Now that Florida’s regular duck season is finally here, many hunters have their sights set on shooting their daily bag limit of six ducks.
Ron Smith has a different aim. He looks forward to spending quality time with his family during the opening week of the season, which is Saturday through Nov. 25, with an emphasis on having his young grandsons shoot some ducks.
“If they shot one duck, that would be my whole day,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t even care if I didn’t get anything.”
Smith, an insurance agent from Pembroke Pines, had a hunt like that on the opening day of duck season a year ago.
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Hunting in the Everglades with his 10-year-old grandson Hunter, Hunter’s parents and his son Austin, Smith had the pleasure of having a hen bluebill (properly known as a lesser scaup) fly over his decoy spread and watching Hunter stand and drop the duck with a single shot from his .410 shotgun.
Considering that the smaller, lighter .410 fires shotshells with significantly fewer pellets than the heavier, harder-kicking 12-gauge shotguns that the majority of waterfowlers use, that made Hunter’s first duck even more memorable to his grandfather, who immediately told his two sons and daughter-in-law, “My whole season has been made today. Everything after this is gravy.”
With the duck season running a total of 60 days — the second phase is Dec. 8-Jan. 27 — plus a youth waterfowl weekend Feb. 2-3 for hunters ages 15 and younger supervised by a non-hunting adult, there is plenty of time to make memories.
For Smith, the memories of hunting with his three sons and grandsons stand out after some four decades of pursuing ducks in South Florida. He first took each of them out as spectators when they were 3 years old just so they could experience duck hunting and the beauty of a sunrise or sunset from a duck blind. As he wrote in a recent Instagram post with assorted photos of his sons and grandsons, “The most important thing to pack in your vehicle when you go hunting? Your kids!”
Smith will never forget a hunt 10 years ago out of Everglades Holiday Park with Austin, now 23, who has a knack for sleeping soundly in the bottom of his father’s aluminum duck boat while hunting.
“Austin slept from shooting light to 8 o’clock and I didn’t see a bird, not even in the distance,” Smith said. “Austin wakes up, he thumbs the last shell into his gun and the skies open up. For five minutes we shot as fast as we could and got eight ducks. Then he went back to sleep and I never saw another duck.”
Smith has been scouting regularly to get a feel for water and habitat conditions, as well as where the ducks are. He said water levels at Lake Okeechobee, a popular duck hunting spot, are three feet lower than they were at this time last year. He’s heard reports of ducks on the west side of lake, but many of the marsh areas that are typically good places to hunt are bone dry, which means hunters won’t be able to get their boats into those areas.
If hunters can find an interior spot that has water and figure out a way to get in there, that should be a hotspot. Otherwise, they’ll have to hunt the outskirts of the main lake and try to catch birds flying to and from those isolated marsh spots with water.
Everglades water levels also are lower than last year, and Smith says hunters will have to be wary of running aground in some spots. His scouting trips haven’t located that many birds, just a few flocks of ring-necked ducks and mottled ducks, which have breast meat that is delicious marinated 40 minutes in soy sauce, vegetable oil, garlic powder and ginger and then grilled medium rare. But as he has experienced numerous times over the years, the ducks can show up suddenly and the shooting can be frantic.
This opening week, Smith plans to be out with Hunter, now 11 — “He’s all hyped up and ready to go,” — his brother Urijah, 9, and their father, Micah. Smith says that if Hunter shoots a duck, he’ll hand the .410 to Urijah, who is seeking his first duck.
In honor of Hunter’s achievement last season, Smith, who makes his own wooden duck decoys, carved a beautiful hen bluebill for his grandson. The bluebill will be in the decoy spread opening week, and nothing would make Smith happier than to carve a decoy for Urijah to put out there alongside it this season.