Family stocks up as end of duck hunting season nears

Farrah Lemanski of Vero Beach aims her shotgun at a flight of ring-necked ducks flying over Lake Okeechobee.
Farrah Lemanski of Vero Beach aims her shotgun at a flight of ring-necked ducks flying over Lake Okeechobee. Miami Herald Staff

With less than two weeks left in duck hunting season, Farrah Lemanski and her family spend nearly every weekend at their camp in Moore Haven near Lake Okeechobee. Lemanski, a 38-year-old commercial banker in Vero Beach, has been duck hunting with her dad, Andrew Kay, 71, since she was a toddler. When she met her now-husband John two years ago, she introduced him to the sport and now he loves it as much or maybe more than his wife does. The Lemanskis plan to convey the family tradition to daughter Katie, 10 months, when she is older.

“We get to see my parents every weekend and John and I get a lot of time to spend together,” Lemanski said Saturday, cradling a 12-gauge shotgun amid a stand of cattails concealing her camouflage-decorated duck boat. “When Katie’s big enough, I’m really looking forward to that. We’ll certainly raise her to where she’s got the option to hunt.”

So while Katie kept her grandmother company back at camp, the Lemanskis and Kay, hunting from separate boats, set about trying to score a limit of ducks for dinner. Their freezers already were pretty full, but since they hosted frequent duck banquets for friends and neighbors, they needed to replenish their supply of entrees before the season closes Jan. 25.

“We’ve been doing pretty well this year,” Lemanski said. “If you go in the morning and you get six, you’re done for the day. If you don’t, you can go out in the afternoon.”

Most of the birds hunters encounter on Lake Okeechobee are ring-necked ducks or blue-winged teal and usually one species or a combination of the two will fill out a bag limit. But other species are more strictly limited: a hunter can only bag one black duck, one mottled duck, one fulvous whistling duck and one canvasback in his or her six-bird limit. Two can be pintails, redheads or scaup and three may be wood ducks.

Water levels in the Big O are higher than normal for this time of year which can pose a dilemma for duck hunters: will their targets fly into newly-flooded areas to feed or stay out of areas where they have traditionally shown up because hydrilla and other water plants they like are submerged?

On a scouting trip, Kay had discovered a nearly-hidden slough in the middle of the lake blanketed with lily pads and surrounded by stands of cattails. It looked promising because there was no sign any other hunting parties had used it and it was open enough to set out a couple dozen decoys.

Kay and John Lemanski deployed trot lines of ring-necked, bluebill and coot decoys and added the mechanized, wing-flapping “Lucky Duck” for added authenticity.

Then the hunting party ensconced their two boats in separate cattail stands to await the arrival of their quarry.

The skies were bare for awhile until a flight of three ring-necks swooped in from the west, so close overhead the hunters could hear their wing beats. Farrah aimed and fired, dropping one about 20 yards from her blind. A little while later, several more flew by, and John and Kay each bagged one. Then things got really quiet, except for the distant shotgun blasts of other hunters far across the lake.

“I don’t like these super-sunshiny days,” Farrah said. “I think the birds see so much more.”

Maybe, but they may already have had their fill of the big lake this late in the season, after having been shot at so often.

Jamie Feddersen, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s waterfowl and small game coordinator, says there’s often a lull in early January when few new ducks migrate to Florida from the northern U.S. and Canada. The ducks already here, Feddersen said, have been frequent targets since September.

“These birds are going to be really wary,” he said.

But between now and the end of the season, cold fronts may drive more birds south and some that have bypassed Florida may head back north.

“We might start getting return migrants – birds that fly past Florida and winter in the Caribbean,” he said. “When they start their return trip, we’ll see a bump in numbers from what we’ve seen in the past few weeks.”

Back on Lake Okeechobee, the sun was sinking lower with no new flights on the horizon. Shortly after 5:30 p.m., Kay and the Lemanskis decided to pack up and head back to camp.

As they unloaded their shotguns and dismantled their blinds, a flock of about a dozen ring-necks flew in low overhead.

Farrah shook her head and chuckled.

“This always happens,” she said.

The party collected its splashed ducks and decoys and headed back to the boat ramp in the dark. Two weekends left.

If you go

If you plan to hunt the remainder of the duck season which runs through Jan. 25, you need a hunting license, federal duck stamp and Florida waterfowl permit. For more information, visit myfwc.com and click on “hunting” then “waterfowl”.