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Hunting behind tomato cages

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MCPHERSON, Kan. -- It was difficult to tell in the pre-dawn darkness, but it looked as if Levi Gerhardt had pulled a handful of tomato cages from the bed of his pickup truck.

Why would you carry a stack of those funnel-shaped wire cages a quarter-mile to a duck hunting hole?

Matt Bishop had already staked our claim to a small pond -- you could throw a rock from one end to the other -- in the McPherson Valley Wetlands when we arrived with the, yep, tomato cages.

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Kansas

The last day of our Kansas venture on the Duck Trek had already begun in unusual fashion: It had taken less than 10 minutes to drive from downtown McPherson (population 13,770) to our hunting spot. You've driven to convenience stores further from the house than this place, a 4,000-acre restored wetland that market hunters favored a century ago.

Market hunters in Kansas? That seemed unlikely, too. But then Kansas has been full of surprises.

In 1971 a group of environmental leaders from 18 countries met in Ramsar, Iran, to hammer out a treaty that designated Wetlands of International Importance. Only 27 in the U.S. made the list.

If you're a duck hunter, you might know that Arkansas' White River and Cache River bottomland hardwoods made the list. It's an area as well-known for duck hunting as any in the country.

Surprisingly, Kansas is one of the few states that has two of those Wetlands of International Importance -- Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, where we'd spent the previous day. The two are only 77 miles apart, joined by the "Wetlands & Wildlife National Scenic Byway," which showcases these 60,000 acres of wetlands.

Consider me a convert from those who still think of Kansas as something akin to "The Great American Desert," as described by early 19th century American explorers. That's part of what this Duck Trek is about -- opening your eyes to how and where folks duck hunt.

As soon as Gerhardt arrived with the tomato cages, he and Bishop went to work. They stuck them in the ground, one next to the other, along the pond bank, then started stuffing them with handfuls of the long-stemmed vegetation that stood dormant in the field behind us. In less than 15 minutes, we had a duck hunting blind big enough to hide four people.

"I killed my first duck here when I was 10 years old," said Bishop, who turned 21 in August.

So, yes, he's gone through this routine before.

"I'm always trying to think up something new," he said. "These tomato cages work pretty good."

No argument here. Photographer James Overstreet and I had met Bishop and Gerhardt, 19, the previous morning at Cheyenne Bottoms. They'd proven then that they were serious about duck hunting. It's about an hour's drive from McPherson to Cheyenne Bottoms, located near Great Bend. To many of us, an hour's drive to a hunting spot is a dream-come-true.

But McPherson Valley Wetlands takes that dream to another level.

As we sat on the pond bank, waiting on shooting time to arrive, the sparse McPherson skyline seemed big. Then you realize, heck, we're barely out of town.

"How long does it take you to get here from your house?" I asked.

"It depends on how fast we need to get here," Gerhardt said. "Five minutes."

If you want to know why the number of duck hunters has slowly dwindled over time, there's at least part of your answer. How many hunters -- of any age -- have a place to hunt ducks five minutes from the house?

"We'll hunt just about every weekday morning," Gerhardt said. "We go at least four or five days a week."

In the late 1800s, the marsh in this area was considered equal in importance to Cheyenne Bottoms. Before they were destroyed by ditching, there were 9,000 acres of surface water separated into 52 wetlands. The largest one -- Big Basin -- covered over 2,000 acres.

Market hunters drove horse and wagon across the north shore of Big Basin where they shot a load of ducks, then drove south to the Conway Train Station, where the ducks were shipped to markets in St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago. A dozen canvasbacks were worth eight dollars.

"Conway is still there," said Brent Theede (pronounced "THEE-dee"). "That depot was on the corner of 56th and Eighth Avenue."

Theede has been the Kansas Wildlife & Parks public lands manager here the last seven years. He has been part of a wetland restoration project that was aided by partnerships with Ducks Unlimited, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and around $8 million of North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants.

The project began in 1987, with the purchase of marginal farm ground. Now there's a significant resemblance to the good old days -- 1,750 acres of wetlands spread over 4,455 acres, where 53 pools are interspersed ranging in size from tiny to 110 acres.

"We are just now getting back to management," said Theede, noting the end of the development stage. "Last year we held 8,000 to 15,000 ducks until it froze solid. That's something different for around here.

"Before, we held ducks until opening weekend, then it was just flight ducks after that."

A waterfowl refuge area helps hold ducks during the season -- 450 acres is closed to hunting, 300 of which is wetland.

McPherson Valley Wetlands also offers good pheasant hunting. We saw ample evidence of that while waiting on ducks to fly. Milo and corn are planted annually on the dry acreage at McPherson. All types of wildlife -- there are some big whitetail deer here, too -- have plenty to eat.

Gerhardt worked at McPherson County Wetlands last summer, helping manage the water. It's more than a one-man job.

"We're not blessed with any natural water source," Theede said. "We can't pump it. We'll vary our water releases in different pools each year. We try to rotate which pools hold water. There's no main source.

"We do have two stations and four re-lift pumps. We can move a lot of runoff (rain) water in a hurry."

Ten minutes before shooting time, a teal and a gadwall were swimming in the decoys.

"A couple of years ago, we had 200 ducks in the decoys here before shooting time," Bishop said.

We wouldn't be stacking up ducks by the wagon-load on this day. A mallard drake fluttered in first and was dispatched. Then a single teal came into the decoys to die. At 9 a.m., Gerhardt banged a pintail to the ground.

"This will be over quick," Bishop said. "They either come in here first thing, or they don't. It's not one of those all-day-long deals."

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That was just as well. The Duck Trek needed to get moving down the road, and 10 a.m. seemed like a good time to quit. Bishop couldn't make himself leave. There was nowhere else he needed to be on this day.

We said our goodbyes and walked out with Gerhardt.

A few days later, I received an email from Gerhardt: "You guys left two days early." He and two others needed only 30 minutes to bag three limits of teal in the McPherson Valley Wetlands.

Unfortunately, that's been pretty much the rule rather than the exception on this Duck Trek. But that's OK. This trip was worth it if for no other reason than to discover the Wetlands of International Importance and the great bird migration route that is central Kansas.