Mario Andretti said it best: "if you wait, all that happens is you get older."
Back in the dark ages, when my dad was helping me unstick my 5-year-old's rubber boots from too-deep marsh mud, hunters mostly hunted local, and let their dreams of hunting travel languish. How things have changed. These days, it seems like most fowling folk have been to Canada and are going back, while others cross borders to clobber neighbor state's birds, or hop a flyway to witness their first goose tornado. Why? Because we can. Passion drives the thing. Traveling to hunt is no longer elitist. One of my favorite hunts last year was a Maine eider expedition, and the guys in camp were regular Joes with guns from DU banquets, and it was their second trip...during a recession! So I talked to Ramsey Russell, a biologist and international man of duck-hunting mystery, who brokers hunts all over the planet. We came up with a list of reasonably priced must-do hunts in the Americas.
Some of the best are close to home and should be: two of my other favorite hunts of the year took place in Arkansas, within driving distance of WILDFOWL's Illinois HQ. I'll never forget snows sucking into our vast spread like foam packing peanuts whirling into a ceiling fan. Or shooting limits of specklebellies-over water! And just over the border in Alberta, we shot a half-dozen different subspecies of geese in one morning. This list is not a ranking and is by no means comprehensive-none of the spots I just mentioned are even on it. Chesapeake Bay isn't, either. Though every waterfowler should make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the hunting on the Bay these days often falls short of epic. This list is merely a good start. Print out these pages, paste them on the fridge, circle a dream hunt or two and go tell your wife what you want for Christmas. You won't have to twist her arm to go to Mexico. Whether it's 37 species you seek or just great experiences, the only thing that happens if you wait, is you get older.
An hour or so south of New Orleans is one of the coolest trophy duck games in town. "People think of canvasbacks, they think of Lake Sinclair and Pool 9, but let me tell you, there is not a better place on God's green earth to shoot cans and pintails; it is the most amazing thing. You run south from Venice down the river an hour or two and branch off into the marsh, and from there you are in a pirot in one of the most imperiled duck habitats on the planet due to saltwater intrusion. It is guaranteed if they haven't had a hurricane (which kills duck food with saltwater from flooding) and if it's stable, you will kill a can and a pintail, then fill out on gaddies and teal. It's unbelievable," Russell says. Shoot your limit early and go chase redfish and speckled seatrout. Or in January, you can go offshore and hook tuna after hunting, and January is the best month for a plumed out drake can or pintail.
Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- Pintails and canvasbacks
-- Starting at $200-$300 a day
-- Peak: January
Shooting thirsty greenheads over peanut fields here is another bucket list experience for the mallard-minded. It's only a five-bird limit, "but if you think you've experienced hunting decoying mallards, you haven't until you chase them over water in the morning when they are coming in thirsty. These birds are not circling," Russell says. "And in the afternoon, in the fields, you haven't seen anything like sitting under a tornado of mallards that look like little black dots in the stratosphere and start falling like cinder blocks from the sky. You just don't get that in a rice field. When they get full of hulled peanuts they have got to drink." You will shoot greenheads and wigeon and some geese, too. Hold out for greenheads.
Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- $300 a day
-- Peak: December-January
Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Out in the Aleutian Chain awaits a mixed wing of waterfowl and seafood heaven. Harlequins, broadwing scaup, buffleheads, Pacific common eiders, Eurasian wigeon, Eurasian greenwings, and best of all, Pacific brant. Pacific brant are more beautiful and better eating than their Atlantic brethren. Go in September to hunt brant and geese, and salmon fish in the afternoons. October-November trips bring more fishing, and there is bonus ptarmigan hunting and birdwatching. Later in the fall you can score on halibut. Cold Bay has emperor geese, and you can't hunt them, but it's one of most beautiful waterfowl in the world. "I took a client out there who either shot or saw 27 new species of waterfowl to add to his life list," Russell says. Your guides know where the birds are based on the wind and how that relates to accessibility. Cold Bay's lagoon is split from the Bering Sea by a reef, and the weather can be 40 degrees and sunny one minute and blowing 50 mph and sleeting the next. "You may boat in to your spot, you may walk in on a bear trail...it's as much Indiana Jones as a duck hunt," Russell says.
Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- Pacific brant and elite sea ducks
-- Starting at $2,700-$3,000 for six days
-- Peak: September-January