Marsh hunting in Ohio – it’s all about the scouting

We arrived at Willow Point Wildlife Area 30 minutes before shooting time. Judging from all the cars in the parking lot, I could tell we were late.

We unloaded the truck and carried our decoys and gear through the maze of paths. The black muck was well past my ankles in places. It provided that pungent odor of swamp that duck hunters learn to love. Mike and his son, Hunter, veered off to a different location while Matt, and my yellow lab, Gunner, trudged ahead with me.

We were hiking to the far end of the marsh to avoid all of the flashlights. Flashlights meant hunting parties; the area looked like it was full of fireflies. Finally, we found a wetland area that was void of flashlights. I was suspicious that it would also be void of ducks. I “gracefully” set our decoys while narrowly avoiding the “Nestea plunge” several times. My feet kept getting stuck in the mud. Every time I would lift my foot I would pull it out of the boot of my chest waders.

After finding dry land, I took my coat off and hung it on a bush so as not to sweat to death. Shooting time came, but not for us. As I suspected, in spite of the abundance of ducks, they were all choosing a flight path of which we were not a part.

I had hunted the Lake Erie marsh area in the past, but 2016 was my first experience with the Lake Erie Marsh Zone season. The DNR opens the season around Sandusky Bay a week earlier than the rest of the state. The marshes around the bay freeze up before the North Zone duck season closes. Taking a week off at the end of the season and adding it early affords the marsh hunters an appropriate number of days to hunt open water.

However, there is no residence requirement for the hunting zone. Anyone can migrate to the marshland and hunt, and many do.

We arrived a day early as planned. Not everyone in our group was available to dedicate time to scouting and fishing before our hunt. We made the collective decision to “fly by the seat of our pants” and live with the results. We decided that we would fish for perch and skip the scouting trip. We did not go in totally blind as Mike used to hunt here. The perch fishing was great.

If you should decide to try this dual purpose outdoor adventure, I recommend getting there in the morning the day before and scout. You can read fishing reports to get an idea where the perch hot spots are, or you can charter a boat.

The duck hunt will require some face time. Find several locations that attract waterfowl, then map a path into them. Be flexible enough to go to another spot should the first choice be already crowded. Understand that some ducks will decoy, but many will not have a chance to work your spread.

Now that it was daylight, I could see a location where there were no hunters that would place me on the fringe of the birds’ flight line. Gunner and I made a move alone as my friend headed elsewhere. I was right. We were there only five minutes when a pair of wood ducks came cruising by at high speed. I swung my gun through the lead bird and pulled the trigger. The shot found its mark and the bird went down on the far side of the channel.

There was no way for me to wade through the water, and Gunner did not see it fall. I blew my whistle. One long blast and two short is the command to come. He eagerly ran to my side and awaited instructions. I put him on a line to the bird by placing my arm and hand beside his head.

“Fetch ‘em up! Dead bird, Gunner!”

He was off like a rocket. He stayed on the line to the other side of the bank. Once he crossed the channel, he began to veer off course to the right. I blew my whistle, commanding him to look at me for the next hand signal. Instead, he abruptly shoved his head in the thick grass and pulled out a wood duck!

“Okay. I’ll shut up now!” I said with a laugh.

Gunner made a quick return with the bird. He was covered in burrs, mud, and swamp water. He was as happy as could be.

“Out Gunner” I ordered. “Good boy!”

My 105-pound lab was puppy-like with excitement. It was a beautiful drake woody. I harvested a green-wing teal shortly thereafter. Gunner was elated. He did not like hearing all the shooting and having no birds to retrieve.

I witnessed a man and his son drop a wood duck in the cattails next to them. The action slowed down by 10 a.m. so I took Gunner over to help them find their duck. Upon retrieving their hen woody, Gunner became a hero. The gentleman was quite friendly. He offered advice on a closer place to park and additional hunting options. You can imagine my surprise to learn that there was a parking lot 200 yards away. That is significantly closer than the three-quarters of a mile we walked. That is not bad luck. That is exactly what I deserved for not scouting the area.

At 10 a.m. it was time to head back. We had agreed to meet back at the parking lot at 10:30. The shooting picked up a bit out on the shoreline of the bay. We watched while one pair of hunters called a mallard in close enough to add him to their bag limit. I was making mental notes as I walked along the paths in the daylight. I saw several places that looked promising for future adventures. As I was casually strolling along, I saw Gunner come to a complete stop. Suddenly he leaped into the water. The large yellow dog thrashed momentarily in the cattails and came straight to me with a green-wing teal in his mouth.

“Good Boy!” I certainly praised him for that retrieve. I put a duck in the game bag without firing a shot!

In hindsight, I know better than to hunt an unfamiliar place without scouting. However, that bag of perch fillets was mighty tasty!

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