December 09, 2011
GREELEY, Colo. -- Snow beat a steady rhythm on the back of Rodney Rexwinkle's neck, quickly congregating in piles on anything flat enough to hold it.
Big flakes drove down hard and wet, the kind you get from a Rocky Mountain blizzard.
It was what you would expect in Colorado in November. Rexwinkle and Josh Montague were surrounded by cattails in a marsh just outside of Greeley, and not too far from the Rocky Mountains.
But there were also some things you might not expect.
In front of them was a small pond surrounded by cattails. All around the pond, mallards were transferring around in singles, pairs and flocks, all looking for a place to get out of the snowstorm. The scene was just how waterfowlers across the country would paint it.
That's what the Colorado Duck Trek stop presented us on two totally different days: Some of the expected, and so much of the unexpected.
Duck hunters are fond of stereotypes. Every duck hunter doesn't necessarily share the same ones but some are fairly prevalent.
In some parts of the country, for instance, there is a fond saying: "If it ain't got a green head, it ain't a duck," thoroughly throwing the rest of the migration into a "trash" duck pile.
Try to get a seasoned duck hunter to admit a love for the Great Northern Shoveler and you will likely be laughed out of the blind. Shovelers, as they are called, also share the name “smiling mallard,” “Jake Spoon,” and a few others that are really unprintable for a general audience.
That just gives you a feel for the topic at hand and, to some degree, the Duck Trek's stop in Colorado and stereotypes that come with it.
Take, for instance, the reaction from several duck hunting friends when they realized Colorado was a stop on this year's migration tour. They all boiled down to the same reaction: "Are there any ducks that actually go there?"
Stereotypically speaking, Colorado is known for elk, mule deer and antelope. This is a big-game state. Rocky Mountains and ducks seem to mix like oil and water. So much for what a lot of us think we know.
Rexwinkle, Abe Aryan and Tony Doty were scampering about throwing decoys one way, moving a duck blind into position another way and in general creating a typical morning duck hunt in a dry reservoir bed just outside of Denver.
This was Day One on the Colorado stop of the Duck Trek.
The newcomer to the bunch was pitching in and asking questions. The usual stuff about the potential for that day's hunt, followed by the "where are you from?" questions.
That's when it started. Rexwinkle is from Kansas, Tony is from Louisiana and the big surprise, Aryan is from Kabul, Afghanistan.
"I'm just eaten up with hunting,'' he said."I don't know why, ever since I was kid that's all I could think about. I share that with these guys and I give back as much as I get. I'm the only Middle Eastern redneck you will probably ever run across."
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At 23, he's still a kid, but his passion is evident. He showed up at the reservoir that morning with a Chevy Z71 with the words "Bulls, Bucks, Honkers and Ducks" etched in huge letters across the back window. Above that was some Arabic writing that according to Aryan says "God has blessed me."
Aryan was truly the unexpected, but only in religion and country of origin. Everything else about him is all-American hunter. Get him started talking about his passion and he doesn't want to stop.
"My grandfather hunted in Afghanistan for bear, Russian elk, stuff like that,'' Aryan said. “But only the rich hunt over there. Nobody else from the family did it and then when they came to America they never did it here either.
"But for me it was just something I always wanted to do. You know, the way I look at it is everybody says they spend their whole life trying to find the thing that makes them happy and the thing that they feel like they belong doing. To me that's hunting, and I found it at a young age and that's why I pursue this so much.
"I'm definitely not your typical Middle Eastern guy. I don't know anybody else who is like me that hunts as much as I do or is that much into it, but my family is supportive of it."
Though he's atypical, his friends are supportive.
"He's like us, he's as passionate about hunting as anyone I know and he's fun to be around,'' Rexwinkle said.
That fun includes a lot of good-natured ribbing.
"I've heard it all,'' Aryan said."I've heard my buddies tell me they're going to get me a camo turban or say something real funny like I should be shooting these ducks with an AK47 or blowing them up with a bomb instead of shooting them with a shotgun, you know that kind of stuff. It's all fun and games. It's no big deal. I don't really care.
"I consider myself an American, my cousins think I'm an Afghani-redneck or whatever, and I think it's hilarious. I'm not any different than these guys. But people have a narrow-minded view of what I should be shaped by the things they see on CNN and Fox and MSNBC. They really don't know ... "
By the time the sun had started painting a sunrise across the horizon, a few ducks were in the air. A flock of mallards circled a few times before one of the silhouetted bodies dropped out and provided an easy shot. It turned out to be a hen, something that even in Colorado wasn't the desired outcome. But the morning seemed to be off to a start.
The reservoir where we were sitting was being filled by pumps from the nearby Platte River. You could visibly mark the progress of the water as it eked its way to the blind and then around in a half-inch sheet, the depth a testament to the flatness of the ground. A hundred yards in front and well outside the spread of decoys, the water was just ankle deep.
Every once in a while, a pod of mallards would circle then pitch in to the deep stuff, their heads immediately down drinking and dabbling.
"These ducks roost here,'' Aryan said."Then they head out to the cornfields to feed, coming back here by mid-morning to spend the day. A lot of times it is mid-morning before things heat up."
Hunters in these parts often change their location daily. Doty and Aryan utilize a 4X8 sheet of plywood with fencing around its edges as a blind. They drag the sled to the location they plan to hunt that day, pull out a stack of cut brush and surround the makeshift portable blind and wait it out.
Surprisingly, there were a lot of ducks in the reservoir, but with the water rising rapidly, location is key, and this time their set-up was well away from where the ducks wanted to be.
In a scene that duck hunters are familiar with all over the country, pods of ducks circled the reservoir then rafted up 800 yards away.
By 10 a.m., the crew pulled the plug on the day, with only the one mallard to show for their effort. Kind of what some might expect a day to be like in Colorado, sans the big rafts of mallards nearby.
"What most people fail to realize is half the state is agricultural and flatlands," Rexwinkle said. "We're famous for having the huge Rocky Mountain range going through the state; skiing and big-game hunting are our claim to fame.
"The tourism industry is actually our No. 1 industry, and from that I mean skiing is at the top but hunting -- they don't break it out big versus small game -- is the No. 2 industry in the state."
Colorado is situated perfectly to take advantage of two flyways. East of the Rockies is the Central Flyway, and west, over the Continental Divide, is the Pacific Flyway.
"I've literally shot geese here on the eastern slope in the mornings and been duck hunting on the western slope that afternoon,'' Rexwinkle said."It's kind of cool to be duck hunting somewhere and look over your shoulder and there are those big mountains off in the distance.
"It's different but really, really good, too.'
But like every place along every flyway, there are slow days, followed by hopefully better days. In this case, Doty and Aryan were lamenting the fact that the snow was late getting to Colorado this season and they needed it to move ducks around and get the season rolling.
For them it was a day late. But for our Day Two hunt, snow was the order of the day.
The snow was easily an inch high on Rexwinkle's broad shoulders as he sunk down into a mass of cattails bent over from the weight of what seemed like a relentless downpour of white slush.
"Totally different than yesterday, huh,'' he said, scrunching his neck down to keep the wetness from rolling down his back.
In front of us Josh Montague was fighting the muck of the marsh on his way to pick up a pair of greenheads that had just splashed down after a three-shot volley.
"This is more like it,'' he said.
Weather is the key to everything along the migration, and like duck hunters everywhere, Rexwinkle and Montague were eating up the blizzard-like conditions. And like duck hunters everywhere they were anticipating what it would bring.
"Most of these ducks are trying to get in here out of the snow,'' Montague said. “But once it stops, it could get really good."
Montague is a guide with Stillwater Outfitters, one of the many guide operations in the state of Colorado but one of the few that offers duck hunts.
"We have a great local clientele but we get a lot of guys out of Utah, Texas, Tennessee who come here for the goose and duck hunting,'' Montague said. "Some of them are surprised at how good it can be. It's getting more and more hype, especially for the goose hunting. We have some of the best goose hunting around."
Stillwater Outfitters is easy to find with a simple Google search. They mainly concentrate their efforts in the flatlands from Denver to Fort Collins, offering a variety of habitats from cornfields to lakes, ponds and cattail-choked marshes.
"One of the things people really like is the different styles and versatility," Montague said. "One day we might hunt a pothole, the next on a river you can step across or big water, even marshes and flooded timber."
Flooded timber? That's what the man said.
"It's not the same flooded timber that Arkansas has, but it's as close as we can get in Colorado. Hunters are often surprised by the amount of ducks they see, especially in our cornfields," he said.
The marsh we hunted that day was no more than 10 acres total. Montague calls it a "loafing" area where mallards like to spend the day, after a morning or night feeding in the nearby cornfields. Flocks of mallards find safety behind the maze of cattails and with little pressure gang up there at times.
Occasionally, Montague brings a group of clients because it's easy to get to and the hunting is good. He insists on not shooting into big groups, opting instead to pick off smaller groups and pairs or singles to keep from burning out the area.
His management technique worked for us. During the course of the morning, 13 mallards (mostly greenheads) and a pair of woods worked their way into the small hole of water, while others worked all around. It turned into a classic hunt, with first a single greenhead, then a pair. On a few occasions a hen would pitch in and we would pass.
After two hours with no sign of the snow letting up, a pair of mallards cupped, turned and dropped into the hole. Montague shot once, dropping them both, making it the perfect end to an interesting and surprising Duck Trek stop in Colorado.