The West Texas Connection: Conservation waterfowl hunting with Heath Edgerton

 

“I hear a Spec in that group!”

img_20170122_205456_648Hundreds of geese circled above us as we lay motionless under muddy burlap blankets on the banks of a cattle farmer’s pond somewhere on the outskirts of Littlefield, Texas. The morning weather began around 35 degrees and I was thankful for my waders and hand warmers. Our spread of decoys consisted of an array of ducks, Canada and Snow Geese. Our guide and friend, Heath Edgerton wailed on his various waterfowl calls in hopes to attract the steady flow of birds that circled overhead. Health’s ultimate prize, a Specklebelly goose, flew on to the adjoining wheat field but its flight companion the lesser Canada goose fared differently that morning.

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10 minutes after legal shooting time

If there ever was a human embodiment of a bird dog it would be my friend Heath Edgerton. Never in my whole life have I met anyone who could identify and talk about waterfowl with the ease, enthusiasm and excitement that Heath can. The kind of guy who has a Pintail drake mount affectionately named Aldo in his living room. This is fitting since Heath is the President of the Texas Tech Ducks Unlimited Chapter and a friendly face among his peers on campus. As if he couldn’t be more involved in waterfowl hunting and conservation, Heath serves as a field representative for Team Drake and a crew member of Higdon Outdoors, the official decoy maker of Ducks Unlimited. A student of Agricultural Economics, Heath boasts of Lubbock, its wildlife, hardworking people and the surrounding Panhandle portion of West Texas with a much deeper understanding than most.

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Our guide Heath Edgerton

Heath’s connection with the land starts with the farmer. When there is work to be done Heath assists many farmers with various tasks, be it driving a tractor across acres of wheat fields or fixing a cotton stripper. However, Heath has made his love of hunting the most significant tool of all. As a waterfowl hunter, Heath gains permission to hunt the private lands of West Texas with his knowledge and positive relationship to those farmers. He even recounts how he gained permission on a particular property by naming all the different breeds of cattle the rancher owned. In turn, he acquires the opportunities to guide others and do his part to manage the thousands of migratory birds who travel through the Central flyaway zone each year.

“Without the farmers we don’t eat and I can’t hunt.” –Heath Edgerton

As hunters we often assert that our efforts afield are conservation minded. In addition, we are sometimes challenged by others who haven’t taken the time to understand the correlation. How can you say killing is conservation? How can you hunt ducks if you have pet ducks? I am met with animosity all the time. However, nowhere is the relationship between conservation and hunting more clear than in waterfowl hunting. According to Texas AgriLife Extension:

In the 1930s, waterfowl populations were drastically declining. The U.S. Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, known simply as the federal Duck Stamp, was implemented in 1934. Since its inception, over $750 million has been raised with funds going towards research efforts as well as the protection of over 5 million acres of critical waterfowl habitat.

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Our contribution to the duck stamp program every year is just another way to give back to the wildlife we cherish so greatly.

Looking back on life, it has been ingrained in my head to love and worship waterfowl. I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, home of the Oregon Ducks. When I was a little girl my parents took me sporting events where I would dance and high-five our mascot, Puddles. I proudly graduated from the University of Oregon and before moving to Texas, Adam and I decided to try duck hunting. It was there that we enjoyed the cold, often wet companionship in the marshlands of Western Oregon. In a pond not far from where I harvested my first pheasant, I shot my first green-winged teal hen and got to taste duck for the first time. Fast forward to life on the Czech Out Ranch in Texas and I wake up to the sound of fourteen ducks eager to be let out of their pen to forage for the day.  That’s right,  we raise domestic ducks for their egg production. It appears I am destined to be tied to waterfowl no matter where I go.

Last year I put out into the universe my dream of Sandhill Crane hunting in Texas (which requires an additional Federal Sandhill Crane Hunting permit I might add). In fact, this is my number one dream hunt in Texas. Not a trophy mule deer or a bighorn sheep (though I would be game for either), but a Sandhill Crane. According to National Geographic a fossil from the Miocene Epoch, some ten million years ago, was found to be structurally the same as the modern Sandhill Crane. The Sandhill Crane’s deep historical significance, sheer size, numbers and beauty, make them the ultimate challenge for a bird nerd like me. There is a reason they are affectionately called the ribeye of the sky! Yes, Crane are very much edible.

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Sandhill Cranes- Post, TX

There was a second part to this dream however, I wanted to Sandhill Crane hunt with Heath Edgerton. 

My dream came true last Saturday morning when Adam and I headed to a wheat field outside of Lubbock. We may not have harvested any Sandhill crane that morning but I still feel successful in my pursuit of them. We witnessed those large, prehistoric birds, fly overhead. We heard their unique trilling calls and Heath taught us the differences between adult and juvenile birds. I also learned to appreciate that the Sandhill Crane has impeccable eyesight and the ability to fly while wearing body armor.

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Crane decoys

The following day Heath, along with his friends Haley and Joe, treated us to a memorable waterfowl hunt. I harvested my first Widgeon (a hen) and Adam his first Canada goose among other species of duck. It was there on the banks of that pond that I watched the sunrise and I got to witness Heath call for birds, learning the meticulous tricks and determination of the West Texas waterfowl hunter.

It didn’t take long for me to notice how much Heath values his relationship to the farmers of West Texas. Leaving the land in better condition than when we arrived, Heath and his friends picked up trash and empty shotgun shells left by other hunters. In addition, they made sure to open and close every gate with care and always took into account safe shooting distances and directions in relation to buildings and livestock. By taking great care in these things, Heath hopes to continue to foster a positive relationship between the land owner and the hunter.

It was then I realized that sometimes who you hunt with is much bigger then what you hunt. In the fast paced world we often find ourselves living in, genuine young people like Heath are hard to come by. He is definitely not your typical college student. The future of waterfowl hunting and conservation is alive and in good hands. One day, Heath might even play a major role in the food we consume or better yet, he might work for Ducks Unlimited. Either way,  I left Lubbock feeling like I had made a connection not only to the land and wildlife, but to the people that inhabit it.

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Mixed bag: Mallard, Widgeon, Pintail, Green-winged teal, Canada & Snow goose

And yes, I plan to pursue the Sandhill Crane again next season. Hopefully, with my friend Heath calling by my side.

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Thank you Heath and Haley for showing us a great time in Lubbock! 

For more information on a guided hunt with Health Edgerton please visit Wreckin’ Wing Outfitters.

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