conservation areas such as Four Rivers, Schell-Osage and Montrose.
"If you look at this part of Missouri in the big picture," Raedeke said, "it's a very important area for waterfowl."
Back for more
Opening day in Missouri's middle zone wasn't exactly a textbook day for duck hunting. A cool but comfortable morning soon gave way to warmer temperatures, and the southeast-facing blind turned into a sauna. By 8:30 a.m., several hunters were shedding their jackets and long-sleeved shirts.
Despite the less-than-optimal conditions, the Duck Trek's first Missouri hunt proved fruitful, especially after lackluster stops in Iowa and Illinois. Opening morning yielded 48 ducks, including green-winged teal, mallards, gadwalls, pintails and a pair of redheads.
It was good enough that we went back for more on the second day of the season. Three greenwings and pair of mallards were in the blind before 7 a.m., victims of Brian Mainard's extensive decoy spread. He used a combination of floating decoys, rotating vortex machines, spinning-wing decoys and water-bubbling decoys. Several full-body mallards situated atop logs looked particularly realistic.
"Every little bit of added realism makes a difference," Brian said. "I try to change up the spread every day because the ducks see so many spreads in this area. Once you hunt the same place over time, you figure out how to do it right."
Typical of early-season hunting, the intense action of the first day didn't last. But Brian's crew made the most of the limited opportunities. And it only made the conversation better.
"It doesn't have to be thousands of ducks for me to come down here," Brian said. "I just like being out here."
He was speaking our language.
(The next Duck Trek stop is in Missouri., and will be featured Wednesday, Dec., 2)