Standing on the boat dock, I stared across the great salt lake, its mirrored surface the same gunmetal gray as the Utah sky. Rising high above the salt flats on the opposite shoreline were the northernmost peaks of the snowy Stansbury Mountains. The whole landscape seemed empty and isolated—until, that is, I turned around and looked to the south at the sprawl of Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front just beyond it. The Great Salt Lake, all 1,700 square miles of it, is a massive wetland wilderness positioned on the edge of one of America’s great urban centers.
The stillness was broken by the hum of a motor, and across the plane of the water I saw an airboat growing larger. When the fans slowed and the boat came to idle, Justin Leesmann, who was representing Beretta on this second leg of their A400 Xtreme Plus Torture Test, stepped down to help me load my gear into the boat. My flight had been delayed in Chicago on my way to Salt Lake City, and, as such, I’d missed most of the morning shoot. All of the other hunters were already on the water.
“Are you seeing many ducks?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” was all Justin said. Eager to get on the water and into the action, I wasted no time climbing aboard. After settling down and pulling on my ear muffs, the great fan roared to life and we turned in the narrow bay, headed to the shallow flats to our south.
Joining the Action
The Great Salt Lake is the largest remnant of the extinct Bonneville Lake, an enormous body of water from the Pleistocene Epoch that vanished almost 17,000 years ago. Because it has no outlet, the Great Salt Lake is very salty—roughly seven times as salty as the ocean—and the primary living organisms in this water are brine shrimp. The shrimp attract shorebirds and waterfowl by the millions. As we rushed over the flat surface of the lake, tens of thousands of birds rose up into the gray sky and crossed ahead of us. Rails, plovers, mallards, green-winged teal, and goldeneyes moved in enormous flocks against the backdrop of the mountains to a soundtrack of rushing wind and the roaring fan. The birds were so numerous in places, that they looked like great swarms of mosquitoes that spanned the length of the horizon.
Our captain idled the boat as we approached a series of layout blinds on the shallow flats just off the western shore of Freemont Island. I climbed into the clear water, which was no more than a few inches deep, but like an oasis in the desert, the solid lake bottom vanished before my eyes. I was immediately thigh-deep in the loose sediment, and I had to churn my way through the dense mud all the way to my blind. With each knee lift the earth below me made a sucking sound, and with each new step I sank again. As I reached my layout blind, breathing hard from the effort, I looked over my shoulder at the floor of the lake. A spiderweb of skittering shorebird tracks were interrupted by the muddy post-holes I’d left in the soft earth beneath the water.
There was no natural cover to conceal us, so several dozen black duck silhouettes served to conceal our location from the birds. I settled down into my layout blind, and while feeding Kent nontoxic shells into the belly of the Beretta, I told Brayden Guenzi, one of the other torture-testers who was laid out in a blind beside mine, I was sorry for disturbing the action. He leaned forward and told me he didn’t think it would be a problem.
Guenzi was correct. In a few minutes, I spotted a flock of teal on the horizon. They moved in as a single unit, bobbing up and down against the backdrop of the snowy mountains before banking and coming at us in a low rush just over the surface. When they neared the layouts, someone yelled, “Take ‘em!” and I sat up and shouldered my gun. The birds sprung upward in a fan formation, black silhouettes twisting across the gray clouds. Up and down the line shotguns cracked, and two of the birds went down with a splash. I knew I hadn’t hit them (I barely got my gun up), and I felt sorry for the retrievers that had to fetch those pair of birds we’d dropped. The dogs didn’t have nearly the trouble that I had crossing the mud flats.
Mastering the Flats
Green-winged teal were the target of the day. Migration patterns and changing weather conditions make the Great Salt Lake a fascinating and difficult hunting destination. The best hunting might occur on the fringes of the tall marsh grass near shore one day, and the flats or the deeper pools might provide the most action the next day. The diversity of species and habitat is one of the things that make the Great Salt Lake a hunter’s paradise, but it takes some time to learn how to read the birds and the water. The team from Fried Feathers, the outfit we were hunting with, felt that the flats would be best on that day, and they thought teal would be the primary quarry. Their predictions proved to be accurate.
There’s a special brand of misery only teal hunters seem to appreciate. There was no shortage of birds, but there were also no easy shots. After a series of embarrassing misses, I finally got my first bird, a drake that flew straight up and almost into the path of my Xtreme Plus shotgun’s muzzle. When the Beretta roared, I saw the teal fold and fall to the shallow flats with an arcing splash. Eventually, I learned to stop watching the sky for incoming birds, because by the time a flock of teal rushed the decoys and then rose up in fast-moving rainbows, it was too late to start the gun’s motion. As a steady drizzle fell and the top of Freemont Island was swallowed up in a fog bank, I learned to watch the surface of the water and not the sky. As each flock came in low and hard, they were all but invisible against the opposite horizon. But if I could track their shadows as they glided across the surface of the water, I could get into position and prepare for my shot before the birds reached the outer limits of our spread.
There were few slow times, but once, while waiting for a long retrieve, I stopped to look at my gun. The Beretta was a mess. Conditions made it impossible to avoid the mud and water, and my gloved hands were caked with wet grime. That coating of salty mud made its way onto everything I touched including my blind bag, my jacket, and most noticeably, my gun. A clay-colored cocktail of lake-bottom mud and salt—lots of salt—caked the receiver and the forearm of the Xtreme Plus 12-gauge. If Beretta wanted to torture these guns, they’d come to the right place. There was very little time to study the salt patterns my wet gloves were leaving on the receiver, though. More ducks were coming.
After a couple of hours, most of the hunters in the line had met their limit and we decided to break camp for the evening. There was still a long airboat ride back to the dock, and then we’d have to load the boats and the gear and do our best to wash the dried salt muck from our equipment. It was well after dark by the time we made it back to our rented house.
The next morning was cold and gray, and there was a steady north wind. When we left from the dock all of the hunters were dressed with facemasks to protect them from the bitter wind. Only the dogs, with their custom ear muffs wrapped tightly around their small heads to protect their hearing from the drone of the engines, seemed to enjoy the early ride.
It takes a special dog to hunt the flats of the Great Salt Lake. The Labs that accompanied us were lean and obviously well-conditioned, both from summer training and from several weeks of making retrieves in the shallow muck. The handlers, naturally, were less than thrilled when the dogs had to make long, blind retrieves on crippled birds, but the dogs seemed to hold up quite well and never dropped into the muck as I did with every labored step. There was no doubt, however, that those long runs were taxing, and oftentimes fruitless: Once we had to call the dog back from a hard-charging retrieve on a distant bird, because a bald eagle had zeroed in on the injured duck and dropped out of the sky, snatching the teal in its talons almost at the instant the bird touched down. There was nothing to do but sit back in our blinds and reload, marveling at the efficiency with which the eagle plucked the bird from the lake’s surface.
A stiff breeze developed during midmorning, and that added to the difficulty of the hunt. The teal were still charging in, and still scattering at the perimeter of the decoys, but a slight chop on the surface made it hard to see the shadows of the approaching flocks. The challenge of hitting the dodging green-wings became more difficult still, but the wind and the weather brought in more and more birds, and just after noon we had several limits.
If it was a torture test that Beretta wanted, that’s what they got. The mud made for rough going (I spent most of my time lying very still in the layout blind, trying hard to distribute my weight evenly across its surface so that the corners wouldn’t dip below the water line), and any unnatural movement—lifting the gun barrel, adjusting a facemask, sitting up too early—would flare the birds. Putrid mud, greasy and with an unmistakable saline smell, enveloped everything. But these challenges, along with the unbelievable abundance of birds, are what make the Great Salt Lake an unrivaled hunting destination.
Salt-caked, exhausted and completely satisfied, we climbed back into the airboat and began our return trip to the dock. It was dark by then, and the green, red, yellow, and white lights of Salt Lake City illuminated the western bank and the foothills of the Wasatch Range. Hunting the lake is a challenge, but it was well worth enduring the salt and mud flats to shoot birds there.
The next day, I boarded a plane at the Salt Lake City Airport headed for Cincinnati, and as we ascended over the lake, I looked out across the empty water below. The lake was still and reflected the cloudless sky, and I could see a flock of water birds against the surface of the water. Perhaps they were teal, preparing to dive in on some lucky hunters lying far out on the flats.