Abundant Diving Ducks Elude Hunters on Green Bay
SUAMICO, Wis. – Peter Peshek was waiting patiently inside his minivan as Hank Zuidmulder steered his ocean-going duck boat into a flooded landing on Green Bay’s southwestern shoreline.
Seconds later, the retired attorney and former state public intervenor stepped out to greet us at water’s edge, firing questions before the boat could squish ashore into the muddy grass.
“How many did you get?” he asked with a big smile.
“Three,” we replied, somewhat sheepishly.
Peshek’s grin widened to capacity.
“You’re the 15th of 18 boats to come back in so far, and you only got three?” he asked. “I can’t believe it. The 12th boat in had three guys, and they shot 18. They got their limits, and that was a half-hour ago. What were you guys doing out there? Three of you only got one duck each?”
The other hunter in our boat, Mike Carlson of Madison, thoughtfully exonerated Zuidmulder, who had let us do 90% of the shooting. Zuidmulder, in turn, made excuses for us, noting that we’d never before shot at ducks from the pitching deck of a 17-foot boat rolling in whitecaps.
Peshek wasn’t convinced, knowing that skilled duck hunters can adapt and get on target. Something in Peshek’s smile suggested he had filed me into the “not-so-skilled duck hunter” folder long before I climbed aboard Zuidmulder’s boat five hours earlier.
Still, Peshek graciously congratulated me when I said I’d shot my first bull canvasback, and that I was getting it mounted. But when his interrogation resumed seconds later, I laughed and asked if he judged all subpar duck hunters so harshly.
“Well, my friend in South Africa calls me ‘the hakimu,’” Peshek said, puffing out his chest. “That means ‘he who judges’ in Swahili, in case you didn’t know.”
No I didn’t know, but Peshek announced the title so confidently that I believed him. Still, I asked how it’s spelled, which stumped him. A day later, after contacting his friend in South Africa, Peshek shared the word’s correct spelling and confirmed its definition.
I was impressed. And amazed. You learn something new every time you go duck hunting. Well, at least when Peshek arranges it.
This hunt, in fact, was roughly a decade in the making. Peshek had called back then to explain why Wisconsin needed a duck-hunting zone for Lake Michigan. The big lake attracts sea ducks and infinite diving ducks, including the long-tailed duck, deep into December. His effort failed, but he’s not giving up.
Peshek said he and his friends like hunting the big waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan from layout boats and other unique duck boats. Noticing my curiosity, he said I was welcome to join them anytime.
I assumed Peshek was just being polite, and didn’t follow up. But the next time I saw him at a Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he seemed mildly irritated that I’d never followed up on his invitation. When his next email arrived five months ago, I cleared my calendar when he suggested hunting Nov. 1-3.
Two weeks before our meet-up in Sturgeon Bay, Peshek emailed: “You’ll be open-water hunting Friday morning with distinguished duck hunter Hank Zuidmulder of Green Bay. Your port of deportation will be somewhere between Oconto and Two Rivers. Make sure your duck stamp is signed, your life insurance is up to date, and you’re not indispensable at home or work.”
Snicker. Duck hunters like gallows humor.
As the date neared, Zuidmulder said we’d probably shoot more ducks if we joined him in a shoreline blind north of Suamico. He said big flocks of bluebills had arrived from Canada, and they couldn’t resist shore-hugging decoys. Carlson and I declined. Neither of us had ever hunted open-water waterfowl, and we wanted to hunt from Zuidmulder’s 17-foot duck boat, which he’d bought in Maine about 20 years ago.
Zuidmulder, 48, is unique in his own right. He hunted ducks 45 of 60 days in the 2018 season, and is on a similar pace this year. He’s been nuts about duck hunting since his first hunt at age 13 months.
How does a 1-year-old hunt ducks? His father strapped on a chest-mounted baby carrier, slipped his son inside, and then pulled up his chest waders to snugly cover him. Zuidmulder can’t remember that first hunt, of course, but his dad assures him it’s true.
That’s good enough for me. I won’t question the word of Brown County Judge Donald Zuidmulder, who’s also chief judge of the 8th Judicial District.
The younger Zuidmulder hunts ducks all over Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay, and enjoys taking friends, family and newcomers out on the vast waters. Big numbers of bluebills (scaup), redheads, bufflehead and goldeneyes visit this time each year to feast on zebra mussels, which colonized the region in 1991.
Victoria Harris, a researcher who documented diving ducks’ growing presence in the 1990s, wrote that their visits boomed 220% to 1.83 million duck-use days by fall 1997, primarily lesser scaup, greater scaup and goldeneyes. From 1994 to 1997 alone, scaup visits increased 128% despite only a 9% decrease in the species’ mid-continent population those years.
Carlson and I got some sense of that ongoing duck explosion when a cloud of bluebills took flight far north of Zuidmulder’s boat midmorning Nov. 1. At first it looked like a giant swarm of bees, and then it resembled a massive flock of blackbirds as it gained height. Eventually, the mass moved east, shedding small flocks that peeled south toward us.
Few came close enough to shoot, but my companions went home with two of them.
If only that giant swarm would have hovered over our boat till we ran out of shells. “The hakimu” might not have judged us so mercilessly.