RICHVALE, Calif. -- In the gauzy dimness before dawn, two hunters picked their way along the muddy, raised trail slicing through the flooded rice fields.
A dense fog cut their vision to almost nothing, but the two men had hiked the path many times and walked with the sure-footedness of outdoorsmen. Their shotguns were crooked in their arms, and a black Labrador named Rice raced eagerly up and down the trail, knowing what the morning would bring. This was duck country, some of the best in the United States, in the heart of the Sacramento Valley.
Finally, Bill Filter, a rice and fruit farmer from nearby Live Oak, stopped at a spot covered with rice chaff and put down his gun. He worked quickly, pulling the tawny stalks aside. Beneath them was a metal duck blind sunk into the gumbo soil, deep enough for a hunter to stand as he called ducks in, big enough to hold four people. As the light brightened slightly and the fog eased, dots appeared on the water surrounding the blind. They were decoys, hundreds of them, which Filter puts out each year at the beginning of the three-month duck season that ends in January.
The other hunter, Robert Mathews, reached for his camouflaged bag and pulled out the source of what has become a growing controversy. Once assembled, the plastic duck looked like nothing more than a yard ornament, a fancy whirligig, with its outstretched wings and metal stand. But then Mathews, inventor of the Roto Duck, flipped the duck's electrical switch, and it became clear why this mechanized decoy -- and others like it -- have caused such a stir in the duck-hunting world.
The wings began to spin, giving the impression of a duck just lighting on water. To ducks high overhead, that means safety to land. To duck hunters, it has meant some of the easiest shooting ever. To manufacturer Mathews, a rice farmer, it has meant being able to pay the bills even when crops are bad. And to detractors such as San Francisco lawyer Howard Ellman, a lifelong duck hunter, it's cheating, pure and simple. He says the spinning decoys bring waterfowl in so close "you could practically kill them with a tennis racket."
There have been calls to have the motorized decoys banned even as their popularity has increased dramatically. And there also is talk of what will happen when high-tech resources are applied to all kinds of hunting.
These decoys, which originated in Mathews' hometown of Marysville, about 35 miles north of Sacramento, have gone from a workshop curiosity to a national craze. Though it is hard to keep track because of the ever-increasing numbers of manufacturers, those who follow the business say there are now more than 30 models available -- four types made in Marysville alone -- with prices ranging from just under $100 to more than $200, not to mention the homemade models that hunters have put together in their garages. The reason for the high demand is simple: Just one of them can go a long way in making sure a hunter bags his limit of seven ducks a day.
Sales figures have spiraled upward since the first mechanized duck was built two years ago, especially after outdoor catalogs such as Herter's began carrying the various decoy lines. At this point, tens of thousands have been sold.
What started in California is now sweeping the nation, and it is only this season that the mechanized decoys are being used on the Mississippi Flyway, the duck superhighway through the heartland of the United States that includes the two top duck-hunting states, Louisiana and Arkansas.
Some people worry about how technological wizardry is going to affect the duck-hunting world down the road.
One of those is John M. Eadie, a waterfowl specialist at the University of California, Davis, who helped conduct a recent government study of the mechanized decoy. His portion of the study showed that the Roto Ducks of the world are very effective indeed and he thinks they will become more so with high-tech tinkering.
"I think we are just at the beginning of the technological implications for sport recreation," he said, postulating only half-jokingly about a time when holographic ducks might be bobbing on the water.
One need look no further than catalogs, hunting magazines and the Internet to get an idea of what's already available. Interspersed among the standard fare of guns and ammo are such items as digitized deer calls that can imitate a fawn in distress, infrared scouting cameras that track animal movement and feeding times around the clock, high-end two-way radios as well as night-vision devices that can cost the hunter $2,000 and up.
There is no middle ground on this issue. Those in favor of the decoys contend that it's a victory for the common man, for the hunter who may not have all the skills, such as calling and shooting, needed to bag ducks. Those opposed are equally adamant that it's not fair to the ducks and ultimately unfair to the sport.
At the duck blind with Filter and Mathews, Rice the dog was sitting by the side of the metal container, poised to make a move. At the far end of the blind, Mathews was watching the skies while Filter blew on his string of duck calls. Both consider themselves accomplished hunters, though Filter takes it to the extreme, averaging five days a week in the blind during duck season.
There was a hint of blue in the sky above as the fog gave way and Mathews spotted several ducks close in. Using a remote control, he turned on the Roto Duck perched 20 yards away in the submerged rice field.
The ducks circled again and flew over low, close enough for both hunters to get shots off. A mallard went down, and Rice jumped into the water to retrieve it.
Half an hour later, the hunters would down two more, which Rice would retrieve . Mathews took the ducks from his dog and dropped them to the floor of the blind. At the end of the hunt, they would bring the ducks to a processor.
Mathews leaned against the blind and talked about his Roto Duck, first called Fatal de DUCKtion before marketing smarts kicked in. What started as a primitive contraption in which the wings were cut from plastic "No Smoking" signs purchased at the hardware store has turned into a venture in which he has six employees in a 4,000-square-foot warehouse.
He told of the time in 1998 when, on a whim, he cut open a plastic duck decoy and installed a motor, then wings and a stand. It worked better than he could have imagined. And, of course, word spread in the duck-hunting community.
that a new gadget was out there.
"Pretty soon I had people calling me, asking if I could make them one," said Mathews. "Then people would come by and wait all day to make sure they got the next one. It just took off."