Dawn comes to a new duck season


October 23, 1991|By PETER BAKER

LOWER MARLBORO — An article yesterday on the opening day of duck season incorrectly quoted Philip Wagenbrenner as saying that black ducks would be hunted. In fact, Mr. Wagenbrenner said that wood ducks would be hunted. It is illegal to hunt black ducks in the first session of duck season.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

LOWER MARLBORO -- All but the head of Hydra was fading into the pale of morning as Philip Wagenbrenner loaded a half-dozen decoys and slid the canoe down a muddy run toward the headwaters of a narrow creek in tidal marsh off the Patuxent River.

As Wagenbrenner slipped away upstream to set his pairs off a short point, farm dogs barked in the distance to the northwest, a barred owl called from the tree line east across the creek, and Larry Lease said already he could hear the muted whistle of the wind beneath duck wings.


"Opening day, you can't beat it," Lease said quietly as he loaded his .12 gauge. "But as far as ducks go, yesterday would have been better."

Thursday had been cold and rainy. Friday promised to be clear and warm, a bluebird day with a high sky. But in the pale the marsh sucked at our waders, the dew ran in rivulets down the three square and a thin fog rose from the creek.

Wagenbrenner, a general contractor by profession and a hunter safety instructor by avocation, has hunted this same marsh for a decade. Upstream a couple of hundred yards, he said, beaver had dammed the flow. Downstream, the creek began to widen.

Wagenbrenner's short point in the marsh would allow fields of fire over 60 yards of stream. The rest of the area within range was over marsh cut by muskrat slides, fox paths and deer trails.

"Today probably we will see only black ducks," Wagenbrenner said as he pulled the canoe onto a spit of hard ground among the hummocks and started us into the marsh. "Remember, we can each take only one hen. So mark your birds and identify them before you shoot. Shooting time is 7 a.m."

Lease found solid footing 20 yards south of the short point; Wagenbrenner set up just north of it within the narrow leaved cattails at the edge of the creek.

The decoys were set head to the north and breasted ripple wakes in current quickened by the dropping tide. A mud turtle slid from the east bank. The hardwoods on the ridge line beyond the marsh took on color -- and shotguns elsewhere along the creeks and river rumbled in the dawn.

"Coming down the creek. Three of them," Wagenbrenner said, crouching and calling as he watched them near and then raising to shoot. "One duck down. Hen."

"Four here. Coming around the far point," Lease said and shot. "Missed."

During a period of perhaps 10 minutes, black ducks wheeled along the edges of the marsh, came to land and flared off only to circle and return toward the decoys and Wagenbrenner's call.

Within that time, Lease harvested a hen. Wagenbrenner, though, had made his limit, and for the better part of 90 minutes used his skills to coach a shooter and call the ducks.

"Got to keep your head on a swivel," Wagenbrenner said. "Don't bother to look much toward the trees across the creek. Won't be able to see them there, anyway. Look toward the light."

The tops of the trees on the ridge to the east were fully lighted, but from our vantage point the body of the wood and the marsh in between were in shadow.

Downstream, where the creek and the marsh began to widen, the day was already clear. The marsh behind us and the tree line that separated it from a farmer's fields were bright with autumn -- and dozens of black ducks settled into open pockets of water in the marsh.

But as the ducks settled, others began to fly.

A red-shouldered hawk hunted over the marsh, gliding on the edge of the shadow.

A swarm of red-winged blackbirds rose from the reeds and rushes and the hawk canted its wings to follow -- an almost casual hunt -- lifting slightly, turning, swooping in and then away.

In the windless marsh, great blue herons stalked the shoreline for fish, frogs and shrimp.

Canada geese settled in the wide water of the creek or flew on to the sanctity of Jug Bay. A lone mallard drake made its landing well out of range.

The morning flight was over.

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