Bradley Ramsey’s Journal
(Below is the revised version of an earlier story entitled “Going Mobile”.)
Viewed through the lens of today’s culture of waterfowling we would have been laughed out of the water on just about any WMA or public hunting grounds. Nothing we had was new, and the majority of what we used was adapted to fit our needs. It certainly was not designed for the tasks e put it through.
As the youngest of five children myself, of seven for my hunting partner, hand me downs were just part of life. Though both of our parents’ were successful, neither Chris’s or mine were wasteful. While some of our friends got new this or that to pursue their “leisure activities” Chris and I were hunters and outdoorsmen, in the making. And all our siblings, the males anyhow, had all been brought up hunting. So, when it came to be our time in the wilds there was a veritable plethora of ill fitting, worn and faded camouflage and canvas coats, boots that required a couple layers of socks to even remotely fit, and old guns with only the faintest traces of bluing left to remark upon their former glory.
But it hardly mattered. We didn’t care that our camo didn’t match, our waders always leaked or that the bulk of our other gear had seen more winters in the woodlands and waters of the delta than we had been on earth. We used what we had, we improvised what we needed and at somewhere around 1986 Chris and I struck out on our own to chase waterfowl on the public lands and waterways of Mississippi and beyond.
Unlike my brothers and sisters, I had not gotten a new sporty car when I turned 16. Though I am sure my parents would have found a way to get one for me, had I asked. I knew what I wanted, what I needed, was a four-wheel drive. So, I had asked for a used pick up. Dad and my brother Bob had found one for me, with a decent number of miles and a stick shift. It took a few weeks, but dad had taught me to drive a standard, not satisfied to let me out on the roads until I had mastered the ability to hold on a hill without using the brake. But by the fall of that year my little Chevy S-10 pickup was outfitted with mud tires and a trailer hitch. From then on there was hardly a free hour or day that I was not headed into the delta chasing one sort of game or another.
Chris and I had become fairly accomplished duck hunters by then, or at least we thought so. We had been taking on the larger portion of scouting and calling for my dad at Tupelo Brake, even “guiding” some of his guests from time to time when we had found birds in remote parts of that seemingly boundless paradise. And there was always a spot for me in my father’s hunting party, and one for Chris or another of my friends most days. But something in me wanted to strike out on my own, to take on unknown places, to explore new grounds. I do not know if I could have expressed it then but looking back I know that I wanted to prove myself to my father and all my hunting heroes, that I could do it myself. Heck, I wanted to prove it to myself I am sure. But there was another factor that played a major part in my desire to spread my waterfowling wings.
With the new camp at the Tupe and thousands of acres of unspoiled bottomlands stretching out from our own ground, my father had become almost strictly a timber hunter. And though on rare occasion we killed a good strap of ducks in the woods and sloughs of Panther Swamp during rains or heavy overcast, more of those days were slow, if not bleak, from a duck killing perspective. But the same was not true for one of the camp members, the man my father had urged me to learn from and model myself after as a waterfowler. Howard Miller killed ducks, rain or shine, high water or low, somewhere in the delta. He was so widely known for his skills that around the hardware store coffee pots and roadside diners that drew duck hunters old and young, the talk was almost always of Howard. And in tough times you would hear what became almost cliché.
“If Howard ain’t killing ducks, there ain’t no ducks to be killed.”
In fairness I must say that my father had had his days of chasing ducks as hard or harder than Howard. He had been a river hunter on the Mississippi for ages, until one too many close calls made promise the Lord that if he ever got off that river alive, he would never venture out on it again. And he had hunted the lakes and oxbows for years, starting as a boy, log before paved roads reached their banks or bridges spanned the innumerable cuts, bayous and ditches that eventually tamed some of the wilder parts of those lands. He had done his time fighting the gumbo and buckshot mud of bean fields, going so far as to buy a farm with visions of money and mallards that nearly send him into bankruptcy. He had even been one of the first few men in that area to have pit blinds built and buried along dependable sloughs and swags that cut through the gently undulating lands where he dabbled in farming while maintaining a thriving law practice.
But he had put those days behind him, opting more and more often for the comforts or a blind nestled among ancient tupelo and cypress trees or the relative ease of leaning against a towering oak in water below the knee, killing greenheads as they filtered down to feast on the acorn bounty of the forest. He was still a dedicated waterfowler and later in life I would once again lure him back to his old haunts, and even onto the river. But for the years we remained partial owners of Tupelo Brake, dad settled into those woods and waited out the days when the conditions were right, and the magic of the migration fell into a place that still holds more beauty than most duck hunters can imagine.
No matter how many time we returned with skinny straps of ducks, only to find Howard and his hunting partners, grinning and mud covered, holding hefty straps of mallards and pintail, Dad was happy enough to wait out the weather and be there at the Tupe when the conditions favored the woods.
But for two young boys, the duckless days were too much. Clearly there were ways to kill ducks when the skies opened up and rained out the timber. And so, with my father’s blessing Chris and I prepared to strike out on our own, certain we could find success somewhere in the vast expanse of woods and waters that was our delta playground.
I remember the day we cobbled together our rig. Dad had a small armada of watercraft he used in various locations around the Tupe. A couple of john boats, a few pirogues and an old V-hull boat with a stray rifle bullet hole through one of the thin bench seats. It drafted too much water to be piratical in the brake, but dad had hauled it there, after fishing season was over, as much to get it out of my mother’s yards as anything.
The paint was worn but the remnants of a few rattle cans of spray paint, left over from work on other, more regularly used equipment, took care of the silver floor where summers of bream and crappie fishing had scuffed away the paint. The dregs of the paint were used to great artistic effect in camouflaging the hull.
We scrounged around the pile of cast off decoys that had gathered for several seasons around my father’s area below the camp. We were under strict instruction not to take and of his newly strung and bagged decoys that he kept for hunting places other than his blind. But a few of them somehow managed to find their way among the others we sorted out of the pile that was home to everything from old Victor D-9s and shot pocked fakes that had long forgotten their days of use. It hardly seems mathematically plausible, but I am certain we didn’t have a pair of mallards in the bunch that matched year of make or manufacturer.
We used the last of dad’s good decoy line, arguing for ever about the required length of cord we might need as we envisioned ourselves running the rivers as well as hunting shallow swags and sloughs. When the new waxed twine ran out we pieced together the least rotten remnants that still clung to the keels of the cast offs.
We managed to find a handful of store bought decoy weights, and we rounded out the rest of our rigs anchors with everything from large bolts, nut and railroad spikes to rusty spark plugs and even a couple of busted bricks. Dad also gave us a dozen or so of his prototype decoys he had invented that he knew was going to revolutionize the waterfowling world.
He called them Timber Flats. They were made of quarter inch thick foam, printed on either side with photographs of mallards. These were generation two of his invention, having moved away from what was in fact a very realistic overhead painting of a mallard, to the grainy photos he had paid a wildlife photographer to capture by placing a feeding station directly beneath an elevated hide with a camera lens hole cut in the floor. Chris and I were instructed to be his field testers for his million-dollar idea, but I can only recall one or two hunts where he himself had dare to try the things.
In an old toy chest my mother had banished to the camp we found enough strips and scraps of camouflage netting to stitch together a piece long enough to run the length of the boat and a few extras to drape over the motor and red metal gas can that I imagine had been the intended target of our pilfered paint.
The rig was rounded out by an ether addicted six and a half horse Johnson outboard motor, a hand full of shear pins and carter keys, a couple of mildewed boat cushions that were to serve as life preservers and a warped wooden paddle.
The last thing dad gave us was a set of keys to my family’s lake house and deer lease gate and specific instructions to let my mother know what we were doing, when to expect us home and any reports from our hunts that she knew to relay to him when he ventured out to the hard road to check in via the nearest phone line.
He wished us luck, warned us to stay off the river, and with grin of pride waved as we rumbled out of the camp yard on our quest for waterfowling grounds of our own.
Shots continued to echo through the woods from the distant blinds in the heart of The Tupe. Inch by inch, foot by foot, the world was being revealed. But still we waited. In every direction the sounds of calling mallards, beating wings and splashing, unafraid ducks encompassed us.
“Just watch.” Howard whispered. “Don’t move, just watch.”
With our heads tucked to our chests Chris, Howard and I glanced around and at the scene unfolding across the flooded flat. I could feel my cheeks taught and aching for the grin I wore. The same broad smile was one the other human faces whenever my minute movements offered me a glimpse of Chris and Howard.
A mallard hen drifted within inches of Chris’s legs and let loose a commanding but contented call.
I heard a snort from my friend as he strained to hold back his laughter. Then a giggling fit spread to everyone in our party. Guns in hand, surrounded by ducks, we stood in the center of a spectacle that continued to unfold around us. We snickered like children in church, trying to suppress our joy lest we be rebuked by our elders, or in that case the wild waterfowl that were conducting their own Sunday service around us.
As the sound of wing beats slowly began to diminish and the louder calling of the ducks settled into a hum of happy feeding sounds my anticipation for order to shoot overtook my need to laugh. I glanced at Chris and Chris and Howard, wildly cutting my eyes and arching my eyebrows trying to convey my eagerness to cut loose into the mass of mallards that floated on the stained waters wherever I looked.
Chris’ face too was turned toward our hero. Surely, he was not cruel enough to make us wait any longer? But the shake of his head told us our torture was not over.
“Flush em, but don’t shoot.” He whispered. The shock and disappointment that must have been clear on our face requiring him to reply. “Just trust me.” We did.
With a half step from our hide, all three of us turned our faces up to take in the full picture around us. For a split second the bird seemed to pay us no mind. Then heads began to rise, necks elongated, and the now nervous birds changed the tone of their calling, turning head first into the light wind that blew from our back.
“GET ON!” Howard shouted. And the world around us exploded.
Wings slapped the water and alarmed quacks blared from every direction. Standing in the center of the mallard maelstrom we watched, turning in our tracks as wave after wave of ducks leapt into the sky. Water from their departure showered down around and onto us. The wind of wings could be heard and felt from every compass point. In miraculous moments they pin oak flats emptied of ducks.
Chris and I uttered a string of astonishments, some sprinkled with profanity we were only allowed to use at the hunting camp.
“What a sight!” Howard added, his eyes squinted by his smile, his head shaking side to side.
“They’ll be back.” He said. “Let’s ease back up into that tree-top and get ready”
We reclaimed our previous places. Chris and I still trembling with excitement, chattering to each other about what we had seen.
From what we could now tell was my father’s blind a rolling volley of shots reported the route at some of the departing ducks had taken. Then other ollies followed from several points in the distance. The staccato pops of single shots telling us the birds had not all escaped unharmed, as the hunters finished off cripples.
I was preparing to ask Howard if we might should have shot when I saw his small black call touch his lips and heard the first sharps notes of his greeting call float up through the timber. Dropping my head to my chest and peer out from under the bill of my cap I caught a quick glimpse of the group of mallards I assumed he was working. My hands tightened on the stock of my gun. My finger hovered over the safety.
Watching from the corner of my eyes I tried to comprehend the flocks’ motions and Howard quacked, coaxed and called to the gabbling group. The muddy water at my feet offered a poor reflection as I strained to keep up wit the birds by looking down instead of up, as my father and his friends had taught me. The WHOOSH of wings told me the birds were low, and close, but for the life of me I could not figure out where they were.
Remembering another lesson from my father, I tilted my head to the side and focused on Howard’s face. He would have an eye the birds, and by watching him I would be able to get an idea of their approach.
The chatter of the working birds grew nearer and a lone hen from the flock took up a measured call, quacking rhythmically as she led her troop around and around over the opening that had been created when our natural blind and toppled to the earth.
The little black call took on a more urgent sound as the lead hen’s voice began to fade into the distance. Longer notes rang from Howards lungs and I watched as he relaxed from his hunker and pleaded with the departing flock.
Turning to face where Howard was looking I saw the mallards break through the gray branch and drift down to the water, landing well out of range but in clear sight.
Before I could ask what went wrong, Howard was gathering his gear and stepping out from the limbs of the fallen oak.
“Get your gear and follow me.” He said. Chris and I followed without question. “Stuff that decoy bag in the hollow of that tree.” He continued, pointing to a large hackberry tree a short distance from the upturned root ball of the old oak.
Every time I opened my mouth to enquire about our operation Howard answered my question before I could utter a sound.
“They didn’t like something.”
“We need to back up off this hole just a bit.”
“Pick out a good size tree on either side of me and stay behind it.”
Chris and I followed his instructions without question. We hadn’t gotten more than ten yards from our pervious hide when a single drake mallard fluttered down through the opening and landed among the handful of decoys Chris had deployed in the dark.
The drake barely hit the water before he was up and gone again.
“That’s what we want!” Howard said as Chris and I selected our trees and sought out places where we could stash or blind bags. Howard rummaged through his pockets and withdrew a good-sized screw bent at nighty degrees a few inches below its head. Scraping away the deeply grooved outer bark he began twisting the bent hunk of metal into the tree, then hung his bag and gun from the hand fashioned hook.
“You boys did well.” He said, leaning one shoulder against the tree where he stood. “You kept your faces down and didn’t move.”
“Thank you” we replied with a sheepish pride.
“When the next bunch starts working,” he continued. “watch me close. If I kick the water, yall do the same. But when I stop, you stop. Understood?”
Chris and I nodded our answer and again before our voices could offer any of the dozens of questions we were eager to ask, Howard raised his call to his lips and purred the D-2 into action.
Without so much as a single circle the five mallards dropped their left wings, pirouetted in the sky and began back peddling down through the opening in front of us. Their orange feet extended, they beat the air hard to control their decent and turned face towards us. With the lead duck just inches from the surface Howard called the shot.
Three guns ripped the air and three drakes continued to the water unaided by their wings while the hens made their escape flying within feet of our heads. Though the two face-down drakes could be seen to swim in lazy circles and the one belly up kicked hopelessly at the cool air above him, it was clean none of the three required a finishing shot.
“Way to go boys!” Howard congratulated us. “That’s how we want to shoot em.”
Chris was easing out from beside his tree to retrieve the downed birds, but Howard assured him they would neither escape or bother future flocks. Backing up to his station Chris withdrew two purple shells from his pocket and slid it into the battered sixteen gauge he carried. His action reminded me of my own need to reload and I found two yellow shells in my pocket and slipped them into my gun. Howard only required one shell to reload.
The next visitors to grace our presence was a pair of mallards. The hen quacking loudly as they dropped below the upper branches.
They swung wide once below the trees, moving to my left as they prepared to land.
“Shoot that drake!” Howard called as I raised my gun to my shoulder.
At the sound of Howards voice the greenhead made an acrobatic move to adjust his landing, placing a cluster of brush between his outstretched neck and my unsteady barrel. The limbs between us splintered and the drake dug his wings hard into the air as he shifted landing to escape. Twice more my twenty gauge chased the fleeing bird, but all that fell to disturb the waters at my feet were twigs, leaves and the wadding from my shots.
Crestfallen, I turned an apologetic face towards hunting companions. Chris was shaking his head, but Howard just gave a quick gin and told me to load back up.
Shoving shells back into my gun I tried to make excuses for my misses. Blaming trees limbs and poor footing and anything else my mind could conjure. But the truth was, I had just flat out missed.
“Won’t say it was a tough shot.” Howard replied. “But I can’t say I haven’t missed easier ones myself.” His words gave me back some small degree of dignity.
“But let’s not have a repeat performance.” Chris chimed in from his station. And Howard laughed as hard as I think I had ever heard him laugh.
I took the good-natured ribbing in stride, as much as I could, though secretly hoping my friend would show an equally pathetic display of marksmanship before the day was done. If not, I could always remind him of his recent sockless encounter with the whitetail of the woods. Chris’ deer hunting was rife with ammunition for a good taunting.
As we settled back into the hunt a respectable flight of mallards drifted over the trees, low and looking for company. Howard set to work on his call and the dozen or more birds made a lazy circuit of the flats, slowly losing altitude but clearly in no rush to select their final destination.
We watched as best we could as Howard expertly worked the meandering birds. When his left foot moved to stir the water, we mimicked his movements. If the birds were tail to us, and a safe distance away, he kicked the water with enough vigor to send splashes and showers of droplets falling around his tree. If the birds worked close his leg moved more delicately, and if they were directly overhead he remained still.
The flock made innumerable rounds and half-hearted faints at dropping through the trees. Each time, slowly abandoning their glide path and lifting above the opening to make another low circle over our decoys.
“This is it.” Howard whispered as the flight made another banking turn. I couldn’t see anything different in their manner from the previous several approaches, but as Howard’s hand moved slowly towards his gun, I took him for his word and braced myself against the self-doubt that still lingered from my earlier misses.
Sure enough the birds made a full commitment, stretching out their bright feet and pushing back against their descent. They dropped into the upper reaches of the hole and I could see Howard slowly start to lift his gun form the hook.
“BOOM!” a shot plowed through woods and the flight reversed their path amid frantic calls. Leaving before I knew what happened.
The shot was too close to be any of the other members of our camp and in a direction that made it unlikely to be another duck hunter. It was come from the area of the woods where the highest ground escaped the winter waters except in years of floods.
“Damnit” Howard muttered under his breath, releasing the hold on his gun, dropping hi calls to his chest and shaking his head.
“I hope to all hell they killed that deer!” he said, stuffing his hands into his pockets and turning his face to the sky in search of another opportunity.
We all mumbled, cursed ad shook our heads as we waited for the next sighting. Soon it became obvious we had entered a typical early morning lull. A quick glance at my watch marked the time as only shortly past full sunrise and was surprised by the earliness of the hour.
“What was it Cedric always said when that happened?” Howard asked as we waited.
Doing me best to imitate my father’s longtime hunting partner and dearest friend, Cedric Fiberman, I straighten up and looked towards the heavens.
“A most fortuitous turn of events!” I spoke to the spirit of the man whose company would no longer grace our gatherings.
We all laughed and noticed Howard wipe tear from his eyes. Whether born of joy or sorrow I cannot say, but I imagine it was a mix of both.
We passed the time telling a few stories of Cedric. Laughing at he well worn memories of the small man who’s memory filled every corner of the wildlands we hunted. In our recollections we lost track of time. But when the soft call of a drake mallard shocked us back into the moment the sun had risen enough to cast an iridescent glimmer of the lone mallard’s head as he crossed the sky over the decoys.
Howard took to his call and on the second pass the drake was joined by another trio of mallards. The birds made another swing and their number grew again, now a solid twenty or more claimed the blue heavens above us.
In another wide circle their numbers tripled. Then other flights fell under the spell and before long several different groups were circling and gliding over the tall oaks. The birds were very vocal and as their number grew Howard’s calling became more mellow. Alternating between crisp but soft quacks and muttering chatters he kept the flights focused on our hole. We joined him as he kept the water below the trees stirring and the swirl of ducks continued to grow above us.
“Give em a little chatter.” Howard alerted us with a hoarse whisper.
Without thinking Chris and I abandoned my father’s stern instruction from the previous night to keep our calls in our coats. We fumbled out the old wooden double reeds we both blew and tentatively added our voices to the calling.
The birds made three more passes before melding into one solid flock. Howard kept up the bulk of the calling while Chris and I maintained a constant chatter.
Seeing something in the attitude of the birds Howard issued another command.
“That’s enough, get ready.” He said maintaining a slow string of quacks as the leading squadron applied their brakes and began whiffling down through the trees.
The first dozen or more of the birds hit the water but countless more mallards were descending through the opening and others above were banking on slow wings to join the rain of waterfowl.
With the sun now well above the trees the colorful heads of the drakes and the bright orange feet of all the fluttering flock brought sharp contrast to the brown and gray world of the flooded timber.
I couldn’t guess how many birds landed, or how many were still back peddling over their brethren when Howard called the shot. But I remember that as far back as I could see ducks were still lining up to fall among our decoys.
The first blast sent only two drakes crashing to the water. The next round only two more. The last few shots to punctuate the event went safely into nothing and again the world around us returned to silence.
“Shoot that cripple!” I heard Howard bark. Chris and I both hastily reloaded and in unison raked the escaping drake with converging fire that ended his attempted exodus.
“What happened?” Chris asked. “How did we only kill four?”
I knew better than to try to claim the two birds I felt certain I had killed. So I kept my mouth shut on that front, asking instead as I glanced around if he was sure it was only four.
“Hell boys. Every duck I picked out was falling before I could pull the trigger!” Howard laughed. “Then anything I swung to next was a hen. If it wasn’t for that one that tried to escape on my side I wouldn’t have cut a feather!”
I watched as Howard slipped a single shell into his gun. Sure enough he had only fired once. The lack of more dead mallards rested solely on the shoulders of myself and my friend.
“That puts us at seven.” Howard stated mate-of-factly. “Good job picking drakes.”
Before the last ripples had faded from the falling ducks another group of birds make a low faint at the opening and again we fell in behind Howard’s calling, adding our now confident chatter to the mix.
For a reason known only to the ducks themselves the group decided to drop in from behind us, falling through the trees with the wind and faster than I had ever seen mallards try to land. They were on us before we knew what was happening and Howards was scrambling for his gun before Chris and I had a chance to turn to face the birds.
“Take em!” Howard called, as Chris and I fumbled and fussed to get turned around.
Howard’s A-5 sounded once and two greenheads folded, stone dead, splashing water onto Howard and nearly striking him as he turned sideways to the feathered projectiles.
The hunt as done. Reductions in the mallard population had shortened our seasons and reduced our bag limits, but it had done nothing to dampen the spirits of the men of The Tupe. If the mallards would still come they would hunt them, and that day we could not have asked for a more perfect hunt.
After gathering our birds, we stood for a long while watching birds work the flats. Howard never touched his call again that day. Instead he told us to just watch the show. While the birds worked he pointed out slight changes in the way they flew, trying to show us some of the things he looked for when working birds.
We tried see what he saw and pretended to understand the lifetime of knowledge he offered us there among those towering trees. Maybe we retained s few of his lessons, but mostly we just sat in awe of him, watching him watch the ducks. Listening to his voice as he whispered his lessons and color commentary explaining the unfathomable ballet the winter winds had set in motion over our heads and all around us.
Before we left he told us leave the decoys stashed in the old hollow tree.
“You boys need to bring Lawyer Ramsey with you in the morning and call a few ducks in for him.” He explained, referring to my father by one of his many nicknames. “I appreciate yall putting me on some ducks.”
I do not think I ever felt so proud in my life. I knew even without our limited calling, Howard would have landed every duck we had shot, but it was the greatest compliment I could have imagined. To this day I mark that morning as true entry into the brotherhood of waterfowlers, and nothing before or since has changed my estimation of that milestone.
The dim headlights of the Hustler revealed our stopping point, white blazes of paint at shoulder height on the bark of an over-cup oak that marked the end of our camp’s property.
When the engine sputtered to a steaming stop we sat for a long moment, letting silence of predawn return to the world around us. The eerie call of wood ducks was the first sound break the newborn quiet, followed closely by the hoot of an owl.
Sitting in silence as our warm breath fogged the close dark world before us we listened as more wood ducks took up the dim symphony that sung of the coming sunrise. But when the first sharp notes of a mallard barked through the timber every man and boy quickly set into motion.
Guns were uncased, blind bags grabbed and the bag of far too many decoys were hauled down from the roof of rack of the 6-wheeler.
“I’ll get those.” Howard spoke into the darkness. But before he could reach to shoulder the burden Chris had the bulky bag secured to his back. I rummaged through my blind bag and withdrew a battered flashlight. The frail beam of the light shrank our world to within its feeble reach and with glance at the small round compass pinned to my coat I headed toward the sound of the waking waterfowl and my hopes for the day’s hunt.
The day before the walk had seemed simple. The ridge that stood between us and the pin oak flat consisted of large trees, spaced well apart by natures design. But in the darkness, now burdened with our gear, a forest of vines, saplings and briars seemed to have sprouted overnight. More than once we were forced to turn from my northerly track or pause to free Chris and the decoys from the ensnaring vines and thorns of the woods.
Shooting light was still a safe distance away but with every turn and tangle I worried that we would be rushed in getting our decoys deployed and ourselves ready when before the first echoing shots on some distant slough signaled legal shooting time.
Soon enough though the slight slope of the ridge could be felt under our feet and within a few strides our party was standing at the edge of the shallow flats that just the day before had been teeming with mallard.
We paused again to listen as a startled wood duck alerted her companions of a nearing threat and launched noisily into the darkness. More of her kin could be heard in every direction but the droning buzz of feeding mallards that had drawn me to their location before was not to be heard. Howard told me to douse my light and when our eyes had adjusted it was evident that the world around us was slowly filling with light.
“Where are we going to set up?” Howard asked, a slight edge of anticipation in his voice.
“There is a big fallen tree about half way to the Water Ash where the flat is split in half.” I said, raising my flashlight and preparing to search out my intended destination. Howard eased his hand through the darkness, placing it on my wrist.
“Let’s just ease out towards that area. We’ll find it when the light comes up a bit more.”
And with that he eased into the shallow waters with me and Chris close behind.
As we waded wood ducks fussed and flushed around us in the dark, but there was not a sound from the mallards I had expected to be waiting on our arrival. When the water reached our thighs, Chris unshouldered the decoys and the rumble of the unsettled blocks sent several set of wings to light. As the escaping birds broke into the pale eastern sky the lead hen of the dozen or more mallards that were rapidly departing called down through the trees. It wasn’t the throngs of birds I had scouted out, but it began to ease my worries none the less.
The large fallen tree I had spotted the day before materialized out of the darkness. Its massive turn and root ball partially submerged, its thick branches still clinging to their leave stretching out beyond our sight.
“Good looking spot.” Howard said as we began placing our bags and guns on the trunk and among the limbs.
“They were all around it yesterday.” I said. Beaming unseen with pride. “Here and all along the flat to the east and west.”
Chris had opened the decoy bag and was unwrapping the first of the fakes when a trio of wood ducks landed within feet of our hide and left as fast as they had come.
“Let’s just toss out a few for now.” Howard said. “We don’t have long before legal.”
Chris deployed less than a dozen of the blocks in a scattered arc to the side of the fallen tree. Returning to the cover of the branches and fishing shells from the tattered, green army surplus bag he used to haul such necessities.
The unmistakable metallic clap of his shotgun breach told me Howard was loaded Chris and I quickly followed suit. Stuffing our pockets with extra shells and securing our ditty bags in the branches of the tree within easy reach.
“Now boys, this might be some tight quarter shooting. So be very careful.” Howard instructed. “Shoot what’s in your lane and the end guns can shoot the edges.”
“Yes sir.” We answered as one.
Or voices had hardly faded when the world above us came alive with the sound of wings and chattering mallards. It was still too early to shoot when the Howard’s call trilled to life.
The old D-2 he always blew had a strange quirk to it. No matter the temperature it required a strange rolling purr to get the reed freed up. It was the most unnatural sound a duck call has ever made, but I knew from experience that it didn’t bother the ducks. I also knew that as soon as that reed was freed up, Howard would produce a sound that I had never seen mallards be able to resist.
When the first few notes of his opening greeting bounced off the flooded trees I hear the unmistakable sound of mallards cutting air and turning on a dime. Before the last note of the hail call sounded the first wave of ducks was filtering down through the timber, quacking loud as if scolding some greedy hen who had clearly set down at the table before the rest of the party arrived.
Duck hit the water all around us. Water splashed on to us and the wind of wings could be felt from every direction. It was the most unceremonious landings I had ever witnessed. The ducks practically crashed through the trees. You could hear wings hitting tree branches and each bird that made it to the water did so with a “plopping” sound that is usually only made when one of their kind meets headlong with a load of shot at a fair altitude and collides with the water.
Before we knew it, the entire world was teeming with ducks. From the air and the water hens quacked and called, while all around us the strange “dreep…dreep…” of the drakes grew into a droning buzz and the general clamor and chattering of ducks in every direction drove all other sounds from the world, save the pounding of my heart and the unsteadiness of my breath.
From the south the boom of another blind told us legal shooting light had come. The distant shot was nearly drowned out by the raucous clamor of the ducks on the water and their brethren that continued to flutter and fall through the canopy. But the ducks hardly seemed to care. My muscles tensed, and I swear I could feel every one of our hands moving to click the safeties off on the three guns that waited in the cover of the fallen oak.
“DO…NOT…SHOOT!” Howard whispered with as much force and authority as his hushed voice could command. From below the bill of my cap I glanced sideways at Chris. His posture was a matchto mine, head down, shoulders hunched, trying to make himself as small and still as possible. I saw ripples emanating from the water at his legs, and noticed quickly the same come from my own, and Howards.
It was not the cold. It was not an attempt to create motion in our decoys, the ducks were doing that just fine. As shooting time came and went two young boys and a grown man, a man who had hunted more seasons than my friend and I had been alive, stood in trembling awe of the magic of the migration.
(To be continued)
With my back against a giant oak and the worn, drop-lever rifle in my lap I worried the remaining daylight from the sky.
Though I was only seven seasons into my life as a duck hunter I knew enough to fear the mercurial nature of ducks in the south delta. It wasn’t a new concern, but it was amplified tenfold by my eagerness to impress Howard.
The most recent forecast from the small weather radio that dad played, almost endlessly, every evening at the camp, and every morning while we silently shared coffee before the rest of the members arose, had called for two days of steady temperatures in the low thirties, with the winds remaining northerly at a respectable five to ten miles per hour.
But after years of listening to the monotone voice of the broadcasters I had learned that forecasts were little more than a best guess and apt to change with little notice. And a change in the weather usually led to a change in the ducks.
As light began to fade from the skies and the generous population of wood ducks began to hail the coming of dark I rose from my oak, spooking a large doe that I had failed to notice, no more than a dozen yards from me.
With two short bounds she escaped to the cover of the thicket at the edge of the brake and blew a harsh warning to any other creatures who had mistaken my still form as something other than a threat.
Catching a flicker of her swishing tail through the tangle of brush I shouldered my rifle and considered taking a shot. Instead, I lowered the gun and turned my back on the poor target and made my way back to trail I knew Chris would use to on his way back to the camp. The nearing darkness and silence from the area I knew he was hunting told me he would be along shortly. So I stood in the road and listened to the conversation of the creatures as they traded shifts and welcomed the rising moon.
I saw Chris before he saw me and for safety let out our usual call to alert him of my presence.
“Whooot!” my voice echoed in the timber.
“Whooot!” came his reply, and with that he shouldered his rifle and quickened his pace.
“No luck?” I asked, knowing the answer but knowing also that there was usually a good story from any of my friend’s outings.
“I don’t want to talk about it!” he said. And quickly launched into a detailed account of how the heavy lunch had left him in a compromising position, and short one sock when the only deer he had seen stepped out from behind a large fallen tree some twenty yards away. As we laughed he reenacted the shuffling waddle he had made trying to reach his gun while his pants were around his ankles and one boot lay empty as his bare left foot found a puddle of what he still hoped was just mud.
By the time we got back to the camp it was full dark and the quarter moon was glinting off the water of the boat trail that led into the heart of the Tupe. Chris was cold, unsure of his cleanliness, and eager for a full complement of socks and was making a bee-line for the camp when he finally got around to asking about my scouting trip.
“I’ll tell you after you wash your foot.” I said, rubbing just a touch of salt in his wounded pride. “But not around the rest of the members. We’ll talk by the campfire.”
“That good?” he said, stopping in his tracks only a few short strides from the camp, his eyes wide in his eternally boyish face.
“That good.” I said. And with that we closed the remaining distance to the stairs and climbed to the warmth we knew we would find within, as the smell of well-seasoned oak burning in the fireplace of the lodge mingled with the crisp autumn air.
We were haled by the members and guest as we entered the camp and asked if we had killed anything.
“Time.” Chris replied.
“And a sock.” I added, forcing Chris to retell his tale of intestinal distress for all the men gathered around the hearth. Once the story was told and the good-natured ribbing had made the rounds Chris excused himself to the back of the camp to clean up and find a full pair of socks.
With my friend gone I took my usual seat on the hearth, leaving the more comfortable chairs and sofas for the members and their guest. While I poked at the fire and warmed my hands I evaded the topic of my outing from earlier in the day and redirected the conversation to the outcome of the Saints game and other topics a safe distance from my scouting finds.
Dad was busy in the kitchen preparing teaks to go along with the innumerable other dishes Christine had prepared before she had left for the night. Though she often prepared our evening meals, dad also took his turn as camp chef and, whenever he could, let Christine and her husband leave early on Saturday afternoon so they could cook for their own family and be home the next morning for church. It was also wise to let then leave by daylight as the old Pontiac they drove had a habit of finding deep ruts in the camp road. In the worst of conditions, the members insisted on either picking her and Major up at the gravel levee. But Christine could make that sedan do things that defied mechanics and physics, and she would only accept the offer of a ride in the most extreme circumstances.
Once I was warmed, and the fire properly built up to a roar that would last the better part of the night, I took up another of my chores. I played bartender and waiter for the men of the camp. As usual, a large wedge of hoop cheese was on the kitchen counter. After rumbaing trough the refrigerator I found a stick of Andouille sausage and prepared a platter of sliced meat and cheese with stacks of Saltine crackers. The platter was passed around and while the men nibbled and socialized I slipped back into the sleeping quarters and gave Chris the details of what I had found, telling him not to mention it to anyone. But before I could tell him about who would be joining us dad bellowed from the kitchen. We quickly responded and were instructed to help dad carry the groaning platters of thick steaks down to the old, oil drum grill that was stationed below the house.
With the din of camp life above us and no other ears about, dad thanked us for carrying the platters and quickly shifted the topic to the coming hunt.
“You boy need to leave about twenty minutes early in the morning. I had Major fill up the Hustler, but I wouldn’t load decoys and gear until you get up.” He said, sipping from his tall scotch and water and laying the first steaks on the grill above a perfect bed of coals. As the meat sizzled and the rich fragrance from the grill filled the air we listened to his instructions.
His guest had brought along their own amphibious ATV, another 6-wheel drive contraption that could handle the mud and swamps that had to be overcome to reach the slough where dad’s blind sat nestled among ancient tupelo and cypress trees. So, he and his guests would start out at his blind but might move down the Big Hole or Mr. Herman’s Sittin Log if the birds would not grace them with their company where the comforts of dad’s blind overlooked the brake.
“So, are yall taking anyone?” he asked as he marked the time on his watch and flipped the thick steaks, releasing another wave of sound and scent.
“Howard, I mean Mr. Miller.” I said a bit reluctantly, unsure of how my father would respond.
“Well now…” he said, taking a long pull from his drink. “That’s some strong company.”
“Didn’t you tell him about what I found?” I asked.
“WAIT!” Chris interrupted with a look of mixed awe and terror on his face. “Howard Miller is joining US?”
“I think so.” I said. “That’s what he said when I invited him.”
“I need a drink!” Chis said. Dad laughed and handed him the last few swallows of his scotch which Chris pounded it with a grimace. “I’ll get you a fresh one.” He said, realizing he had emptied the glass and nearly choked on an ice cube.
“Be careful now.” Dad laughed, “You are playing for a mighty high caliber audience in the morning. And you, Hopalong…” he said to Chris who was climbing the stairs, still apparently in a bit of shock. “…don’t be making me a double and returning with a single.” .
“So, did you tell him?” I asked again.
Dad checked his watch and began taking the first of the steaks off the grill and resting them on one of the platters.
“No son I didn’t. I honestly didn’t even know he was staying here tonight. Not until I saw he had left his boat and gear.” Dad tested a few of the other steaks for doneness and picked one or two from the grill.
“But Bradley William, I’m guessing he saw it in your eyes. You can’t get much past that man. And if you asked him to join you, I sure hope you know to let him do the calling and run the show?”
“Of Course!” I said, though I hadn’t really considered it. Chris and I had been calling and working our own ducks when we hunted together for the last three seasons. But, we knew when we were outclassed and there was no disputing that Howard Miller was the finest caller at Tupelo Brake. I was slightly disappointed though. To be honest I had spent my afternoon, when not fretting on the chance the ducks wouldn’t show up, daydreaming of Chris and I landing large flights of mallards calling right along with Howard. It was only a daydream, I knew better than to touch my calls when Howard and his friends were in the blind. But still, it had been such an amazing vision.
Chris rambled down the stairs as dad was pulling the last few steaks from the grill. He handed dad the drink and waited as my father inspected the glass, raising it to his lips and taking a long sip.
“You’re alright Chris. No matter what the deer say about ya.” He laughed and lead us up to the hungry crowd above.
Over dinner the members of the camp talked about the coming hunt. As usual Howard spoke little. Everyone assumed he would be going to the Big Hole and that whatever guest would be joining him would arrive well before daylight in the morning. In fact, they were all a bit surprised he had stayed for dinner and I imagine a few of them expected him to depart after dinner. Though he hunted the Tupe often and had his own bedroom in the new camp, Howard did not usually stay overnight apart from opening weekend or when he had important guests who he knew were there as much for the camp life as the hunt.
As for Chris and me, I am sure everyone assumed we would be joining my dad and his guests in his blind. Most all of the members had their own blind or a few select spots they hunted. It was just a given that they would hunt their own places unless they ventured off into the federal ground. But the shooting at all the blinds had been pretty consistent over the past few weeks, and though they all knew that day in and day out The Big Hole was the best blind on the club, each member had a certain level of pride in killing limits from their own spot. And no one presumed to invite themselves to another man’s blind, though they all jumped at the chance to hunt with Howard and his guests in The Big Hole when the offer was forthcoming. And since it hadn’t been, no one broached the subject.
After the meal was done, Chris and I cleared the table and tidied up the kitchen while the men retired to their seats around the fireplace for a nightcap. A few, including Howard, excused themselves and turned in for the night. But Howard made a pass through the kitchen on his way to bed and suggested a departure time that would have us up and gone before the rest of the camp awoke.
The extra early wake up made the time around the campfire short for my friend and me. But in the flickering light of the blaze we talked through the details of the morning plan and tried to settle our nerves with a few sips of brandy from the flask we had snuck out of dad’s blind bag.
When we retired to the spare bedroom the members used for storage, but had allowed us to put beds in, we could hardly wait for the morning. Sleep was long in coming as the anticipation and nervousness rattled in our young minds.
When the rattle and clang of the wind-up, Big Ben alarm clock shattered the silence of the cold room Chris and I were on our feet and dressed before the last echoes of the bells had faded. I think it was the only time in all the years we had hunted together that I hadn’t had to fight Chris tooth and nail to get him out of bed.
The stainless-steel, percolator coffee pot was gasping through its lasts gurgles as we tip-toed into the kitchen. It was a sure sign that dad was already wake. No matter how many times his hunting partners and I had shown him how to use the wall socket timer, dad never managed to get it right. If coffee was brewing, dad was awake. While I stoked up the coals that still smoldered in the hearth and added a few small logs to knock the chill off the room, Chris stepped out onto the porch to answer nature’s call and check the weather. Dad came into the main room just as Chris returned from the porch and as one they announce the temperature.
“33 and clear.” they both reported in near perfect unison.
“Any wind?” I asked as dad pressed the button on the NOAA Weather Radio and poured himself and each of us a cup of scalding hot coffee.
“The forecast for the delta: clear skies in Greenville, with a low of 35, winds north at 5-10 Miles per hours, high near fifty…” The sleepy monotone voice remarked as if anticipating my question. The rest of the forecast remained unchanged from the day before. We would have one more clear and cold day before a warm front moved in and rain would blanket the area. It was enough.
Before my coffee had cooled enough to drink I heard the back door of the lodge close and without a word Chris and I gathered our gear and headed down the stairs. Howard was waiting, we knew, and there was no way we were going to be late.
“You boys ready?” Howard said as we loaded our guns and gear into the six-wheeler.
“Yes sir.” We replied.
“I’ll follow yall as far as Cocklebur, then we can park my bike and ride the rest of the way together.” He said, motioning for us to lead the way.
With vaporous clouds of warm exhaust drifting in the brisk air we started out from the camp and turned down the muddy turn row that bordered our property.
Taking the route Howard had suggested, though farther in actual distance, proved faster by eliminating two amphibious crossing that slowed the pace of those early ATVs to a ponderous crawl. By the time we reached the pipeline I knew we would be at the banks of cocklebur long before shooting light, with only a short amphibious crossing and a 100 yard walk ahead of us.
When I brought my ATV to a halt, Howard swung around me and motioned for me to follow. He dove his vehicle off the trail and well into a thick stand of young trees. As I pulled up beside him Chris quickly jumped out and into the back seat. With little more than a nod from Howard I backed us out of the thicket and turned back down the trail to the spot I had marked for crossing the last slough.
Dad was overly fond of flagging tape, but I had begun to notice tacks on some of his trails that I knew belonged to ATVs other than ours. So, I had elected to mark my turn with a rotten log placed in the middle of the road. To anyone who didn’t know the trail it would not arouse much suspicion. That part of the ridge stayed high and dry and the deep bed of leaves worked well to conceal my tracks where I had turned off the road the day before when scouting.
It took a bit more effort to find my second mark. Somewhere along the edge of the slough I had found a gap in the wall of button willows that lined the bank but having walked and waded that portion of the trip it was harder to find while navigating the Hustler through, between, and around trees.
Just as I was beginning to worry, having noticed Howard glancing at his watch, I spotted my final mark, an old glass whisky jug. Though it had shone like a beacon the daylight I now could see how the brown glass was a poor choice for a marker in the pitch-black forest layered with eons of fallen leaves.
Swimming the Hustler across the narrow slough also proved more precarious than I had envisioned. With three men and their gear in the seats and sack slam full of decoys strapped to the roof the bike was much less stable and responsive than it usually was, and it was usually pretty squirrelly to begin with.
By the time we sputtered, spun, and swayed our way to the far bank the very first promise of dawn was teasing the south eastern skies, giving faint outlines to the tall bare oaks that marked the ridge and the eventual beginning of a pin oak flat that stretched nearly a mile wide and some two miles long.
(To be continued)
Dad knew as soon as I walked in the camp. But before I could open my mouth to tell him he ushered me into the bedroom and closed the door.
“You found em didn’t ya?” He said in a hushed tone.
“Yes sir” I replied, trying to hold my excitement at bay and match his whisper.
Dad took a seat on his old metal bunk bed as I paced at his feet trying to contain my excitement. I went on to explain to him in great detail where the birds were, how many and how we located them. When I ran out of information, and breath, he rose to his towering six-foot four-inch height, clamped me on the shoulder and looked me straight in the eye.
“It’s your call, you found em. But I would be careful who all you share this with.” He said. “I promised some friends we would hunt my blind tomorrow, but you need to go back and kill those ducks before some else finds em.”
“It’s not worth me going alone dad.” I told him. “Maybe you and I can go day after tomorrow?”
“You can’t stockpile ducks.” The words he spoke were all too familiar to me, but it was the first time the decision had rested on my young shoulder. “Weather is gonna change over the nest few days and they may be gone. If you are gonna hunt em, tomorrow is the day”
“Who should I tell?” I asked, nearly begging for guidance.
“That’s up to you. I’m not saying be greedy, but whoever you take you better trust they will respect that it’s your find. Otherwise you’ll never set foot in there again without having to worry about someone else coming in on top of you or shooting it when you aren’t around.” With that he turned and walked out the door.
I stood in the small bedroom and tried to both calm myself and think of who I wanted to let in on my secret. My friend Chris was still out, sitting on a deer stand hoping to break a long running streak of missed shots and cut shirttails. He would be joining me in the morning for sure. But it still seemed like an awful lot of ducks for just two guns.
This was before the days of cell phones. In fact, there wasn’t even a land line at the camp. The nearest pay phone was fourteen miles away, and the first three miles of that were rutted field roads that were always a gamble. So, who I might invite was limited to anyone who happened to be at the camp that day.
There were other members at the camp that I enjoyed hunting with. But they all had several guests with them and a few of them I wasn’t 100% sure would honor the unspoken gentleman’s agreement or code that my father had taught me. There was only one man in the camp I knew for certain I could trust but asking him to join ME was batting so far out of my league I was terrified to even ask.
What if the birds weren’t there tomorrow? What If I didn’t remember how to get to them in the predawn darkness? What if I was mistaken about the numbers, the species, the water depth, any number of things? Could I face asking one of the greatest duck hunters the south delta ever knew to join me on a hunt? And worse. Would he believe a fifteen-year-old kid who still sat starry eyed in awe every time I was in the blind with him?
Doubt washed over me, and I had decided that maybe it was best if Chris and I hunted it alone first. Surely that number of ducks couldn’t vanish overnight? And if we killed them the next day then maybe after he saw our success, maybe then I would be bold enough to ask Howard Miller to join me on a hunt.
When I emerged from the bedroom, resolved to play it cool and keep my secret from showing on my face Howard was walking down the hall from the kitchen towards his bedroom farther down the hall.
“Bradley William!” He greeted me in his usual way. “Come give me a hand if you would?” he continued and gestured down the hallway.
I followed, as he knew I would. It had been my role around the camp to be everyone’s helper, in season and out. My friends and I stocked the firewood, loaded in the groceries, cleared trails and any other chores the members needed. It was our way of paying our dues and our efforts had been rewarded with nearly unlimited access to one of the finest pieces of duck ground the Lord ever put in the South Delta of Mississippi.
So, when we stepped into Howard’s room I was expecting a box of decoys that need to be strung, a load of gear that he wanted to load into his truck or some other small project I was accustomed to doing for any of the members. When the door closed behind us I was about to ask what he needed help with. But when I turned around I saw a glimmer in Howard’s eyes that I knew only too well. He had ducks on his mind.
“You found em?” Was all he said, a sly smile spreading across his face.
I was almost afraid to speak but I managed to eek out an almost apologetic sounding, “Yes sir”
“I saw it your eyes when you walked into the camp.” He said with a slight chuckle. “And when your dad shooed you back to his room I knew I was right.”
I tried to be modest but as I began telling him what I had found the smile on his face grew and I could tell he was excited by my report. He asked a lot of questions, but he never once asked where I had found the birds. When I finished my started to offer those kinds of details he managed to guide the conversation in other directions. But from what details I had given I could tell he know nearly exactly where the mallards were holding. His next comment confirmed my suspicions.
“Yall need to go in from the Strickland’s access and down the pipeline.” He said. “And come out the same way.”
“It’s a lot faster going in from the Hawks Camp levee” I said with more of a question in my voice than a statement.
“Yeah, but you’ll draw less attention if you go the other route.” He replied.
I agreed, though I didn’t quite understand.
“Well, yall get in there and out as fast as you can. Those birds may stick around for a day or two but if you band away at them all morning you may blow em out.” He said and turned back towards the door.
“Um….Mr. Miller…um…I was wondering?” I stammered, trying to stir up the nerve to ask him a question I knew I wasn’t qualified to ask. “Would you be willing to come with us in the morning?”
A soft chuckle came from him and with his back still turn he replied. “Willing? Bradley William I’d be delighted. You just tell me when we need to leave.” And with that he walked out of the room, pausing at the threshold and speaking in a voice meant for anyone in the hall or other rooms to hear.
“When you get those strung just bring them down to the truck. I’ve got an extra decoy bag in the back and a few more weights if you need them.”
Sure enough the top two bunks in his room were stacked with boxes of brand new decoys that had escaped my notice during our entire conversation. I’m still not sure if they were part of our cover story or if he really wanted them strung. But it didn’t matter. I would have stayed in that room and spun my own cord to string those decoys if I had to. Tomorrow I was going to get to take the only man I idolized as much as my father on a duck hunt. I would have carved decoys from the wooden bunks if he had asked me to.
When I finished stringing decoys, I had managed to calm my nerves and put on a good poker face. I hauled the decoys through camp where my father and the other members where half watching a football game on the staticky color television while one of the guests fidgeted with the wrinkled aluminum foil on the rabbit ear antennae’s that strained to pull signal to our remote corner of nowhere Mississippi.
A few rumbles of snoring spoke from around the hearth, where the men of the camp had gathered after a lunch that would have shamed the finest buffet any restaurant had ever put out. Christine, the camp cook was busy washing up from the meal and beginning the preparation for a night meal that would always somehow out-do the feasts she put on for lunch. Major, her husband and general handyman for the camp, was loading the wood box beside the fireplace with as much care as he could not to wake the sleeping hunters or disrupt the men struggling to watch the game.
With my first armload of decoys I left the camp and descended the flight of stairs that led to the parking area below the camp. A few of the other members and their son’s and guests were tinkering with boats and cantankerous ATVs below and beside the house. But they didn’t pay any attention to me as I hauled the decoys to Howard’s truck and began rummaging through the back of the blazer looking for a decoy bag.
After several more trips up to the camp and back downstairs the decoy bag was full, and I placed it in the back of Howard’s truck, taking the boxes over to the side yard where Chris and I usually built a campfire in the evening when the camp was full of members and guest.
By the time I was finished half the men who had been watching the game were sound asleep on the overstuffed leather sofas and large recliners and the other half had retreated to their bunks to rest in an area with slightly less snoring.
With a few hours of daylight left I quietly packed up what gear I needed and slipped out of the camp yard to watch the sun finish its day on the banks of the Tupe while half heartedly keeping an eye out for deer and listening for what I was sure would be Chris’ next miss.
I rarely stayed around the camp in the afternoon, but that day I had to get away. I was still afraid I might give away my secret and I was not about to let anything interfere with my chance show my hero what I had found, what I could do. Solitude was the only sure defense from self-betrayal.
(To be continued)
It’s a strange thing. But I just can’t write hunting stories during hunting season, particularly waterfowl season. I’m not exactly sure why but I have some half-baked theories about how I am collecting memories, images and notions during the season. It may be a real reason or maybe it is just an excuse, but in all my years wasting ink and paper, I don’t think I have written one single story when duck season was in.
Sure, I might have jotted a few note here and there from a day afield. Or I may have scribbled an idea on the inside of an empty box of shotgun shells or some other piece of the growing flotsam and jetsam that builds to epic proportion in my truck from opening day til sometime after the season. like maybe summer?
But the fact remains that I just don’t write when I can hunt. Even if I am not hunting.
The larger truth may be that I write during the off season out of a desperate need to be back in the state of bliss I am in when I am hunting. Writing takes me back to hunts in the past and projects me forward to hunts that may or may not ever happen. That may also be the reason my stories are a blend of fiction, nonfiction, memoirs and imaginings that span time and place beyond what this one waterfowler may have done or may ever do.
Of course that blend of truth and fiction is also the reaux that makes up the base of all good hunting tales. It may also be a way to disguise some of the less noble things I and other may or may not have done.
So while the season is in and I am obsessed with the next cold front or the rainfall in this or that part of the country, I just don’t write hunting stories.
But not a single season goes by, not a single hunt, not a single day in the wilds, that some part of this grand tradition, this magnificent world, does not etch itself in my memory, burn itself into my soul, waiting there for its turn to play out across a page.
How blessed I am to be born and raised a waterfowler. How fortunate I am to share with my readers the things that stir my soul and make my every day the rich tapestry it has been.
Jim stood on the porch and waved goodbye as the last of the regular camp members and their guests loaded into their trucks and began to depart.
The road from the camp was in bad shape. With tires spinning and mud flying, one by one the vehicles headed towards the hard road. The whining sound of trucks in low gear stayed with him until the last mud covered vehicle rounded the bend. Though the vehicles where out of sight to the young man stood on the porch looking out across the field towards the levee until he saw each vehicle from our camp crest its rise. Three quick blasts of a horn echoed across the open field. Doc had remembered to give the all clear. Jim turned and re-entered the empty camp.
For most of his friends Christmas break was all but over. Monday they would all be back in classes catching up with each other on the loot Santa had brought and their social outings from the break. For the men of the camp, work put off during the holidays now had to be attended to. His own father was out of the hunting picture at least through Thursday, but had left me with specific instruction to call him if the birds moved in. There was no phone at the camp, but the fifteen mile trek to the nearest pay phone was worth the effort when the young hunter got to tell his father or other camp members that birds were in. And Jim had a feeling his dad could clear his calendar if needed. The judge he several motions to argue before was a fellow waterfowler and a frequent quest at the camp, postponements where not out of the question.
Alone at the camp, with eight hundred acres all to himself, and thousands of acres of public ground around him Jim felt like a young king. But royalty hardly has to earn their keep. So he decided to get my chores out of the way before surveying his domain.
None of the other member’s children were allowed to have a gate key or stay at the camp alone.Jim had earned that great privilege through his labor. Throughout the season and all through the year he took care of the place. From stocking in groceries to clearing roads, if it needed doing he was their man. Friends often helped out and where in return invited on hunts, so the work was worth it to them. But they all had to get back to school.
Because of some less than admirable behavior on his part, Jim’s parents had sent him to a different school from all the kids he had grown up with. It was a boarding school for the most part, but Jim was a “Day Student”. He still lived at home but his parents thought the school would offer a more ridged structure that, combined with keeping him away from a slightly rougher crowd he had fallen in with at his previous school, might just set their youngest on a better path. It had been a tough transition for Jim but it had it’s up-side as well. While he had to endure Saturday classes and getting the stink eye from a good many of the wealthy boarding students, the rigorous schedule also meant that his break for the holidays was about a week longer than everyone else’s, at least that’s how Jim saw it. He also got long weekends several times a year. So with his friends in school and the camp members catching up on work he had the run of the place to myself.
Once the dishes from lunch where done and the floors swept and mopped he took care of the last in-house details. A lot of these were little touches that no one would have expected him to do, but he did them out of gratitude for the trust all the camp members had placed in him. They would return to find their floors vacuumed, their beds made and any scattered gear put back in its place. Some of them thanked him every time and told him how much they enjoyed coming back to a clean, well stocked camp. Others never said a word.
When the house was in order he threw on my light jacket and went out to reload the wood box and take care of the ATV’s and boats. Restocking the wood box didn’t take that much, above average temperatures had kept the fireplace less active than usual, burning only at night and then more for ambiance than need of warmth. The remaining tasks all took less time than expected and by the time Jim was through he still had enough daylight left for an afternoon hunt.
The thermometer on the porch read 63 when he passed by it on his way to gear up for an outing. It was warmer than he wanted for a decent deer hunt. Jim had a nice buck staked out that was holding up on one of the small hardwood islands among the cypress and tupelo swamp, but he doubted he would be active as warm as it was. Glancing out through the large picture window that overlooked the boat trail he noticed that the light rain that was falling was not accompanied by any wind. It could hardly even be called a rain, more like a supper sized mist.
He considered spending the afternoon scouting local farms and fields for ducks. They never hunted our place past noon and the birds hardly ever came to the timber in the rain anyway, so even hunting the government woods for a late afternoon mallard or two seemed like a waste of time. He sat for a moment considering his options and settled on hunting squirrels. The rain would silence his footsteps and droplets from soaked branches would betray any movement the tree rats made. But it really didn’t matter, staying at the camp was out of the question, even if all the more he accomplished was to wander around the woods for a few hours carrying a gun.
Leaving the camp yard he made a swing through the low thicket just inside the woods edge out of habit. The odd opening in the forest, a tangle of briars and buck vines looked for all the world like it should be a home to countless rabbits but in three years of stomping the small patch of ground he had yet to either flush a cane cutter or convince himself it wasn’t worth the effort. Every stump got a kick as he struggled through the tangles of briars and wandered off on his way, still convinced that one day this fallow ground would produce a fine long ear or two.
The squirrels were slightly more cooperative. By the time he had reached the end of the ridge that parallel the boat trail he had three reds and a black the size of a house cat swinging from his belt. Along the way the forest floor told him he had guessed right about the deer. Here and there among the thicker parts of the woods he found gatherings of dry patches in the glistening blanket of rain soaked leaves. The deer where bedded down and had been for some time, before his clumsy approach had sent them in search of safer hiding.
Sitting on an old log at the end o the ridge he slipped the #6’s out of his gun and replaced them with a slug followed by to OO buckshot. Jim pulled a blaze orange vest out of his jacket pocket and decided to wait out the rest of the day loaded for deer.
Just south of the point was one of the small islands he knew the deer held up on. Many mornings we had flushed them off into the swamp as we sped by in our boats on the way to the blinds. With a little luck he might catch his buck easing back to the island to bed down, if it wasn’t already there.
The woods were still and silent. Jim kept his eyes focused on the edge of the ridge where the open oak ridge transitioned through thick button willow to the cypress and tupelo gum swamp. Two trails intersected less than forty yards from his station and with almost no wind it seemed the best place he could figure to be on the off chance his buck was out cursing before bed.
A fat doe caught him nodding off and snorted her displeasure at the intusion. Her alarm call brought the darkening world to life before his eyes. She stood no more than ten feet away, a yearling a few steps beyond her in the heavier cover of the button willows. Jim watched her for several minutes as light faded and owls called down the night. She was not about to move, content to stand her ground until darkness insured her escape.
“Go on to bed.”He said to her and stood up. In one bound she was gone, disappearing into the growing shadows of the swamp. He listened until her splashing stopped. She had gone straight to the island.
With only the frailest light remaining he set his feet on the road back to the camp. By the time he reached the half way point darkness was complete and he paused to dig my small light out of his pocket. Standing there Jim began to notice something. It was colder now and above he could hear the limbs of the forest collide in a stiffening breeze. The adrenalin from his encounter with the doe and the brisk pace of his return walk had dulled his perception of the drop in mercury. He knew the onset of night would have knocked off a few degrees but the shift felt more dramatic.
By the time he could see the lights of the camp house he was chilled to the bone, his breath exploded in front of him in a thick white fog. Jim began to berate myself for not having laid in a fire before I left. He would need one tonight, and soon.
He hung the four squirrels on the cleaning bench and clutched a load of kindling with stiff, stinging hands. The thermometer on the porch spelled out in detail what his body already knew. Somewhere in his slumber the cold front that had refuse to move for several days had driven down through the delta, the temperature had dropped twenty five degrees in as little as two or three hours.
The coal oil soaked kindling leapt to flame and he hunkered on the hearth before the warmth until his hands became of use again. Tossing several large, split logs on the blaze he turned his back to the hearth to chase the remaining chill from his bones.
Lights glared across the front window of the camp and Jim walked out onto the porch to see who had ventured back to their remote corner of the forrest. The dark green pick-up topped with blue lights told him at once that it was not a camp member, but still a friend.
Samuel was one of the two local wardens and a frequent guest at the dinner table and occasionally one of the blinds. He stepped out of the truck, gave a friendly wave and without a word climbed the stairs up to the camp.
“Got the place to yourself tonight?” he said extending his hand.
“Yes Sir, anybody down at the deer camp?”
The neighboring land owners camp lay on the other side of the field was a frequent haunt of memebrs of the duck camp and the wardens.
“Nope. Henry might be back in the mornin’ but the rest of ‘em are bout done for the season.”
“Come on in. I just got a fire going and the coffee is still hot.” Jim offered.
“Sounds good, thank ya.”
Back inside they sipped coffee and enjoyed the growing blaze. Samuel wasn’t much on small talk but silence in his company was never uneasy and what few words he did speak where always worth waiting for.
Jim told him of his encounter with the doe and the slightest laugh passed his lips as he flipped through our camp records. Detailed accounts of all our hunts where kept and Samuel read them whenever he stopped by. He downed the last swig of his coffee, set the gunning log on the table and rose.
“I was about to throw a steak on if you care to stay for dinner. I got an extra out just in case anyone stopped by.” Jim said as he watched the warden walk to the hearth and spread his fingers before the roaring flames.
“Much obliged, but I got to get on. I would take those squirrels if you don’t want to clean ‘em.” The warden said.
His eyes where as sharp as a hawk’s, the squirrels where a good forty feet from where he parked and the lights of the house did little to illuminate the cleaning table. It seemed impossible that he could have seen them.
“Those boys of mine could use the practice skinning ‘em. Bout ruined mine this season.”
“Help yourself.” Jim said, a bit of surprise still evident in his voice. He turned and walked toward the kitchen his limp evident as he hade his way. “There’s a few cleaned ones in the freezer if you want ‘em?” the young host offered.
“Naw, those‘ll do fine. Just some coffee and I got to get. Some boys from town been shinen’ from the levee and I need to catch up with ‘em and have a little talk.”
Spot-lighters where to blame for his limp, several years back he had chased a truck load of outlaws down a narrow dirt road. They had taken a couple of shots at him when the he kicked on the blue lights, and he was none to happy with their manners. One of the men in the back of the fleeing pick-up had shot out his windshield, missing him by no more than a few inches and causing him to loose control of his vehicle. At a fair clip he had caught a large tree dead center in the grill.
He had darn dear lost his life and the shame of it was that he knew the fellas, at least passing well. They thought they had gotten away clean, but Samuel had convinced the Sheriff and Judge to wait on their arrest until he was out of the hospital and back under his own power. Story had it that he just waited until he saw the three men together in a café one day and just walked right up to them. Folks who saw the event said the men just stared at him in disbelief when he calmly dropped the three warrants on the table. “Let’s go.” Is all Samuel said, and away they went.
“Well, good luck. If you’re gonna be out a while just fill up that thermos and take it along. I got another in my room.” Jim said.
“Much obliged. I suppose you’ll be out chasin ducks in the morning.” He said as he filled his cup and reached for the thermos.
“Might as well. At least the weather is getting right.”
“Yep, and the birds are startin’ to come in. Saw a couple hundred filter down in the field just before dark.” Samuel mentioned as he continued fixing up his coffee without turning around. “Moon’s commin’ full and that north winds gonna have the clouds gone in an hour or so.”
“Sounds great to me. Been kind a slow the last week.”
“Yep, I saw that. But its about to get right. A fella could sit on Henrys log in the morning and make up a lot of lost ground, wouldn’t even have to get there before eight o’clock. These new birds are gonna feed all night and high tail it to the flats in the morning to rest up.”
“Sounds like right where I need to be. Thanks for the information.” Jim replied, taking the Warden’s word as gospel. Few men knew that swamp as well as Samuel.
“Sure thing. Might have to stop by and pick out a few with ya if you don’t mind the company?”
“Come on, love to have ya!”
“We’ll see. Depends on tonight.”
“Well good luck and I hope you get to join me.”
“Yeah, me too.” He thanked Jim again for the coffee and the squirrels and was out the door. From the porch Jim watched the warden leave. The tailpipes of his truck billowing steam as he turned around in the yard and drove out through the field, his headlights never came on and he vanished in an instant.
With the coals burning in the grill out on the porch Jim tossed another log on the fire and thought about Samuel’s words. The season had been poor so far and the temptation to “play catch up” would surly be there in the morning if the ducks were. In his earliest days of hunting with them the men of the camp were not beyond such a thing. Jim had taken part in more than one such shoot. But when duck numbers had begun to fall everyone seemed to take note and “stretching the limit” had happened less and less. So far this season there had never been an opportunity to be tempted.
The thought stayed with him through his meal and beyond. Everything Samuel had said was likely true. A fella could easily kill a sack full of ducks from Henry’s log when the conditions where right. The oak flats the surrounded the old fallen tree would teem with mallards at times, and tomorrow promised to be just such a morning. But other parts of his words now ran through the young man’s mind. “Might have to stop by and pick out a few myself…” Was it a caution, a warning or simply a passing thought? His tone was always so even, his voice let his words stand alone.
Unable to shake the thoughts and declare victory for either the angel of the devil who whispered in his ears Jim decided to ride out to the field and see what the front had delivered in the way of new ducks. The sky was clear and stars shone faintly, their luster outdone by the rising moon as he drove out from the camp.
From the cab of his small truck Jim watched and listened as the ducks poured in, just as the warden had predicted. From every direction loud calls from bossy hens beckoned to their approaching kin. Ghostly hoards of waterfowl could be seen passing near at hand and fluttering down onto the glistening surface of the water. An hour or more he sat enthralled. A constant buzz of drakes talking filled his ears, no one call distinguishable from another. Strident wing beats and the roll of birds lifting off and settling back down in the flooded bean field soon became a constant roar, punctuated now and then by a loud hen’s plea and then another’s until it seemed every girl in the flooded beans of the slash was stating here case as the finest catch for a lucky drake.
Jim went to bed with visions of the moon lit field running behind his closed eyelids. The accompanying sounds ringing in his ears. In troubled dreams he watched the skies fill with ducks, his shots never finding their mark.
Though he scarcely believe he had ever fallen asleep, the jarring ring of the wind up alarm clock told him otherwise. Jim shot out of bed and dressed in an instant, the camp having taken on a strong chill in the passing hours.
With the fire rekindled and the coffee taking its own sweet time he tried to pass the minutes without thinking of his little dilemma. It was no use. The mass of ducks that had moved in during the night made the potential for temptation all too real. He battled back and forth with himself, each decision winning out and then loosing ground, as he tried to picture the day ahead. At last he found peace by simply putting off the decision.
“No point in worrying about that ‘til the fourth greenhead falls.” He told himself, careful not to speak his loose ethics aloud. When his thermos was filled Jim set out in the boat under star filled skies. A skim of ice creaked around the base of the button willows that lined the trail as he wound through the woods toward his destination and decision.
After passing through the permanent spread of decoys in front of The Big Blind Jim turned the tiller hard and pointed the boat east toward the point of the shallow ridge that was home to Henry’s Log. He beached the boat where the ATV trail cut through the swamp between ridges, shouldered his gear and eased off into the darkness.
Wood ducks flushed with eerie wails as he slipped through the shallow waters toward Henry’s log. The slightest traces of ice had formed around the bases of the trees and in the shallowest parts of the flats. He tossed my three decoys haphazardly into the small opening south of his perch and settled in to wait for dawn.
His father and the rest of the men of the camp hunted the flats without any decoys at all. They just stood in the shadows of the oaks, kicked the water and called if necessary. When it was right calling was pointless. If the flats were on you could blow a kazoo and the ducks were gonna come anyway. But Jim couldn’t help but feel like a couple of decoys could give him an edge, or at least they wouldn’t hurt.
Shooting light came and went with the usual onslaught of woodducks. They provided entertainment in the early frail light but Jim’s gun stayed resting on his lap. Children on their first hunts where allowed to shoot woodies and occasionally the whole camp took part in a late afternoon pass shoot, but as a rule they shot only mallards. Pintails were allowed and black ducks where a trophy but greenheads reigned supreme.
Even in the days when “extra” ducks where taken there was an ethic of sorts among us. Hens where a big no-no, after all they where duck factories, and any member who shot one on purpose was scolded and ridiculed enough to ensure they would do their utmost not to repeat the mistake. Guests were made aware of the camp’s standards and a breach of the rules meant the offender had spent his last night at their camp. It was an odd sort of outlaw code, here these men would stack greenheads well beyond legalities and reason, but a hen shooter was lower than low.
When sunrise rolled around the acrobatic display of the squealers was over. Jim had yet to even hear a mallard. Had Samuel been wrong? Twisting his head around every few seconds to scan the brightening skies Jim waited for daylight visions of what he had glimpsed by moonlight the night before. By seven thirty only one greenhead had passed within sight, and fled at the sound of the young man’s calling. Still he waited.
He glanced at his watch, 8:15 and not a mallard in ear shot. Jim stood to stretch my legs and consider his options. If it was going to be yet another slow day he could just as well spend it in the comforts of my father’s blind. He knew better than to go to The Big Blind without express permission from Harold, the member who had claim to the best hole in the swamp. His dad’s blind was not the worst, on some days it was a burner of a blind. But day in, day out, The Big Blind was the best duck hole within several counties. When Harold was in camp he always extended invitations to Jim and his dad to join his group. So Jim wasn’t about to disrespect that kindness and risk losing his seat when Harold was back in camp.
The cold was starting to sink into Jim’s bones and the thought of a heater and a hot can of soup was getting the better of him. What his father’s blind may have lacked in overall duck killing it more than made up for in comfort and amenities. A closed off warming room in the center of the wrap around shooting porch held a two burner stove, heat and a cupboard Jim kept stocked during the season with canned soups, stew and chilli along with the required tins of Vienna Sausages, hot sauce, crackers and other condiments. Slow days in the blind were one thing but his father was more and more about comfort and comradery as the years went by and his latest blind was set up to afford he and his guests with ample opportunity to enjoy both while they waited for another flight of mallards and cursed the steady barrages of shots that usually echoed through the swamp from The Big Blind.
Slinging his gun Jim turned to gather his trio of fakes and head for the boat. It was a short ride from the point to the blind and a warm bowl of something was calling to the young man’s stomach. If the birds did pile in as Samuel had predicted they might just pay a visit to his dad’s blind. And if not at least he would be comfortable. His cold fingers had hardly touched the bright bill of the mallard decoy when at sound from skies made him freeze in his hunched position and twist his head over his shoulder toward the bright blue above.
From the north they came, mallards low on the tree tops and in numbers he had not seen in years. Jim turned his head downward and watched them by their reflection in the waters around his feet as the passed over the bare branches above. He dropped to his knees slowly when they had crossed the little opening. When the birds were moving away he reached for his call and gave a quick comeback to the departing wave of birds. Shuffling on his knees through the water he made it back to the log and crouched behind it as the entire group dropped their wings at the sound of the call and spun around.
There was no second pass. The mass of birds lined up on the opening and dropped their landing gear. All at once the hundred or more mallards where down through the trees and fluttering above the water. Jim struggled to get my gun sling from around his shoulder and the birds that had managed to land leapt into the air. But from above them others where still filtering down as he cut loose on a backpedaling drake. His first shot dropped the bird down through the confused mass of descending and climbing mallards below. His second and third shot went astray and in an instant the birds where gone. Jim quickly reloaded and slipped out to the drake, flipping him upright and staking him out as a fourth decoy, a trick old man Henry had taught him from this very spot.
Before Jim was back in place other groups had begun to work the area. In every direction mallards could be heard and seen. A trio dropped in on him unexpected and he emptied my gun on the lead drake without cutting a feather. Cussing himself he reloaded and tried to talk his nerves down to a rational level of enthusiasm. It was useless.
His next four shots caught only tree limbs and air. He was missing mallards so close he could feel the wind from their wings, or so it seemed. There was hardly time to reload between flights and Jim’s young nerves where a shambles. The next shot winged another greenhead and he ran it down in the shallows rather than firing again. After ringing the bird’s neck it too was staked out as a decoy and Jim returned to his post. Then his shooting slid into an even worse slump.
Nine more hulls floated in the water and he had little more than a few floating feathers to show for it. He was beside himself and nearly becoming irrational. He decided that he just couldn’t shoot sitting down and scanned the area for a suitable tree to lean against. To his right stood the ruins of another old oak, some fifteen feet tall and apparently a favored diner of woodpeckers. It would put him a little further back from the opening but he figured that was not all bad. The birds he had been missing where in the five to ten yard range and tried to justify his poor shooting by being over choked for such close quarters. He knew it was only a justification for letting his excitement get the better of him but he was desperate.
The sun was now glinting off the waters around him so Jim moved around the tree into its shadow. No sooner had he taken up his new position than another large group careened down through the trees. His first shot was on target but the bird was not hit well and he had to use his other two to put him down solid, firing them off in rapid succession as he fluttered toward the water and splashed down turning belly up. He was one away from the limit, but before the previous night’s ethical debate could even enter his mind two drakes made a low swing, calling down to their lifeless friends below. Hastily Jim reloaded and gave them a few short quacks. Those two greenheads however wanted to think about things for a moment.
Jim kept up a mellow series of calls as the pair made circle after circle above the leafless canopy. They were so low at times he thought of taking them at treetop, but confidence in his shooting was still sagging so he continued to assure them that all was well.
At last they made up their minds and began their approach. The debate raged in him anew. The two drakes would be on him in an instant and if he shot well he could have them both. He hadn’t heard an ATV, a boat or even another hunter’s shots from the public side of the swamp. He was alone and the woods were starting to fill with new ducks eager to feast on acorns and loaf in the shallows of the flats.
The pair of drakes broke through the tree tops and their wings stroked hard against gravity to ease their decent. Jim drew down on the drake nearest greenhead and fired. The bird crumpled.
It was decision time. In an instant all the options, emotions and fears assaulted the young man’s mind. The other drake was right there his escape route carrying him towards Jim’s hide. A simple swing of the gun barrel and he knew he could fold the mallard.
With the blast of a shotgun his decision was made and the drake splashed down stone dead at Jim’s feet. Jim felt sick, confused, scared. The realization hit him simultaneously with the sound of a familiar voice.
“Nice shot.” Samuel said as Jim around the tree just and saw the warden break open his stack barrel. A smoking spent hull hit the water and he dropped a fresh shell into the bottom barrel.
“Thanks…thanks.” Jim stammered.
“That wraps it up for you, doesn’t it?”
“Uh, yeah I guess it does.”
“Well, I forgot my calls, how ‘bout stickin’ around and callin for me.”
“Sure,” How could Jim say no?
“Stake out those two, but keep an eye on which ones are yours.” The warden said as he took cover behind a wide based willow oak. Jim did as he was asked and took up his position again by the dead snag, unloading the unspent shell from his own gun.
The flight picked again at once and either because or in spite of Jim’s calling every mallard in the county wanted to pitch in right beside Henry’s Log. Samuel went three for three in short order and his limit was filled.
“Let’s just wait and watch for a minute.” He said “Nice callin’”
They sat for half an hour while the birds continued to fill the woods. Jim didn’t bother to call anymore. The two hunters just stood by their trees and watched the birds make up their own minds. More than anywhere else they wanted to be around Henry’s log, but the rest of the swamp was soon echoing with the raucous call of hens insisting their spots were the best.
Soon Samuel waded out from his tree. “Lets leave these birds alone and let em rest up.” With that the world rose up with ducks around them. Seeming oblivious to the sight the warden waded out to the staked birds and picked up his four drakes. Jim joined him and gathered my own and the three decoys.
“You’re pretty good with that call.” Samuel offed.
“Thanks. Nice shooting by the way. I wish I could hit like that.”
“Awe, you do alright. Nerves can be tough. You’ll steady out with time.”
“Want a ride back to the camp. The boat is just down at the point.” Jim asked, still not sure how the warden had gotten this far into the woods without a boat or ATV.
“Naw, I’m gonna ease back toward the deer camp and see if I can’t get some more practice squirrels for the boys.”
“Alright then, I enjoyed it.” Jim replied. “Stop by later if you want some coffee.”
“Just might.” Samuel said without looking back, his voice even, his foot steps steady as he walked away gazing up into the trees.
It was the last time Jim faced the decision of “catching up”. He never asked Samuel about it and the warden never volunteered. Jim like to think he wasn’t going to shoot the other drake. He like to think Samuel folded that greenhead just so he wouldn’t have to make the choice. He would never know. But since that day Jim have never had to stare that side of himself down again, the decision had been made and never regretted it, no matter who it was that actually made it.
The tradition of waterfowling is full of legendary characters, archetypical personalities that no good hunting story could be without. We all know them, they are such a part of the fabric of waterfowling lore that every one of us has heard of them or hunted beside them. But like any other sport, there is also a second tier of unsung heroes without whom the experience of waterfowling would diminish. It is time that they got the recognition for which they are long overdue.
The first of these lesser legends we will call The Sponge. This is the waterfowler who, even when hunting in a seemingly dry field, can somehow manage to get sopping wet. I once watched my hunting party’s own sponge almost make it out of a hunt completely dry, a feat that had taken quite some doing. The hunt took place in a backwoods hole where the water depth threatened at every move to breach the top of our chest waders. It was so deep, in fact, that the mere act of standing in one place for too long was a serious hazard. The soft bottom of the brake caused the hunters to creep slowly towards China and nearer the limits of their waders. Foregone conclusion: The Sponge would be wet before long. Yet, somehow he managed to stay dry, and the longer he remained so the more fear the rest of us in the party had. You see, The Sponge plays a key role and an unenviable one. A universal law of duck hunting is that someone is going to get wet, but if you have among your party a sponge, the rest of the party can feel secure.
On this particular day we all managed to make it back to the bank dry. We were so shocked at this that we even threatened to toss The Sponge in the swamp, lest we depart without the feel of actually having been hunting. We were quickly dissuaded of that notion by the size of our particular Sponge, who stands just taller than your average safe, and has the same approximate build and weight. We began the long hike back to our vehicles, somewhat disappointed in the day. Sure, we had killed a few ducks, but our Sponge was dry.
Along the walk, wide, murky puddles emerged in our trail, opportunities for The Sponge to redeem himself. More than once I saw the twinkle of mischief in the eyes of my fellow hunters, hoping The Sponge was ready to take a header and round out the day. A failed attempt to assist the sponge in doing so dashed our hopes, and for the rest of the walk he gave all bodies of water larger than a teacup an extra-wide birth.
The last leg of our hike was tough. Deep, muddy ruts marked the last hundred yards of our way and again our hopes rose. With gasps of joy we watched The Sponge slip in his footing and come dangerously close to one of the deeper ruts. But alas, a muddy Sponge is not nearly as satisfying as a wet Sponge.
Back at the trucks we unburdened ourselves of ducks and gear, slipping out of our waders for the ride back to the camp. Having not brought along an extra pair of boots, The Sponge stepped over to a shallow roadside ditch to wash off some of the mud. We had all but given up hope of a wet Sponge when we heard it, the resounding splash and obligatory swearing that made our day whole. The sponge was wet. He had managed to lose his footing in a gravel-bottom puddle no more than three inches deep and gone straight over backwards, nicely filling his waders. He wasn’t the slightest bit amused, either by the fact that he had fulfilled his role or by our request that he do a repeat performance so that we all could see. After all, half the fun of having a Sponge along is watching them do what they do best.
If all duck hunts were sure-fire, limit-out, nonstop action, our second lesser legend might go unnoticed. But we aren’t that lucky, and it is in those lulls that The Philosopher is at his best.
The Philosopher is, more often than not, a quiet type. He is not one to partake in the good-spirited banter of the pit or bring up the topic of last night’s game. No, this waterfowler will tend to sit at the end of the bench, eyes fixed on some distant point. He may join in light conversation if pressed, but the workings of his mind are only revealed in the depths of those long lulls. Silence is his cue, and a long silence primes his pump. His obscure musings spill forth from his lips when skies are empty and most other minds have drifted to thoughts of departing, or perhaps breakfast.
“You guys ever wonder…?” is the hallmark of the Philosopher, and chances are good that, No, in fact you had never even considered X, nor did you care to, and if the fates are kind the whole notion will never cross your mind again.
We all know how much money is involved in waterfowling, but let’s hope our S.O.’s (significant others) don’t. Perhaps this is, in part, how our third lesser legend, The Hobo, came into being.
The Hobo is the member of the party that can be found wearing nothing from any mail order catalog printed after the early 1960’s, and even then it surely came from the Bargain Basement Closeout section. This is not to imply that The Hobo is a fellow of little means. More often than not, The Hobo is the wealthiest member of any hunting party, even though he looks like he should be standing in a soup line rather than a duck blind. His waders, bordering on antique, appear once to have been composed of rubber, but now are principally inner tube patches, yards of shoo goo, and duct tape. If this party member owns any camouflage at all, it is certain not to be in any pattern conceived after WWII. Quite often, what is mistaken for an unusual camouflage pattern is little more than several decades of coffee spills and the dried blood of every game species on the North American continent.
The Hobo is also a master of thrift. Why would he bother to buy a blind bag when he has all those perfectly good plastic bags around? Ducks surely don’t care that his shells are in a much-used zip-loc carried in a Save – Some grocery bag that has been in his service since that store went out of business during the Nixon administration. And so what if the sweater vest he wears for extra warmth is navy blue and has not fit him since it was issued to him at his boarding school in the fifth grade?
“Its warm,” he will tell you as he unwraps his brand new, high-dollar, custom-fitted shotgun from a piece of old tarp or draws forth from his military surplus reject coat a hand-checked, one-of-a-kind, custom duck call that is tied around his neck with a cast-off length of decoy cord. The Hobo always has a tell.
Unlike The Philosopher, who draws upon his inner world for subjects of conversation, our next lesser legend, The Observer, takes his notes from the world around. This party member is the keenest observer of the natural world and is somehow able to relate each observation to the hunting experience at hand.
“Did you guys notice that we didn’t see any rabbits on the road while we were driving in just now?” he asks. “Last time we drove in and didn’t see any rabbits the birds didn’t fly until after the woodpeckers started working on the old dead stands. Of course, that day there was a low ground fog and the cows in that pasture up by the turn-off were at the fence…”
He continues recounting until you are not sure you were even in the same county as he on the aforementioned trip. A word of caution: Whatever you do, do not mention your doubts to The Observer, lest he recall some observation about you from that day in sincere hope of taking you back with him.
“Sure you were! It was that morning that you dropped your coffee on the way out of the camp. I remember because I noticed that the frost on the grass around the truck was thick, and the steam from your coffee hung close to the ground, like the fog on the field with the cows…”
A second word of caution: Do not, under any circumstances, be so misguided as to believe that this party member’s keen since of observation can be of practical use. For instance, you might be inclined to ask, “Hey, __________, I missed what that flashing warning sign said back there, something about a bridge? Did you catch that?”
To which The Observer answers, “Sign? what sign? Did you guys notice that the leaves in the water on the left side of the road were…”
The title of our next Lesser Legend, The Magician, is a bit misleading. This party member has an uncanny ability to make their gear vanish. It should also be noted that this party member generally has more gear than all the others combined, and furthermore, that each and every piece of that gear is deemed an absolute necessity. He is, however, more tolerable than his counterpart TAIFM (short for Turn Around I Forgot My).
It is possible to have both these types in a hunting party, or even in one party member, though I doubt many have survived more than one season, having either been drowned by fellow hunters or having been forced to hunt alone. It is of vital importance that neither of these types EVER be responsible for any portion of essential gear. This includes items such as, but in no way limited to, the following: Gate keys, decoys, paddles, flashlights, boat plugs and even boats. I have seen these lesser legends get so far as the ramp before realizing that the boat was not behind them.
Our next lesser legend, The Springer, is always up for a hunt, anytime, anywhere, but it is not his eagerness that earns him his name. This admirable quality does get them limitless invitations to join in on hunts, though seldom with the same party more than twice.
The Springer is always on time, well-equipped and eager to help with the details of preparation for a good hunt. Inevitably, when they are around the birds are thick, and herein lies the problem. After the second or third phenomenal flight drops into the decoys, he speaks up.
“Oh, by the way, I did tell you guys I have to be back in town by 8:30, didn’t I?” Hence, The Springer’s name – he always springs something on you. It should be noted that the Springer’s own vehicle is almost never parked within walking distance. It is in town or at the camp, whichever is most inconvenient. The exception to this rule is the time that The Springer has convinced the entire party to ride with him.
But this is not the only way he comes by his name. The other, less endearing means, is the last minute phone call that goes something like this:
“Yeah, I’m on my way. Oh, by the way, I’m bringing along (insert name of annoying friend, untrained dog or overbearing boss). I hope that’s all right?” The Springer cannot be broken of these habits, so you have to either be a saintly soul well practiced in Zen or keep a criminal defense attorney on retainer if you plan to hunt with a Springer for very long.
The Sure Shot can be both a blessing and a severe trial for the hunting party. No, he is not a topnotch marksmen; he is merely “sure” he shot any ducks that happen to fall within a four-mile radius of his muzzle. It doesn’t seem to matter whether he even fired his gun or not.
Perhaps Trick Shot would be a better name for this legend, as his skill knows no bounds. Taking one shot at a teal passing on the left side of a blind, he manages to kill three mallards hovering over the decoys off the right side. Mallards that, apparently, all the other hunters missed.
It is possible to make Sure Shot work to your advantage. Simply allow him to claim every bird shot early on in the hunt. Congratulate him, shake your head at your own miserable shooting, and in short order they he has his limit and the rest of your party can enjoy the remainder of the hunt. One small problem that can arise out of this tactic is the presence of a band. In such a case the only way to handle the situation is to tie Sure Shot to a tree and hope you still have that attorney on retainer.
The last of our lesser legends of waterfowling is the most disturbing and potentially dangerous, Captain Destructo. His destructive force goes beyond the understanding of both science and religion. His mere presence causes mechanical objects to cease working and move beyond the realm of repair. In truth, I do not believe their powers to be limited to the mechanical. Given the opportunity, I firmly believe Captain Destructo could render an anvil useless by simply walking into a blacksmith shop. What is particularly insidious about him is that he seems to have no awareness of the havoc he wreaks, and more often than not fancies himself quite handy with tools. Whatever you do, never, under any circumstances let him near any functioning object if he has so much as a screwdriver in his hand, unless of course the object is well-insured and/or in need of replacement. If allowed to pursue his handiwork, within minutes Captain Destructo can have said object in such a state that no adjuster would ever question your claim.
“Yes sir, just as you said, it looks like a boulder fell on it just after the herd of buffalo ran through your garage while being shocked repeatedly by the freak electrical storm that seems to have burned the whole thing to cinders. Here’s your check. Damn shame about your anvil, my condolences.”
Though Tal’s brief alligator wrestling had given us some quality entertainment it wasn’t long before we all focused again on the hunt. The ducks had all but stopped working the oil well pond and Howard gave the order for everyone to pack up. After the recent excitement Tal did not offer to help pick up the decoys. In fact there was a brief pause in all of the grown up’s movement when that time came. But, as men will often do, they teased each other enough about being scared of the gator that nobody was going to dare refuse to wade back into the hole.
Once all the gear was loaded back in the trucks our group gathered around the tailgate of Howard’s Bronco.
“So what’s the plan?” Dad asked
“There were a lot of birds working somewhere off to the North.” Howard replied. “Let’s see if we can make it over to Hawk’s Camp Ridge. They might be keeping something open over in The Tupe or Fish Hole.”
With that we loaded back up, cranked up the heaters and our caravan started picking its way north. The trails in this part of the woods were narrow and winding. The Blazers and Bronco parade moved slowly as it wound its way around trees and thickets. There were several places where full halt had to be called to scout out more open forest or move downed tree tops. Progress was slow but with every stop we could still see low flights of mallards working in the distance. The Tupe might well be frozen but the ducks had not left.
The wind was up by then and as we rumbled through the woods brief breaks in the clouds cast brilliant cold sunlight down through the bare gray braches of the trees, the deep blanket of leaves, in shades of muted auburns and browns rustled at the feet of aged oaks, bitter pecan and hackberry trees. Bright red berries sparsely scattered in thickets stood out in sharp contrast to the more humble hues of winter in the delta.
We crossed several small swags, the weight of the trucks easily breaking through their ice covered waters. But a glance out the widow showed how deep the freeze was. Hunks of broken ice skittered across the surface of the sloughs none thinner than half a inch.
Twice Howard stopped ahead of us when I could see no obstruction to the trail. He and Jimmy would partially emerge from the doors of the truck, standing on the floorboards with their arms on the open doors looking above and ahead. Though I could not see the objects of their observation dad explained their behavior. They were scanning the skies watching the low flights of ducks, trying to pinpoint the birds’ destination.
A third stop came just at the edge of what appeared to be an impenetrable thicket. Howard’s left arm extended from his lowered window and gave a sign for us to stay in our vehicles.
“Look.” Dad said in an unnecessary whisper. We were still inside our vehicle with the windows up but I knew from his tone that we were close on the mallards’ trail. I leaned forward and peered through the mud spattered windshield. At first I didn’t see what he was looking at, then, through the thick tangle of tie vines and small trees I caught a flash of movement. A respectable size flight of mallards, cupped up and low were pitching down through the taller timber in the distance. With the new wind and scattered sunlight their decent was a colorful chaos of acrobatic decent. They fell from the skies and vanished behind the bare branches of the woods ahead of us. Then another group and another made the same air show stunt before us.
Howard again signaled for us to stay in our trucks but this time he slowly opened his door and stepped out of his Bronco, easing the door closed as exited and began slowly walking back to us. He walked up to dad’s window and dad slowly turned the handle to lower the mud mottled glass. There was a sparkle in his eyes when he leaned in and began to talk.
“Bill William I think we found em.” He said. “There’s a pretty decent oak flat on the other side of this thicket. I’dve thought it was solid ice but I guess they kept it open.”
Howard’s voice was low but excited, his words tumbled out in short sharp setences.
“We can’t get around this thicket. Gotta go through it. So just follow close. If you get stuck, get out and hop in another truck.” And with that he was gone, walking back to the other vehicle to undoubtedly deliver the same message.
When Howard go back in his truck he waved his arm like a cavalry commander calling for an assault.
“Hang on!” dad said and we charged headlong into the thicket.
Limbs slapped the windshield. Vines snagged at the bumper and braches and briars made screeching sounds as they drug across the hood and sides of the truck. Small trees pounded into the grill and bent beneath the bodies of the trucks. Our tires were spinning and the small colum of trucks slid, swerved and slushed through the tangle being beaten on all sides by brambles, branches and briars.
“Look at THAT!” dad shouted as a prime swamp buck leapt from a downed tree top just ahead of Howard’s truck. His horns wide and nearly white the deer bounded from the cover and broke through the thicket with our convoy close on his hoves.
Howard cut a hard right turn and followed the big buck out of the dense low forest into the open woods. The deer cut back to the left and the trucks followed as he loped, seeming only slightly alarmed down the higher center span of a ridge.
A mammoth fallen oak obstructing the open woods made the buck take an ninety degree turn toward the button willowed edge of a slough and our charge came to an abrupt halt as Howard’s Bronco slide sideways, unable to match the whitetail’s talent for turns.
When the buck vanished into the button willows the earth rose up with ducks ahead of him. As far as I could see through the now cracked windshield mallards were boiling up from the still unseen waters ahead of us. I heard dad’s door open and quickly jumped out of the truck myself. From the corners of my eyes I saw that everyone was out of their vehicles, standing in stunned silence staring at the sight before us.
The ducks that had been startled by the fleeing deer covered the sky and his path could be marked by the continuing lift off of countless mallards. But the birds did not depart. They rose in clouds of color and noise, parting at either side of his path, swarmed then resettled back beyond the button willows. The sound was eerie, almost alien. No hens called but the drakes strange sound was like the hum of a hornets nest played over the soundtrack of an angry ocean as their wings tore air from the crisp winter woods.
We stood in silence for long moment before anyone spoke. Looking around I expected to see smiles but the faces of the men and boys around me spoke only of awe and reverence.
Jimmy finally broke the spell.
“Grab your gear and let’s get em”
Everyone scrambled to gather their guns and shell bags. Demery and Howard each shouldered a sack of decoys and with the hum of hordes of mallards ahead of us we marched toward the slough still concealed before us.
As we approached the edge of the button willows the ducks began to roll. Still they did not climb into the sky and leave, they simply lifted as high as was needed and flew only so far as they must to evade our entrance to their lair. The edge of the slough was a solid sheet of ice and not even the larges men of our party broke its surface as we beat and busted a path through the thick cover.
When the button willows gave way to the more open part of the slough the ice began to give. In just a few steps all the men were breaking through the ice, the water rising up to their knees.
“Howard.” Dad said as he saw what was coming. “Why don’t yall go on out and find the opening and Brad and I will hold up here and try our luck?”
I felt my heart fall again. With no waders I was going to be left behind.
“Oh HELL no!” Jimmy said. Stomping back to our side. “Lawyer you hand me yall’s gear and put that boy on your back. He ain’t gonna miss this!”
Jimmy, Howard and Demery divvied up our gear and I climbed onto my dad’s back.
“Now Bill William you’re an old bastard so you let us know when you need a break.” Demery said as we stomped and tromped through the thick ice. The ducks could still be heard in the distance but open water was nowhere in sight. Dad carried me for about fifty yards before he called for a break.
“You getting old Lawyer!” Jimmy teased him. “Bring that boy over here and put him on this stump while you catch your breath.
Dad stomped his way to the large stump Jimmy had indicated and lowered me down.
“Lets hold up here and see what these birds are doing.” Howard offered as he made his way over to my perch.
“Give that boy his gun Demery.” Howard said. “We might wind up having to tree top a few while the old man recuperates.” Howard looked at me and winked.
“Who’s go my gun?” Dad asked
“Hold up now Lawyer. Nobody said anything about YOU getting to tree top?” an easy laugh passed through the group but dad remained gunless.
The drone of the ducks could still be heard through the woods and occasionally we caught glimpses of them through the trees, either fluttering up and resettling or walking on the ice covered water among the scattered timber. A few flights drifted over our heads but nothing came low enough for shots. Our four footed party member paced cautiously on the suface of the ice, throwing his nose into the wind and whining when the scent of the ducks drifted to him.
“I think it gets a little deeper down that way.” Howard said, pointing in the direction of the last group of ducks we had seen filtering down through the trees. “Let’s ease that way and see if that where they are keeping it open.”
With that dad started to make his way back over to my stump, having wandered a short distance away to sit on a log while we rested.
“I got this little shit.” Jimmy said, wading up to me. “Can’t have an old SOB like you falling out on us way out here.” Dad protested and again offered for he and I to stay back while the rest of the group went on but Jimmy wasn’t gonna hear any talk of that.
“You just try to keep up Bill. I can tote this boy all day.”
“And anyway” Howard added. “We can carry the boy around fine but if you try and wind up dead out here the whole lot of us couldn’t drag your big ass outa this swamp”
We made our way further into the slough but open water was nowhere to be found. I was passed from Jimmy, to Howard to Demery several times as we search for liquid water. They made stops where a log or stump offered a place for me to stay up out of the ice and give their backs and shoulders a rest.
During one of our stops Howard had the men bust open a few small holes in the ice and scatter a half dozen decoys close to their feet in the openings. When a flight of ducks came by they all called with as much energy, pleading and volume as I had ever heard. A good group of mallards finally got too close for their own good and together we managed to drop a half dozen mallards onto the ice around us.
While the dog made his uneasy retrieves, the ice creaking below him, the ducks from further down the slough at last had had enough and began lifting up above trees. Soon the skies above us where swarming with ducks. Howard and his crew tried to coax the birds into range for a time but the mallards would not be fooled. Eventually Howard told everyone to stop calling and just hold still. We would watch and see what the birds did and then decide from there what to do.
“And don’t shoot til I say.” Was his final command.
The ducks milled and drifted above us with very little calling. The wind was not rather strong and the birds seemed to be having trouble lining up their approaches. In the distance we saw a few flocks get down through the trees again but their decent looked more like controlled crashes than landings.
From the log where they had placed me the far bank of the slough was visible. The shore in that area was clear of button willow and the shallow frozen waters spread out around the bases of a stand of red oaks and bitter pecans maybe a hundred yards away.
All at once a single greenhead dropped through the canopy and landed on the ice at the edge of the oak, then another followed and then it seemed every duck in the delta decided it was time to rest their wings.
They were too far away to shoot but as we watched hundreds of mallards drifted, dropped and plummeted down from the cloud studded skies all seeming to want to settle on a spot no bigger than a beach towel.
As each flock broke own through the trees another was setting their wings and preparing to land. On the ice ducks touched down and waddled to the sides as the next group crowded down on their heads.
Soon the ice in the distance was covered with mallards and the skies were again empty. The ducks milled about for a moment then in a nearly single file line began walking towar the edge of the slough. At first I thought they might have seen us and were putting distance between themselves and our itching trigger fingers. Then Howard whispered.
“I’ll be damned! They’re dry feeding!”
I didn’t’ know what that term meant at first.
“What’s that?” I whispered back, transfixed at the sight of hundreds of mallards looking for all the world like they were playing on the bank like children in the leaf piles of a freshly raked yard.
“They’re eating acorns off the ground.” Dad whispered back.
“Now that ain’t something anyone is ever gonna believe” Jimmy said in a low voice of amazement.
As I studied the ducks I could see what the men were talking about. The mallards were rooting around in the forest liter with their bills, finding red oak acorns. They would grab one in their bill, toss their head back ad choke down the hard acorn then immediately go back in search of another.
As they fed they made a strange mummer unlike any call I had ever heard before. And the sound of them rustling through the leaves with their bills and flat, webbed feet was crisp and loud.
Eventually they wandered out of sight but we still stood in silence for a time listening as the din of their unusual feast filtered through the trees.
That was the last we saw of ducks that day. The skies had cleared and the winds had risen to a roar by the time the men took turns carrying me on their backs and shoulders through the thickening ice. By the time we got to the trucks and back to the camp it was beyond bitter cold and even the flowing waters of the bayou and canal at the foot of the levee were covered in ice.
Dad made a big pot of canned chilly and potent batches of coffee and Nippy for the group and as we warmed ourselves inside and out we recounted the day’s events again and again.
Slowly the crowd thinned out. The freeze was on and until it broke there wasn’t much point of staying at The Tupe. Howard and his crew mentioned trying the river but dad was having nothing to do with that.
“I promised my maker I’d never be fool enough to hunt that river again if he got me off of it alive last time I hunted it.” He told them. “That river is for brave hearted young men and fools.”
Dad and I cleaned up the camp after everyone was gone and drained the water pipes as best we could to try to prevent them from busting in the freeze.
I doubt I made it to the levee before I was asleep on the ride home and I don’t have the slightest recollection of dad carrying me into the house and putting me in bed. What I do recall though is waking up the next morning to find a brand new pair of shiny, green rubber chest waders on the foot locker at the end of my bed. I remember the salty taste of tears of joy that streamed down my face and the strange chemical smell as I pulled the waders on over my pajamas and stumbled own the stairs to show dad how well they fit. I remember knowing that I had graduated to The Majors and become a true waterfowler. And I know now that I had done so upon the shoulders of giants.
It was like being called up to the majors from third string on a T-Ball team. Although I was only in my third season as I duck hunter I knew what it meant to joining Howard and his crew on a duck hunt.
Dad and I were sitting around the kitchen table of the musty little trailer that served as our camp eating a dinner of squirrel and dumplings, listening to the weather radio when we heared footsteps on the stairs.
“Ramsey! You in there?” a voice boomed outside the kitchen window.
“Come on in!”
Howard and Jimmy stepped in from the night air and the cold spilled into the little trailer. Both men wore heavy coats and still had on their chest waders. Howard was lean and fit with salt and pepper hair and a lanyard around his neck holding two black plastic calls and more duck bands than I had ever seen. His regular hunting partner Jimmy stood a good bit taller, his olive skin. Black hair and bushy beard hinting to his Greek ancestry.
“Have a seat.” Dad offered. “Care for some supper?”
“I appreciate it Bill but we need to get back to town.” Howard spoke for both men. “But if you have a batch of Nippy tucked away in a flask somewhere it sure wouldn’t hurt.”
Dad was known to always have a batch of “Nippy” somewhere in the trailer or on his person when we were at the camp. It was short for Nip I Diddee, named for an old top water fishing lure the concoction was three parts apricot brandy and 1 part Wild Turkey 101. Dad’s longtime friend Judge Guider had given it the name, saying “This stuff is like a Nip I Diddee, one little taste and you’re HOOKED!”
“Right there by the town water.” Dad said.
Though we had running water from a well at the camp it wasn’t fit for much other than washing stink off duck hunters and mud off boots. It was clear enough but smelled and tasted like rusted cast iron. I never investigated it much deeper than that but dad swore it would turn scotch purple so he even made ice with town water less it ruin his highballs.
Howard and Jimmy each took a fair pull off the flask and placed it back on the counter.
“Pretty tough out there.” Dad said and the men shuttered from the burning warmth of the liquor. “That batch is fifty-fifty on account of the cold.”
“Might need to have a backup made before morning.” Jimmy said, reching back to the flask and taking another small pull.
“We aren’t gonna hunt tomorrow.” Dad said. “Too cold. The Tupe is frozen solid!”
My heart crashed. This was the first I had heard of it and dad could see I was fighting back tears.
“We might ease down the bayou or go check the sunflower once it warms up a bit though.” He said in hope of not completely crushing my spirits.
“Well that’s why we stopped in.” Howard said. “Why don’t you and the Brad join us in the morning?”
From the depths of despair my soul soared to its highest summit. A hunt with Howard and his crew was more than I could have dared hope for. These men weren’t just duck hunters, they were duck KILLERS.
Throughout the delta Howard had the much deserved reputation of being a living duck hunting legend. He, Jimmy and Demery were the top of the mark.
Long before waterfowling became an industry. Before there was any such thing as a celebrity duck hunter, before videos and web sites, heck before there was such a thing as hunting shows on television, these men were renowned for their skill and determination when it came to killing ducks. And though I was still wet behind the ears as a duck hunter their “fame” was already well known to me.
“I don’t know Howard it’s gonna be mighty tough out there…” Dad started. But I cut him off at once.
“I can wear Tom’s heavy coat and I have extra socks. I’ve got two pairs of long johns and I can wear my sweats under the jumpsuit and…”
“See Bill the boy knows what to do.” Jimmy said giving me a wink.
“Hell Howard it’ll be froze solid everywhere in the morning.” My father replied. “We couldn’t even get the boat to the blind today.”
“Don’t need one.” Howard said. “But if you don’t want to go…”
My spirits began to plummet again. A lump formed in my throat. Dad was about to ruin my chance to hunt with Howard and his crew. I could feel the tears building in my eyes.
“You just sleep in and we’ll take Brad along with us.” Howard said, giving me a smile.
At that I saw a look come over my father that I knew meant we were in.
“What did you find Howard?” Dad said, placing his empty bowl in the sink and walking over to the bar to pick up the Nippy.
Howard went on to explain that they had seen ducks moving north that morning but not low enough to think they were leaving. They had followed them and found the mother load of mallards down the old board road in the deeper waters of an old oil well site. We could drive our trucks to within fifty yards of it and could stand on the high spoil bank around the sunken hole that I now know must have been a reserve pit for the well.
“It’s gonna be a big group.” Howard said. “Braddock is bringing Tal and Demery will join us as well. I think Donnie and Trey might be there also.”
This last clue told dad all he needed to know. If Howard was inviting the masses it meant he had a burner of a shoot lined up. When he and his guys found em thick they would bring in every gun they could find, so long as they knew none of them would tell where they found the birds or go back to that spot without him.
“What time are we leaving?” was the last thing I remember him saying. My head was already swimming with visions of my short twenty gauge folding fat greenheads.
“You dress plenty warm.” Howard said as they stepped out of the door. “And bring plenty of shells.” He gave me a wink and stepped out into the cold night.
I spent the rest on the night rummaging through my hand-me-down hunting clothes, trying on every conceivable assortment of clothes. I plundered drawers and closets, packed and repacked a shell bag and practiced shouldering and swinging the 1100 20 gauge.
I was small for my age and the gun was too long for me to start with, the countless layers of ill-fitting clothes I had on under my rolled up camouflage jump suit didn’t help the matter at all. But I was determined to make it work.
I didn’t join dad for our usual nightly visit with the men of Strickland Deer Camp. Though I knew Mrs. Annie had cooked one of my favorite meals, fried deer meat, green, rice and gravy, I stayed in our little trailer trying on clothes, checking to make sure I had plenty of fluid for my hand warmers, LOTS of shells and anything else I could think of that might fit within the straining seams of the canvas satchel I had reallocated from my brother’s hunting gear.
Dad forced me to get into my bunk when he returned so I could get some rest. I obeyed the order but sleep was tough to come by. I dreamed of mallards crumpling before my gun, of Howard and his crew remarking on how good of a shot I was and tried to imagine what duck hunting by an oil well might look like?
I had visions of derricks and the pump jack dinosaurs popular in television commercials of the time. I puzzled over where we would hide and why the ducks would come to a place with giant steel machines tottering away in the middle of the woods. I tried to picture what a board road would look like, fancying a great broad boardwalk or bridge winding through the towering oaks. And finally I slept.
The sound of mud tires on wet gravel brought me bolt upright in bed before I knew I had been sleeping. The light was on in dad’s bedroom and the old electric percolator coffee pot was gurgling its first slow surges in the faint glow from the light over the stove.
Pajamas and all I burst out onto the porch to see who all was there. The truck belching steamy exhaust in the frost covered parking lot was not one from our party. Every member of The Tupe drove some sort of Bronco, Blazer or Scout. The vehicle I had heard was a pick-up, the tiger tail hanging from the gas cap told me it was Mr. J.C. I waved and turned to look at the thermometer mounted beside or door.
“Get your little butt back in that house boy!” J. C. yelled as he stepped out of his truck. “You’ll freeze to death before the ducks start flyin’.”
The temperature read twenty two. My breath brought clouds forth as heavy as the exhaust from J. C.’s truck.
“Yes sir…I’m hunting with Howard today…I got plenty of warm clothes…” I began yelling back to the old man who had taken a shine to me from my first trip to the camp. I had only just met him when he had bestowed on me the nickname that stuck with me for years around the camp.
“Get your ass inside and put em on then Tiny Shit!” He bellowed. And headed to the warmth of his own camp.
I ran back inside and before the coffee pot could finish was dressed in everything I had selected the night before, and a few extra layers just for good measure.
By the time everyone arrived I was sweating and pacing the floor. Dad had gotten up a little early and cooked extra sausage and biscuits for everyone but nobody, especially me, wanted to wait around to eat. Dad wrapped the warm breakfast in a flour sack towel then wrapped that in several layers of tinfoil and stuffed it deep into his blind bag beside the Nippy and a thermos of the hottest, blackest coffee I have ever known.
The parade of vehicles rolled out of the camp and into the darkened woods. Every one of the camp members owned an ATV of some sort. On warmer days you would see the strange array of them trundling off into the woods where we now bounced along within the warmth of our trucks. There were Hustler six wheelers, four wheel Coots, with their bizarre articulated bodies, and maybe a Max or two representing the round tired design. For tracked vehicles you had Kid and Tracksters and one other strange contraption that I am still not certain was not made in someone’s garage our of leftover tank and bulldozer parts.
They were all amphibious, or at least they were supposed to be, as reported by the grinning repair men in town who usually were the ones who sold us the contraptions. Three wheelers were just coming onto the market and aside from being notoriously unstable at high speed they couldn’t swim the deep cypress brakes or haul the mountain of men and gear that was usually part of a duck hunt in The Tupe. Mind you half of the gear was the tools and spare parts not a single amphib owner would dare leave home without, but that was part of the fun. You never knew when one would break down, throw a track, decide it was only going to run in reverse, etc. They were an endless source of entertainment. If laughing at your buddy breaking down in the middle of a swamp was your idea of fun. And for the men of The Tupe that was clearly the case.
When one of the other members walked into camp it always meant an afternoon repair or recovery operation. Everyone learned how to work on their own vehicle and those of their fellow camp members. And all of them became pretty fair shade tree mechanics, all of them but my father.
Dad had the ability, as Mr. Herman put it after helping dad repair his second brand new hustler in the span of only two seasons, to tear up an anvil with a rubber mallet. My father became so notorious for this total lack of mechanical skill that when anyone destroys a piece of equipment, ATV or otherwise, they were said to have Ramsmerized it.
My father’s Blazer was about the only thing with moving parts he didn’t seem to be able to destroy. He could get it stuck in wet grass mind you but other than the utter filth and funk of the beast it never gave him the least bit of trouble, much to the chagrin of the auto dealers who had heard of the riches filling the coffers of the local ATV mechanic dad used.
The dive seemed to take forever to me. Not having any idea where we were going I asked my dad about every low spot and swap the trucks splashed through, spinning tires and crunching thick sheets of ice that had formed over the past few days. In spots the trucks didn’t even break through, spinning and sliding and generally making for a thrill ride in that black woods that left more than a few dings and scratches on the trucks. I’m sure it seemed just as never ending for my father with a ten year old boy leaning up from the back seat bombarding him siwht questions while he did his level best to keep the trucks back end from passing its front.
After several deep water crossings where dad had put the pedal to the floor and told me to SIT BACK and everyone else to HANG ON, we broke out of the woods and onto the open gal pipeline that cut through the swamp. We crossed one more low spot and then from font to back each vehicle turned off its headlights and the procession dropped its speed to a crawl.
Brake lights came on and the ride was done. My heart began to pound. I saw men and boys emerging from the trucks in front of us, illuminated by the interior lights of the vehicles as the doors opened. Steam rose from every truck and I could hear hissing and ticking noises from the engine of dad’s blazer.
“Brad, you wait in here til we are ready to go…” Dad called back over his shoulder as he exited the truck.
“I’m ready.” I said popping up from the darkness when he opened the rear hatch of the truck, startling him more than I should have had I known of the heart condition that would surface a season or two down the road.
While dad was walking to the tailgate I had climbed over the back seat and begun ransacking the pile of gear piled in the back. I bounded down from the truck and started to march off toward…I didn’t know where. I was just going to get as close to Howard as I could and follow.
“Hold up!” dad whispered leaning in close and grabbing my shoulder. “Look son, you have got to slow down. Nobody is gonna leave you. We have a long walk from here and I need you to stay close to me. The board road will be icy and if you get wet now…”
“I won’t Dad…” I started to protest, pulling a flashlight I had stolen from my brother’s gear out and flipping it on.
Dad’s giant hand wrapped around the end of the light and darkness returned.
“Listen son, we don’t want to turn lights on if we don’t have to. And keep your voice down. You don’t want to scare off the ducks do you?” His voice was stern but pleading and I could tell he was trying to teach me something. I clicked off the light and removed his hand. In the distance I could hear Tal being scolded by his father to take on my imposed silence. Then another sound reached my young, knit facemask hat-flap covered ears.
Somewhere in the blackness a mallard hen let loose a ringing hail call. For a moment there was silence as everyone stood stock still. The she was shouted down by another hen, then others chimed in. Soon the entire dark world seemed to be alive with the sound of mallards. He’s called on top of each other and the buzzing sound of the drakes talking to their ladies murmured the background full of sound. Slowly, quietly our group slipped into a huddled bunch, silent in our own rite listening to the roar of ducks, the individual calls of any one hen now lost in the clamor of the as of yet unseen throng.
For a long moment we all stood there in the dim light that escaped the open door of one of the trucks. Behind the clouds of steaming breath I saw smiles on grown men’s faces that rivaled the ones on either of us two children. Then I saw something that threatened to ruin my day completely.
Tal, another member’s son, no bigger than me and in my same grade, was wearing waders!
I had begged my father for a pair of my own from the day I first knew they existed. Waders were the sure sign of a duck hunter. They meant you could hunt the flats and sloughs where no blinds had been built. You could chase down dead ducks where the boat could not penetrate the walls of button willows. With waders you were one of the men, not a “Low Quarter Boy”, a derogatory term my father used for pass shooters and sky busters who didn’t own chest waders like a real duck hunter. With waders you were no longer a little boy relegated to the banks and blinds.
Dad had sworn he would get me some but that they didn’t make them in my size. How wrong he was! There, in living proof was my age mate, standing gloriously in a fine pair of shiny green rubber waders, just like every other duck hunter in our group. And there I was, wearing sixteen layers of hand me downs stuffed into a calf high pair of rubber boots with laces no less. I was crushed!
Though I had been admonished to be silent I could not contain myself.
“Dad! Tal has waders!” I all but shouted.
“SHHHHhhhhhh!” Dad said putting his finger to his lips.
“Hush!” Dad leaned in and I could see he meant it. “I’ll find out where he got them. But you need to hush!”
I knew better than to push my luck. So I stood there admiring my friends waders, jealously eating my very soul as the men wrangled up the last of the gear and we set up in the darkness walking single file toward the raucous sound of the mallards somewhere beyond.
The Board Road was less spectacular than I had envisioned it. In the faint light offered by a full moon shining behind a thin layer of clouds I could just make out the old rotting planks. They and the weeds that had grown up through their gaps and cracks were coated in a heavy frost. But their relative regularity still stood out in sharp contrast to the other rutted roads that crisscrossed the swamp.
The lead through the overhanging forest traveling in a fairly straight line. Each step solid under my feet but treacherously slippery from the frost. I made the walk transfixed by two things, the sound of the ducks in the distance growing closer with each step and the sight of Tal’s waders.
Without warning our column came to a halt and for a split second the woods fell totally silent. Then the silence erupted around us as the ducks took flight with alarmed quacks and what sounded like waterfall or rushing rapids as they leapt into the night. The backlit clouds showed silhouettes of ducks fleeing in all directions and to a man we stood transfixed by the sight and sound before us.
When the skies cleared Howard and his crew gave the rest of the party their orders and set to work. Dad, Gerald, Tal and I were to set up on the spoil bank on the edge of the pond. Howard, Jimmy and Demery hauled the decoys out to the hole. They used the heavy decoy bags to bust through the thick ice at the edge and began setting up the spread.
As the rest of us made our way around the edge of the hole scattered clocks of ducks milled overhead chattering and dropping into the opening, some even splashing down alongside Howard and his crew as they placed the decoys and opened up a larger area by busting the thick ice into sheets and sliding it under the ice that remained.
When they were satisfied with their handiwork they joined us in the cover afforded by the trees along the spoil back and we were given the go-ahead to load up.
Ducks swirled overhead as we waited for legal shooting light. Scattered groups dropped into the opening and splashed down in the open water, some landing on the ice as well. Anticipation had mounted to a fevered pitch when Howard at last let us loos on the swarm. Shots rang out from every barrel, ducks flushed, ducks fell, guns roared and men cheered as the initial echoes faded.
Looking out over the opening and the ice beyond I saw several ducks down, some floating and several on the ice at the far side of the pond. A drake mallard stood up and started slip sliding his way toward the far bank.
“Shoot that cripple!” Someone called.
Shot raked the mallard and his escape was thwarted. Another shot rang out as one of our party noticed another duck thrashing in the open water trying to dive.
“Get a count.” Howard ordered. “And load back up. Jimmy, send the dog.”
At his master’s command the lab sprang from the bank, busting through the ice and made short work of the water retrieves. But when he was sent back again to the far birds that had fallen on the ice the sturdy dog ran into trouble.
Try as he might he could not climb on top of the ice and though he pounded it with his paws the ice would not give. He whined and whimpered as he fought the ice but at last Jimmy had to call him back. He obeyed but stopped twice in his return voyage to look back at the fallen birds as if to ask. “Are you sure? You see those don’t ya boss?”
Jimmy sent his pup back to his station on a high hump covered in button willows along the spoil bank. He waded over to pat the black dog on the head and reassure him he had done fine.
“It’s ok Buster, we’ll get em in a bit.” The tenderness in the big man’s voice spoke volumes of his relationship with the dog. “You did good, boy, you did fine.”
In the first wave seven guns had only brought down six ducks. I know for myself I might have hit one, but after that everything I tried to take a shot on was already falling or got out of my line of fire. I had emptied the little 20 gauge but even at that age I know most of my shots were more noise than anything.
“We gotta do better than that!” one of the men announced, including himself fin the poor marksmanship like a true sportsman.
Howard and his crew cut off the discussing with a series of hail calls. And we all leaned back into the brush and waited.
The next group was working wide as Howard, Jimmy and Demery played off of each other’s calling. Together they sounded like far more ducks than the few decoys we had scattered in the hole. But still, the ducks were edgy and working wide, slow circles. Several times they set up and look as though they were about to drop in, only to lift at the last minute and go around again for another look.
Then, unseen by anyone on their approach, a wad of wood ducks streamed in over the trees, swooped low over the decoys and overshot the open water of the hole, landing and sliding and crashing into each other on the ice. Not a shot was fired, the calling quit and we watched as the squealers righted themselves and looked around almost embarrassed.
Shooting wood ducks was a no-no in those days. Young boys on their first few hunts were allowed to shoot them, but after that they were all but off limits. Sure we might occasionally take in an afternoon shoot for them on one of the sloughs where we never hunted mallards, but when the decoys were out and we were after mallards, the only wood ducks to ever get shot were by guests or mistake. The point system was still the law of the land and it was a badge of shame to take up a greenhead’s spot with a high point square tail. Hen shooters got worse treatment and if they were guests seldom save another invitation come their way.
The slap-stick comedics of the wood ducks distracted most of the party so when Howard called the shot none of us knew what in the world he was talking about. His gunshot brought our attention to the flight of mallards that had pitched in from over our backs as we were watching the ice capades.
Jimmy and Demery each folded another greenhead while the rest of us tried to get or acts together but their three birds were all that fell from the twenty or more mallards that had been suckered in by the decent of the wood ducks.
“What the HELL? Why didn’t yall shoot?” Demery asked as he took a few short steps and retrieved the drake that had fallen just off the bank.
Our excuses were nearly identical and some good natured ribbing eased the anguish of watching the rest of the flock escape unharmed, but it didn’t erase it.
“Well damn Howard when you call the shot with your gun it’s hard to catch up.” Dad teased his friend.
“Now Ramsey don’t be telling lies in front of that boy of yours. You know good and well I called the shot while yall were sitting there birdwatching.”
“Yea, ‘Take EmBOOM’” Dad replied. “You ought to be ashamed bird hogging like that in front of the children!” he finished with a grin.
“Boys, now yall pay attention.” Jimmy chimed in. “This your fathers just showed you how NOT to kill ducks.” He burst out laughing.
“That’s right.” Howard said. “You boys watch me and these two.” He said gesturing to his friends. “Don’t try to look up at the birds when they’re working. Those bright little smiling faces will flare em every time. Keep your head down and watch us. Those mallards didn’t want to do it but when the wood ducks pitched in and didn’t get shot to pieces them big old ducks figured it was safe.”
The next group of mallards were even more uneasy. On several passes they descended well within range but still would not commit. Demery even asked Howard if he wanted to let us young boys try our skills on a particularly low pass.
“No tree-topping” Howard responded firmly. But after a few more passes the birds simply drifted off to our north.
“There’s something they don’t like.” Howard said abandoning his spot off the bank and climbing up on dry ground with us.
“Demery, Jimmy, get up on the bank in more cover.” He called down the line. With everyone in place the hunt resumed.
Scattered small groups of birds worked the spread but other than a lone drake Gerald dropped on the ice nothing would commit.
Howard adjusted the decoys a few times and all the men helped knock the ice back and off the decoys. Still the birds wouldn’t work. There were enough birds around the keep us hopeful but the flocks that did circle would all eventually drift off to the north.
“I guess it’s as good a time for breakfast as any?” Dad said, rumbaing through his satchel and pulling out the foil wrapped bundle of sausage and biscuits.
“By God Ramsey I knew there was a reason we kept you around!” Jimmy said as dad offered up the repast.
Our little group had been spread pretty evenly along the back until the food and coffee was brought out. With a general lull in flights going on we gathered in a loose group and shared our simple meal and took turns drinking from the thermos lid as it was filled and refilled with steaming black coffee. Tal and I shared luke warm hot chocolate from a thermos his father had packed for him.
Sometime in our breakfast break someone noticed as strange lump protruding from the ice at the edge of the bank. It was slick and rounded, dark in color and not coated in ice. It seemed to bob just a touch keeping the ice around it from locking it in.
Jimmy was the first to point it out.
“What do you boys recon that is?” he said pointing with his biscuit filled hand. We studied the object for a moment.
“A log…no, a turtle…yeah, a big turtle.” Tal and I agreed.
“I’m not so sure about that?” Jimmy said “Keep looking”
As we stared at the lump two slits opened on opposite sides of the dome shaped protrusion. Tal and I both stepped closer to get a better look.
“I think you might want to stay back just a bit boys?” Howard said grinning. Tal and I froze in our tracks. “Take good look now.”
“Its and ALLIGATOR!” we said in unison.
“Yes sir that is an alligator.” The men agreed as Tal and I both backpedaled up the bank just a bit.
“Shit! I was standing right by that thing all morning!” Jimmy said. Everyone laughed at his delayed alarm.
“I guess it don’t like Greek food!” Howard chimed in poking fun at his friend’s heritage.
“Or dog?” Dad added. “But then it’s your dog so I guess that’d be Greek to?”
“Fuck you Ramsey!” Jimmy laughed taking the joke in stride. “He ain’t big enough to mess with this Greek God anyhow!” Jimmy said.
“Can we shoot him?” Tal asked excitedly.
“Now, that old gator ain’t done one thing to you Tal.” Howard put in. “And beside, this could hardly be called self-defense? That little ole gator is just down there trying to stay warm, he hasn’t done anything other than make Jimmy soil his britches.”
We all watched the gator for a while until we were brought back to the hunt by another commotion on the far side of the hole.
One of the drakes that had fallen on the ice had resurrected from the dead and was making quite a fuss about it. He was calling in his nasally “Dreeep..Dreeep…Dreep” and flapping one wing. Buster caught the motion and bolted from his place on the bank.
“Buster NO!” Jimmy shouted but the dog had had enough. He was past the recently discovered alligator and half way across the open water before we noticed a possible source of the mallard’s remarkable recovery.
Two large brown creatures were waddling along on the ice on the ducks trail. Their coats glistening with ice as steam rose from their bodies and they made strange grunting sounds. While science will tell you that a Nutria is a strict omnivore, this memo had apparently not reached the mallard. And to be honest I am not sure it had reached the nutria either. To a man we all thought the marsh rat was on his way to have a mallard snack. Buster seemed to agree with us also as was not about to let that happen on his watch.
From our angel none of us could get a clean shot on the mallard or the nutria. Jimmy called, blew his whistle and cussed his dog. And to be fair he had a few choice words for the swamp rats and mallard as well.
Bust again failed to break through or find purchase to get himself atop the ice. He swam back and fourth as the chase on the frozen pond ensure, backing, whining and gasping for air. Jimmy was beside himself and after Buster’s gasps overtook his barks, began sprinting and stripping all at once around the dry bank of the hole. But before he could reach the far shore Buster had found an old log extending from the ice sheet and was scrambling up it and onto the ice.
With the mallard fleeing the nutria, the nutria fleeing the dog and the dog raising all kinds of hell as he tried to run on the ice only to slip, fall, slide and spin in his haste and anger we watched.
“This is gonna end bad for somebody?” Dad chimed in.
The first nutria had shuffled off into the bushed but the large one was standing it ground, hissing and baring its long teeth at Buster. By now the mallard was well out of the fray but still noisily protesting his current circumstance.
Buster was livid and his anger was getting the better of him. He was trying so hard to run he couldn’t keep his feet under him. Jimmy had reached the closest dry ground to the standoff at this point and was stomping his way through the ice still trying to call Buster off. But he had made the mistake of taking a direct line and again found himself with no shot on the irate rat.
During the commotion we had not noticed Demery’s absence from our little gallery. The report of his gun and the skidding of the now dead rodent brought his new location to our attention.
He was up to the very top of his waders, half way across the pond at an angle from us. The move had given him a clear shot and he had brought the whole commotion to an abrupt end.
Buster tensed at the shot, as we all did. But the dog caught on to what had happened well before we did. He stood, trembling and still sliding as he walked and eased out to the nutria, his bark now just a low growl. He picked up the lifeless body and turned toward his master who was now waist deep in an ice trench he had made in his efforts to enact a rescue.
The nutria twitched and Buster growled deeply, shook his head and bit down. The sound of crunching bones reaching the ears of all who were within sight. Then the proud black lab lifted his head and made straight for his owner.
“Buster! Drop! Buster NO!” Jimmy protested but there was not dissuading him. “Take that stinking rat to Demery! I didn’t shoot that thing!” Jimmy fussed as his faithful hound delivered the prize. Jimmy had tried to backtrack away from the dog but he was not successful in time and With buster seated next to him on the ice he begrudging took the bloody wet retrieve and hurled it back over his shoulder, only barley catching hold of Buster’s collar before the dog went to get his new found furry bumper.
The huge Greek man let out an all too feminine yelp as he tried to restrain the dog and the beast set Jimmy of balance, allowing just enough water into Jimmy’s waders to let him know just how cold the water was.
By this point everyone but Jimmy was howling with laughter. Even Buster seemed to be grinning as he backed away from the cursing man and sat patiently awaiting his next order. Jimmy finally made it to the back amid a cloud of profanities that had Tal and I blushing and giggling with excitement. Buster crept onto shore and placed himself at heel by Jimmy’s side.
“Oh, hell Jimmy send him on those birds. Might as well?” Howard called across the pond.
Man and dog made short work of the retrieves. Buster found the Lazarus duck in a fallen oak top a short distance from the back right away and though his steps were much more measured made the ice retrieves with ease.
“Lawyer!” Jimmy said when he made it back to our group. “I would could use a cup of that coffee if you have splash left.”
“Well I guess you earned it?” Dad said with a chuckle. Reaching back into his satchel. “You to Buster dad said, flipping the dog the one remaining sausage and biscuit.” Buster ate the treat in one gulp and his master polished off the last of the coffee almost as fast.
“But I don’t suspect a dog oughta have a sip of the Nippy?” Dad said, withdrawing a small metal flask from his coat and tossing it to Jimmy.
“I’m gonna kiss you!” Jimmy said as he caught the flask.
“I’d rather kiss the dog. If I gotta smooch a damn Greek!” Dad shot back. “He’s got a little less hair on his face.”
The small flask made the rounds and was returned to dad’s coat. “No Nippy for dogs or Pups” he said as Tal and I looked on.
When the story had been told and retold from serval points of view the men debated our next move. Howard had been watching the northern skyline and had seen several more groups of ducks low and traveling that direction. A move was clearly in order but as all good hunters do they decided to give it another half hour. They had all seen it happen before, for no discernable reason a slow hunt can turn into a burner in the blink of an eye.
While we waited and watched boredom sat down on the shoulders of us younger hunters. We perked up every time one of the men called at passing ducks but our interest was short lived. Before ten minutes had passed Tal and I had both asked more than once how much longer we had.
By fifteen minutes we were all but about to lose interest when we decided that maybe we could have some fun with the alligator. I picked up a few twigs and tossed them at the nose that protruded through the ice. The reaction I got was far less than satisfactory. Tall upped the stakes by finding a very long stick and poking the gator nose with it. But this to was anticlimactic. The glistening lump just submerged for a time then resurfaced. Several more good jabs gave equally pathetic results.
Noticing our attempted entertainment the men began to encourage us, just a bit. They helped us find stronger sticks and got me real good by goosing me in the ribs once just as I was about to touch the gators nose with my latest weapon.
Tal teased me unmercifully when I leapt backwards and fell in my butt on the bank. I then had TWO reason to be mad at him. Not only did he have waders but he was boasting about how brave he had been when the same trick had been tried on him. I scowled at him as he continued to tease the unresponsive knot.
“Tal.” Howard chimed in at long last, breaking my glare. “You know alligators don’t have much strength when it comes to opening their jaws.” He let the information hang in the air for a bit.
“All their power is in closing them. Down in Florida I’ve seen gator wrestlers hold their mouths shut with nothing but heavy rubber bands like they put on lobster claws.”
“Nuhuh!” said Tal. But I could see he was interested.
“It’s true.” Jimmy said.
“Yep, just a big rubber band or a wrap of tape” Demery agreed.
Tal looked back over his shoulder to his father for confirmation.
“That’s true.” His dad reassured him.
“Well I’m not gonna grab him by the nose if that’s what you’re suggesting!” Tal shot back. “And we don’t have any big rubber bands anyway.”
“Your right.” Howard said “But you know I do have a big spool of heavy decoy cord I was gonna use to rig up a jerk cord?” The mischief was as clear as day on Howard’s face.
“Oh, that’d do it.” One of the other adults offered. “Oh yeah, that’d hold his mouth shut.” Another added.
We all saw the reservation on Tal’s face. The men though could tell they were onto something.
“You know, alligators get real slow when it’s cold like this. They practically hibernate.”
“Sure enough. They can hardly move.”
“Yep. Now if you had poked that little ole gator in the snoot in the summer time he’d of most likely shot out from that bank eaten that stick and you!” his own father put in.
“But cold like this one of those little gators can’t do much….”
“How big do you think it is?” Tal asked his interest peaking.
“Oh by the six of his nose and the distance between his little nostrils I bet he isn’t over five feet long? Wouldn’t you say Ramsey?” Jimmy asked my dad.
“Maybe five.” Dad offered.
“Maybe.” Howard added.
“Tell you what Tal.” Howard suggested. “I’ll fix up a lasso and you ease down and slip it over his nose. Me and Mr. Jimmy will hold onto the slack up here and when you get that string around his nose you tighten it up real fast and we’ll drag him up on the back for you to look at.”
“I wanna help pull him in.” Tal insisted. “If I’m gonna lasso him I get to help catch him!”
Gerald said nothing.
“OK, ok…” the rest of the men agreed and set about fashioning a proper gator snare for the eager young hunter.
“I want to help!” I piped up. Dad, grabbed my shoulder gently and I looked up and caught a wink in his eye just as Tal blurted out. “I’m catching this alligator. You don’t have any waders. You can’t reach him.”
Dad firmed up his grip on my shoulder and gave me another wink. It didn’t help. Tal was going to catch a gator and all because I didn’t have waders. I couldn’t understand why dad was winking or why he hadn’t known they made waders in my size. I would have pouted but I knew hunters couldn’t get away with that sort of nonsense, or at least I thought so.
When the cord was fashioned into a snare Tal eased into the edge of the pond via the path Jimmy and Buster had made right next to the gator. He tried to toss the loop over the gator’s nose but his aim was off. Several more attempts got him no better results. He next tried to push the loop out with a stick but he was unable to maneuver the opening of the line down over into the hole and around the gators mouth, or at least where it should have been. All the while the gator breathed slow breaths and occasionally dropped its snout before the surface.
“Alright Tal, I tell you what. Next time he goes down you ease out a little closer and just lower the bottom half of that loop into the edge of the hole.” Howard said. “Then when he comes up again you just pull backwards out toward the opening and straight up real easy and that noose will slide down over his nose. As soon as it’s tight we’ll all pull him up. That oughta get him.”
“Yeah! That’s gotta work?!?” Tal said enthusiastically. Inching closer and closer Tal dangled the heavy cord loop over the tip of the gator’s nose and waited. At last the gator went down Tal carefully lowered the snare half way into the hole as instructed, and waited.
When the nose came up again the cord was on either side of it, a perfect placement.
“You got him!” The men exclaimed. And with that Tal snatched the rope up and backwards as hard as he could. But before anyone could help Tal pull the ice behind the gator’s nose exploded. And it exploded much farther than five feet behind the hole.
I learned lot of very important things in that instant. First, it is all but impossible and totally foolish to attempt to judge a gator’s size by the tip of his nose. Also that gators can go from near torpor to REALLY active in no time flat. And right there and then I learned that waders on an eleven year old boy who is sure he is being eaten by an alligator give him the ability to walk on water. Fool that I was and still am though, even while seeing my friend, waders and all trembling in his father’s arms, I still wished it had been me with the waders. My jealousy was as green as those ill-fitting rubber waders and as green as my friend and I were to the ways of the waterfowler.
The day was not over and Tal and his waders would stay the focus of my envy as I continued on through my last hunt as a “low-quarter boy”.