John Devney, senior vice president of Delta Waterfowl, has witnessed brazen hunters shooting at ducks that were clearly descending on his own spread.
The problem became so bad on Rend Lake that the Illinois DNR decided to step in. Until 1994, the entire public hunting area was open to anyone who showed up, but the system just wasn't working. Marshalla said conservation police officers were acting more as referees or babysitters rather than game wardens, fielding complaints from hunters about other hunters.
"Things were pretty rough out there," Marshalla said.
How rough? A 1994 survey of the lake's waterfowl hunters conducted by the University of Illinois-Urbana found a high level of dissatisfaction with the system, mostly a result of hunter behavior. Twenty-six percent of respondents said other hunters threatened them, 49 percent had others "move too close" and 53 percent found a truck blocking the ramp prior to legal launch time. Written comments included reports of fistfights, hunters brandishing firearms and verbal assaults.
Delta Waterfowl senior vice president John Devney has seen some pretty egregious behavior himself, including a pair of hunters who set up just 100 yards downwind of him and his brother-in-law on an otherwise deserted mile-long lake in North Dakota.
"The lake was covered in ducks," he said. "They could have set up anywhere and killed a pile of birds, but for some reason they had to be right next to us, even though we got there well before they did. They shot at just about every bird that was swinging on our spread."
Polite hunting habits -- such as shooting only at birds working your spread -- reduce conflicts.
Devney isn't sure if conflicts in the marsh are increasing or if we just remember the bad events more than the good. Powley, however, says it seems to be getting worse in just the 12 years he's been hunting ducks and geese.
Why so many problems?
Devney said despite an overall decline in waterfowl hunters, those who remain are being packed into a shrinking land base. Surveys conducted every five years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show a significant decline in duck and goose hunters since their numbers peaked at 4.3 million in 1975. In 2006, just 1.3 million waterfowlers remained.
However, access to private ground is shrinking dramatically because of a variety of factors, including urban sprawl and the upswing in leasing, which shuts countless hunters out of the best private land and pushes them onto a static amount of public land. And in years when bird numbers are low or flights haven't reached public areas, hunters seem to be even more aggressive in their efforts to kill a few birds.
It's not just duck hunters, according to a 2009 Rasmussen Reports survey. It found that 75 percent of respondents believe Americans are becoming increasingly rude and less civilized. Spend time in rush-hour traffic and you'd certainly agree. Even bass anglers seem more willing to bully their way to a prime spot occupied by another boat, and turkey hunters are stepping on each others' toes like never before.
Devney thinks a more benign explanation might account for at least some poor hunter behavior.
"New hunters may not know that it's inconsiderate to set up close to another group or to shoot at birds that are clearly working someone else's spread. Maybe they just haven't been taught what's right and wrong," he said.
As quality spots become more difficult to find, conflicts on public land will likely increase, whether through innocent ignorance or malicious intent. But simple solutions exist. An avid hunter who frequents public land, Avery Outdoors media relations director Tyson Keller has watched another group encroach on his spread numerous times. Instead of inflaming the situation by confronting the other hunters, he tempers it by approaching them and doing what some might consider unthinkable: He invites them into his blind.
"I've actually met some great people," he said. "At least by talking to the other group in a civil manner, we can usually come to some sort of solution. Either we hunt together or they'll move. Or if I have to, I'll move, even if I was there first. It's a lot better than turning a hunt into a battle."
Devney agrees. He met a young man during a scouting trip one evening near his home in Bismarck, N.D. Both were watching a field full of geese, and when Devney noticed the other guy, he approached him and asked how many others were in his group.
"He was by himself and he said he didn't have many decoys, so I asked if he wanted to join me," Devney recalled. "As it turned out, the field was leased, so we didn't end up hunting together, but it certainly would have been a great way to avoid a potential conflict."
Devney and Keller willingly sacrifice a prime spot to avoid creating an uncomfortable situation. Plenty of others do the same, but too many others are products of the "Me Generation," willing to do whatever it takes to pull the trigger on a few birds, even if it means ruining someone else's hunt. Whether or not they know better doesn't matter, but Marshalla thinks most hunters who engage in rude behavior know exactly what they are doing.
Land access programs such as North Dakota's PLOTS reduce crowding and allow quality hunting for more waterfowlers.
"They know it's wrong, but they still do it, anyway," he said. "They were taught by a father or a friend that that kind of behavior is how it's supposed to be done. It's part of their culture."
That's why Devney says the ultimate solution falls on individuals who teach the next generation of hunters. Fathers, uncles, friends and others who take beginners under their wings ultimately pass on their ethics to those neophytes.
"New hunters do exactly what their mentors teach them, and if the mentor is willing to threaten someone over a hole in the marsh, then that new hunter will likely do the same when he goes out on his own," Devney said. "On the other hand, if the mentor teaches proper hunter-to-hunter ethics, we wouldn't be having this discussion."
Even though his father never hunted, Powley knows right from wrong in the duck marsh, something he credits to his upbringing. He said his father was the kind of person who avoided conflicts and was always willing to compromise. He also credits his strong ethics to the group of friends he started hunting with when he was 20.
"I learned a lot from them, but even if I never saw how they treat others in the field, I don't think I would do the things that I've seen out there," Powley said. "It's just common sense that you don't treat another hunter the way some treat each other."
Hunter ethics are taught in most state hunter education courses, but there's only so much time that can be devoted to the topic in a 10-hour course. And just because it's taught doesn't mean the students will take the message to heart.
Many states and even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service limit hunter numbers on public grounds through daily drawings, season-long blind lotteries and other restrictions. It's exactly how the Illinois DNR reduced conflicts on Rend Lake. In 1995, the agency instituted drawings for numbered locations spread out across the management area.
Follow-up surveys of Rend Lake hunters found that overall satisfaction increased significantly and problems associated with other hunters fell dramatically after much of the public hunting area went to a draw. Marshalla says just two years after access was restricted, the number of hunters who felt another party was moving too close fell by half.
Eleven percent of hunters felt they had been threatened, down from 26 percent in 1994, the last season when the lake was open to everyone. Overall, 62 percent of those surveyed said the quality of the hunt was better.
Daily competitions to secure the best waterfowl hunting spots on public land will certainly continue every day of the season. Likewise, a strong drive to kill ducks and geese will bring out poor behavior in some hunters.
And that is unfortunate, because when waterfowlers respect the space of others and allow the birds to work, everyone has a better hunt.