On the Marsh


by Clay Scott
Photos by Clay Scott

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January 11, 2012
Lewis and Clark County, Montana
Clay Scott

CLAY SCOTT: You’re listening to Mountain West Voices. I’m Clay Scott. It’s a couple of days before the end of waterfowl season, and we’ve finally gotten some nice, nasty weather. On a windy afternoon, with a front coming in from the north, I drive out to a marsh near where I live, and I’m not surprised to run into a couple of fellows I know: Ralph Yeager and his son, Carl. It was Ralph who introduced me to this spot, and he probably knows it better than anyone. He comes here 12 months a year, to hunt waterfowl and snipe, and to kayak, and to watch birds. Ralph and Carl, and Carl’s brother, Joe, have spent thousands of hours here, and they have names for every estuary and inlet and muddy point and clump of willows. Joe‘s living in London now, and Carl’s just home for a short visit before he heads to grad school back east. They invite me to join them, and we set off across three quarters of a mile of ice. I have to take small, careful steps to keep my balance, but Ralph strides along like he’s on pavement, and Carl pulls a toboggan with our gear. When we finally reach a bit of open water, Ralph wades out to set up the decoys – life-like mallards he’s carved by hand from redwood and western red cedar.

We settle back in the waist-high grass, trying to get out of the freezing wind, and trying to keep out of sight of any passing ducks. I look at Carl to my left, and Ralph to my right, and they look as comfortable as if they were in their own living room.

RALPH YEAGER: If I ever get tired of making decoys then I also make my own duck calls. I just like having my own gear that I’ve made myself.

(SCOTT) That’s just for show? Does it actually work?

(SOUND OF DUCK CALL)

YEAGER: Both of my dogs…my last two retrievers are buried just behind us on the flat here…but I’ve just had good experiences here…I like the fact that you can see change out here year after year, and I guess regardless of how things may change, the waterfowl keeps coming, and the snipe keep coming, and it’s kind of nice just to have been to a place time and time again, year after year to see what it’s like and what’s happening with it. Even though it’s public ground, and we never mind seeing other hunters out here, it always just seems kind of like our place. Any time you can go out and hunt with your sons, even if you get skunked, you have a good day.

(SOUND OF CANADA GEESE)

YEAGER: Out of range for us, Carl. Unless they turn around.

CARL YEAGER: Just coming out here is something that we do together. It’s generational and I’m just glad to know that if I do it now and enjoy it now it’s something I can continue doing throughout my life…it kind of pulls me back home regardless of where I go….

SCOTT: We don’t end up getting any ducks on this afternoon, but a couple days later I decide to try my luck once more. I parked next to an old Toyota pick-up and I’m not at all surprised to find Ralph sitting in the cab. He’s trying to decide whether he can get away with work meeting so he can go back into the marsh one more time.

RALPH YEAGER: For the books that I read, for my activities, I think in the old-fashioned sense of the word I’m definitely a romantic. I wish I’d been born in a different time. I’ve thought about this a fair amount. I think it’s important to be a part of the time that you live in…not some sort of a Don Quixote type of character…but one of the reasons duck hunting, waterfowling, hunting in general is so important to me, is that it’s an activity that’s as old as time. To go out and sit over decoys that you’ve carved, to call ducks with a call that you’ve carved…the mystery of it. I mean, the questions that are so hard to answer. Why do you go out and kill something that you love? That actually is an appealing aspect of it for me. I like things that throughout your life make you continue to question the activity or question your feelings for a particular thing. You know, it just honestly, it feels like…for someone like me who loves the marsh, who loves ducks…loves spending time with my sons…honestly…it’s about as good as life gets. I would guess that I have spent several thousand hours over the years, sitting in a duck blind and just waiting for…waiting for ducks to fly…

(SOUND OF MALLARD DUCKS)

SCOTT: You’ve been listening to Ralph and Carl Yeager. This is Mountain West Voices. Our series is produced in association with the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a regional studies and public education program of the University of Montana. Additional support was provided by the Greater Montana Foundation. To see images of today’s story, and to listen to dozens of archived stories from around the Rocky Mountain West, go to mountainwestvoices.org. I’m Clay Scott.