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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Hunting’s Heritage Grows One Family at a Time

STURGEON BAY, Wisconsin — Nearly 30 years have passed since Wisconsin whiffed on its chance to let Peter Peshek lead the Department of Natural Resources into the new century.

Peshek’s lost opportunity to become DNR secretary in January 1993 was orchestrated by folks who didn’t consider him environmentally green enough. The accusation was ridiculous, given that he served as Wisconsin’s original public intervenor, and is a lifelong angler, childhood bait-scrounger, and adult-onset duck hunter.

The rejection still hurts and haunts, but Peshek, 77, has moved on. He would rather talk about hunting, what makes a hunter, and why he wants more people to witness scarlet sunrises from duck blinds. He’s especially keen on making hunting more welcoming and diverse, whether by race, gender or cultural background.

In his speech to induct Christine Thomas into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in April 2017, for example, Peshek said more girls and women should aspire to be like Thomas, a serious hunter and dean of the College of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point.

“More women need to enjoy a shore lunch of walleyes and homemade Wisconsin bacon,” Peshek said. “More women need to share duck-hunting camps with pan-fried duck, followed by robust conversations about Wisconsin’s conservation hopes and needs. And more young ladies need to see Picasso at 5:30 in the morning.”

The Picasso reference wasn’t Peshek’s. He told the audience he was quoting Katie Delcore, then 13, of Wauwatosa, who invoked the famous artist’s name while crossing Sawyer Harbor in a duck boat six months before. Peshek was impressed that a pre-teen on her first duck hunt appreciated the sky’s rich palette of reds, pinks, grays and purples. And he likes sharing the description, hoping it will inspire other dreamers to try duck hunting.

Peshek knows something about inspiration. He grew up fishing yellow perch in the Two Rivers harbor and playing among Lake Michigan’s sand dunes during the 1940s and ’50s. He knew nothing of duck hunting until his 20s. That’s when conservation wardens Bill Fields and Fred Jacobson introduced him to mallards and other puddle ducks.

He’s never been the same. Although Peshek still proselytizes about duck hunting like a converted fanatic, he takes more satisfaction in being a duck-hunting ambassador than in shooting ducks himself. And as much as he likes sharing Katie Delcore’ Picasso reference, he often follows quickly with the story of her first hunt.

After Katie’s father, Jeff, and Peshek’s son Chris set out their decoys and got everyone seated in the blind that morning, a drake goldeneye duck swung past, turned, set its wings and landed with a quiet splash in the decoys. Jeff Delcore coached his daughter as she aimed her shotgun and rolled the duck with a load of steel. The Delcores’ black Labrador, Sawyer, then retrieved it with a hard-charging enthusiasm every hunter can appreciate.

Fast forward to early November 2019, and Mandy Delcore, 14, took her sister’s place in the Pesheks’ duck blind on Sawyer Harbor’s northern shoreline. The ducks weren’t active on the bay that day, but Mandy patiently waited at the far end of the blind’s long bench. Finally, as afternoon began slipping away, a hen goldeneye swung past, inspected the decoys, and landed just beyond shotgun range.

Instead of keeping its distance, however, the hen swam into the bobbing decoys. Mandy Delcore stood, shouldered her shotgun and aimed, ignoring the four adult hunters silently spectating from the bench. The goldeneye died when Mandy fired, and Sawyer retrieved the girl’s first duck.

“Two sisters, three years apart, hunting with their dad, shoot goldeneyes for their first duck, and their dog retrieves both ducks,” Peshek recited. “And then you mix in the fact that diving ducks now dominate this region in greater numbers than ever. All those stories, all that natural history, that’s the foundation of waterfowl hunting. Culturally speaking, that’s exciting stuff.”

Peshek, meanwhile, keeps watching as duck hunting expands its ranks within his family. To help wet those roots, he pays bounties to his grandson Reed, 8, for every decoy line and anchor he retrieves from Sawyer Harbor’s shallows each summer. Reed dons a snorkel and diving mask for the job, and spends hours combing the waters fronting the family’s duck blinds.

“Reed’s making those connections, and he has fun doing it,” Peshek said.

To further his duck-hunting education, Reed swaps his diving gear for a BB gun in autumn, and sits between his grandfather and parents, Chris and Jennifer Peshek, and occasionally plinks redhead decoys. This is serious stuff, however, not a county-fair shooting gallery. Reed’s parents coach and caution him about where to point the BB gun’s muzzle, and continually check to ensure he’s wearing hearing protection inside the blind.

Peshek also loves the fact his grandchildren will likely inherit more duck-species diversity than he imagined when he started hunting nearly 50 years ago. Ever since invasive zebra and quagga mussels first appeared in the region during the 1990s, diving ducks have amassed each autumn on Green Bay and the “Big Lake” itself to feast.

“If you visit any Two Rivers boat landings around Thanksgiving, you’ll see more duck hunters’ boat trailers than you will salmon fishermen’s boat trailers on July 4,” Peshek said. “Duck hunting’s culture is powerful stuff. November and December isn’t just about deer hunting.”

Of course, hunters being hunters, most don’t like to discuss duck abundance openly or brag up their success. “Everyone wants the best spots for themselves, whether they’re hunting or fishing,” Peshek said.

Even so, he cautions that state agencies shouldn’t “jigger” hunting seasons and regulations to favor hunters’ preferences at the expense of science-based guidance.

“If you want long-term sustainability, you follow the science,” Peshek said. “By using science, you’ll create more hunting opportunity over time. Science helps the environment deliver on its potential. There’s no future in pure hunter preferences alone.”

Three decades after Peshek’s career/lifetime disappoint, and roughly four decades since he last held the title, it’s clear that he remains the state public intervenor for life.

Jeff Delcore holds a duck retrieved by his family's black Labrador, Sawyer. -- Patrick Durkin photo

The Peshek clan — Chris, left, and Peter, Reed and Jennifer — poses for a family photo in their duck blind on Sawyer Harbor in early November. -- Patrick Durkin photo

Mandy Delcore, left, and her father, Jeff, show redhead and bluebill diving ducks they shot while hunting Sawyer Harbor near Sturgeon Bay. -- Patrick Durkin photo

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