IN WESTERN MONTANA - Whether ducks that soar along the Pacific Flyway appreciate the sun rising over mountains is unknown. Surely when they begin their autumn flights in Alaska or British Columbia and rifle southward ahead of low pressure they encounter craggy landscapes their Central and Mississippi flyway counterparts can only imagine. I was thinking about this Saturday morning as the rising sun cast a fiery halo behind the Mission Mountains in the far distance.
You could say I was hunting. But more to the point I was tagging along, a delivery boy on assignment. My son Trevor attends college in Missoula, about an hour or so distant, and he had called home recently for his dog, seeking a duck retriever. Unspoken but common knowledge in our family was that Trevor also missed his buddy at the foot of his bed at night.
So it was a few days ago that en route to a North Dakota duck hunt I diverted farther west, a black Lab in the back seat, feet up, snoozing. You really have to hand it to dogs: They know how to live. Anyway, I arrived in Missoula on Friday, just in advance of the opening of Montana's 2012 waterfowl season.
Trevor likes and enjoys people from Montana. But you wouldn't know it by the fellows he gathered with him in a blind Saturday morning. Garret Visser is from Sullivan's Island, S.C., Cody Melchior is from Oakland, Calif., and Paden Holman calls Roswell, Ga., home. They say they're in Montana for the education. But collectively they seem to own vast storehouses full of rods, reels, guns, drift boats and river rafts. Yes, occasionally, reference is made to a study assignment or class. But more often, and with more animation, they banter about adventures on the Beaverhead, Missouri or Bitterroot rivers, or the Elk River in British Columbia.
So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that Trevor and Cody -- and Ben, the black Lab -- slept at the marsh's edge Friday night, in Trevor's truck, in hopes of securing "the best spot'' when shooting began Saturday morning.
Enticing as that option sounded, I elected instead to sleep in a motel, and was ready at 5 a.m. when Paden and Garret picked me up for the hour or so drive to meet Trevor and Cody.
"We got here about midnight, but there was a guy at our spot already, so we're taking the next best spot,'' Trevor reported.
Except for the mountains that would reveal themselves with the coming sun, we could have been in Minnesota. The shallow lake we overlooked seemed no different than those in Kandiyohi or Chippewa or Stevens counties.
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If you can't find time to hunt ducks in the Pacific Flyway, you're too busy.
Unlike the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways, which are allotted 60-day seasons by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with six-bird limits, hunters in the Pacific Flyway are granted 107 days of bird chasing, with seven-bird daily limits. Two hen mallards, two redheads, two pintails and one canvasback are among species restrictions -- similar to Minnesota's. Otherwise it's Katie-bar-the-door, with seven bluebills allowed daily, for example, compared to four in the Mississippi Flyway.
Fundamentally, the season length and bag limit disparities exist because hunters in the central part of the country -- the Mississippi Flyway -- kill more ducks than hunters in the other three flyways combined.
In 2010, for example, Mississippi Flyway waterfowlers harvested some 2.2 million mallards, compared to only 900,000 in the Pacific Flyway. And bluebills? In 2011, only 22,000 were dropped in the Pacific Flyway, while Mississippi Flyway hunters killed 115,000.
Like a comptroller, Trevor assessed these numbers with great precision while making a college recommendation to his mother and me a couple of years back.
"The cost of tuition, room and board are important considerations,'' he said. "I'll also need shells.''
Trevor also credits his choice of schools for the locked hunting-gun storage it offers in dormitories. Last year, as a freshman, he recalls sometimes walking out of his dorm dressed in camouflage with a cased gun under his arm while other students were just coming in from a night of revelry.
Turns out, other students of similarly wayward sporting interests were also enrolled, including Cody, Paden and Garret.
This year, to their great pleasure, they all live off campus, and their aforementioned equipment storehouses have now been expanded to include Ben the black Labrador.
Out front. Out front.
Daylight had coalesced beneath a sky opaque with clouds and smoke. For weeks, if not months, forest fires have burned in the Bitterroots to the south and west of Missoula, fostering a haze that on some days impairs not only sight but breathing.
Yet the knot of blue-winged teal that approached the guys' decoys seemed clear enough.
In the classroom, Cody and Garret study wildlife biology, while Trevor and Paden are business majors.
Years from now they'll remember -- or won't -- all or part of their specific academic nstruction.
But they'll never forget walking from that marsh on opening day of the 2012 Montana waterfowl season, 17 ducks slung over their shoulders, the evening's dinner in hand.