GREAT BEND, Kansas -- To say we had some doubts about our hunting partners this morning would be accurate. Would two "college kids" be serious about duck hunting?
And where were they anyway?
We'd agreed to meet near the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area headquarters at 5:30 a.m. It was 5:40. Late on a first duck hunting date -- not a good sign.
Those negative thoughts vanished soon enough. For anyone worried about the next generation of duck hunters, stop. Levi Gerhardt, 19, and Matt Bishop, 21, both from McPherson, Kan., are two duck-calling, marsh-stomping examples of why the future of the sport is in good hands.
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That's what photographer James Overstreet and I were hoping for -- a couple of good hands and no surprises-- when we met Gerhardt and Bishop in the darkness at Cheyenne Bottoms. Bishop's pickup truck carried a 10-foot flatbottom boat and two bags of decoys, but no motor.
When you're in your 50s and the marsh is pulling your wader boots off your feet, it helps to have something to lean on, so you don't just tip over like a bowling pin. And if you have a knee with a torn ligament in it, like Overstreet, it helps if you can sit in the boat on a youth-powered ride.
"Don't worry," Gerhardt said. "You've got a couple of young stallions to push the boat."
I looked up to see a smile on Gerhardt's face. Yeah, I remember those "young stallion" days, when I could stay up past midnight, sleep a few hours, then hunt all day. Barely, but I remember.
They pushed and I leaned on the flat-bottom in knee-deep water and head-high bulrushes. We sloshed maybe 100 yards to a mud flat in the marsh where a concrete bunker duck blind sat. There are dozens of these scattered over Cheyenne Bottoms, sticking up like tiny tornado shelters.
We wouldn't have hunted out of this one even if there hadn't been four dead coots laying in the bottom of it. The blinds were built in the 1950s, and they're a half-century out of style and function.
They do serve as a nice cover break, though. They've been here so long, the ducks must be accustomed to them.
The usual quiet calm of sunrise didn't make an appearance.
"Welcome to Kansas," said Gerhardt, as the wind gained strength just after we'd set out the decoys -- one-third to our left and two-thirds to our right, with an open space directly in front of us. A battery-powered spinning-wing decoy, with an intermittent-timer, anchored the spread. We didn't need a jerk-string to put movement in this bobbing bunch of dekes.
Any doubts Overstreet and I had about our companions were erased before sunrise. These guys obviously had "duck fever." More proof came when ducks began landing in the decoys before shooting time. Yeah, maybe they had done some scouting.
Overstreet and I had spent the previous afternoon doing some scouting of our own, driving all over the dike system that honeycombs Cheyenne Bottoms. This 41,000-acre natural land sink in the Great Plains is breathtaking.
Today, the 12,000 acres of actual marsh have been "stabilized" by the Kansas Wildlife Department with a series of low-lying dikes and channels to create five major "pools," one of which is a 3,300-acre refuge.
The emerald green marsh grasses and reeds contrasted wonderfully with a deep blue sky. The wind-rippled waters served as a backdrop for what appeared to be the world's biggest bird show.
For a serious birdwatcher, this would be the place to make progress on a lifetime list. From white-rumped sandpipers to American avocets to Hudsonian godwits, you name it, especially if it's a shorebird, and it's probably been here. At least 320 of the 417 bird species known to exist in Kansas have been seen in the Bottoms.
"Whooping cranes" blared the headline in a local paper. Yes, there were at least two of North America's most endangered bird species in Cheyenne Bottoms as well. The world population of white, five-foot-tall whoopers is estimated at only 350, but that's up exponentially since their numbers dropped into the teens in the 1940s.
Their arrival at the nearby Quivira National Wildlife Refuge this week resulted in a mandatory shutdown of all duck hunting there. In Cheyenne Bottoms, a state-managed area, only Pool 5, where the whooping cranes were seen, was closed to hunting.
When Levi Gerhardt graduated from McPherson High School last spring, he was known as an athlete -- a 6-foot-2 wide receiver on the football team, forward on the basketball team and baseball catcher.
Hunting, however, tops his list of favorite sports, whether it's for deer or pheasants or ducks.
Matt Bishop graduated from McPherson two years earlier. He knew Gerhardt, but the 5-foot-9 self-described "band geek" and the two-years-younger athlete weren't close friends. That has changed since they decided to band together as duck hunters, rather than compete against each other.
"I work with Matt's mother at the bank," Gerhardt said. "She was always telling me about Matt's duck hunting."
Bishop has been playing a trumpet since fifth grade. That training came in handy when he picked up a duck call.
"It's just natural," said Bishop, who is now part of the Ducklander Calls pro staff.
Gerhardt is taking 17 hours of classes at McPherson's branch of Hutchinson County Community College, and he works part-time as a bank teller. Bishop is taking 12 hours at the same school and holding down a part-time job at the local Dairy Queen.
Both were skipping class this morning. But they don't skip class often and still manage to duck hunt four or five times a week.
Gerhardt and Bishop didn't waste any time once shooting hours opened, knocking down single gadwalls that worked over the decoys -- one, then another, and a third.
And for the next five hours there was barely a time when some type of waterfowl wasn't visible in the sky -- shovelers and teal, mallards and pintails, redheads and buffleheads.
It was coot city, too; there were always coots visible in the corners of your eyes, creating temporary distractions.
We had company in the marsh. Some horrible-calling hunters to our north fired a few volleys. And there were other muffled shots in the distance. But you could barely hear anything over the wind, which remained on the rise.
"Welcome to Kansas," Bishop said, repeating the refrain of the day.
I'm not sure what we would have done without Libby, Bishop's six-year-old chocolate lab. Not only did she make some good, long duck retrieves, but Bishop also sent Libby to fetch his cap after it blew off his head and sailed into the decoys. And several times she successfully brought back decoys that had blown free of their anchors.
No problem. Deed done. However, Libby appeared anything but happy to be there. She never set her butt down in the coal-black mud that lines the marsh. Between retrieves she just stood there on all fours, looking at Bishop as if thinking, "I'm going to get even with you for this."
"She hates you, man," Overstreet said to Bishop.
"I've never seen her act this way," Gerhardt laughed.
The one and only time Libby came back empty from a retrieve was after a bufflehead fell wounded.
She made multiple attempts at the constantly diving duck and almost had her mouth around it when the duck found its second wind, sprung in the air and flew off. That gave Libby one more reason to glare at her master. (Bishop informed us later that Libby's mother had died recently; maybe she was simply in mourning.)
As the sun rose higher and the wind blew stronger, the shooting got less accurate.
"I may run out of shells," Gerhardt said. "I'm just a student."
I had to chuckle at that line. It was another reminder of decades ago, when a full box of shells seemed like a case. It took a lot longer to shoot 25 times when you were jump-shooting ponds with a single-shot.
Gerhardt's statement prompted Bishop to tell how he killed five teal with one shot in the Bottoms earlier this year. We've all thought we were going to knock down five teal when we shot into a wad of them. (You're lucky if one falls; you keep reminding yourself to pick out a single bird.)
Bishop said he pointed at one, and four more fell. He filled a Central Flyway six-duck limit with two shots.
I believe that story. I saw Bishop get his heart broken by a bunch of canvasbacks an hour later. He could have claimed the one that dropped, but he didn't.
"Tell me those weren't cans," Bishop yelled after we got buzzed by 20 of them. "No way. No way."
Libby retrieved the lone downed bird. Way. A full-bodied, red-eyed canvasback drake.
"My dad is not going to believe this," said Bishop as he reached for his cell phone, calling his father to tell him a hunting story, which ended abruptly with, "Got to go!"
We were getting buzzed again. This time by redheads. One hen fell dead.
In the melting pot of waterfowl that is Cheyenne Bottoms, you never know what's going to fly by. Twenty-seven duck species have been seen here, including a fulvous whistling duck and a white-winged scoter.
Admittedly, those are rare sightings. But with Kansas positioned smack in the middle of the Central Flyway, it gets some wanderers from the Pacific and Mississippi flyways, too, riding that ever-present wind. Those are the outliers.
Overall, mallards are king in Kansas. The state duck harvest in recent seasons has been about 50 percent mallards, 14 percent gadwalls and 12 percent green-winged teal. It will be mid-December before the mallard numbers peak. The Bottoms seemed to be about 50 percent spoonies on this early-season hunt.
When we decided to pick up the decoys, we had an eight-duck bag between three hunters: four gadwalls, one green-winged teal, one redhead, one shoveler and, yes, one canvasback.
"I still can't believe I missed my shot at a canvasback," Bishop said.
What I couldn't believe was how quickly "the young stallions" got the boat and the decoys back to the truck. I was barely halfway there, huffing-and-puffing, pulling one foot then the other from the marsh. I looked up while stopping to catch my breath, and the youngsters were sliding the boat on solid ground.
Yes, these guys can hunt.