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By Lowell Washburn

For thousands of Iowa waterfowl hunting enthusiasts, the long wait is over. Opening weekend of the first segment of this year’s 60-day, split duck season has come and gone.

The weeks and days leading up to last Saturday’s big opener were filled with anticipation and anxiety. In other words, it was a real nail biter. Duck hunters realize that a large part of Opening Day success is dependant on an abundance of blue-winged teal. Blue-wings are the very first duck to head south each fall and flights generally peak during the first week of September. This year was no exception as large numbers of teal began to invade the state during the final days of August. Although large numbers stopped at local wetlands for food and rest, the majority of these tiny speedsters kept moving. By Sept. 10, near record buildups of blue-winged teal were being reported along the coastal wetlands of southern Louisiana.

But for hunters keeping an eye on local marshes, things were still looking pretty good for Iowa as new flocks continued to arrive from the north. Hunting prospects took a dramatic turn for the worse, however, as north winds and a significant cold front moved through Iowa last Monday. Taking full advantage of favorable winds and a full moon, tens of thousands departed for southern wintering grounds. By Wednesday, wetlands that had been crammed with teal a day or two before were now vacant. My favorite little pothole was no exception --- dropping from a count of more than 250 blue-wings and mallards on Monday to a mere three ducks by Wednesday. Like I said, the days leading up to this year’s duck season were real nail biters and at that point things were looking bleak.

Then, just as it appeared as if this year’s duck opener was set to be a real yawner, conditions changed again as thousands of new teal --- this time a good mix of both blue and green-winged teal --- began arriving in Iowa Friday morning. The eleventh hour, surprise migration quickly put hunters back to the literal edge of their seats.

For me, opening week-end began with a Friday night campfire cookout and all night story telling session. My brother Sterling, and nephew Justin joined the festivities.

In Iowa, hunters aren’t allowed to take blinds or decoys onto public areas until midnight each day. At the stroke of twelve, we decided to move the party from the uplands to the water. Clear skies and the full moon provided ample light. After settling in next to the marsh, we spent the next six and a half hours listening to the night sounds of horned owls, muskrats, and dozens of serenading coyotes. Meanwhile, incredible numbers of nearby teal, wood ducks, and mallards discussed whatever it is that wild ducks talk about in the middle of the night.

At long last, the eastern horizon began to blush. When the 6:28 legal shooting time finally arrived, the morning proved to be everything a hunter could hope for. Hundreds of blue and green-winged teal, mallards, wood ducks, even a handful of pintails, began arriving from all directions. Some flocks merely buzzed the decoys, while other groups performed noisy splash downs. We concentrated on the fat blue-wings, and the shooting was fast and furious.

It sounded as if parties at other nearby potholes were faring equally well. The popcorn popper effect of firing shotguns continued for most of an hour. Before long, the three of us had collected a hefty mixed bag of 17 teal, mallards, and wood ducks. The daily bag limit is six. My brother, Sterling had one duck to go.

While occupying ourselves watching a distant flock, a single teal suddenly materialized over the decoys. Sterling quickly took the shot, and the blue-wing folded.

As Justin and I cheered the achievement, Ruby my Labrador retriever, went for the duck. She was about half way back to the blind when I caught the tell tale glint of shiny metal. As icing on the cake, the last bird of this year’s spectacular Duck Opener turned out to be a banded drake blue-wing.

As we savored the moment, a flock of around 20 or so teal appeared over the rushes. As the birds circled, their distinctive blue shoulder patches flashed in the morning sunlight. On the third pass, the entire flock piled in among the decoys. They spotted us a few moments later and quickly departed to the south. The teal provided a spectacular conclusion to an exciting morning that the three of us will cherish for years to come.
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