HARSENS ISLAND, Mich. — There's only one way on and one way off Harsens Island.
The Duck Trek crew pulled onto the Harsens Island Ferry at around 5 a.m., already an hour into our day, which started 25 miles north in St. Clair, Mich.
There were no refrigerators in the St. Clair Inn — just porches — where it was cold enough to keep anything cool. The view from the porch stretched clear across the St. Clair River, straight into the Canadian province of Ontario.
One of the first cold fronts of the season had moved in the night before, and the operators of the six trucks and two boats crammed onto the ferry were all hoping it had brought the ducks with it.
The nine cars (and no boats) that rocked back and forth on the ferry heading the opposite way toward the mainland just wished it were warmer.
It was a 3-mile drive on M-154, the only highway on the 19-square-mile island, before everyone turned right onto a dirt road. No signs — at least none visible at 5:15 a.m. — but it was as simple as following the line of trucks, boats and camo.
Nobody was filing onto Harsens Island for any other reason than to duck hunt in the St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area. The key was getting there in time to get your name in for the daily lottery.
Upwards of 50 cars, trucks and boats were wedged at random angles into the hardpan parking lot at the area office — and twice as many hunters crammed wader-to-wader inside what appeared to be farm-sized garage.
A board on the wall announced shooting time wasn't until 7:31 a.m. It also had the kill count for the year: ducks, 3,565; geese, 60; deer, 14.
There were 50 parties signed up on this morning, waiting to have their registration number randomly drawn, which would put them in line to choose from the 100 different areas managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
'No need to hurry'
Ernie Kafcas, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, wasn't in a hurry. He and three other hunters patiently and meticulously prepared a 12-foot boat at one of several launch ramps leading in the St. Clair Flats.
For duck hunters up and down the Mississippi Flyway, the slowness of the process seemed, well, a little too slow. At most public land launch ramps during duck season, this process is a race against time; They are eager to get started, for fear if they don't hurry, someone else might beat them to their favorite duck hunting area.
Kafcas had none of those worries and neither did any other duck hunter in the St. Clair Flats that morning. It was still more than an hour before shooting time and the only concern was getting to a designated area assigned by the luck of the draw.
"No need to hurry," Kafcas said, as deliberately as his actions.
The pace didn't change once his Go Devil motor fired up and began pushing the boat through the cattails and weeds.
Harsens Island and the St. Clair Flats
The St. Clair Flats, the largest freshwater delta in North America, has been a highly disputed piece of land. It was involved in the 1783 Treaty of Paris and the War of 1812, with portions of it eventually ending up in the hands of the United States.
The final dividing line between Canada and the U.S. is the St. Clair River South Channel, which roughly cuts the marsh in half. On the easternmost portion of the American side of the marsh sits Harsens Island, and situated in the middle of Harsens Island is the St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area.
The marsh anchors the eastern side of the Mississippi Flyway, giving waterfowl from Canada a place to rest on their way south.
"It's a big place in terms of resources for the birds," said Kafcas, who started managing the area in 1984. "There is a tremendous history of waterfowl coming through here."
Part of that history was made during The Great Depression, when people started shooting ducks and selling them to make a living, using the market in Detroit. (On a clear day, the Detroit skyline, only 20 miles across Lake St. Clair from the tip Harsens Island, can be seen from the marsh.)
"They'd come out here and kill as many ducks as they could in a day," said John Schafer, the DNR's manager for St. Clair Flats. "Obviously, there was duck hunting before that, but I hear old timers talk about coming out with a box of shells — it was hard to get shells during the depression — doing everything they could to try and sustain themselves."
When the Great Depression ended, and waterfowl management started to become the more accepted route, Schafer said it wasn't an easy transition. Even with marketing laws in place to stop people from making a living off hunting the marsh, land management was a struggle all the way into the 1950s.
"When that's in the heritage, it's kind of hard to break that — the personal ownership shifted to public ownership," Schafer said. "The fishing was part of that, too. As more people moved into the area, more laws were put in place to protect the resource. There was a lot of animosity toward that."
But that animosity gave way in the 1960s, when Michigan went through a severe drought and duck populations in the flats plummeted.
There had been worse droughts in different parts of Michigan, but it was the worst statewide drought of the century. Crops in the central part of the Lower Peninsula were severely damaged during 1965. The marsh almost entirely dried up, and several counties were designated as drought disaster areas.
Schafer said those who had been holding out suddenly saw the need for state-run management.
"The water was basically gone," Schafer said. "They were wondering if the water would ever come back."
By the late '60s, early '70s, a lot of the management areas around Michigan were newly formed or were just in the beginning phases of formation.
Schafer started his work in the St. Clair Flats in 1977. He said he's seen a change in hunter attitudes even since he's been there, and that the animosity from the early 1900s is all but gone. In fact, many of the management projects have been funded by local hunters.
At the bottom of the Harsens Island managed hunting unit map it says, "Hunter monies made area possible."
"Ernie [Kafcas] and I have worked really hard, and we're always conscious to have a good relationship with the hunters," Schafer said. "They're the ones who pay for us to be here and allow us to be public servants. We take that very seriously."
Back to the draw
Of the hundred areas to choose from, 30 are in corn fields and 70 are in the marsh.
The room fell quiet as Kafcas stood on a stool and spoke into the microphone.
"I need to read through the rules and regulations," Kafcas announced, as is the procedure here every morning. Almost everyone in the room had heard the same speech at least a dozen times but kept silent, because after the rules and regulations came the tipping point of the morning.
According to Ralph Vohs, who has been hunting Harsens Island for more the 40 years, it depends on the time of year and the weather, but the cornfields (in particular Zones 21-27) generally offered the best hunting.
Vohs and his two friends, Jerry Stanton and Charlie Bois, draw a number every morning, and if they don't get something in the top 10, sit it out and wait for the afternoon hunt, drawn every day at noon.
Vohs had no trouble whispering through Kafcas' explanation of the rules and regulations, but when he started announcing the numbers, all attention went to the front of the room.
"Four, 15, 17, 35, two," Kafcas shouted, reading down a list of numbers on a sheet of paper that had been drawn randomly.
Sections 23 through 26 were the first four areas selected — all cornfields nestled along the southeast side the of no-hunt wildlife refuge in the center of the management area. The first marsh was taken sixth. Vohs and friends were selected 17th and, true to their word, sat it out.
The group led by Kafcas himself was 46 out of 50, proving the system is not rigged. He chose area 74 on the northwest side of the marsh, about a five-minute drive from the office and a 30-minute, slow boat ride through the marsh.
Kafcas' rig — a 12-foot skiff, flatbottom or semi-vee with a small horsepower motor or Go Devil — is standard equipment on the St. Clair Flats. Ramps are spaced close enough to the designated hunting areas that most hunters load up and putt-putt their way to their spot, normally no more than a 15- or 20-minute putt-putt away, and that's if you are in a hurry.
Cattails and phragmite lined the boat paths in the marsh. The cattails were a welcome sight, but the phragmite was not.
"All this would typically be cattail," Kafcas said as he guided himself and three others toward Zone 74. "All the Great Lakes are having trouble with phragmite, but it has really taken a stronghold in this area. It's an invasive species and doesn't bring much, if any nutrition for the wildlife."
Kafcas eventually took a hard right beside a sign pointing to area 74, and he parked the boat into a cutout among the cattails.
"This is a place where the duck can store up fat for the trip south," Kafcas said, simplifying the issue. "They need water. They need food. And we have them both here and they're close together. The wetlands provide everything a duck could need."
The name of the area tips you off as to the landscape. It's flat and divided only by boat trails marked by white signs, always pointing in the direction of the next designated area. If you could teleport from here to the Louisiana Marsh, you could close your eyes in one place and open them in another, and be utterly convinced you'd never left one for the other.
With the exception of the dialect, it would sound similar as well: Decoys knocking against aluminum and splashing down, mallard calls ringing out from other hunters and the occasional whistle of wings above.
Like their Southern brethren who spend the day watching the skies and the night praying for a cold front. These hunters had spent the previous day hoping for most of what they had gotten from Mother Nature, a 20 mph north wind and temperatures hovering down around the freezing mark.
In the South, that would have been enough to fill every watery hole below the Mason-Dixon Line. But in the north it wasn't quite enough to move ducks from an even colder Canada just a few miles east of the Flats.
Kafcas and Chris Jennings, a communication coordinator for Ducks Unlimited, took a position in Hole 74, tossing decoys in a pond, surrounded by cattails and filled with dark mucky water. On the edge of the cattails, muskrat huts were perfect to sit on as a perch watching over the pond. If you wanted a different position, specialized marsh seats with a small top and a flanged end were perfect to sit on behind the reeds and out of the sharp wind beating a steady thump on their backs.
Clouds rushed south across the sky, occasionally wiping out the sun, but the hoped-for waves of ducks never came. Every 10 or 15 minutes, hail calls would rise up as singles and pairs and ducks began to filter out of the rest area that sits in the center of the hunting zones.
Some had destinations farther away, but a few bent on fighting the wind and staying close to home would circle and then drop into one of the areas.
Jennings soaked it up like a kid on opening day.
"The whole setting is incredible,'' he said. "It's a different perspective on hunting than what I'm used to in the flooded timber and rice fields.
"You get up here and feel that cold wind and realize that it's coming right out of Canada."
Duck hunters are known for their irrepressible optimism. It's worse when you can see the Canadian border the official starting line of the migration for the Mississippi Flyway. And closer still is the refuge just hundreds of yards away.
By mid-morning flocks of ducks were stretching their wings and bee-hiving over the top of the refuge. Most of them were mallards, but there were the occasional bluebills, teal, pintails, widgeons and even Canada geese that would make their way over the marsh.
"You see how quickly it can change,'' Jennings said. "You can have birds at 10 a.m., that weren't here at shooting times. That's what draws a lot of people out here. That and the fact that you are going into an area with the possibility of drawing a managed flooded cornfield on public land during the middle of a cold front. That's fantastic."
The morning ended after more than three hours hiding in the cattails and produced only two ducks — a widgeon and a mallard drake — for Hole 74. But those are the breaks when you pick fourth from the bottom in the draw.
The total kill count for all 46 groups that went out in morning was 105, and the afternoon hunt added another 217, bringing the yearly total to 3,887. Those are numbers that Schafer stands behind.
"For a public area where you have so many people coming through, year in and year out, we offer excellent hunting," Schafer said. "I'm sure that there are areas that have their days like we have out here, but we've had excellent hunting for the last couple of decades."