When Kevin Neher and his fellow duck hunters take to the water on Sylvan Lake, they set decoys and sit quietly in the dark, waiting for the birds to flock overhead.
“You can hear them off at a distance,” Neher said. “You'll see them as the sun comes up.”
Neher, 43, and his brother, Mike Neher, have been duck hunting at the Noble County lake for about 20 years, but fear the duck's habitat could disappear as new lake cottages are built.
“You're starting to see lake houses where farmland used to be. It's just a matter of time when you won't be able to hunt that land anymore,” Neher predicted.
Shrinking wetland habitat is discouraging for hunters and the conservationist Neher has become, but it's devastating for the ducks.
Indiana has lost more than 85% of its wetlands since the early 1800s. It's estimated that Allen County has lost about 83%, according to Scott Fetters, fish and wildlife biologist in northeast Indiana with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His office, the Northeast Indiana Habitat Restoration Office, is in Warsaw.
But conservationists and government partners are working to preserve and restore wetlands all over the U.S. In Steuben County, the 400-acre Cedar Swamp Enhancement is expected to be finished this summer. The project was funded with a $1 million grant from National Association of Clean Water Agencies, Ducks Unlimited and other partners, according to an April 2019 Ducks Unlimited News from the Field report.
Ducks Unlimited is a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting and saving wetlands.
Since the 1980s, a total of 314 acres in Allen County have been either restored or protected. That includes 130 protected acres, 55 of those in Eagle Marsh off Engle Road and 184 restored acres, according to Chris Sebastian, Ducks Unlimited's spokesman for the Great Lakes Atlantic Region.
In an 11-county area of northeast Indiana, 1,500 acres of native prairie grassland and 500 acres of wetland have been restored or protected. The grassland restoration includes 200 individual project sites, Sebastian said. Protected indicates that the wetlands were already there. Restored means brought back to life with water. Enhanced means improving the conditions of an existing wetland.
Wetlands are important, Fetters said, because “of all of the untold benefits – flood control, water quality improvement, ground water recharge and wildlife habitat.”
It's a mantra repeated by other wildlife biologists and conservation professionals like Betsy Yankowiak, director of preserves and programs at the Little River Wetlands Project in Allen County.
“Ducks need grass and water to reproduce, said Jim Franz, who lives in Decatur, and is past state chairman for Indiana Ducks Unlimited. Wetlands support “900-plus species of animals besides the ducks, foxes and fishes.”
Without wetlands to filter runoff from agricultural residue and pollutants from city streets, rain water streams into tributaries and rivers, taking with it the pollution that creates problems like the toxic algae bloom that surfaces every August in Lake Erie.
And without wetlands, ducks like mallard and wood duck, common in northeastern Indiana, cannot breed.
Ducks Unlimited, an international organization that bills itself as the leader in wetlands preservation, unites duck hunters and conservationists who may not hunt at all, to save wetlands across America, Mexico and Canada.
The organization also distributes funds to entities like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fetters said.
“Ducks Unlimited works with and cooperates with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Indiana DNR to do wetland and grassland restoration for migrating birds and other wildlife,” Fetters said. DNR stands for (the Indiana) Department of Natural Resources.
“We work to acquire it, put an easement on it and protect it and hand that property over to the land trust or the DNR ,” Sebastian said.
Recently, the Allen County chapter of Ducks Unlimited held its annual fundraiser, Fort Wayne Ducks Unlimited Gun Bash, at Ceruti's. About 15 Allen County Ducks Unlimited volunteers planned the event that drew nearly 200 people and raised about $20,000. That total, along with proceeds from two other annual functions, will probably match last year's county intake of $80,000, according to Roy Sutphin, the local chapter's treasurer and Ducks Unlimited state administrative coordinator. Indiana, with about 50 chapters, raised $1.2 million last year.
Each person who attended the banquet became a Ducks Unlimited member, if not already, with the purchase of the ticket, Sutphin added.
Nationwide, Ducks Unlimited has 622,000 members, including 11,300 in Indiana. The Allen County chapter has about 600 members, Sebastian said.
Since the 1980s, a total of 29,455 acres in the state have been either restored, protected or enhanced, Sebastian said.
At the gun bashes, numerous guns are raffled off. This year, the Allen County chapter raffle included a Ducks Unlimited Benelli Super Black Eagle 12-gauge hunting rifle inscribed with the Ducks Unlimited logo, which Sutphin described as “really pretty.”
For those who don't care for guns, another banquet that caters to the conservation-minded crowd is held in the fall, Sutphin said. On offer are exclusive prints, hand-carved decoys and other hunting- or outdoor-related items.
The challenge of duck hunting is to capture a moving target, but there's the camaraderie of hunting with family and friends and the feast of duck itself.
Sutphin, a detective with the Fort Wayne Police Department, does most of his hunting in Steuben County and has made trips to Missouri and the Dakotas, where he says some of the best duck hunting is.
“Ducks are increasing,” he said. “That's one of the big things Ducks Unlimited is helping.”
Sebastian said a 15-year project in northeastern Indiana that began in 2003 demonstrated that in 2,000 acres of preserved land, about 2,300 ducklings survived out of 5,800. That would be a typical survival rate, he added.
“That's 2,300 ducks that wouldn't have been there,” Sebastian said.
Sutphin points to the wetlands preservation at Eagle Marsh as a model in the fight to save wetlands.
“Eagle Marsh is an example of a collaboration of multiple partners trying to restore wet farm fields back into wetland habitats. To this date, 756 acres have been restored with the ultimate goal of 25,000 acres,” Yankowiak said.
There's been “huge growth,” in Allen County, Sutphin said. “Areas that I would have considered out in the county are now completely covered with houses. There's definitely been a lot of urban movement in this area, so lots of wildlife habitat has been lost I'm sure, as well as farmland.”
When Sutphin duck hunts in Allen County, he puts his boat in at Kreager Park and follows the Maumee River out of the city limits. His boat has a blind on it, a cover that looks like weeds, and Sutphin and his duck hunting buddies wear camouflage.
Legal shooting time starts a half-hour before sunrise, so the water fowlers will sit and talk quietly, but it gets really quiet if they see or hear ducks.
“Then we'll start calling, trying to attract the ducks,” said Sutphin, who has a son particularly adept at duck calling.
“It's beautiful out, especially early in the morning when there are no other noises except noises in nature. You hear all the animals and birds waking up. If it's not too cloudy, the sunrises are usually beautiful.”
Ducks Unlimited helps ACRES buy
Lettie Haver, spokes-woman for the ACRES Land Trust, headquartered near Huntertown, said Ducks Unlimited helped fund acquisitions within the Cedar Creek Corridor.
Chris Sebastian, Ducks Unlimited's spokesman for the Great Lakes Atlantic Region, sent a description of that aid.
“Ducks Unlimited provided financial support to ACRES Land Trust from a North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant to buy key wetland and upland properties along Cedar Creek. ACRES purchased two separate parcels totaling 115 acres in DeKalb County, expanding on additional Ducks Unlimited and ACRES project partnerships in northeastern Indiana.
“Protecting this corridor from development provides important nesting habitat for wood ducks and other forested wetland wildlife, as well as spring and fall migration habitat.”