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Waiting for winter blast

11/21/2008

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LOUISIANA, Mo. — It's never a good sign when you're slapping mosquitoes and shedding clothes before shooting time during duck season. But we were confident that would change soon.

This day of the ESPN Outdoors Duck Trek would be spent — every single legal hunting minute of it — in Pool No. 24 of the Mississippi River, on the Illinois side in Pike County, where the size of the whitetail deer is legendary.

And the area is also known for some extraordinary waterfowl hunting. Pool 24 lies almost smack in the middle of Illinois' three waterfowl hunting zones. The Central Zone's 60-day season began on Oct. 25 and ends on Dec. 23.

Last season, Illinois duck hunters totaled the sixth-best harvest numbers since state estimates began in 1981. And Illinois posted a record Canada goose harvest, estimated at 141,205 — almost half of which came in the Central Zone.

But ducks were our only option on this day, as we arrived at the Calumet Creek Boat Access near Louisiana, Mo., during a split in the goose season.

Brett Bunk, 47, was our host. And for the next 10 hours or so, he would introduce James Overstreet and me to one of the most interesting days of duck hunting either of us has experienced. Scott Bailey, a longtime hunting buddy of both Overstreet and Bunk, from St. Louis, Mo., also joined us for this hunt.

For the past 10 years, Bunk and several of his friends have participated in the public drawing that takes place every two years for the 48 waterfowl hunting blinds on this section of the Mississippi River. And they've always ended up drawing at least one blind — some located better than others.

According to Bunk's experience, we were headed for one of the better ones.

"We killed 425 ducks out of this blind two years ago," Bunk said.

When boating in darkness on big water like the Mississippi River, it's comforting during pre-dawn to step into a big boat. Bunk's 20-foot-long, 6-foot-wide stern SeaArk boat, powered by a 90-horsepower Yamaha outboard, more than fit the bill.

After a short run upriver, Bunk eased his boat into a camouflaged dock and we walked to the other side of an island. (Note: Because this is public land, at least every two years and some days in between, specific public blind numbers and locations won't be mentioned here.)

Single-file, the four of us and Rosie, Bunk's 4-year-old black Labrador retriever stepped into a penthouse of a duck blind. It was 28 feet long and 10 feet wide. It featured roof portholes for as many as 10 hunters and a gas stove that soon would be heating a breakfast of sausage, eggs and biscuits.

It wasn't until the full light of day when the newcomers realized what a unique and, at least in our previous experiences, bizarre hunting situation we were amidst. In this same Mississippi River slough were three other public blinds — one to our right and two to our left. Each blind had at least 400 decoys in front of it. The farthest to our left featured amongst its vast decoy spread seven motorized spinning-wing decoys and another motorized "flying duck" decoy.

The question was obvious: Why would a flight of ducks choose our place over their places? It wouldn't be because we had a better breakfast menu.

And even with 10 years of experience hunting these public blinds, Bunk, a Hawk's Point, Mo., resident, has so far this season found that he doesn't have the complete answer to that question.

"If I'd drawn that blind," Bunk said, of the one to our right, "I wouldn't have taken it. But this year, they've been pounding them." [NEXT PAGE]

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