If you go

What: Bend Ducks Unlimited Annual Dinner Banquet

When: April 7, 5 to 10 p.m.

Where: Beaver Coach Sales, 62995 Boyd Acres Road

To purchase tickets, visit: www.ducks.org/oregon/events

Duck hunter Chris Dittman, camouflaged in leaf patterns and wearing waders, was lobbing pieces of duck sausage to his dog when a common goldeneye duck touched down in the nearby Crooked River. Despite the easy shot, Dittman, 43, who’d streaked his face with black and green paint, left his camo Remington Versa Max shotgun where it lay at his side.

“Duck hunting isn’t just about the killing,” Dittman said quietly between bites of “duckeroni” — the spoil of previous hunts. “The goldeneye is a diving duck, which means they dive down and feed deep in the muck,” he said. “Divers aren’t good eating.”

As Dittman spoke, the goldeneye ruffled its neck feathers and pruned itself with its beak before floating out of sight.

“I wouldn’t just shoot this duck and go home and throw it in the garbage can,” he said. “Dabblers (ducks that feed on insects by dipping forward on the surface) taste better.”

More ducks, fewer hunters

While the success of a duck hunt is largely dependent on the weather — and luck — duck populations are on the rise, according to a recent report by The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Total duck populations in the U.S. and Canada — which include nearly 30 species were estimated at 47.3 million ducks in 2017.

That’s slightly less than 2016’s estimate of 48.4 million ducks. Less rainfall is thought to explain the decrease, according to the agency’s Migratory Bird Hunting Activity and Harvest Report. The 2017 population estimate is 34 percent above the long-term average since 1955.

Also on the rise is duck hunting. In 2016, 11.6 million ducks were hunted in the U.S., which is up from nearly 11 million in 2015. Goose hunting is up, too, with more than 3.2 million geese nabbed in 2016, which is an increase from 2.5 million in 2015, according to the report. Duck hunting participation numbers, however, are down. During the 2016-2017 season, slightly more than 1 million U.S. hunters sprang for duck stamps. That’s less than half of the duck hunters in 1970, according to Delta Waterfowl, a Canadian conservation nonprofit.

In 2016, Bend resident Dittman was one of 335,405 licensed overall hunters in Oregon — the ODFW’s latest numbers. The agency sold 27,295 Federal Waterfowl Stamps, which are needed to hunt duck, during the period from July 2016 to June 2017. A “duck stamp” costs $25. For the past 85 years, they have paid for the conservation of more than 5.7 million acres of strategic wetland habitat, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The 2017-18 season in Central Oregon’s Zone 2 (Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, Jefferson, Wheeler, Deschutes and Crook counties) stretched from Oct. 7 to Nov. 26 and from Nov. 29 to Jan. 21. In Central Oregon, there are 15 different native species. Hunters can bag no more than seven each day; only two can be female. Dittman likes duck hunting — the only kind he currently does — because the relatively long season means he doesn’t feel pressured to pack back-to-back hunts into every weekend. Dittman is also the chairman of the Bend chapter of Ducks Unlimited, a national conservation nonprofit. Since it was founded in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has aided duck populations by restoring 14 million acres of grass and woodlands or duck breeding grounds, according to the organization. The Bend chapter, which counts 15 members, has raised around $90,000 during the past two years, Dittman said. The money funds the national Ducks Unlimited account, which prioritizes conservation efforts across the country. In Oregon, Ducks Unlimited is involved in 50 such projects.

“For me personally, I want to create a legacy so my kids can go out and hunt and do all these things that I enjoy so much. It it is an oxymoron a little bit where people think, ‘Oh, you’re just going out and killing these animals,’” Dittman said. “Yes, our recreation is hunting, but we understand that the bigger picture is that if we’re not going to conserve, we won’t have hunting in the future.”

Dawn patrol

Duck hunting is limited in Central Oregon because it’s not a huge flyway. Popular areas in Central Oregon include the upper Cascade Lakes. Yet even large bodies of water, such as the Wickiup and Crane Prairie reservoirs, will freeze each winter, sealing off food sources for ducks, Dittman said. But there are other secret spots to hunt ducks. Dittman patrols private land he leases on the Crooked River along the Oneil Highway.

“That’s a big enough stretch of land that people won’t guess where it is,” Dittman said with a chuckle. Hunters, whether they’re pursuing ducks or morels, like to keep their spots secret.

This season, Dittman has shot nearly 100 ducks. Breaking the triple digits would be the first of any of his 33 years of duck hunting. At home, the loan officer by day keeps a bird-cleaning station where he plucks and dresses the carcasses before delivering them to Cinder Butte Meat Co. in Redmond, which produces the duckeroni his family likes to eat. He carries a package of the stuff on most of his hunts. Sometimes his children — Jacob, 10, and Aliana, 7 — tag along, too. Through the ODFW’s mentored youth hunter program Jacob shot his first duck this season, which Dittman supervised. He had the duck mounted and gave it to his son as a Christmas present. Aliana has yet to shoot a duck of her own, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t enjoy the hunt.

“My daughter once told me she had better come along because she’s better at spotting the ducks than me,” Dittman said with a laugh. “Hunting is a great way for us to connect in a way we can’t back at the house with video games and TVs and phones.”

He said that the secret to keeping kids content on a duck hunt involves plying them with snacks and hot cocoa. This morning, however, the moonlight was his only companion — and, until daybreak, his only illumination. It was also the longest he had to wait for sunrise — 7:11 a.m. — Central Oregon’s official green light for hunting to begin between Dec. 30. and Jan. 5. A timetable in the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Game Birds Regulations helps hunters keep track of start times.

A few percussive, pre-dawn pops in the distance, however, told Dittman he wasn’t the sole duck hunter in the area.

“That’s a little early, boys,” he said.

A few minutes into the hunt, Dittman hunkered down on a grassy ledge overlooking a bend in the Crooked River. A dozen ducks and several geese were floating in the water and navigating the shoreline, which was slick with a layer of ice. Dittman’s large golden retriever, Scout, wearing a camouflage dog vest, had ambled next to him. He rolled on his back in the grass when not investigating mouse holes in the dirt.

“He’s 70 percent family dog and 30 percent hunting dog,” Dittman had quipped. Now, Dittman whispered a command.

“Scout. Back,” he said.

With a distance of about 40 yards, Dittman trained his shotgun toward the flock and let forth with a loud call.

“Hup! Hup!”

The sky erupted in panicked wing beats and shrill honking. Three 3-inch steel shot blasts bellowed from Dittman’s shotgun, which he fanned at the dispersing birds. A duck dropped with a leadened splash. Then a goose thudded to the water. Loose feathers pirouetted in their wakes. Scout, barking, bound into the river and swam to collect the dying duck — a drake gadwall — in his mouth. The duck stopped moving its wings by the time Scout got to shore, where he delivered the bird to his owner.

“Good boy, Scout,” he said, rubbing his panting dog’s reddish fur.

Dittman had to wade into thigh-high water, however, to retrieve the lifeless Canada goose because Scout has yet to figure out how to manage such a large bird. On a previous outing, an injured, hissing goose thrashed Scout, keeping him at bay. Dittman returned to his stake-out post, made comfortable by a drab-colored packable chair, and continued to wait. The duckeroni came out, and Dittman called on his duck whistle. Pairs of ducks flitted overhead. Their nervous, staccato calls announced them as divers — not worth Dittman’s time. Soon, teams of swans punctuated the sky with their long wing beats.

“Can’t shoot those,” Dittman said.

Despite setting up several dozen duck and goose decoys on the cow pie-strewn pasture and rudder-equipped ones in the Crooked River, nothing happened for an hour. Scout sniffed the limp, still-warm birds. He licked at a patch of blood on the duck’s torso and returned to sitting on his haunches, shivering a little. His owner alternated his jacket off and on.

“Not much flying today,” he said. “Like my son says, ‘Nothing is guaranteed; that’s why they call it hunting.’”

The aforementioned goldeneye scuttled to the river’s surface and, unmolested, floated downstream. Then a wigeon — female and mottled in gray-brown plumage — arrived in the water. It was a tasty dabbler. The duck didn’t notice as Dittman popped up from the grass.

“Hup! Hup!” Dittman called out again. His shots rang throughout the rimrock valley. Then Scout, barking, lunged into the water and began to swim.

“Go get ’em, Scout!” Dittman said. “Good boy.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com