OKEECHOBEE -- Covered in camouflage clothing and streaked with dark face paint, Gabe Arrington blew into his duck call, producing a baritone growl.
A flock of ring-necked ducks, along with a couple of teal and whistlers, had just passed high over the cattail blind on the west side of Lake Okeechobee concealing the skiff where Arrington sat with Brad Gibson and Gibson’s son Blaine, 11.
“It’s just getting them to look over,” Arrington explained of the unusual call, adding to his fellow hunters, “Let 'em come back.”
The Gibsons sat quietly, eyeing the sky for a moment until the birds returned to hover over the lily pad slough in front of the blind. Then all three aimed their shotguns and felled two “ringers.”
“The lake is known for ringers,” Arrington said. “A lot of people don’t consider a ringer a good duck, but it’s such a fast-flying bird. The one thing I’ve noticed about these birds is there’s no consistency to them. They don’t fly the same path. The reason these birds are coming in is to roost.”
Instead of hunting at dawn, Arrington and his party had spent the morning bass fishing and didn’t reach their blind until about 3 p.m., where the plan was to plug birds heading for their nighttime retreats. Arrington said the time of day didn’t really matter, that he’s been guiding clients to six-bird limits since the first phase of hunting season opened Nov. 23. The second and final phase runs through Jan. 26.
“It’s been a good year all around,” the guide said. “You definitely can’t complain about it. Just huge numbers, but not tons of different kinds. Right before a cold front, you’ll get a whole new flight of birds. But some come to live in the lake during the wintertime.”
Arrington, 33, had selected the blind over numerous similar spots because the sun was behind it and because it was parallel to the ducks’ projected flight patterns into the wind. Once their hiding place was chosen, the guide and his party scattered numerous decoys in the slough — coots, ringers, mottled ducks, a widgeon and a red-head.
“They can see the decoys from a long way, but they can’t see us,” Brad Gibson said.
Arrington crashed his way into the blind using his camo-painted skiff’s ‘go-devil’ outboard with an extra long propeller shaft.
The ringers flew by in big flocks, small groups and singles at irregular intervals and from various directions throughout the two-hour hunt. Brad splashed most of them, but Blaine managed a duck and a coot — also legal to take during waterfowl season.
“I don’t care if I kill, I’m just having fun,” Blaine said. “It’s just fun and you get to feed yourself.”
By sundown, the party had taken down 11 ringers and two coots — well shy of the bag limit, but plenty for dinner. They agreed that the best way to serve wild duck involves soaking the breast in orange juice, wrapping it with bacon and grilling.
The hunters’ Okeechobee experience pretty well mirrors duck hunting season throughout the state, according to Ron Bielefeld, a research biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
“It’s a pretty typical migration coming through Florida this year,” Bielefeld said.
He said numbers of Florida mottled ducks — a large species that looks sort of like a C-130 compared to other ducks — seem to be fine this season, amid concerns they are mixing with domestic mallards. Black-bellied whistling ducks — native to Central and South America — have shown up all over Florida over the past 15 years, Bielefeld said. Biologists don’t know a lot about them and want to find out if they are competing with wood ducks for food and shelter. Meanwhile, the black-bellies’ cousins, the fulvous whistling ducks, are not expanding as rapidly. Hunters may take six black-bellies per day but only one fulvous.
As for locating the mother lode of ducks, Bielefeld says that depends on the effort hunters put into it.
As Arrington points out, “the birds learn we sit in the reeds. These birds will find an area that hunters aren’t in, and they’ll land there and keep coming back to the same spot until somebody finds them.”
The challenge for duck hunters the remainder of the season will be to try to stay one step ahead of their fast, sharp-eyed quarry.