RIDGEFIELD — Heavy rain, low clouds and cool temperatures — it was the perfect weather for ducks. And duck hunters. Early on Thursday morning, 15 former service members and staff were at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge for a special Veterans Day duck hunt.
The hunters and guides met at the River “S” Unit for the 5:15 a.m. check-in, where they given coffee and doughnuts and a plan for the day’s hunt. Each veteran was then paired with their guide before heading out into the marsh to hunt from designated blinds.
All of the equipment needed — from waders, backpacks and ammunition to licenses and duck stamps — was provided to the veterans through the collaborative efforts of the Lower Columbia Chapter of the Washington Waterfowl Association, The Fallen Outdoors — an all-volunteer nonprofit that connects veterans to the great outdoors — and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Brandon Traeger, president of The Fallen Outdoors, teamed up with Josh James. James recently ended his active military duty.
“Duck hunting is good for veterans because it gives them an opportunity to talk. With most big game hunting you have to be really quiet,” Traeger said.
Traeger said he and James had spent most of the morning talking and by 9 a.m. had yet to down a single bird, much to the dismay of his Labrador retriever. But neither was worried about driving away the ducks.
“If they want to come in, they’ll come in,” James said.
James, already an experienced duck hunter, drove to the refuge from his Graham-area home south of Tacoma. While he waited for the ducks to fly overhead, he jostled a line out to one of a handful of decoys in the water to make it look more lifelike.
“This isn’t even a quarter of the decoys I have in my truck,” James said with a laugh.
Several species of duck, including green-winged teal, American wigeon, northern pintail and mallards, can be found across the refuge’s 5,300 acres. Having a guide familiar with each species’ hunting requirements is important to the program’s success, Traeger added.
The Fallen Outdoors mission is to facilitate hunting and fishing adventures for veterans from every generation and all branches of the military. Traeger said waterfowl hunting is one of the best ways to do this because it can be done in groups and encourages conversations.
“A lot of these vets kind of sit at home and maybe aren’t that social. Then you put them in a duck blind and you really get to see them open up,” Traeger added.
The Ridgefield wildlife refuge is also one of the best places for those outdoor adventures.
“We have an awesome place here at the wildlife refuge. It gives us almost exclusive access for the veterans that day. It creates an environment they know is safe; yes there are gunshots going off but it’s all controlled and everyone’s spaced far enough apart they’re not going to interfere with each other,” Traeger said.
With only 19 hunting blinds at the refuge, it wasn’t possible to bring everyone interested in the special hunt. Traeger said over 100 veterans signed up for the event, from which 10 names were selected. The first Veterans Day hunt at the Ridgefield refuge was held in 2018.
The event is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s commitment to recruitment, retention and reactivation of hunters and anglers. The refuge hosts several other waterfowl hunting events throughout the year.
“Today is a special day, it’s just for veterans,” said Eric Anderson, project director for the Ridgefield refuge.
Anderson said the refuge also has a hunt for veterans, active duty and youth in February and a youth-specific day in October. Additionally, the refuge is open to the general public during hunting season on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
For more information about The Fallen Outdoors, go to https://thefallenoutdoors.com.
For information about the Ridgefield refuge, go to https://www.fws.gov/refuge/ridgefield.