Preserving a pastime of hunting on the Harbor

Brian Blake fondly remembers his first time hunting for ducks. It was 1969 at the Grayland “lakes” and he was 9.

“It was Opening Day. It was a family affair, my dad and uncle. … All of us boys together.”

Among the duck hunters on Grays Harbor, few are more enthusiastic than Blake, who grew up in Central Park and has represented a large part of the Harbor in the state Legislature the past 11 years.

He said his family has hunted in the marshy Elk River estuary near Westport since the 1880s and started the South Bay Hunt Club in the early 1920s, building a cabin on the edge of the water which still stands today. There have only been six presidents of the club. Blake, the current president, said he mainly holds the position in “trust” for his brothers, after his father — who had been president — passed away. His father, too, had inherited the position from Blake’s great-uncles, Orvell and Earl Hite.

For him, the itch to be outdoors was literal when he was little. Even before he was old enough to hunt, he remembers the itch of scotch wool wet against his skin along on trips with his hunting family.

“It was military-surplus stuff, a quarter-inch thick and made for adult men. But we would put it on under our clothes knowing we would get soaked to the bone and it would keep us warm. And it always bunched up.”

While they could not yet shoot on their own, he and his two brothers apprenticed by fetching fresh catch from the water once the older men shot the birds from the sky — a task Blake said he thoroughly enjoyed.

As a child in the ‘60s, nothing was better than hanging around the men telling stories at Failor’s Sporting Goods in downtown Aberdeen, he recalls. “Failor’s is where you wanted to be as a boy, it was where all the guns and fishing equipment were, maybe you’d even get to talk to Walt Failor himself. Reiner’s Sporting Goods, the Smoke Shop, and more, on Heron Street. It was lit up 24/7.”

He still uses the wooden duck blinds where his family would hide to hunt the ducks, many previously made with lumber prior to the invention of plywood, he said, and since rebuilt on their sturdy, cement frames within the wet marshes.

During this season which is open through the end of January, on a hunting trip in November, Blake hides in one of the old boxes, which he says have been flooded, worn and rebuilt over and over again. Large enough to fit two or three people, if pretty cozily, each box is surrounded by branches from native plants, allowing hunters to take cover. On this trip, Blake wears head-to-toe camouflage as ducks fly overhead or bathe in the surrounding waters. The ones in the water he leaves alone.

“It’s unethical to shoot one on the ground,” he said, referencing a moral code among waterfowl hunters. “Unless it’s a crippled bird and you’re already going to lose it.”

Another rule by which Blake abides, go for the drakes, or male ducks. He tries to avoid the hens, or female ducks, that are about to lay eggs.

“I’m gonna let you live,” he said, gun cocked toward the sky as a very “pregnant” hen swayed overhead, almost suicidal in the stagnant air.

And those that he does shoot, two hen wigeons this particular day, do not go to waste.

“I wouldn’t kill em’ if I wasn’t gonna’ eat them,” he says, adding he often has requests from friends who enjoy the delicate, game-ish taste as much as he does.

He remembers the taste of his mother’s freshly cooked duck, a pan of a dozen or so birds, in an orange zest and honey glaze with fresh cranberries on the side.

“Very good eating,” he said of the dish.

Blake’s love for the sport is so strong that his favorite book as a child was one on birds published in 1910, which he said contained “all of the knowledge they had on birds at that time.” His father, a science teacher and avid hunter, would often quiz him on waterfowl, instilling in Blake a encyclopedic bird recognition: their shapes, sizes and relative habits.

Today his favorite to shoot and eat are green-headed mallards, but he also hunts canvasbacks, American wigeons, scaups, bluebills, buffleheads — as well as the occasional speckle-bellied goose.

As much as anything, it was hunting that was his catalyst to politics. Blake, a former logger and environmental specialist for the Department of Corrections, got involved in the late 1990s, when the state declared the pristine Elk River Estuary — a salt marsh, filled with rare native grasses — a Natural Area Preserve, off limits to most public access, including hunting.

“It didn’t make sense, I mean we love this place,” said Blake, of the estuary.

They thought the blame might deserve to be pointed at their then-state representatives, Bob Basich and Brian Hatfield. But, Blake said anger quickly dissipated as he learned more. “I found that it wasn’t really their fault,” he said. “It was my fault for not participating.”

He said the thought dawned on him that if he or his friends, or his family — who knew the lands as well, if not better,than anyone else around — were not speaking to their legislators, then maybe no one was.

“How would the state know if I didn’t contact them?” said Blake. “It was one of those ‘aha’ moments for me, of ‘you haven’t been doing your part.’ It only works if we as constituents participate,” he said.

He enjoyed aiding the political process, helping to lead a petition that garnered more than 1,000 signatures in the area and testifying on the bill, all of which aided in the area being changed from a NAP into a Natural Resource Conservation Area (NRCA). This allows more low-impact public access, such as hiking and hunting, but still prohibits potentially harmful access, like most motorized vehicle access.

The experience led Blake, a Democrat, to his position in the 19th Legislative District. He now serves as the chairman of the House committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.

While he said he has a “strong focus on jobs, and restoring economic activity” on the Harbor, particularly wood products, fishing and tourism, he worries about activity that threatens natural resources. Blake has concerns about the proposed crude-by-rail terminals.

“I think the concerns people have expressed are real,” he said, adding he would like a more transparent process as to the potential impacts to the area’s resources.

It’s those resources that have knitted the fabric of his community together, Blake said. “Our natural resources have historically proven to be strong resources for the economy, and I think they will continue to do so.”

Sam Luvisi: 360-537-3935 or sluvisi@thedailyworld.com and @DwSluvisi on Twitter


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