On the night before duck hunting season opened in November, Ryan Lally left nothing to chance. He set three alarms—one for 4 am, one for 4:05, and one for 4:10, all set to play The Beatles song, “Let it Be.” He was so excited he woke up at 1 am, couldn’t fall back asleep, and got up to watch TV as he waited for the season to open.

He eventually climbed into his Suburban for the drive to Purdy Farms, his hunting club in St. Charles County near the Mississippi River. He left plenty of margin in his departure time, leaving early enough to arrive before the club opened. It’s not like there is ever traffic to beat at that hour, but he wasn’t willing to risk that, or a flat tire, or whatever other problem might make him late.

It was still dark when he walked out to his blind (a shelter duck hunters use to conceal themselves from their quarry – something I learned about when my expert duck hunting friend was showing me after I asked him how do you blow a duck call), passing thousands upon thousands of ducks. Sunrise was set for 6:37 am that day, which meant the season officially opened at 6:07. Every year on opening day, someone in the distance starts shooting thirty seconds early, he says, and this year was no exception.

“And then the whole bottoms decides to let it rip, for the first shot,” he says. “All of a sudden you go, ‘How many people are within ear’s distance?’ It’s an eruption.”

Ryan waited a minute to soak in that cacophony before firing off his first shot. He reached his daily limit of six before 9 am.

Ryan has been hunting for decades, and his life story can’t be told without duck hunting, or at least not completely. He charts where he was in his life based on where he was in his hunting journey. He bonded in blinds with his grandfather as a young boy, his dad as he grew up, and his brother while they were in college. Going hunting without his grandpa or his dad for the first time was his first step into manhood.

Ducks enjoy the habitat provided by Over and Under Farm. This ground isn’t hunted and provides a safe haven.

He has introduced dozens of his friends to the sport and is trying to cultivate a love for it in his teenage son.

“My greatest fear generationally is that this is going to die,” he says. “It’s a big part of a positive outlet for young people to go do.”

He sees the duck blind as a safe place where conversations, muted though they may be, can flow without risk of judgment. Phones are turned off and left in pockets. Nobody checks Facebook or email. Deep connections inevitably happen. It’s like a confessional, only with camouflage instead of vestments, duck calls instead of crosses, and funnier jokes.

“You get to say what you’re feeling and not worry about it being misconstrued,” he says.

The exact seasons vary by region and type of animal, but generally speaking, waterfowl seasons open in November and run into January, and the most passionate hunters build their calendars around when the waterfowl are most available. Ryan estimated he would hunt twenty to twenty-five times this season.

“Trying to work your job around this can be very difficult,” he says.

Ryan has chased ducks all over the country, but he knows, as all experienced waterfowl hunters do, that some of the country’s best hunting is right here in Missouri.

Steve Spezia, who spent his entire career in conservation and now manages conservation easements in Missouri for Ducks Unlimited, sums up the key to waterfowl hunting with one word: location. That’s true in both “Where should I put my blind?” and “Where do the most ducks fly?” senses. And few places are better situated than Missouri, sitting as it does within the Mississippi River Flyway, one of four flyways in the country. It is generally considered the best of the four both in volume and variety.

Below, Steve Spezia tends to a blockage caused by a beaver.

If rivers are a highway for ducks, geese, and other birds to follow, Missouri has some of the best roads in the waterfowling world, with the Missouri running west to east and the Mississippi running north to south.

One of the properties Steve helps manage is a 594-acre plot in St. Charles County called Over and Under Farm. Owned by Rick Holton, it sits near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois rivers. To walk on the property is to walk into the past, present, and future.

Over and Under Farm

Lewis and Clark wrote about this area.

“The same island is there. The same sloughs are there. Everything’s the same as when Lewis and Clark were there,” says Rick, a board member of the Conservation Heritage Foundation, American Rivers, Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, and Audubon.

Rick loves America’s waterways. He grew up playing in the pristine waters found in Missouri.

“I have watched habitats and beautiful places disappear,” he says. “I’ve seen rivers reduced to inert bodies of water. I’ve seen what people do. They don’t understand if you take nature and destroy it, you can never recover it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

That’s why the state, Rick, and other activists have gone to great lengths to preserve and rebuild Missouri wetlands. In a three-county area comprising St. Charles, Lincoln, and Pike counties, twenty-five thousand acres have been put into conservation easements into perpetuity. That means the land will be wild forever; that’s important because all the rivers and flyways in the world won’t matter if there’s nothing but subdivisions, fast food joints, and mattress stores alongside them.

From left, Rick Holton, Steve Spezia, Dan Brothers, and lab Ruger stand at the riverfront on the Over and Under Farm as a barge passes on the Mississippi River.

As property like Rick’s transitions from farmland to a more natural state, it gets wilder with each passing year. And Rick’s is already plenty wild. On a recent tour of the property on Opening Day eve, hundreds of ducks, geese, and other birds flew about, exulting in the uncommonly warm early November afternoon.

The state conservation department lists seventeen breeds of waterfowl living in Missouri—fourteen ducks and three goose, and many of them were visible on Rick’s property. Over and Under Farm is like a waterfowl’s dream buffet, with corn here, buckwheat there, and other mouthwatering delights (to a duck, anyway) scattered about. Think of it like a rest stop for birds as they fly from Canada to Louisiana and Mexico in the fall and back in the spring.

Rick and Steve adjust the water flow in a floodable impoundment.

“This is a major area where they recharge,” Rick says. “You’ve got to have stopping points where they can stop and refuel because they’re exhausted when they arrive.”

With his work with conservation groups, Rick has been both a participant in and a beneficiary of the state’s efforts to preserve wetlands.

“It’s all about the wildlife,” he says. “It’s all about nature.”

Twenty years ago, Audubon surveyed Rick’s property. They counted seventy species of birds in the spring and sixty-five in the fall. Some came from as far away as Brazil; they have returned there to breed every year “for millennia” because of the ecosystem there.

As good as Missouri’s location is, location alone is not enough to make it a great place for waterfowl hunting. The state’s conservation efforts have been well managed with a strong collaboration between private and public interests. And that’s the second reason the waterfowl hunting here is so good.

Duck hunters typically reach their blinds before sunrise.

When Ken Babcock graduated from Louisiana State with a master’s degree in wildlife management and wondered where his career would take him, he asked one of his professors which state had the best conservation program.

“He didn’t hesitate,” Ken says. “He said Missouri.”

That was true in 1967 when the professor said it, it was true when Ken took a job with Missouri’s Department of Conservation in 1970 as a waterfowl researcher, and it’s true now.

Missouri’s dedication to conservation dates to the 1930s, when voters agreed to create the four-member Missouri Conservation Commission to run the state’s forestry, wildlife, and fishery efforts.

The emphasis on conservation has turned Missouri from a so-so waterfowl hunting state into one of the best in the country. A major factor in that is that the number of good locations to hunt in Missouri increased dramatically.

In the first half of the 1900s, waterfowl hunting in Missouri was mostly confined to private land in private clubs. (The term “club” is quite flexible. It covers anything from a small group of friends who own property together to a more formal arrangement resembling a private golf club.)

The late Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) official Ted Shanks wanted the sport to be more accessible for people who couldn’t afford the private land and/or club fees necessary to hunt. He pushed the state to set aside state property for hunting.

Duck hunters stay dry by wearing waders.

In the 1970s, voters approved a sales tax increase to help fund the MDC’s endeavors, including buying and managing property. According to the MDC website, Missouri now has fifteen managed waterfowl areas covering 81,399 acres. Throw in conservation areas where hunting is allowed and that number goes up even higher.

Private landowners took note of the improved public hunting near their land. Soon strong relationships were built between the state and private landowners, with the result being even more land became good for hunting.

It’s like the natural world gave Missouri a great home for waterfowl hunting, and the MDC decorated it to make it even more inviting.

The state’s work on opening public land for hunting was critical to make waterfowl hunting more inclusive. But it still can be an expensive sport. Guns, gear, decoys—it all adds up. How much it costs per hunter depends on the hunter. For example, you can buy a huge blind, warm it with a heater, wire it to get satellite TV, and cook steak and eggs in there.

Or, as Dave Murphy, a former member of the Missouri Conservation Commission and veteran hunter, says, you “can sit on wet ground, as I often have.”

Hunting on public land is free. Membership in a club starts at $3,600 per year and goes sky high. In 2015, an MDC report said Missouri waterfowl hunting generates an economic impact of $149 million while supporting nearly 2,000 jobs and creating more than $13 million in taxes.

All of this gives hunters access to an eye-popping number of waterfowl. On January 12, 2020, the MDC surveyed seven conservation areas. They counted 50,249 ducks and 297 people hunting them. The harvest for those areas that day was 292 ducks. Steve’s comment about location applies here, as the disparity in the numbers is striking. Otter Slough Conservation Area had the most ducks that day (28,120) and the most harvested (108).

The hike to hunting spots over wild terrain is as inviting as the shooting at Over and Under Farm.

While the number of hunters has dropped across the country, it has remained steady to even slightly increasing in Missouri. Throwing out last year because excessive flooding made for very poor conditions and therefore diminished participation, the number of waterfowl hunters has consistently been in the mid-30,000 range since 2014.

So Missouri has ideal geography, an industry-best conservation department, and more than enough waterfowl to shoot. That leaves one question: Why? Why does Ryan still get giddy the night before Opening Day? Why does Dave sit on the wet ground? Why does Rick invest so much time, energy, and money into making Over and Under Farm an ideal place to hunt?

The answer, surprisingly, has little to do with shooting waterfowl. Yes, it’s a fun sport, and to shoot a bird that takes off unexpectedly and then flies away from you at who knows what angle at who knows what speed requires years to perfect.

But ask waterfowl hunters about what they love about their sport, and few of them tell stories about actually shooting ducks or geese.

They talk instead about spending time with their loved ones, the people who taught them to hunt, and the future generations they hope will carry the traditions forward. They talk about the friends they introduced to the sport, the property where they hunted, the walks in and out, the early mornings, the blue skies, the clouds, the rain, and the conversations as they waited for birds to take flight.

Dan Brothers has been hunting for seventy years and is one of the foremost experts on the sport in the state. He has hunted on public and private land, from boats and from blinds, in eighteen states, six countries, and all of the flyways in the United States. He takes far more delight in luring ducks close to him than shooting them once he does so.

“You try to fool them,” he says as the dogs he now trains to retrieve ducks run around. “You try to deceive them. You try to communicate and sucker them in close. I don’t care if I ever shoot another duck the rest of my life. But I want to call every one in the world right down here in front of me.”

Dan Brothers waits with his duck call in hand.

There’s something elusive, intangible, unrepeatable elsewhere about sitting in a blind. It’s only fun if you’re by yourself or with somebody. The water, should you be unfortunate enough to let it touch your skin, seems icily colder, the trees more intricately designed, the darkness more pervasive, the sunrise more explosive. You can talk quietly in the blind, and if you’re not laughing on the way to it and from it, and as you eat and drink before and after, you’re with the wrong people.

“There are as many ways to socialize around duck hunting as there are duck-hunting camps in our state, and there are a lot of those,” Dave says.

In a modern world lacking in silence because inane chatter drowns it out, the quiet of the duck blind and the heartfelt conversation that breaks it become even more profound.

“It’s a way to both get away from life and engage it,” Ryan says.

Photos by Holly Kite