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Published: Tuesday, 11/13/2007

Duck blind's sights, smells better than day in the office

It's 15 minutes before shooting time, still closer to black than gray in the sky, atop a dike in Rusk Marsh on Sandusky Bay.

Shotguns still cased, it's not yet time to climb down into the pit-blind sunk into the side of the dike. So you stop to just absorb the time and the place and breathe in the pungent, musty aroma from the mucky, soupy blend of soil, and plants, and water.

You hear them, and indeed feel them even before you see them. Hundreds of ducks, mostly mallards by their profile and size, erupting from the marsh behind you.

James Donnell Konkel, left, Heather Braun and Kent Felbinger keep watch over Rusk Marsh on Sandusky Bay hoping to get a shot off during a day of duck hunting recently. James Donnell Konkel, left, Heather Braun and Kent Felbinger keep watch over Rusk Marsh on Sandusky Bay hoping to get a shot off during a day of duck hunting recently.
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They leave in a shallow climb so that flock after flock passes just 5, 10 yards overhead, fleet black forms at 40 mph. Their wing beats actually create small flutters you can feel on your face. No matter how many times you experience such a moment, it is forever magical.

Whether any of the birds come back to the decoys later in the morning during legal shooting hours, you cannot help but feel that your day already has been made. It is why you hunt ducks.

Once settled in the blind, you hunker down to wait, enjoying the cloudy grays and sprinkling of pastel holes in the sunrise.

You share stories about waterfowlers you all know. With you are Paul Rofkar, manager of the fine 280 acres that Gerry and Kathy Rusk have devoted to wetlands and wildlife, and John Murphy, Ohio chairman of Ducks Unlimited.

Few gunshots are heard around the bay during the morning, though we know gunners are at most of the marshes. This is, after all, opening morning of a two-day annual hunt arranged by DU and the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

Private duck clubs around the bay cooperate in hosting visiting hunters. The weather is just too nice. The birds are feeding in the marshes all night, Rofkar said, and flush out to the bay or Lake Erie to raft and be lazy during the day.

The elements of wind and cold are not there to force them to move and feed more frequently.

It is a good thing that Murphy said it, so no one else had to: "The worst day in a marsh is better than the best day in the office."

And he said that knowing he arrived here with coolant leaking from his truck, a little unexpected eventuality to which he would be forced to attend later. For him, the marsh and the ducks came first, a broken truck much later.

One bunch of about eight birds did circle for a look at the spread of decoys out front about eight o'clock. They must have come close enough because I heard my 12-gauge go off twice. "You had good form," Rofkar smirked. "You just missed." Wasn't the first time, for me or anyone.

After some more waiting and storytelling - the latter is a prime requisite for waterfowlers - it became clear that more birds would not fly this morning, at least not our way. It was - to play on some earlier words by DU President Bruce Lewis, spoken at the hunt's introductory evening - a "heritage day" in the duck blind. You while away the hours talking of waterfowling's rich heritage because there are no ducks to shoot.

As we picked up to leave the blind, Rofkar had a great way of putting it: "The only ducks we got here have strings attached to them and weights on the end. They're called decoys."

Style point to the marsh manager for best quip.

Later on, the Division of Wildlife and DU dignitaries dedicated a 40-acre restored marsh unit at the Pickerel Creek State Wildlife Area on the south side of the bay.

It is a dandy project that includes a restored mix of grasslands and wetlands and seven excavated potholes which, hopefully will stay flooded by natural drainage, now that former drain tiles were broken and opened and interconnecting channels and grading were done.

The project is part of a $1.6 million National Coastal Wetlands grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which is a partner with DU and the wildlife division. In all 282 acres are to be restored.

DU, for its part, has its fingers in initiatives all over North America as part of its Wetlands for Tomorrow. That program was begun in 2004 and aims at raising $1.7 billion by 2010; DU is already more than half way there and expects to meet its goal.

"This parcel is another piece to a huge puzzle," said Dave Graham, state wildlife chief, who noted that "Sandusky Bay is so important to migrating waterfowl, especially black ducks."

The species is under pressure, in part because of expansion of range of its cousin, the mallard. Sandusky Bay and its western arm, Muddy Creek Bay, form a critical, major wintering area.

James Donnell Konkel, of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, became slightly emotional at the dedication of the 40-acre wetland. It was, after all, named for him, "whose passion for waterfowl and penchant for philanthropy was ignited by his grandfather, James C Donnell II," as the program stated.

"Jim's generous support of DU has resulted in conservation of wetlands in Ohio and throughout North America," the program continued.

"When he took me hunting the first time it was something," Konkel stressed later. "I enjoyed it and got hooked."

Born in California - "my father was in the Navy" - his life's path took him through Findlay, where the Donnell family is well known for its history in Marathon Oil Co. and Ohio Oil Co.

Donnell first became a DU volunteer at Findlay but eventually moved on to Maine. "I went to school there and spent a lot of time there and fell in love with it." He also fell in love with ducks and DU. All of which is a roundabout way of reaching toward the why of it.

Why hunt ducks at all, especially when it so often is such a low-percentage deal, when it so often is cold and wet and muddy and miserable? Lots of activities provide more bang for the buck.

And why donate so much money -"a very significant amount" - to ducks and marshes? A philanthropist can give to anything. As he did when he was invited on stage for the marsh project dedication, Konkel's eyes got a little watery and his voice cracked a mite.

"When you think about it, with DU it's not just ducks. It's the whole ecosystem. Where there's water, there's life. That really sums it up."

The man goes on with some window dressing, about more than 500 species in the marshes, down to worms and insects. "I've just focused on it and made it my passion."

And there is no arguing with, or fathoming, a man's passion.



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