Imagine watching a huge flock of pintails flying through an azure sky, framed by the snowcapped Wasatch Mountain Range. Our first flock propelled through cold air, searching for open water. They quickly were gone and another flock of pintails entered our airspace over the Great Salt Lake marshes shared by high-flying military fighter jets from nearby Hill Air Force Base.
Moments later ducks made a much lower approach from the west for a closer view of our set. A couple of drakes dropped down, never to rise again as Chad Yamane and Rob Friedel of Fried Feather Outfitters filled their daily limit of one pintail each. Our sky soon filled with scores of ducks inbound from every direction.
Widgeon, mallards and cinnamon teal slipped through the air, some responding to our calling and whistling or perhaps just studying the brilliant-colored decoys highlighted by sunlight reflecting off ice about 40 yards away.
Scores of ducks and swans flew high over our pool to find succulent sago pond weed at the Harold Crane Wildlife Management Area, one of the few freshwater lakes in this region managed for waterfowl. Utah built this type of lake to damn up freshwater, although it gains some salinity while maintaining shallow depths for aquatic plant growth.
The adventure began earlier that morning when Yamane and Friedel launched in the salt marsh, then motored to a dike that separated saltwater from Harold Crane’s Wildlife freshwater. I watched in amazement while the men pulled a cable from their electronic wench mounted on the boat’s bow and hooked it to a half-buried heavy steel pipe on the freshwater side.
Thick plastic conduit was laid across the dike to help guide their Gator Trax Boat with a Mud-Buddy surface-drive motor. The boat’s bottom was coated with Steelflex, making it slicker and more durable. The entire unit dragging over dirt with loaded equipment and a concerned-looking Labrador retriever weighed at least 2,000 pounds, probably more. The cable smoked but held and minutes later we were skirting through freshwater depths of 18 inches and often less. Ice cubes flew through the air off the shallow running prop blades, brightly reflecting a spectrum of different colors from the brilliant sunlight.
We eventually reached our spot where Friedel and Yamane had broken ice the previous evening. A few passes with the boat busted up layers of ice that formed overnight. Decoys were quickly arranged and phragmite, a terrible European invasive plant that grows from 8- to 16-feet heights, was cut with a battery powered hedge trimmer then spread over the boat, blending us in with the surroundings.
The big flights of pintails and other species started early in the afternoon when our lake started to thaw. Hundreds of ducks meandered back and forth over our set. Some responded to our calling while most were on another agenda.
Later that afternoon a mature pintail drake landed in our decoys about 20 yards from my corner of the blind. I blinked in disbelief at the opportunity to take one of America’s most amazing ducks. I stood up and spooked the bird into flight for an easy shot. Yamane’s black Labrador retriever, Chloe made a picture perfect retrieve of the beautiful duck.
All in the party secured pintail limits the first day along with a couple of mallards, widgeons and teal. The boat was winched back across the dike when the hunt ended at dusk while hundreds of ducks were still visible in the evening sky.
The following day’s temperature started out in the lower 20s with high skies and ice on the pools. We left mid-morning to hunt the Great Salt Lake marshes, where most of the water was ankle deep and special equipment was required.
“The second day we’ll use an airboat,” Yamane said. “We are hunting over skinny water and will have to plow through rows of heavy vegetation.”
We loaded up on a Diamondback airboat build in Cocoa Beach, Florida, powered by a 540-big block Moon Motor Sports motor that runs about 700 horsepower with a four-blade prop. Airboats tend to be deafening, so we all wore protective earphones. I looked down in amazement to see Friedel’s black Labrador retriever, Roux, had on earphones, too.
“Our dog always wears hearing protection on the boat,” Friedel said. “We remove them soon as the boat stops, because Roux knows it’s time to take them off and flips her head sideways, throwing her hearing protection in the water, never to be seen again.”
Friedel and Yamane studied the marshes as we plowed through hundreds of acres filled with heavy aquatic growth, propelled by the huge motor. Patches of shallow water was still iced over while southern-exposed pools were thawing or thawed.
Pools to our north filled with thousands of ducks were kept open by their swimming and body warmth. Yamane and Friedel agreed on a spot and the airboat was hidden in high phragmite growth. Several dozen decoys and black silhouettes were set in the shallow open water across about 30 yards.
The ducks flew and our shoot started. Thousands of ducks, swans and a few geese flew toward our position. Swan season was still open but we didn’t have a legal tag. Ducks dropped low for a look at our greenhead decoys while others continued on. Several ducks were taken off pass shots, especially when huge flocks flew over and the lower birds blundered in range.
“We are not noted as a mallard state, but we saw a lot today on the brackish water side,” Yamane said. “Cinnamon teal, pintails, widgeon, gadwalls, geese and swans were plentiful too. Shovelers, goldeneye and greenwing teal are the most common to stay through Utah’s winter months.”
The hunt ended with duck limits secured, mostly mallard drakes and the promise of an airboat ride into waning sunlight that illuminated the pools with orange and yellow hues
“We have ducks because Utah is a desert state and we are split between the Pacific and Central flyways,” Yamane said. “We are right in the middle of these flyways where the Great Salt Lake is our biggest body of water. Most waterfowl visit the 200,000 acres of delta marshland that surround the Great Salt Lake for aquatic plants like salt grass. Some waterfowl feed on brine shrimp in main lake areas, including sea ducks.”
Waterfowl hunters should have this destination on their bucket list. I did!
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com.