With a rainbow in the background, widgeon decoys try to work their magic on Walhalla pond. Photo by Dick Shellhorn

As our military jets are blazing away at balloons and other airborne objects with deadly effect, I am reminded of the glory days of duck hunting on the Copper River Delta.

Back before the nine-foot uplift from the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, the Delta was a broad, treeless intertidal plain, filled with shallow brackish ponds that were ideal habitats for every kind of duck and goose that nested or migrated through.

The number and variety of birds were truly spectacular. When we built our duck cabin at Pete Dahl in 1959 birds would pour through in the fall and we quickly learned we were adjacent to one of the Delta’s most famous duck hunting hot spots with an appropriate name — Walhalla.

Like many of the sloughs on the Delta, Walhalla‘s name dated back to the days of set netting for the famous Copper River salmon, and several Scandinavians favored that spot, hence the monicker.

It just happened that, near the western edge of the mouth of that slough, on a point that sits dead center in the flyway for birds migrating south, was a pond a half mile across and 6 to 12 inches deep that would be so full of ducks you literally could hear the roar of their wings when they took off. And the amazing thing is they would come right back in flocks of all sizes.

Dad and I would set up a skimpy blind out of driftwood and brush, toss out a dozen rubber inflatable Deeks and here they would come, mainly widgeons. The sound of their whistling wings as they came banking in at 40 mph was enough to send chills down your spine, and Dad would jump up and shout: “Shoot! The air’s full of widgeons!”

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We would blaze away and realize with dismay that the air was still full of widgeons. After calming down, Dad would pack his pipe with Half and Half, and while puffing away, mumble “Pick a bird, son, pick a bird.”

Well, in a span of eight days U.S and Canadian air defense systems have spotted at least four balloons or unidentified targets, and demonstrated our fighter jets are much better shots than Dad and I.  However, recovering what they have shot down has proved a bit more challenging. Which reminds me of another memorable hunt at Walhalla Pond.

It was in October 1984 and I had invited legendary Cordova High School basketball coach Bob Lenz down for a nearly October hunt at our cabin.  

In 1987, a nattily-attired Cordova High School Coach Bob Lenz gives his basketball team directions during a timeout. A duck hunt at Walhalla revealed that Lenz was much better at diagramming plays than he was at wing shooting. Photo courtesy of Cordova High School

Bob asked if he could bring along his dog Julie. She was a well-behaved female golden lab, and I said of course. It was fun to watch her excitement being out where she was bred to be, and I set up Bob in the best blind on the upper edge of the pond replete with quite a spread of decoys, and then moved off to another blind about a quarter of a mile away.

Much to my delight, birds seemed to pour into Bob’s blind and Julie was having a field day splashing out and retrieving following every Lenz volley. After a couple hours, the action slowed down, so I decided to wander over and see how Bob had done.

The blind was quite cozy with a roof, back, and sides plus a 2-foot by 12-foot bench long enough to seat two hunters plus all their gear.

As I came closer, I could see the camouflage brush in the front of the blind was full of holes, created by Julie as she leaped off the bench to retrieve after Bob shot.

When I peered in the blind, I saw Bob scrunched over in a corner, Julie eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to fetch, and a stack of Cabela’s best molded plastic widgeon decoys piled on the bench.

Lenz was famous for his one-liners: “Well I ain’t shooting worth a darn, but Julie is retrieving great.”

Maybe Julie should be out looking for all those objects our jets have been shooting down.

And I still chuckle when I see teeth marks when setting out a spread of widgeon decoys at Walhalla Pond.

Entry from the Shellhorn Cabin journal dated Oct. 7, 1984: “Great time with wonderful company. Dog did better than the shooter. – Bob Lenz”

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Dick Shellhorn
Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at [email protected].