NAVAJO DAM — Ben Herrera, 23, is an optician at Vision Mart in Farmington. In eight hours, he will don a blue vest, slacks and shiny, black shoes and fit people for new glasses.
On this mid-December morning, though, dressed head-to-toe in camouflage, he and his hunting buddy, David Whitford, are loading the bed of his pick-up truck with supplies for a duck hunt. The friends have known each other since third grade.
"When (ducks) eat, the food stays in their gizzard, and they fly down to the river, and they eat pebbles. The rocks break down all the food, and they digest it. So every day, they have to go down to the water and about nine o'clock, you look up at (Navajo Dam) and you can just see hundreds of ducks coming down to the river," Herrera said.
At 5 a.m., as he wound through the curves of N.M. Highway 511 along the San Juan River, he explained why he likes to get such an early start.
"You gotta get there before everyone else does," he said.
It also enables the hunters to set up the 24 life-sized duck decoys to lure the mallards, teals, redheads, pintail and canvasbacks into their shooting range. Hunters often rotate their spots and try not to go to any one spot too often.
"(The ducks) learn the patterns and avoid that spot in the river," Herrera explained.
Today, Herrera and Whitford have chosen an area they previously scoped out, located about three-quarters of a mile upstream of Texas Hole on the San Juan River in the Upper Flats.
Hunters in New Mexico most commonly hunt elk and deer, but duck hunting is gaining popularity.
"Duck hunting has a lot of passionate participation as well," said Rachel Shockley, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. "We are receiving more phone calls from first-time duck hunters."
But, Shockley said, the department is not concerned with over-hunting.
"Because New Mexico has a lot of open space, there are not issues of over-crowding," she said.
The United States is divided into four flyways, based on migratory bird route paths. A council governs each flyway, with representatives from the wildlife agencies of each state.
San Juan County is in the North Zone of the Pacific Flyway. The Pacific Flyway Council, along with the Secretary of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, decide annually on the length of the hunting seasons, bag limits and areas available for game hunting, according to the council's website. They first consider the welfare of the birds and then the demand for recreation and other uses.
"As long as it's got webbed feet and a bill, you shoot," Herrera said.
But his explanation of duck tags made it apparent that it's a little more to it.
To hunt ducks and geese, anyone 16 or older is required to hold a valid Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation stamp. This $15 stamp lasts one season, and it can be acquired at duckstamp.com, wildlife.state.nm.us or at U.S. post offices and vendors such as Sportsmen's Warehouse and Big 5.
Getting to their duck hunting spot may have been the most dangerous part of Herrera and Whitford's day.
They walked over glassy patches of ice and then through the river with a bed of moss-covered rocks, carrying their shotguns, hunting chairs and large bag of decoys. The sun had not yet risen and the threat of hypothermia was very real if one misstep landed them in the water.
Luckily, both Herrera and Whitford made it to the small island covered in tall grass, where they spent the next five hours.
Half an hour before sunrise, legally the beginning of the hunting day, they were ready with their decoys strategically placed around them in the water. They waited, hidden in the grass, every once in a while blowing a duck call.
"This cloud-cover is going to change their flight pattern, make them fly later," Herrera said.
The morning didn't yield the high number of ducks or geese the hunters wanted. On their previous trip, they maxed out both of their tags with a total of 14 ducks by 7 a.m. But this time, by 10 a.m. they were packing up, content with their four ducks.
When it comes to the laws and regulations of hunting, there's no such thing as "playing dumb."
"Know your bag limit and the species," Shockley said. "As you get deeper into the sport, there is lots of biological and habitat information that you can learn along the way -- flight patterns, markings, wing span, etc."
She suggested hunters carry their "regs," or regulation books, with them, as reference.
Hunting is not only about bringing in the kill. Most hunters agree the camaraderie and time spent outdoors play a large role in the enjoyment of the sport.
When Herrera started to realize the hunters weren't going to have a lot of luck on that December morning, his response was calm.
"It's all right. We got our coffee. Nothing can ruin our day," Herrera said.
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KNOW THE LAWS
Be familiar with the law before you head out
Before heading out on a hunt, make sure you know the law. The New Mexico Small Game Hunting Rules and Information booklet, which is also sometimes called a "hunting proclamation," is released each season by the New Mexico Game and Fish Department.
What does it do?: It ensures hunters are aware of all the laws, new amendments to the laws and hunters' rights.
Why should hunters read it?: It is imperative that hunters read this publication, not just once, but each year it comes out, as laws are subject to change.
Did you know?: The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish is funded solely by licenses and fees paid by hunters, trappers and anglers.
Where do I get more information?: For more about the department and the booklet, go to www.wildlife.state.nm.us.
FOUR DUCK HUNTING LAWS
One wing must be attached: The state of New Mexico's duck hunting laws state that, "One fully feathered wing must remain attached to all migratory game birds until transported to the hunter's home or storage facility."
Using artificial decoys, dogs: You can "use artificial decoys, blinds and dogs," according to the law. Also, birds may be taken from a motor boat or sailboat if the craft is at anchor, fastened in or along a fixed hunting blind or used to retrieve killed birds."
Report any banded birds: The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish requests that all banded birds that are harvested be reported. You can report them online at reportband.gov or toll-free at 1-800-327-2263.
What you can shoot with: The law says birds can be taken with a shotgun, a muzzle-loading shotgun firing shot, bow and arrows and crossbow and bolts. A shotgun can be no larger than 10-guage and can't hold more than three shells.