“The first order of business is to set the decoys,” Noel Allan explains. "“I get obsessive about my decoys."
The drive to Noel Allan’s duckhunting spot near Niland in the Imperial Valley takes about three hours from San Diego. The last section, between Highway 111 and the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, is a rutted dirt road, and my Toyota Corolla bottoms out every 50 yards or so. Ahead of me, Allan’s Ford Explorer clips right along, raising a cloud of dust that further hampers my driving efforts. At last we park where the road meets the beach on a dike between two freshwater ponds surrounded by a ten-foot wall of salt cedar bushes.
A beat-up hatchback is parked there. Standing next to it is a tall, bronzed man, about 70, in hip boots and an unbuttoned tan shirt.
“This is Jerry Fink,” Allan says, introducing him. “He comes down from Palm Springs to hunt here.”
Noel Allan of Pacific Beach has been hunting this spot for 20 years. During the fall water-fowl season, he and his black Labrador, Moko II, spend five days of every week here, hunting ducks and geese by day and camping out at night. A wiry man in his early 60s, Allan’s thinning hair hides beneath a camouflage fishing hat. He’s telling Fink about last Saturday’s duck-season opener, which Fink missed due to illness.
When she hears Allan yell, “Bring the bird!” Moko, a black labrador, trots back and presents it to him.
“It was spectacular. All kinds of ducks were flying. I took the limit, and all the hunters in this area took limits. I got a nice mallard drake.”
All kinds of ducks are flying today too. Flights of two, four, sometimes ten ducks whiz by overhead. “Look at that,” Fink says as they fly over. Allan responds by naming the species — redheads, pintails, or teals.
Fink shows us the gun he’s using today. It’s an antique, 20-gauge, single-shot, which means he’ll get only one shot at a duck before he has to reload. “You are a sportsman, aren’t you, Jerry?” Allan jokes. Fink chuckles as he walks down a tunnel through the cedars and out onto the beach, where he turns right. “Jerry is a jump-shooter,” Allan explains. “He doesn’t hunt with a dog or sit in a blind waiting for ducks to come to him. He’ll walk along the dike for three miles up toward the north, and when he scares up a duck, he shoots it.”
At the end of the dike is a fire pit littered with bits of blackened firewood. “This is just the way I left it last weekend,” Allan says as he pulls some tumbleweeds and cedar branches away from the curtain of cedars, “I’ve hid some wood and campground stuff in here.” The camouflage cleared, he dips in and out of the bush cave, coming out with old carpets that he spreads on the ground, a wire patio chair without a back, some firewood he’s saved, and Styrofoam blocks and flat boards he uses as tables. Then he opens the back of his Explorer and takes out a large dog kennel, setting it on the ground behind the truck. “This is where Moko sleeps,” he tells me. “I sleep in the truck. With the back seat down, the bed measures 6'3~. I’m 5'8," so that’s plenty of room for me. If you’re sleeping in a tent, you’d better set it up.”
While I’m setting up my tent, the sound of a single gunshot, a combination of THUMP and WHACK, reports from the marsh on the north side of the dike. “That’s Jerry,” Allan yells. Moko, who had been meandering around the campsite, sprints through the tunnel and around the corner in the direction of the marsh. Allan and I follow. As we round a point 100 yards up the beach, we see Moko, dripping wet, trotting toward us, and Jerry, holding a duck by the neck, right behind her. “I surprised this one as I walked by that first pond,” Fink says. “I was going in after it, and the water was starting to come up over the top of my boots when Moko came running around the point and got him for me.” “It’s a pintail drake,” Allan tells me. “You see this pointy tail? That’s where it gets its name.” The dead duck looks smaller to me than a live duck, as if the lethal pellet had deflated it. Fink is going to head back up the beach for more hunting, so Allan offers to take the duck to his car. Back in camp I finish setting up my tent.
“Do you have stakes for that tent?” Allan asks.
I shake my head. “The guy I borrowed it from said I wouldn't need them.”
Allan fights back a smile. “I hope the wind doesn’t come up,” he says. When the campsite is set up, Allan dons a backpack full of plastic duck decoys and gives me a pack to put on. Grabbing his shotgun — a Browning A-5 semiautomatic— from his truck, he walks down the tunnel and turns left at the beach, heading south. The shoreline juts in, forming a little cove.
After Allen set these decoys, he explained, “Seagulls are a comfort bird. The ducks see them sitting here so they figure it’s safe to land.”
“This is Moko Bay,” Allan says. “Moko and I spend three months out of the year here.” Dead fish by the thousands— a football-shaped species, all without eyeballs — litter the beach and perfume the air.‘Those are talapia,” Allan says. “They are really good eating. The water in the sea here is five times saltier than the ocean, and it kills them. They wash up, and the first thing the seagulls peck out is their eyeballs. Other fish in the sea, such as corvina and croaker, seem to be able to take the high salinity.” A half mile south of camp, we come upon Allan’s blind. It’s an eight-by four-foot plywood enclosure open at one end. Cedar branches piled up against the outside hide the plywood, which is painted in a military camouflage pattern on the inside. A crude bench, fashioned from a driftwood beam mounted on washed-up car tires, is the blind’s only furniture. On the east side of the beach is a freshwater pond surrounded by tules and salt cedars. To the west, as smooth as glass in the windless midday, lies the Salton Sea, dotted with thousands of ducks, pelicans, seagulls, and grebes.
Allan sets his backpack and gun on the bench, kicks off his tennis shoes, and pulls on a pair of waders. “The first order of business is to set the decoys,” he explains.
Waders on, he grabs the bag of decoys and wades out into the marsh. In the middle of the pond, he stops and begins taking decoys out of the bag and tossing them to different spots around the pond. The decoys are painted to resemble different species of duck. Allan sets them according to the habits of each species. Some like to swim alone, some in groups, some in the middle of the pond, some near the edge. Below the wafer line, each decoy has a keel that keeps it upright and a little anchor on some fishing line to keep it in place.
Once the pond decoys are positioned just right — “I get obsessive about my decoys,” he confesses—Allan grabs the other bag from the blind and walks to the seashore. In the sand at the top of the wave line he sticks two seagull decoys mounted on stakes. “Seagulls are a comfort bird,” he explains. “The ducks see them sitting here, so they figure it’s safe to land.”
After the seagulls, he sets half a dozen decoys 15 feet out into the sea and returns to the blind. While he steps out of his waders and back into his tennis shoes, I throw driftwood sticks up and down the beach and out into the water for Moko to chase.
“Once you’ve played with Moko, you’ve made a friend for life,” Allan says, emerging from the blind carrying his shotgun. “There’s no wind right now so nothing is flying. Let’s walk down around the point and see if we can jump one.”
The three of us set off down the shore toward the south end of the bay, Moko in the lead, then Allan, then me. The beach in this direction gets narrower and narrower until it all but disappears. Our left shoulders brush the salt cedars while the sea laps onto our shoes. Around the point the beach widens a bit and we’re again on dry land. Without warning, Allan pulls the gun down off his right shoulder and for a split second aims it at a duck that Moko has scared out of the pond on our left. THUNK. The duck wobbles and goes into a left-turning dive, landing heavily on the water 75 yards out. It starts to swim. THUNK. The pellets splash all around the duck, but it still swims. THUNK. Again, the pellets hit all around the bird, still it swims.
“Moko, get the bird!” Allan commands, and Moko bounds through the shallows, then swims out as fast as her webbed feet will take her. She’s reached the duck in 15 seconds, and it tries to dive under the surface. Moko dives her head after it and doesn’t miss.
“Bring the bird!” Moko swims back, holding the duck up out of the water. “In my hand!” She obeys, holding the bird up to Allan’s hand “Good dog.” Allan inspects the bird for a second “It’s a widgeon,” he says, “a hen.” We continue walking down the beach until we reach the end, up a point. A tangled pile of driftwood and dead cedars bars our way.
“Look at that huge decoy over there,” Allan says. Over the pile of wood I spot the decoy lying on the beach 40 yards down. “I don’t want to get my shoes wet,” Allan says, “and I’ll get scratched up if I climb over this pile.”
I’m in long pants — Allan’s wearing shorts — so I volunteer to climb over the pile, which I do with minimal scratching, and retrieve the inflatable tan-and-brown decoy.
“This probably belonged to someone hunting on the other side of the sea,” Allan explains. “It broke off its drag line and blew over here. This is a $20 decoy.”
Halfway back to the blind, Alan stops and peers into the hedge of salt cedars growing between the sea and the marsh. “There’s a tunnel right here, but the entrance has overgrown.”
I bend back three or four branches until the four-foot-tall tunnel is open. Allan crouches and scrambles down and I follow. We emerge at the edge of a pond surrounded by 15-foot tides. There are no ducks. We walk back out the tunnel and all the way back to camp. No wind, no birds flying — no point sitting in the blind.
At camp we again meet Jerry Fink, who has walked three miles up the other direction and back. He shows us a redhead drake he shot earlier. Its neck and head are the brownish red of terra cotta. Allan offers Fink the widgeon, which he accepts before driving off.
We spend the next hour sitting in the shade of the tunnel between the beach and camp talking politics and watching for birds. At about 3:30, a wind out of the west starts to pick up, causing little waves to break on shore.
“This is good,” Allan says. “A little wind will get those birds up in the air. Right now they are out there in the middle of the sea sitting on the water. But the wind kicks up waves, and they get tired of riding them out, so they look for somewhere else to sit.”
By 4:00, the sky over the Salton Sea has become a bird ballet. White pelicans in long, straight lines of 10, 20, sometimes 30 glide inches off the water. Seagulls hover in the strengthening breeze like kites. A great blue heron flies down the shore with a lumbering wing beat, giving a throaty squawk every few seconds. Terns dart about with breathtaking speed and agility. Blackbirds frolic over the freshwater ponds. A huge black marsh hawk with a white-banded tail patrols the area looking for prey. Most importantly, flights of ducks start to appear, flying from the sea toward the marsh. Allan names the species as they fly by, even the ones too far away.
“Those are redheads,” he says. “Look at those beautiful pintails.... There’s a big flight of teals.... I think those are widgeons....” He distinguishes them by color, if they’re close enough, by flying pattern, wing heat, or bodily characteristics — the shape of the tail or how far back the wings are. “There are a lot of birds flying now,” he says around 4:30. “Let’s head down to the blind.”
By the time we reach the blind, the wind is gusting around 20 miles per hour, even more birds are moving, large flights of ducks fly over the blind every few minutes but always 200 feet above the ground, which is out of range. “With lead I could hit them,” Allan says, “but you can’t use lead shot in a waterfowl area. You have to use steel. Steel goes out faster than lead, but it loses its momentum at 30,35 yards, lead will carry 70,75 yards.”
In the blind, one of us looks out over the marsh, the other over the sea. When I spot ducks, I point them out to Allan. Don’t point,” he tells me. “They can spot the motion. Just tell me where they are.”
The instinct to point is not easy to resist, and it’s not the last time Allan has to admonish me. Around 5:15, Allan whispers, “Look at this” as he levels his gun, aiming over the marsh at a duck flying right toward us, intending to land among the decoys. THUNK it drops onto the water. THUNK he hits it again.
“Moko, get the bird!” Moko retrieves the bird and brings it back to Allan’s hand. “It’s a pintail drake,” he says, looking it over.
As the sun drops behind the mountains in the west, we walk back to camp, gathering kindling as we go. In camp, we light a fire over which we cook our dinner. As it gets dark, the wind comes up to gusts that Allan estimates at 50 miles per hour. My tent is blowing everywhere. I weight it down with a couple of two-and-a-half-gallon water containers, my two ice chests, a car jack, an ax, and all my clothes and bedding. Still, it inches its way down the dike. It stops inching once I’m in it, but the flapping keeps me awake most of the night.
Next morning, Allan wakes me at 6:45; I was expecting him to wake me an hour earlier. "I was up at 5:30,” he says, “but the wind was still blowing, and you can’t shoot when it’s like that. Moko and I are heading down to the blind. See you there.”
As I emerge from the tent. I’m greeted by the sight of 100 pelicans 50 feet overhead, gliding sideways on the morning breeze. I join Allan at the blind as the sun rises over the Chocolate Mountains in the east. Birds are flying and Allan shoots at some, but they are out of range. At 8:00, a group of four redhead drakes flies over the blind, 100 feet up. “Squat down,” he orders as he aims and fires three shots. One is hit but not killed and wobbles off into the marsh, landing a mile away.
“That’s the trouble with steel,” Allan says. The rest of the morning and the early afternoon are slow. A breeze is blowing, but no birds are flying. We walk a mile down the shore and see nothing. Then we head two miles up the shore and see only a large group of pintails sitting on the marsh, well out of range.
In the late afternoon, we’re sitting in the shade of the tunnel swapping childhood stories when the birds start flying. Allan gets his gun and heads down to the blind. I finish whittling the stick I’ve been working on the past hour and follow him, a quarter mile behind. Moko — who by this time is treating me as if I’m her puppy, keeping tabs on me, licking me, sitting next to me — spots me and runs back. Meanwhile, Allan walks past the blind 100 yards or so and disappears down the tunnel I cleared yesterday. THUNK... THUNK... THUNK.... Moko takes off at a sprint and is soon racing down the tunnel. THUNK... THUNK... Three ducks come flying out from the marsh.
When I finally reach the tunnel and scramble down it, Allan is at the end yelling orders to Moko, who’s swimming around, searching and sniffing for a duck Allan hit with his first salvo. “No, Moko!” Allan shouts. “Go back...back, Moko!”
Moko looks back toward Allan who waves toward the back of the pond, “Go back!” Moko swims toward the far end of the pond, and when she gets just past an island of tules, Allan yells, “Go left!”
Moko obeys. “Now she’s got it. That duck is back in there somewhere. He swam back before I could reload. If Moko had seen me shoot it, she would have been on him in no time.” For another 15 minutes she roots around among the tules but can’t find the duck. Allan is not happy. “I hate to waste a duck like that,” he grumbles. The walk back to camp is silent. We start the campfire, and once it’s burning Allan says, “I’m going to go back with Moko and try to find that bird.” For the next hour, I feed the fire while Allan and Moko search for the wounded bird. They return empty-handed. Allan puts his gun in the truck and flops into his chair by the fire, exasperated. Moko trots up to him for a petting, but Allan lifts his hands up over his shoulders and tells her, “I don’t want to talk to you.”
The next morning, I’m awakened by Allan singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” outside my tent. By 6:45 we’re in the blind, and ten minutes later, four bluebiil drakes, winging down the shore of the sea, spot the decoys on the pond and turn left and descend just south of the blind. THUNK... THUNK. One drops to the sand, the other three fly off “Get the bird, Moko!” Moko runs down the beach to the fallen fowl. When she hears Allan yell, “Bring the bird!” she trots back and presents it to him.
“Good dog, Moko.”