The sound of gunfire periodically echoed across the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge on Veterans Day, followed sometimes by a duck falling from the sky after a successful hit.
At one blind, a dog quietly whimpered after already retrieving a few birds on the morning of Nov. 11.
Luke, an 8-year-old retriever, proudly held one of his quarry, which is one of 25 species of duck that people in the region can hunt, according to experienced hunter and 20-year Army veteran Branden Trager.
Trager and fellow veteran Josh James set up in one of the waterfowl blinds placed across the refuge as part of an annual hunt for military veterans on the refuge grounds.
The fourth annual Veterans Day Waterfowl Hunt went off successfully even after a particularly wet start to the day.
The hunt is put on by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Trager and James’ group The Fallen Outdoors, and the Washington Waterfowl Association.
After a COVID-19 pandemic-induced hiatus last year, the event returned on a smaller scale with 10 veterans who were just getting into waterfowl hunting.
Trager, a founding member and current president of The Fallen Outdoors, said his group became involved after Dion Hess, a local who organizes fishing trips for veterans out of Ridgefield, suggested it. Trager’s organization formed in order to take active duty service people and veterans out on hunting trips.
Compared to other hunting opportunities, waterfowl is advantageous due to a long season and a wide range of places to hunt, James said.
“For waterfowl, new birds move. You’re not hunting an animal that lives in that area. Today, we’re probably hunting birds that came out of Canada or Alaska,” James said.
Trager and James were able to be interviewed by The Chronicle from the blind. Had it been a big game hunt, participants would have had to stay as close to silent as possible. They said being able to have conversations while in the blind helps the veterans make connections with those they were hunting with.
Novice hunters were paired with experienced ones to help determine whether the bird could be hunted in Washington, James said. The state’s laws in general are different than any of the several states he has hunted in, James said. He specifically mentioned the ban on electric decoys that Washington and Oregon have imposed.
“It’s great to have those very experienced guys to share the knowledge,” James said.
Trager grew up hunting with his family in Missouri, but in the 12 years since relocating to the Pacific Northwest, he has hunted waterfowl regularly. James has hunted waterfowl for 10 years.
The Fallen Outdoors’ mission focuses on helping military members and veterans who move across the nation so they do not end up in a rut which wouldn’t allow them to experience the region around them, James said.
“Every opener, even if we don’t talk for six months, we know on opening day of duck season, we’re all going to meet in this parking lot in eastern Washington and we’re going to hunt the next two days together,” Trager said. “You create your tribe.”
Both hunters said conservation is at the forefront of their minds, noting the sales of hunting licenses and supplies help pay to support wildlife habitats.
“You would never see a hunter spill oil … because that’s it, the habitat’s gone,” Trager said.
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex Project Leader Juliette Fernandez said hunting is one of the “big six” uses of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s lands. Fernandez said the refuge’s dedicated blinds make a meaningful experience between the guide and the veteran.
“Pairing up with (The Fallen Outdoors and the Washington Waterfowl Association) to do a veterans program … is just such a neat opportunity for us to be involved in,” she said. “A lot of (the veterans) have the skillset, they know how to shoot, and they get to do it in an environment that is peaceful and serene.”
“What better pairing is there than to work with veterans who served to protect these public lands,” Fernandez said. “It’s only appropriate to give back.”