Bradley Ramsey’s Journal
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”.
The lake was worse than I had ever seen it. The waves were a solid four feet. The only saving grace thus far was that the warm front was still in control. The temps were only in the fifties. But soaking wet it was plenty cold.
In those days the lake was still very sparsely populated. There were plenty of houses along its banks but by and large they were summer homes and fish camps. Apart from a few true locals, most of whom lived well back from the lakefront where the more expensive summer homes were built, only a few homes would be occupied that time of year, in that kind of weather.
From where we overturned, with the wind pushing us the way it was, we were at least a mile from shore. We had made also made several crucial mistakes. Both of us had on life jackets, we both had our chest waders on, and Tommy had made the hunt in only a heavy shirt and long johns.
Tommy faced the shore from his position and I was facing back out into the open lake.
“If you see anyone try to wave.” I told him.
“I can’t let go of this boat.” He replied. The reality of our situation was clear in both our voices.
“If we can hang on somebody will see us.” I said in a trembling voice.
“I’m sorry.” I continued. “There was nothing I could do…” My voice cracked with fear.
“I know.” Tommy said. His voice shaky and strained.
“We’ll make it. Dad will see us.” I offered hopeuly
“I don’t see his boat.” Tommy said. “Maybe he hasn’t come in yet?”
“They won’t stay out much longer then. They’ll see us on the way in.”
We drifted and waited. There was no sign of dad returning and not sign of life in any of the lakefront houses. The cold began to set in and I could see Tommy’s teeth start to chatter, his body start to shiver. I too began to quake as my muscles began to chill and cramp. Still no sign of any along the shore. The road that ran along the edge of the highbank was empty.
We drifted for a longtime in silence. I relived the roll over and over again in my head trying to figure out what I could have done, should have done, and I prayed.
“I think I’m gonna have to let go…” Tommy said in a voice far to calm and reserved for what that meant.
“THE FUCK YOU ARE!” I screamed. “You WILL NOT let go of this boat!”
The harshness of my tone seemed to snap him out of his despair. And as only such circumstance can motivate me laughed.
“You don’t have to be mean about it.” He said. And we both broke into hard laughter through our chattering teeth.
Laughing in the face of death is something I had always heard of, but I never understood it until that moment. We started into each other joking and tease each other. If our conversation had been heard outside of the circumstances the listener might have thought it was just two old friends sitting around at the bar.
“You had to have a limit didn’t you?”
“I didn’t hear you complaining”
“Heck no! I wasn’t the one with a spoonie on my strap!”
“I didn’t shoot a boot lip!”
With a cautious waving hand gesture I looked at him and said. “Prove it!”
“OHhhhh, I see. Well then if you can’t prove you didn’t then you also can’t prove you didn’t kill four of em?”
“Don’t you dare!”
We laughed and argued about mythical limits for a moment then Tommy turned the conversation.
“You know why I am mad at you?”
“Um, because I may have killed us?”
“Well, beside that…” he chuckled. “No, because if you hadn’t broken the rules Forrest would be at the camp laying in a fire and cooking a big breakfast right now. Heck he might even, oh I don’t know…come RESCUE US!”
Forrest was our part time caretaker. He lived on the far end of the lake, dangerously close to the local Juke Joint. With it being Sunday and him not having to come to the camp we knew he wouldn’t be frying up sausage, building a fire, or looking out on the lake wondering when we would come in so he could finish up breakfast and get his cores done so he could play dominoes down at the landing.
“Well she wanted to come up and you know I can’t say no to girl that wants to …”
“Shut up. I know plenty about why you brought her up with you. Yall weren’t exactly quite last night!”
“Sorry.” I said with a grin.
“No you’re not.”
As I let my mind wander back to my less than chivalrous conduct from the night before Tommy snapped my attention away from such frivolities.
“Someones on the bank!” He shouted, raising one hand to wave and yelling.
I twisted myself around and managed to wave with one hand as we yelled toward the figure atop the ATV on the bank. They gave no sign or signal of seeing us. They paused for a time then drove back away from shore at a speed that certainly did not indicate any urgency.
“They’ll call help.” I said.
“They had to have seen us, right?” Tommy asserted.
“Had to.” I told myself they were just slow drivers, surely they had seen us and were on the way to get their boat and come to our rescue.
We waited, we drifted, we didn’t speak. No one came.
“We’re heading straight for the lake house.” Tommy said, finally breaking the silence.
I looked back over my shoulder and studies the wave and our trajectory. He was right, the wind and water was pushing us at an angle that would end us up on the bank in the front of our lake house. All we had to do was hold on.
As long minutes passed with no sign of rescue we clung to the boat and holding out hope that it was just a matter of time before we see someone coming to launch a boat.
“You would have to pick a girl who sleeps late.” Tommy said breaking the silence.
“I kind of kept her up late. Sorry.”
We laughed again but the mirth was short lived. We were both exhausted, cold and afraid. Our progress toward the shore was slower than we had hoped. We were still heading the right direction. The only question was could we hang on long enough to make it.
“There!” Tommy shouted. This time not daring to let go of the boat but staring intently at the yard beside our camp.
I twisted around again and saw headlights on a dark blazer pointed out in our direction, then the blue lights atop the vehicle went on. It was the local sheriff. Someone must have reported our capsizing.
Straining to turn and wave I saw him open the door of his truck and stand in the doorframe. We were close enough now that I could tell he was looking at us with binoculars. I waved and yelled. He waved back dropped into his vehicle, flashed his headlights then quickly spun out of the yard, back toward the highway.
“Thank GOD!” we exclaimed as one. We knew now that help was one the way, and none too soon. The wind was growing even stronger and each wave threatened to take us over again or sweep us off our overturned boat.
We drifted, we waited, we watched. No one came.
We argued with each other about why. It solved nothing. We drifted on.
When we were within less than a hundred yard of the boat dock Tommy spoke up again.
“We’re gonna hit the pier.” He said, a new sense of fear in his voice.
I turned my head again to look. He was right. The waves were carrying us on a direct collision course with the steel pilings of the end of the dock. Watching them hit and splash and roll past to the bank gave me a better idea of just how bad the lake was.
The pervious summer had seen the lake at low water and we had mounted boards parallel to the water to secure our boats to and a second run of them nearer the decking for extra support. The two runs of two by tens were almost three feet apart, the top span just four feet from the decking.
With each wave the gap between the wood runners would vanish and the water would slam into the top board. Then the gap would appear again between wave, falling below the bottom run of boards.
“That’s not good.” I said as I watched the water slam into the structure. Several boards had been partially dislodge and hung from one end flailing in the waves, others were gone completely.
“Try to kick your feet” I told my friend. “We need to get around the dock.”
Tommy kicked hard and I used one hand to paddle. But it was no use, our course didn’t change and the cold cramped our muscle so quickly we were both forced to stop our efforts.
Nearer and nearer we came. We could hear the waves hitting the steel and wood. We could hear the structure groaning, popping and protesting the beating nature was giving it.
“All we can do it try to grab on and get out of the way of the boat when we get close” I said to Tommy.
“You mean let go?” he said in a panicked voice.
“Not until the last minute.” I replied. “Remember how we would swing on the supports in the shade under the deck last summer? If we can grab on we can pull ourselves to the other side and climb up the stairs.”
It wasn’t much of a plan but it was all I had. But I didn’t have it for long.
“One problem…the stairs are gone…” Tommy noted.
Sure enough they were, the pounding waves had ripped them loose and all that remained was one diagonal runner, long nails from the treads protruding from its slimy surface.
“Then just grab and get out of the way of the boat. Maybe we can hold on until the sherrif comes?”
There was not time to debate the plan. We were getting closer and closer to the pier. It would be a direct hit.
“I can’t see behind me.” I told Tommy, “You tell me when to turn and grab.”
“Not yet…not yet…” the waves rose and fell, I feared we would make contact whenwe were at the bottom of a roller.
“Hold the piling and go down if you have to! Don’t let the boat hit you…” I yelled
“Not yet…almost…NOW! NOW! NOW!”
I let go of the hull and rolled over on my back as the boat reached the crest of a wave. I pushed myself up from the hull as hard as I could and stretched my arms out in front of me. I felt the boat fall away, felt the weight of my full waders pulling me down. Then my arms felt the slick hard surface of a board and the cold slap of steel. I clung to what I had hit as hard as I could and looked over my right shoulder. Tommy had managed to get his feet on the lower course of boards and was wrapping his arms around one of the stell pipes.
The boat slammed and rubbed into the piling beneath us, glanced off am angled support and moved just far enough along the dock not to crash into us.
We clung to the pier our eyes locked on each other. Relief and terror washing over us as the boat slammed again and again into the steel.
“Did it hit you?”
“Can you climb?”
“I…I don’t know?” I said.
“Try.” Tommy yelled, himself already reaching for higher boards and struts that supported the decking.
I reach and pulled and strained. The pain in my limbs screaming at my brain to stop. The weight of my soaked clothes and full waders making the work all the harder.
We both reached the deck at the same time, flinging our upper bodies onto the flat surface, our legs hanging below as water poured out of our waders.
We clawed our way forward until we were both flat on our bellies, face down in the swaying deck.
“We made it.” I gasped.
“Thank you God, thank you.” Tommy whispered.
We tried to stand and the cramps in our bodies and trembling made us falter and kneel. We both fell onto our backs and breathed for a moment.
“Get your waders off.” I said and began fumbling with the zipper of my coat to access the suspenders that were beneath, holding my waders on. The cold that hit me when the coat opend was a shock. How Tommy had endured it that long I could not imagine.
We fought and squirmed and snaked our way out of the waders.
“Get to the house1” I shouted and we stood in muscle cramped crouches and began a dash to the shore. Our feet pounded on the swaying boards of the pier as we headed for dry ground. Above the water the wind cut into our wet clothes. We stripped soaked layers as our feet hit the grass and we climbed the hill to our camp.
We were shivering so hard and our teeth chattering so badly it was hard to communicate.
I tried to pen the front door but my hands refused to grip the knob.
Tommy shouldered me out of the way and opened the door. The camp was not as warm as we had hoped. Temperatures overnight had been mild and the heater thermostat was set at only sixty five. Dad preferred a cool camp and in that moment I hated that aspect of him.
But the giant hearth still held hot coals from the night before. Dad was notorious for having a roaring fire even if it meant he had to turn the heat of to stand it. His strange ways had their upsides.
Taking a handful of kindling and a cup of Kerosene Tommy brought the hearth to a blaze and we piled on more wood and stripped out of the last of our wet clothes. While Tommy got the fire roaring I raided the laundry room for any dry clothes I could find and towels and blankets.
We huddled shivering before the flames, not speaking for a long moment. Then with tears in our eyes we hugged each other like long lost brothers.
I cannot fathom the sheer terror that must have raced through my father’s mind as he approached the lake house and saw my boat overturned and rolling against the sandy shore as the waves pounded the bank.
I can also not describe the look of joy and relief that was on his face as he and Doc burst through the door.
As he told it, he had spotted our overturned boat when he was more than a hundred yards from the landing. Doc swore dad ran full throttle from there on in nearly beaching the entirety of his boat when he reached the shore.
Not a small man by any stretch of the imagination, he had run onto the bank without even turning the motor off and was sprinting his six foot four, two hundred and fifty pound body towards the wreckage when he saw the trail of discarded wet clothes leading from the foot of our pier to the house.
Dad would tell the story for years to come of busting into the house and finding Tommy and I dressed in the wildest array of mismatched clothes, huddled, as he always put, it IN the fireplace.
He and Doc had us retell the story while they make coffee and filled small fruit jars of brandy for us.
The local sheriff stopped by while we were still thawing out and explained that he had seen us, but that the only boat he had was smaller than ours and the risk was too great. He had driven to several local homes in search of a worthy craft but had not been able to locate one.
His friends with Wildlife and Fisheries were trying to get a boat to him but they were dealing with other small craft accidents on other lakes. He had set himself up the boat launch down the lake and watched us through his field glasses while he waited for the larger boat to arrive. Calling off the rescue when he saw us make the leap from the boat and pull ourselves onto the deck of the pier.
My female “guest” slept through the commotion and she was none to please when I slipped under the covers looking for a little extra warmth. Apparently the warmth of the brandy and coffee had not reached the outside of my skin. I fell asleep shivering and my dreams were fraught with nightmares of drowning.
When I awoke later that evening I was alone in the large bed. I descended the stairs and saw the girl’s car was no longer parked outside. Dad, Tommy, and Doc were seated in front of the hearth watching football. Forrest was in the kitchen cooking up dinner.
“You get warmed up?” Dad said to me with a grin
“Warm enough I guess.” I replied, taking my usual seat on the hearth.
“Forrest got the boat out. Motor’s gonna need work.” Dad said.
“Outside the large plate glass windows I could see that winds had laid down. The limbs of the trees in the front yard swayed only slightly as the smoke from the chimney swirled down from above and hung above the wet grass that glistened in the porch light.
“Front pushed through.” Tommy said, seeing me staring out the window. “Temps are falling fast and Forrest said there are a lot of birds showing up on the indicator holes.”
“Tomorrow out to be good.” Doc said then cursed at the television. “COME ON Saints! What the hell was that supposed to be!!!!????”
“Thought maybe we’d all try the chute tomorrow?” Dad said. “Figure you boys might rather an Argo ride over boats for a day or two?”
“I’m just glad we’re still here to the option.” Tommy said and I nodded my agreement.
Dad stood walked over to the hearth to stir the fire. HE place one giant hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
“Glad yall made it.” He said with the slightest crack in his voice. “But you get to tell your Mamma, not me.” Laughter spread easily among the gathered men and we paste the rest of the night without another mention of the accident. Tomorrow was another day and the season was still underway.
With the boat back beneath the blind we again re-set the decoys. While making the adjustment several fights of birds tried to pitch into the spread. Once we finished we climbed back into the blind and get ready.
It didn’t take long for the first group to drop in over the trees of the outer island. Four mallards set their wings and ditched air as they cleared the last cypress. Tommy fired first crumpling a hen my first shot found nothing, the second did no better. I pulled off the bird I had twice missed and swung on a fat drake that was trying to climb back over the trees. I squeezed the trigger.
In the rush and confusion of chasing cripples, getting wet, and retrieving my friend I had forgotten to put the third shell in my gun. Tommy had made the same mistake leaving him with only one shot. But he had made his count.
Even though the birds had been well within range when he dropped the greenhead the wind was now so strong that the downed bird was quickly drifting out of the hole. Tommy scampered out of the blind.
“Load mine.” He called out to me as he waded fast toward the mallard.
I finished loading my gun, double checked the safety and placed it in the corner. I rummaged through Tommy’s bag and withdrew threes shells. I was closing the action when he called up from below.
“ON THE LEFT!” he shouted.
Looking up I saw a wad of ducks bank hard and the flutter of several dozen wings. I shouldered Tommy’s gun and flock shot like a child, putting a spoonie drake on the water with the one shell I had managed to get in the gun.
“Nice shot anyway?” Tommy said climbing back into the blind after picking up both birds.
“Thanks But I’m pretty sure I wasn’t aiming at that one.”
Tommy reloaded and we stung the birds on our lanyards.
“Two away” he said as we settled back in our positions.
Another flight of smiling mallards fell in among the decoys with the reckless abandon only shovelers can display. We drew on the flock but let them flush and depart unscathed.
“Good ducks only?” I asked, knowing he agreed before I ever spoke.
“All I’ve killed is good ducks.” He laughed.
The next four flights were spoonbills or jacks. We let each pass and giggled like schoolgirls as they would fall into the spread then explode from the rough water when we yelled “BANG” down from our hide.
A pair of teal made a pass riding the wind from behind us and brought both of our guns up and blasting. We shot so far behind the fleeing birds I doubt they had any idea they had been our targets.
A large groups of pintail taunted us next. Their long necks and pointed tails giving away their identity when they rolled in from the lake. They worked several times and twice or more were well within range but we had gotten greedy. We wanted them in the blocks. They finally settled in on an outside swing, well out of range.
We watched them bob and swim toward the inner island, parts of the group vanishing in the troughs of waves while others road the crests.
The decoys were again tangled and out of sorts. Tommy and I both went out again to make corrections. This time placing the block father apart to prevent tangling and farther upwind to both give the birds a better approach and give us more time between re-sets.
Turning back to the blind the severity of the waves became very clear. The boat was now beating against the supports of the ladder and rising up to hit the floor supports of the deck.
“It’s getting pretty bad.” Tommy said as we again took our places in the blind.
“It is.” I agreed. “But it’s not gonna get any better on the crossing.” I reasoned.
“This wind is supposed to stay up for the rest of the day. We may as well finish out before we make our way back?” I suggested.
“We only need two.” Tommy agreed. “It shouldn’t take that long.”
But it did. Our shooting was awful. Two more groups of teal escaped unharmed and a pair of widgeon made fools of us.
Twice more we had to move the decoys back up wind. Spoonbills and ringnecks continued to present easy targets but we kept letting them go. Mallards, gadwall and pintail in groups of various size were still working the hole regularly. We passed shots we should have taken and missed the ones we shouldn’t have.
Finally we managed to connect on a pair of gadwall and the hunt was done. We picked up the birds quickly and started gathering the now scattered decoys. Waves rolled through the shallow water and we both got our waders overtopped more than once even though the water in front of the blind was no more than bellybutton deep at the most.
Once the decoys were sacked and our guns unloaded we started putting everything back in the boat. A chill was starting to get to me so I slipped my coat back on and pulled my gloves on for the ride.
We positioned everything in the boat as best we could as it rose and fell in the waves. Tommy had to wade us out from the blind and hold us for a bit while I adjusted the motor to shallow run and fired it up.
Coming out of the cut it the scene before us was daunting. The stump field, flats and all the open lake were a sea of frothy whitecaps. The wind and waves would make it impossible to see, much less navigate through the exposed stumps.
We turned south along the outer island and idles in the relatively calm waters along its bank.
“What should we do?’ Tommy asked.
“Well we could go back into the floatroad and see if dad is still in the south blind?” I offered.
“I’m pretty sure I heard them leave about half an hour ago.” Tommy replied.
We studied the waters between us and the camp. It was bad, no two ways about it.
We settled on running south along the island and seeing if the south end of the lake was any better. We figured that at least we could try to cross there where the lake was narrower or maybe even see if cutting back toward the camp from farther upwind might make for a better crossing.
When we hit the southern tip of the island we knew there was not going to be any easy way to get home. The wind was angling straight toward the camp and trying to buck the waves to get to the southern back would be more than we knew the small boat could take.
I told Tommy to get down low in the bow of the boat and would cut our angle so go diagonally through them, heading for the far shore some two miles down from our camp and the nearest point where the waves appeared less harsh. From there we could beach the boat and hike up the steep bank to the blacktop road or nearest house and catch a ride back to the camp. I studied the waves, picked my angle and turned the boat away from the poor protection offered by the outer island.
We quickly learned that speed was not going to be our friend. Trying to plane the boat only made the waves crash harder into us, soaking us with spray and quickly putting standing water at our feet.
I eased the throttle down and rolled through the troughs of the waves until I felt the angle was right then turn us toward the shore. Anything more than a quarter throttle was trouble, anything less and steering was impossible. The force of the waves would shove the small craft off track and into the bottom of the swells f we did not manage some forward progress.
I found the sweet spots in the throttle, backing down and the bow dipped and easing up on it slightly as we crested each wave. Tommy, already fair skinned, was pale as a sheet and I am sure I wasn’t much better.
Progress was slow and the far bank never seemed to get any closer, though I knew from distant landmarks we were in fact making headway. Spray washed over the sides of the boat and a mist from the wind ripping the tops off the waves drenched us to the bone. But we were making it. Slow and steady but we were making it.
I saw the wave coming that was to be our undoing. The term Rogue Wave flashed through my head and I realized that though I had known the concept of such I had never seen one in person. I quickly became aware that I wished I never had.
The bow was pointed into the trough. The rouge wave broke over the bow just as we were about to start climbing the next wave. Somehow I knew we were about to turn over, I could even tell which way the boat would roll.
Tommy was in the bottom of the boat his back toward the bow to keep the spray out of his face. I guess he saw the terror on my face. He looked back over his shoulder just as I shouted.
“We’re gonna roll! Hang on!”
I felt the world go upside down, felt the cold water flood through my clothes and fill my waders. I heard the strange thunking sound of our gear as it slammed into the sides of the boat and I felt the cold metal of the boat gunnel beneath my gloved hand.
Without letting go of the boat I shoved myself out from under the hull as the motor chugged and stopped, the prop spinning slowly to a stop. I saw gas cans and paddles, stingers of ducks and boat cushion floating around me. What I didn’t see was Tommy.
I crawled up on to the overturned bottom of the boat gasping for breath, feeling the cold weight of the water in my waders. I tried to kneel for a better view but as I moved the boat tried to roll again beneath me. I lay flat across the stern and screamed his name.
I hand appeared just then from under the boat. I grabbed it and pulled with all I had. Tommy’s head broke the surface coughing up water and I quickly latched onto his shirt.
“Pull me up.” He sputtered.
I tried but the weight shift again threatened to roll us.
“Hang onto me.” I said gripping his arm and shoulder. Tommy reached out and got hold of my arms and I pulled him up as far as I could, keeping the waves and water out of his face.
We stayed locked like that for a while. Staring into each other’s eyes, not speaking.
“You’ve got to get up here.” I said at last. Again I tried to pull him up but again the boat pitched dangerously.
“Wait.” I said “Let me shift my weight to the other side, then you pull. Ok?”
“OK but don’t let go of me.”
I lowered myself flay onto the hull and stretch my legs out across the opposite side of the boat.
“NOW…PULL!” I shouted as I felt the weight of the water in my waders trying to pull me over. Tommy managed to scramble part way up on the hull, enough at least that his chest was flat on the bottom of the boat and he could grip the edge where the hull turned at a sharp angle.
As he maneuvered himself into position I adjust my weight as best I could to compensate. When it was done I lay at the far back of the boat stretched across the hull such that my legs dangled in the water on one side and I could grip the submerged gunwale on the other. Tommy managed only to get his torso onto the hull but could hang onto the edge of the hull with his legs from the thighs down hanging into the water. Faced opposite directions our bodies stretched perpendicularly across the overturned boat.
Summer’s hard work had been paying off. For three days both new blinds had killed limits of “good ducks”. The occasional spoonbill or ring neck had taken up a flew slots on our straps but for the most part we were killing gadwall teal and mallards, something we had once though we would never do on the big lake.
When we woke that morning a fair chop had built on the lake. A front was pushing in and the afternoon forecast called for rain and thunderstorms warm gulf moisture and a cold Canadian air mass would meet up over the south delta to wrestle for control of the fall weather. The front, according to the droning, staticy voice on the weather radio, would drop temps into the thirties eventually but not before dropping several inches of rain on the area.
Tommy and I left the shore early, even after having to bail a bit of water out of the fourteen foot johnboat that the wave had splashed over the transom. We had beached the boat rather than tying it alongside dad’s much larger rig on the dock. The winds we knew, from the weather radio that was an all but constant soundtrack of life at the camp, had switched over night and the dock was not set up to harbor two boats in changing winds.
With no moon or starts to be seen through the cloud cover we began the crossing by dead reckoning and the occasional sweep of a spotlight. We knew these waters. We skied and fished them all summer and had seen the vast stump fields that stretched from Australia Island to the deep water channel of the highbank. Those flats had been exposed over the summer a few years back in an attempt by local conservation groups and resident of the lake to improve the fishing by promoting vegetation.
Those in the area that hunted waterfowl had also encouraged then to fly on some millet and other duck food to help bring ducks back to the lake. Both efforts had worked. But the lake still had a reputation of being somewhat of a “garhole” as far as duck hunting was concerned. So, for the first few seasons after the draw down my father and my friends and I had the lake all to ourselves for the most part.
On the open lake the chop was brisk but manageable. The old 9.9 horsepower outboard was more than enough motor to get our light boat up on plane and we powered across the deep water to the sound of the bouncing hull on the wave tops and the spray of water beneath our hull.
As we neared the flats I dropped to three quarters throttle. The water was plenty deep to run but our recent knowledge of the terrain below our boat called for a modicum of caution.
The flats rose gently up from the channel and below the water’s surface was the remnants of a long vanish forest. The trees that had once stood there were now nothing more than stumps. They ranged in width and height but to the last they all shared one troubling characteristic.
The ages of shifting currents, when the lake was still wild and part of the Mississippi river, combined with the changing winds and waves lifting silt and sand from the old river bottom had sharpened each stump into points like the wooden palisades of frontier forts. We knew they were well beneath us at the start of the flats but with each turnoff the prop we also knew the depth grew shallower, lessening the safe distance between the innumerable, un-mappable mine field of “day wreckers”.
I eased the throttle down little by little as we moved deeper into the flats and into shallower water. The waters began to lay down and soon there were no waves at all, the big island still forested blocking the wind completely.
Tommy began making constant sweeps with the spotlight as we navigated the shallow waters where the stumps were now protruding from the glassy surface of the lake. If the light stopped I knew it meant something had caught his eye.
In code that I cannot recall ever verbalizing he signaled me to turn this way or that to avoid approaching obstacles. Fixed light position meant “You see that right?” and once the boats bow adjusted it angle the scanning would begin again. If the sweep stopped abruptly and the light danced to one side of the boat or other it meant “Turn Sharp!” some object having escaped notice until right upon us. His other hand, the one not running the light was my “safe speed indicator” with its own set of gestures and gesticulations for throttle up, ease it down, floor it and OH GOD STOP!
I don’t know how it is for waterfowlers on the bays and marshes but on the bayous and backwaters of home the value of a good spotlight man in the bow of a duck boat cannot be overstated. Their keen eye, quick judgement, and almost telepathic communications with the man at the tiller are all that stands between a safe but exhilarating boat ride and a cautionary tale n the local papers and weeping loved one standing at the graveside of a duck hunter.
Tommy was good with the light, even though he had only come into the world of waterfowling a few years before. He took the role seriously and didn’t have some of my father flaws where the task was concerned. He didn’t get distracted by flushing ducks or the occasional swimming raccoon or deer. He never lingered too long on some sight that would be better investigated in the light of day. And he could judge the gap between two trees compared to the width of a boat so accurately that I never doubted our ability to swing through the flooded woods at speed while he was manning the light. As much as I admired my father, the same could never be said of him and the bent and battered boats that made up or rag-tag armada gave plenty of whiteness to that fact.
When we reached the first of the scattered cypress trees that ringed the island I dropped the throttle down to idle and lifted the motor into shallow water run. Looking back over the transom I saw the sweep of another spotlight. Dad and The Doc were making their way around the lake to the south end of the float road. In his larger rig they had been able to leave well after us. But his boat drafted deeper so he could not make the run Tommy and were on. They would swing wide flowing the main channel of the lake then turn north into the mouth of the float road to our southern blind.
In total distance the blinds were less than four hundred yards apart. The blind Tommy and I preferred was on the north end. It was not much of a blind. Just a few boards and some decking nestled between three cypress trees. But it gave us a place to hide our boat and get up out of the water.
We made the turn and eased through the cut in the narrow island that separated the flats from the float road, turned north and eased up to the blind. Tommy climbed in from the bow and I cut the engine and began passing our gear up to him. The we had yet to have any competition on the lake for duck hunting we had lost a few dozen decoys and some folding chair to some less than admiral folks. So we always packed in and out everything we needed, or more accurately wanted, to make our hunts comfortable and enjoyable.
When the last of the gear and goodies were loaded into the blind I slipped on my waders and climbed over the side of the boat. The bottom in the floatraod was soft and sunk up to your ankles if not deeper. We had tried putting decoys out with the boat but invariably w wound up in waders adjusting the spread anyway. And with dad always taking the dog with him we would, hopefully, need to have them on to pick up birds throughout the hunt.
Tommy placed our gear in accordance with our spots in the blind, eased into his waders and joined me in front of the blind pitching decoys. Our spread was nothing fancy, around three dozen decoys, mostly mallards. They came from just about every known manufacturer of plastic decoys and ranged in age from this year’s model to some I am sure had seen service long before I started hunting.
The wind forecast for the morning was southerly at 5mph, shifting to the south west. It was an ideal wind for our blind, affording us straight on shots that would quarter slightly right to left. The main island blocked some of the wind but enough remained to give the decoys some motion.
As always we tried tossing the decoys from in front of the blind. Why we ever tried I am not sure. Half of them did not have weighted keels and you could bet on most of those landing on their backs and refusing to right themselves. And I was never satisfied with the spread as a whole even on the rare occasion I didn’t have to walk out and flip a few over. Still, it was what we did. Heck I still do it today. In nearly four decades of watefowling you’d think I could at least learn that lesson?
Once the decoy bag was empty Tommy climbed back up into the blind to set up our hunting gear and spots while I slogged through the soft bottom and thigh deep water to get the spread how I wanted it.
Everything was in place well before shooting light and I was already back in the blind I caught a glimpse of dad’s spotlight from farther south. Soon I could hear the loud sputter and splash of his motor as he powered the heavy boat through the shallows and up to his blind. A glance at my watch told me he had time to get ready, but he would be cutting it close.
Tommy rummaged through our bags and found the thermos of coffee. He poured me a cup in the thermos lid and passed it without my asking. We had developed a routine over the few years of hunting together and those last few minutes before “ready time” passed in the lent ritual that had become our way.
I got the first cup of coffee and Tommy would sort through his gear while I sipped. When I gulped down the last drop I would pass the cup back to him, with a brief acknowledgement of thanks. “That hit the spot” or some such.
While Tommy blew the steam from his coffee and sipped the hot black fuel I would follow his lead and arrange my gear bag, shells, and such. When the thermos lid went back on we would stand at the front rail of the blind, light a cigarette and listen while we watched the smoke drift over the water and make sure we had judged it right for our decoy set.
Eventually one of us would hear something, the rush of air through wings or the soft chatter of birds somewhere out in the darkness. The sound would set us in motion again as we would load our guns, dig our calls out from beneath or jackets and take our places as the minutes crawled toward legal shooting hour. That morning it was the jet engine like roar of wings that snapped us to attention.
“Ring-necks.” I said in a halfway questioning tone.
“Shit ducks of some sort” Tommy replied.
Though the occasional diver would wind up in our limits we tended to puddlers. Today I don’t care for the derogatory term. I have come to appreciate most all waterfowl in their own right and have shared some fantastic gunning for divers with friends from across the country. But still, on any given day I let them pass.
With legal shooting hour fast approaching we both stood at the rail of the blind. There had been a fair number of greenwing teal around for the last week and they tended to practice touch and go landings in this part of the lake in the predawn.
Sure enough a cluster of teal whipped by the blind just as it was legal to shoot but their arrival and departure happened so quickly neither of us could get a good swing on them before they vanished again out into the darkness beyond our decoys.
“They came from your side.” Tommy half scolded me.
“And left on yours.” I replied, turning to face back toward the brightening skies south of the blind.
The next group wasn’t so lucky. I heard shots from dads blind and the feverd pace at which he and doc had emptied their guns hinted to the species.
“Get ready” I whispered before I had caught the first sight of the small flock.
The dozen teal skimmed over the tops over the scattered cypress and I made a fast high pitched series of calls. They dropped down below the tree tops and ran a slalom course between the heavy trunks of the trees, in the poor light I could just make them out as they closed the gap.
“They’re coming.” I whispered.
“Which side?” Tommy asked just as the flock erupted from behind the nearest cypress trunk.
“BOTH!” I explained as the flight split, nearly colliding with our blind, banked hard and in a clutter of confusion splashed down in the decoys.
I swung around as Tommy raised his gun and the flock sprang again into the air. We each managed to drop a bird from our side of the groups and made a mess of center bird that tried to escape the noise and panic by climbing straight up over the blind. Two shots of twelve gauge steel 2s at less than 20 yards did an effective job of bring the bird s down but it would leave little for the stew pot.
A cloud of feathers drifted down as we reloaded and scanned the water to make sure the other two birds were not cripple. Bellies up they floated a short distance from the blind.
“Keep an eye on those two and we’ll grab ‘em in a minute.” Tommy said.
The wind was up slightly from earlier but looked to be pushing the downed birds toward the outer island, so we were not worried about losing them. And we weren’t about to get caught out of the blind in the middle of the hole during what was usually the sunrise flurry.
But the flurry had come and gone. We heard two more short volleys from dad’s blind but apart from two seagull and a Blue Herron, each of whom had brought us to near cardiac arrest when they materialized out of the corner of our eyes, noting more happened in the north blind for what seemed like an eternity.
“That outside bird might make the open water.” Tommy observed. As we waited and watched.
“I’ll make the hike.” I said. Resting my shotgun in the corner of the blind and ducking under the shooting rail. “Cover me.”
I grabbed the mangled bird we had both shot and pitched it to the blind.
Tommy caught the bird one handed and recoiled slightly as the meat, blood and feathers made contact with is palm.
“Not one we are going to be mounting.” He said as he dropped the bird onto the floor of the blind.
“Still counts.” I replied as I turned and began trudging through the soft bottomed lakebed toward the next bird.
I adjusted my trajectory when I saw that the far bird was drifting a bit faster than I had expected. The neared one would drift to the brushy bank of the island so I knew I could get it on the way back. When I got about sixty yard from the blind I could feel that the wind had again increased. I heard my partner make a short hail call and hunkered down slowly, craning my neck to look back toward the blind.
A trio of gadwall responded to his call, banked down wind and slowly began circling the spread. Soft chatters and quacks came from the blind as Tommy coaxed the birds to make another swing. They set up for approach but lifted just out of range.
Tommy was crouched down behind the shooting rail and cover and I watched and listened as he pleaded again to the small group, turning them once again just as I thought they might continue south toward dad and the Doc.
We had a gentleman’s agreement between the two blinds. About half way between then stood a tall bare limbed stump of an old bald cypress. If the birds crossed that line, traveling north or south. The other blind was obliged to let them go and let the other hunters work the birds. It as a fuzzy line but we all honored it as best we could, though we would each admit if asked that we called awful hard at flights as they reached that silent sentinel.
But the birds turned well before they were out of play, this time dropping much lower, their wing beats slow, their heads swaying side to side as they murmured soft calls to their plastic relatives.
“He’s got these” I said to myself. I could see the change in the way the birds were flying, their feet beginning to dangle just slightly. At a distance on overcast days, all gadwall look the same just about. But what I guessed was the hen took a few stronger wing beats and assumed the lead of the group. She banked on the right side of the float road and led her suitors softly on their decent toward the spread.
They set up perfect but their approach if kept would be a problem. They looked as though they would put down on a straight line between myself and Tommy. At that distance the shot would not have killed me, but I damn well knew it would hurt and I hoped Tommy did to.
At the last minute they raised their approach just a hair and banked again, taking them safely toward the far side of the decoy spread and the worst side of Tommy’s shooting lane, for them anyway.
I saw my friend rise from behind the cover, shoulder his gun and saw the bird react to the shot just a fraction of a second before I hear the shot. The gadwall rolled in midair and fell with a fine splash. Tommy fired again but the two remaining birds climbed quickly to safety, caught the wind and made for the safety of the big lake.
As the birds climbed in the sky I rose from my crouch and yelled my congratulations to Tommy. He gave me a thumbs up and I watched as he set down his gun and climbed out of the blind to pick up his bird.
The water grew slightly deeper and the bottom much softer as I headed to the far teal. Soon I was up to my waist, my legs mired to the shins with each step. My pace slowed by the conditions I could now tell the was almost beyond the last trees at the end of the outer island and its angle of drift would send it to out into the stump field flats if I didn’t pick it up soon.
I stomped and trudged my way to the teal, the soft bottom becoming more solid as I drew nearer to the bank of the island. Knowing it would let me make better time I turned off my direct approach, made for shallower water then turned again toward my target.
As I splashed through the shallow at a brisk pace I knew I had made the right choice. The bird was almost past the button willow point at the end of the island and showing now signof slowing. I added a bit more speed to my steps. Though it was cool and the wind now steady I could feel the sweat building beneath my coat.
As I stomped past the point I head the sharp call of an alarmed hen and looked to my right. A dozen mallards sprang from the protective pocket of brush at the tip of the island and flew directly over my head. They were so close I could see the drops of water forming and falling from their feet and bellies.
I watched them climb, level off and head south, cussing myself for not having carried my gun with me. As they got into formation I saw that they were not as frightened as they seemed at first. They slowed their wing beats and cruised toward our blind. Tommy was almost back in as they passed overhead. He called and begged for a few moments but the birds paid him no mind and were soon beyond out no-go point.
“Get ‘em Papa.” I said to the air and turned to finish the last few yards of my retrieve.
With the far bird in hand I turned to head back toward the blind. I could not see the other teal but I knew that by then the wind would have pushed it up into the trees and brush of the outer island. Looking out over the open lake as I turned I could see that the wind had brought up a pretty fair chop on the lake. It explained why the mallards had been hold up in the button willow patch and why the teal had been all but a no-show. For whatever reason the little ducks never flew well on the lake when the wind picked up.
Making my way through the shallow sandy waters near the island I caught occasional notes from my father’s calling as the rode the wind up from his blind. As I searched the bank for the last bird I heard several shot and wondered if he had been working that same group of mallards I had flushed at the point.
Tommy was back in the blind and directed me to where he had last seen the teal. I stomped around for what felt like an hour before I finally found it. The wind had pushed it up into the splayed folds at the trunk of a big cypress. If the little bird had not been belly up I doubt I would have ever seen it.
I was soaked in sweat by the time I climbed back into the blind. I stripped off my coat and dug a game strap out of my bag tossing it to Tommy. While he strung the birds I leaned on the front rail of the blind and downed a can of soda to cool me down and quench my thirst.
The win had shifted slightly and blew refreshingly cool air through the buttons of my heavy hunting shirt. As I stood at the rail I could tell the wind was continuing to gain speed. I mentioned to my friend that the lake was getting choppy and we speculated on it effect on the teal and whether or not dad had managed to pull that flight of mallards down to his set.
As I finished my coke Tommy marked a flight of ducks moving towards us from the north. In haste I lowered myself to my stool and started calling. Flying into the wind it seemed to take the small group of ducks forever to approach.
Their demeanor was uneasy as they closed in on our set. Fighting hard into the wing they scanned and scrutinized our spread for a long time. They were at the very edge of range when they crossed overhead and Tommy and I both made a halfhearted stand and shoulder move as the got directly above us. But we both whispered “no, no, no” as the birds got beyond the bushy tops of the trees and made a slight turn.
The wind caught their wings and the flock whirled around, still just on the edge of range but making another pass down wind of the blind. This time they came past on the west side of the float road, wide but still interested. I saw raising his call to his lips as they passed.
“Wait” I whispered, my own call held just in front of my mouth. “Wait…wait…”
I let the bird get farther than usual. The now strong wind would make them bank too soon and turn too soon if we rushed it.
“Now” I said with a touch of urgency.
Tommy and I let loose a barrage of hail calls, stacking them one atop the other, varying our tones and cadences, trying for all the work to sound like way more ducks than our small spread could possibly be.
The ducks wheeled as if their wings had hit a poll. They dropped half their altitude and bore down on our decoys like a fighter formation. Over the spread the mixed flock of gadwall and widgeon made another one eighty and threw their chest perpendicular to the water as they backbeat with their wings and stretched out their splayed feet.
We cut into them with abandon.
White bellies betrayed the whistle birds and they took the brunt of the first salvo. Three fell on the initial report and we peeled off two other birds as the group scattered on the now gusting wind.
But there was no time for congratulations or celebration. Two of the birds were head up and swimming fast. We reloaded and raked the gadwall and drake widgeon as they tried to put distance between themselves and the carnage in the decoys.
Our shots wrapped both birds in pellets every time but they refused to submit, each bird taking a different path of potential escape.
Tommy and I both new what was happening and quickly stuff a few shells into our pockets and dropped into the water to chase the cripples down. I grabbed one gadwall and a stone dead widgeon as I made for the bird heading toward the outside island, Tommy grabbed another widgeon as he race-walked straight toward the northern mouth of the float road where the other cotton top was swimming hard, head down, bobbing into sight as it crested each wave.
Each bird kept a good distance ahead of us and we both stopped periodically to sling steel in hope of halting their escape. The gadwall I was after dove after my second shot and as I tried to rush toward it and reload I came dangerously close to falling headlong into the water. I recovered by going to my knees but not without soaking my left arm and spilling my extra shells from my shirt pocket.
Getting back on my feet I loaded the only extra round I had into my gun and looked out toward to open lake to see how Tommy was faring.
Though still dry as far as I could tell he wasn’t doing much better than me. The water was well above his waist now and the waves seemed timed perfectly to keep him from connecting his shot to the fleeing duck. I saw his shot string twice rip through a wave just as the drake surfed down the far side, the shot catching the tips of the waves ahead and behind him.
My own chase was equally fruitless. I managed to close within range of the gadwall several times but it dove in each occurrence before I could get off a shot. I would stop and scan the surface waiting for it to rise in some sensible direction from where I had last seen it. But every time it would pop up it would be off to my side or behind me. I probably sank two feet in the mud as I pirouetted in place trying to get a shot.
At one point the blasted bird popped up nearly between my legs. That little move scared us both so bad we each let out a alarmed plea and as I plunged my right arm into the muddy water the bird vanished, bumping my legs as it dove but never to be seen again.
As I gave up and turned back to the blind I was shocked at how far Tommy had gone. He was well over a hundred yards, maybe two hundred from the blind. I was also surprised to see just how much the wind had strengthened. The waves out where he was were now clearly rolling. Glancing back to the blind I saw that the wave there had picked up as well. Enough in fact that the decoys had started to drift a bit several ha tangled together.
I yelled to my friend but he clearly could not hear me. I tried blowing my call but it to did not gather his notice. Finally I fired two shots into the air, He turned to look back and I waved him in.
Back at the hole I re positioned the decoys, climbed back in the blind and waited for Tommy to return. The boat beneath the blind began rubbing on the supports for the ladder and I climbed down to reposition it. Tommy was still quite a ways from the blind so I opted to pull the boat out, fire up the motor and save him a hard haul back to the blind.
When he saw me start up the motor he stopped walking and rested his shotgun across his shoulder. With one hand he pulled up on the top of his waders and I could see that the wave were getting dangerously close to going over their top.
It was not a pretty pick up. The wind and waves out in the more open water where he was were strong enough that I had to approach him from don wind and keep the motor on, kicking it in and out of gear at its lowest throttle while he grabbed on and hauled himself over the side.
“Did you get yours?” he asked as he rolled up onto his seat.
“Dove one me.” I told him and started to point the bow towards the blind.
“Run out just a bit and I bet we can find this one” he said.
I spun the boat and followed the line he gave me but the widgeon was not to be found. What we did find though was white caps.
The relative protection from the wind offered up in the float road had concealed from us the true strength of the blow. From the stump field to the far bank the lake was now dotted with white capped waves, not every one of them but enough to let us know the weather man had missed his forecast by several hours.
We turned around again and pointed the bow toward the blind just in time to see four mallards pitch into the decoys in front of the empty blind.
“Well that figures!” Tommy yelled over the sound of the motor and the thumping splash of the hull against the waves.
Going nearly dead into the wind we had to go slower than I wanted. We watched the mallards swim off into the calmer waters of the island only to see another flight of ducks, spoonbills this time, pitch right down where their more glamorous friends had.
“Just Spoons” I bellowed over the nose as Tommy pointed.
“Those aren’t!” he yelled back, bringing the flight of pintail to my attention. They to swung right in front of the blind before drifting down between the mallards and the shovelers.
We gave each other a broad grin and said not a word. I twisted the throttle another quarter turn and as we closed the distance to the bind several more flights of ducks of various worth either drops slap in the center of the again scattered decoys or swung within easy shot of the blind.
The weather may have been getting worse but it sure looked like the duck hunting was about to better, MUCH BETTER.
The big lake fell off my hunting radar for several years after that. My father was one of the owners of eight hundred acres of pristine bottomland in the heart of Panther Swamp, Tupelo Brake Hunting Club.
This storied ground is now the crown jewel of Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge but in those days it was ours and beneath the limbs it’s towering trees I spent the majority of my waterfowling days between the ages of 9 and 16. But sometime in the season of ’86 I began ranging out into the delta in search of other places to hunt.
Looking back I am not all together sure why I had gone off exploring. The duck camp was a waterfowler’s paradise and by working on the place throughout the year with my friends I had been given the honor of being the only person who’s name wasn’t on the title to have keys and cart blanc access to the place.
But something about it had become almost too familiar, too easy. I was hunting more and more with friends my own age and we all had that wild streak to us that makes young men dream themselves some sort of modern explorer.
Dad was entertaining business clients a lot in those days as well and that made it harder for me to get extra passes for my hunting partners. So partially out of necessity and partially out of a young man’s desire to strike out on his own we had taken to hunting the small rivers, bayous, bean fields and oxbows closer to the big lake.
I think rain played a big part in my desire to go mobile. The Tupe was one of the finest duck holes in the world on clear cold days, but in a rain it was all but pointless to sit in any of the blinds. My father’s field notes attest to that fact.
On the top of each page he made notes of the weather, winds and river stages. I can not to this day find a page where his marking indicate rain where more than a handful of wood ducks were shot in those woods, and the large majority of them went into the books as goose eggs, invariably followed by a clearly exasperated note from my father reading “Ducks don’t come to the timber in the rain!”
The frequency of this note now looks like he must have been trying to either remind or convince himself of this fact, both perhaps. Clearly the soggy bleak birdless hunts had not driven that point home enough. But, like all waterfowlers, I suppose, maybe dad was just an eternal optimist or just simply insane. We are each and all some mix of both. And dad had done his time in the muddy fields chasing ducks in the rain, he had outgrown that “foolishness” he claimed. Whereas I on the other hand was just growing into it and my driver’s license and a used four wheel drive pickup was all the fuel that fire needed to grow into a blaze. Well, those two things and the hodgepodge of equipment my friend and I scraped together and christened “Mobile 1”.
Our gear was nothing fancy. Everything we had was either hand me downs or casts offs. Our decoys were a mix from every known manufacturer from the dawn of plastic decoys. Our lines were spliced together from old decoys, kitchen twine and whatever string a local gas station or hardware store might have. The weights ranged from spark plugs to rail road spikes and tire weights. Our boat(s) were small and usually leaked and every motor we had access to was hopelessly addicted to starter fluid and rapidly developing a nasty shear pin habit. Trailer lights were unheard of. Lifejackets might be found somewhere underneath the piles of leave and limbs that helped camouflage the bottom of the boat where the paint was worn off. Our blinds were selected and constructed by choosing a place where the limbs and branches would help support the always sodden weight of very old army surplus netting.
It was basically cotton netting of two inch by two inch squares with brown, black, tan, and green strips of burlap woven through it in random geometric patterns. Outside of our blinds and boats the only place I have ever seen it is in grainy newsreel footage from the Second World War and old M.A.S.H. reruns.
Somewhere in my memory I seem to recall my father and his friends talking of having gotten a great deal on at the end of their days in the military. Which I half way think means they may owe Uncle Sam a few dollars of “unofficial compensation.”
From the smell of it I would have to say that if they did smuggle it off a military base they must have done it in drums of kerosene and diesel. It reeked of a heady mix of fuel oil, mildew and rot when it was dry and an odor along the same lines only three hundred times more potent when it was wet. And it was ALWAYS WET!
Seen through modern eyes I wonder if it is not where the idea of the Sham-Wow was born, no man made material in history has had the ability it had to soak up water. A heavy dew added fifty pounds of weight to a net that was heavy enough when dry. It differed from that modern miracle towel in one other key way. It did not in any way hold in the moisture it absorbed. In fact it seemed to be but a conduit for water.
No matter how long it dripped fat, slightly fuel smelling drops down the back of your neck or into your coffee, it never dried out. Its accuracy for dribbling water onto exposed skin, into beverages, onto sandwiches and the very tip of lit cigarettes we were not supposed to be smoking was compliable to today’s laser guided missiles.
It snagged on everything, yet would never hang on the branch you wanted it to. It grabbed feet, buttons and beads of shotguns with ensnaring entanglements spiders would have envied. It could find cockleburs in a paved parking lot. And lord forbid you let it dangle from the transom within sight of a propeller or mistakenly let a single weighted decoy line touch its surface. Either of these would become hopelessly wrapped in its fibers and rendered inoperable instantaneously. It was the bane of our boat hunting existence, we cursed it, patched it, threatened to throw it away, left it to rot in the off season hoping it would disintegrate. But season after season it would be back in our boats or on our blinds. I have no doubt that in the branches of ancient cypress and tupelo trees across the delta there are still tattered remnants of it.
Stranger still I would give anything to have a couple of musty duffle bags of it again. Hate it as I did it was the best concealment I ever owned and if I could just smell it’s dank fragrance again I am certain I could travel back in time on the wave of it aroma and live those days of my youth again.
The big lake had never been something we hunted much. Since being cut off from the river, long before my time, it had come to be mostly a fishing spot. You would see the occasional raft of divers out in the open water and of course coots. But by and large we ignored it as a duck hole. Although in his day my father and his family had killed good numbers of mallards and other puddle ducks along with plenty of divers on its waters.
The lake is an old oxbow of the Mississippi River, nearly twelve miles from end to end and two miles wide. It forms a near perfect horseshoe. Our old camp sat at the apex of the bend facing the widest point of the lake on the far bank were the shallow, cypress studded flats of the old float road, a man made cut used in the age of steam powered river boats to move log rafts and lay aside barges.
I had started hunting it when I was in my early teens. But even then it was just a place I could hunt ducks a few weeks earlier than usual.
Our bank of the river was Mississippi, the far bank Louisiana although it had long since been cut off from the river, pinned in by levees and seen the last of its great paddle wheelers. And though it technically sat within the border of Mississippi the inside of the lake’s bend was still the property of the state of Louisiana, and they opened their duck season a few weeks ahead of my home state in those days.
The camp on the lake served mostly as our fishing camp for most of my life. Our duck hunting took place farther inland in the delta and a bit farther north. But we also went there for holidays and the traditional opening of deer season.
Though my father had long since given up his passion for antlers for the pursuit of waterfowl he still kept a membership in an old deer camp he had had a hand in forming many decades before. The deer camp was just a few miles down the road from the lake house and so when thanksgiving rolled around we usually spent the holiday at the lake house with the whole family, and then some. We would deer hunt once or twice and always had a few good meals and poker games at the deer camp but none of the hunters in my family really cared much about anything but ducks.
My first trip hunting ducks on the lake was little more than a whim. I was at the lakehouse with my family and a large group of friends for the Thanksgiving Holiday. While deer season was open, I had sat on a stand twice already and didn’t much care to do it again. It hadn’t helped that while waiting for deer that never showed up I had heard and seen a few ducks cruising the old bayou near my stand.
When I had told my father about the ducks he mentioned that the season was open in Louisiana but that the chute at the deer camp was too low to get to across the state line. But he said I could go try across the lake if I wanted.
He helped me clean out the small john boat and scrounge up a handful of decoys and a tattered, mildewed piece of burlap camouflage netting and sent me on my way.
I had NO idea where to hunt. All I know was I had to be on the other side of the lake and that there was pretty good cover along the island on the outer side of the float road. Cypress trees and button willow ran along the island and made great cover for fishing spawning crappie in the spring so I knew the general area and habitat.
The small six horse motor eased me across the smooth midafternoon waters of the lake. It was warmer than I would have wanted but at least without a chill the boat ride was not unpleasant.
Once across the main channel I lifted the outboard to shallow water run and eased my way west toward the island. As usual a fair number of divers and plenty of coots loafed and rafted in the shallows of the flats. The ducks stirred and rose into the air as I motored, the coots just swam a safe distance from the boat and kept on doing their thing.
As I neared the island I turned parallel to the shore and searched for a good spot to blind up. There was no shortage of cover but the first few places I tried proved to be too shallow even for my small boat. I finally settled on a spot between two giant cypress trees with low hanging braches I could use to hang the heavy, stinking netting, tied off the bow and stern, pitched out the raggedy half dozen or so decoys, hung my camouflage net and settled in for the hunt.
I can’t say as I recall the whole hunt but certain specifics stand out to me as clearly today as they must have then. I remember wishing I had brought a fishing rod with me as I scanned ducksless skies. I remember the sounds the coots made as they puttered around in the shallows diving for food and creating the only ripples in the still, shallow waters near me. I remember the sound the diving ducks made when they would, for reasons I still do not know, all together decide that they needed to be a short distance away and en mass take to running across the surface of the water, only briefly catching flight before settling back to their bobbing raft. I remember the red orange color of cypress needles as they drifted on the black water in which my decoys sat nearly motionless. And I remember the bold, stark contrast of color and motion over them as a mallard greenhead out of nowhere banked once, set his wings and tried to land among the poor plastic imitations of his beautiful species.
With one quick motion I raised my gun, fired and folded the drake. He fell within a few feet of my boat and without thinking about the fact that the water might be over my knee high rubber boots I swung my legs over the gunwale and sloshed out to retrieve him.
Save for the ride back, the setting sun turning the lake red orange like the cypress needles and the mallards legs, I don’t recall the rest of the hunt. Records my father kept tell me I killed two more greenheads that day.
What stands out to me most in my memory is the pride in my father’s face when I slogged up the hill from the boat ramp, wet to my knees carrying three fat greenheads. The pride on his face that day show just as strong now as I look back through the yellowing pages of his field notes. “Brad hunted the Float Road today and killed 3 Greenheads BY HIMSELF!!!”
Until now I had not remembered, somehow in the thirty five years I have been chasing ducks and geese that aspect of that day had faded. I had truly come into my own as a waterfowler. Leave it to my father, dead now these many years, to reach back through time and remind me of a near sacred moment for myself and the man who taught me.
Thanks Papa. Had you lived to this day and beyond there could never be enough words of gratitude for teaching me the ways of a waterfowler. Until we all meet again, keep your gloves dry and give Yella a pet on the head for me. I miss you both more than my heart can stand.