The alarm rudely drags me back to wakefulness. 4:00 am comes all too quickly, even when you're looking forward to getting up. Quietly, I slip out of bed and pad across the room to turn it off. A lump stirs under the covers, and the comforter slips back to reveal a black head, one eye opened balefully. She doesn't lift her head from the pillow.
"Time to get up, soup hound," I yawn. "It's a new day."
Sprite's tail thumps twice under the comforter, and she raises her head for a moment, regarding me. She yawns and licks her chops, and then, as if the effort has totally sapped her strength, lets her head fall back to the pillow, as limp as a rag doll.
Behold the world-class, championship retriever. Exquisitely bred, painstakingly trained to be a duck fetcher without peer…who apparently believes her mission in life is to hold down the bed and guard the couch.
Chuckling quietly, I quickly get dressed. Polypropylene thermal underwear, camo shirt, neoprene sock liners, wool socks. Synthetic fleece wader pants, the kind with the stirrups, complete the ensemble. There are few things more uncomfortable than standing in freezing water with one pant leg bunched up at knee level underneath your waders.
Except of course, a leak in the waders at crotch level. That always ranks high in Misery Quotient.
Through it all, Sprite lays on the pillow like a dead thing, refusing to relinquish the warmth of the bed for a cold floor. She’s a lot like a soldier; both know that they’ll get plenty of personal discomfort and misery on the job, so they might as well take advantage of creature comforts while they’re available. There is no need to practice being wet and cold. It comes naturally.
It’s the call lanyard that finally does it. The musical tinkle of duck bands as I slip the lanyard over my head transforms sixty pounds of inert bed warmer into a whirling dervish of nervous energy. She knows what that sound means.
Sprite bounds from the bed and makes a beeline for the back door. She spins a tight circle around my pile of gear sitting at the door and bounces excitedly on her front feet, her eyes shining in the dark. She whines softly.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say the little bitch is giggling.
“Go do your business,” I tell her, opening the door into the exercise yard. Instantly, Sprite bolts through the gap, and bedlam ensues. Twenty dogs all start yammering at once. I turn on the yard lights, slip on a pair of camp shoes and step outside, barking “QUIET!”
One reminder is usually all it takes, but the silence won’t last long with Sprite running around loose. She prances around saucily, sniffing this, investigating that, flaunting her freedom in a canine neener neener neener at the poor mutts that have to stay behind.
While she’s busy reminding the other dogs of her favored place in the pecking order, I quickly turn on the water and wash down the kennels, the hose stiff and unyielding in the cold. Occasionally, the braver dogs venture outside to bark, but a stream of near-freezing water from a one-inch hose is all it takes to send them scrambling back to the warmth of their houses.
By the time I’ve rolled and drained the hose, Sprite is waiting expectantly for me at the back door. She whuffs softly, the condensation from her breath rising like smoke signals over her head. It’s cold out here.
She waits impatiently for me to open the door, looking at me as if to say, “Hey, you’re the one with the opposable thumbs. I can’t be expected to do all the work around here.”
Inside, she paces nervously as I fill my thermos with hot water from the coffeemaker. I’m not much of coffee drinker, but hot chocolate on a frigid morning is always nice. It’s even better when you’re watching a sunrise over the steam wafting from your cup.
As Sprite nervously paces the office that doubles as a studio apartment, I quickly check my gear bag before heading outside. Every few circuits, she’ll stop at the door and whine softly.
Yes Sprite, I know I packed it last night. Yes, I am that anal. Do I rush you when you’re doing important dog business, like sniffing the ass of a stranger or licking yourself? No, I let you be a dog. You can return the favor my ignoring my OCD.
Besides, this is more than just a bag filled with miscellaneous duck hunting detritus. There are three generations of tradition in that bag. A side pocket holds my Granddaddy’s hand warmers, the old fashioned kind that use lighter fluid instead of those wimpy fuel sticks. On the opposite side, you’ll find my Daddy’s favorite call. A small wood call with a brass reed, it takes a lot of skill to blow, but nothing sounds sweeter in the flooded timber. I never use it, yet I take it with me on every trip as a talisman of simpler times. I think the hunting gods would approve.
In the center compartment you’ll find my gloves and shells – two boxes of standard steel #4, plus a box of 3-inch magnum steel #2 for my hunting partners. I love my buddies, but some of them couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle, and they seem to think that more and bigger pellets will make up for a poor swing. They’re forever running low on shells.
The bag itself was a gift from my brother, given one Christmas years ago when I was finally old enough to go hunting on my own. The original camouflage pattern has long since faded into a mosaic of mud from hunts past, each stain a memory, every blemish with its own story to tell. There’s red clay from the Katy prairie in Texas, black mud from the Louisiana marsh, bark stains from pin oaks in the Arkansas river bottoms.
Tucked in an interior pocket are my Gerber multi-tool, a roll of decoy line, several steel tree- climbing steps, and my GPS receiver. Filling in the empty spaces are an aspirin bottle holding extra duck call reeds, another holding strike-anywhere matches, a styptic pencil, extra decoy weights, a folding limb saw, and enough honey buns and candy bars to fuel a battalion of kindergartners.
Sounds like a lot of stuff, doesn’t it? It is, and every one of my hunting partners carries one much like it. Don’t try to understand it. A duck hunter’s blind bag is the male equivalent of a woman’s purse. Just be thankful I gave you a peek into the mystery of mine.
Satisfied that I indeed had packed all that I needed, I sling my blind bag across my shoulder, grab my Remington 870 and my wader bag, and head outside into the cold. Sprite leads the way to the gate in the privacy fence and prances nervously, nose pressing urgently against the gate as I fumble with the latch.
My shoes crunch across the frozen ground, and a rime of frost sparkles like diamonds on my decoy bags in the boat. The air is clear, the stars like pinholes in the blanket of night. The temperature is hovering just below freezing, and there’s a stiff north breeze hinting at the arctic front headed our way.
Clear and getting colder, with a north wind. Perfect.
I wedge my waders on the passenger floorboard below the heater vents, and I park Sprite atop them just in case. I hate putting on cold waders.
I start the truck engine and let it warm up while I stow my gear. My blind bag and shotgun go in the compartment under the boat seat. On-board battery charger gets unplugged, seats folded down, and I make a cursory check for anything not tied down. A quick check of the plugs, hitch lock and trailer lights, and we’re on the road. By the time we hit the highway, Sprite has managed to inch across the seat until her head rests on my thigh.
Normally I’d pick the guys up and we’d stop for breakfast at Ray’s PeGe, maybe spend a half hour eating runny eggs and swapping hunting lies. There’s no time for it this morning, however. Six weeks into the duck season, and the Ouachita River is finally high enough to flood the northern end of the refuge. Every hunter and his brother-in-law will be jockeying for a hunting spot.
I roll into the parking lot at a quarter till five, gratified to see that I am the first one there. Even during midweek in December, by daybreak the lot will be full of four-wheel-drive trucks towing boat trailers. In Louisiana, duck hunting is a religion, and the most devout of us worship early and often. It’s always nice, though, when you get to be the first worshipper at the communion rail.
The cold hits me with a jolting slap as I open the truck door. Before I can get it open fully, Sprite scrambles across my lap and bolts for the picnic area, nosing around the grass, the tables, snuffling at the water’s edge.
Getting wound up, I smile inwardly. Just like always.
Something splashes out there in the river, and Sprite’s muscles tense, warning me just in time.
“No. Here,” I command quietly, just loud enough to be heard. She doesn’t like it, but she backs away from the water and comes to sulk at my side. I suppress a smile as I go about the business of readying my boat for launch. I have no intention of sitting with a wet retriever in my lap for half an hour waiting for Paul to arrive.
And Paul is always late to arrive.
The stern tie-downs are stiff, the straps coated in frost and the buckles frozen, but eventually they yield, under protest, to repeated kicks from my size 12 boot. Sprite follows me around as I check the drain plugs again, check my running lights and battery, check to make sure the bow line is attached, and slowly back the trailer into the water. When I get back out of the truck to beach my boat, she elects to stay inside, parked comfortably under the heater vent.
See? Soup hound.
As I sit in the warmth of my truck, Sprite’s head resting in my lap, I allow myself to doze fitfully, awakened every few minutes by the glow of headlights on my eyelids as a steady procession of hunters arrive and launch their boats. Sprite doesn’t stir, unless you count the insistent prod of her nose if I fail to stop scratching the sweet spot behind her right ear.
Finally, a glow of headlights is accompanied by a familiar growl of custom truck exhaust, and Sprite lifts her head from my lap expectantly. Paul’s Chevy noses into the parking spot next to mine, and he grins wickedly as he rolls down his window.
“Pardon me,” he smirks. “Would you happen to have any Grey Poupon?”
I answer with a pointed glance at my watch, and a one-fingered salute.
“Forgot my waders,” he apologizes half-heartedly. “Had to go back and get ‘em.” Paul has offered a variation of this excuse every day we’ve hunted for the past fifteen years. He doesn’t even try to sell it. It doesn’t have to be a believable excuse. He just has to offer one.
“Maybe you should just set your alarm clock thirty minutes ahead,” I retort with my part of the ritual. I’m not really pissed. I just have to pretend to be. That’s my part of the arrangement.
“So what’s the plan?” he asks as we transfer his gear to the boat.
“Well, Plan A was to set up in the north corner of the bean field,” I chide, “but that was before twelve damned boats launched ahead of us. By the time we get set up, we’ll probably be able to walk across the bean field on all the decoys. So, I guess we try Plan B.”
“Which is…what, exactly?” he asks impatiently.
“Drive north until we don’t hear any other boat motors,” I shrug. “Then we’ll turn into the woods and keep going until the prop starts hitting bottom, or until we don’t see spotlights any more. Whichever comes first.”
“Sounds good to me,” Paul replies. “Do I get to work the dog this time?”
“Why not?” he asks petulantly as I climb into the boat.
“Because,” I explain, for the hundredth time, “you have to be smarter than the dog, Paul. She runs all over you. Besides, you’re a bad influence. You feed her Vienna sausages and peanut butter crackers, and at night her farts peel the paint off the walls.”
“Your Daddy is a spoilsport,” he pouts, kneeling down next to Sprite and making kissing noises until she licks his face. “Your Daddy mistreats you, and takes all the credit for what a good dog you are, yes he does! Your Daddy exploits your talents for his own financial gain, yes he does! But Sprite loves her Uncle Paul, doesn’t she? Yes her does, and her Uncle Paul loves her.”
“When you’re through sucking up to the dog, Uncle Paul,” I suggest wryly, “how about untying the boat and pushing us away from the bank?”
Sprite jumps aboard and Paul pushes us out into the current. I lower the motor, prime the fuel bulb, and yank the starter rope.
“Don’t do this to me now, you whore,” I mutter under my breath. I engage the choke and yank the starter rope again, and the motor replies with a dull, flat cough, “Whut.”
“You leave me drifting in the $&*&^# current, I swear I’ll drop your worthless butt in the river and buy myself a new Evinrude.” Savagely, I yank the starter rope again.
“You %$&*# heartless tease,” I fume quietly. “You did that on purpose.” I turn off the choke, count slowly to ten, and once again pull the starter rope.
“Whutwhutwhutwhutwhutwhut…” the motor purrs agreeably. Relieved, I gingerly open the throttle, steering us into the channel and pointing us north. As I open the throttle fully, the motor abruptly dies. The ultimate act of defiance.
“You black-hearted bitch, worthless son-of-a whore!” I scream in apoplectic fury. “That’s it! I get us back to the bank, and I’m selling your ass! Worthless piece of crap!”
“Starter fluid,” Paul suggests helpfully from his warm nest at the front of the boat. “Spray some in the air intake.”
Starter fluid? STARTER FLUID???
Obviously, the man knows nothing about cold-natured Mercury outboard motors. Anyone who knows anything about outboards knows that uncontaminated fuel, judicious use of the choke, and liberal amounts of profanity are the generally accepted methods for starting a Mercury motor. Starter fluid is nothing more than crack for outboard motors. It revs ‘em up for a little bit, but they get hooked on it, and pretty soon nothing else works, even when they’re warm. Then I’d still have a contrary motor, with a crack habit.
Gritting my teeth, I stand up in the back of the boat, brace one foot on the motor, and yank the starter cord one last time. This time, the old girl starts immediately, and responds with a deep- throated roar when I open the throttle. Grinning, I steer us into the middle and head upriver at full throttle, navigating by moonlight.
I love you too, baby. I just wish you wouldn’t make me cuss you every morning.
I am braced by the ride upriver, into the teeth of a cold north wind. Paul and Sprite lay huddled in the front of the boat, seeking to stay out of the wind, while I turn my cap around backwards and grin into the wind, the tears streaming from the corners of my eyes and marching back into my hair. This feeling is what I live for.
Soon enough, I begin to overtake the boats that launched while I was cursing my motor, and even half a dozen that launched well before I did. All of them are motoring at a snail’s pace, spotlights vainly trying to pierce the fog, cautiously trying to navigate the channel, desperately seeking the fluorescent ribbons or reflective buttons they’ve carefully hung to mark the way to their favorite hunting places. One is slowly creeping up Mud Lake, unaware that he has left the main channel. He’ll run aground soon.
I blow past them all, my path lit by nothing more than the dull green and red glow of my bow light, illuminating little more than a boat length of the river in front of us.
That’s more than enough.
This river is where I belong. Over the years I’ve come to know it well, just as well as the path to the bathroom in my own home. Every curve, every bend and channel buoy, I can see them in my mind’s eye well before they loom like specters out of the mist. It’s like exploring the curves of a familiar lover; you don’t need the lights on to enjoy each other.
The landmarks fly by as I wind my way upstream. The old barge pilings off the East bank, right there in the first bend, loom like rotten teeth in a gaping mouth. The bluffs that mark the route to the prairie potholes, the entrance to Frank LaPierre Creek, the tiny gap in the bank that everyone ignores, that few people know leads to a beautiful cypress lake nestled right against the levee. The pipeline crossing that leads to the bean field only has half a dozen boats on it, their spotlights crossing the sky like a Hollywood premiere.
I’m briefly tempted to try the bean field. I know the sweet spots, the ones often overlooked by everyone else. I could get in the before most of the others, set up my rig and shoo people away until dawn. We’d kill ducks there, I’m sure.
But this is about more than just killing ducks. There are too many people here. Even if I am the first to set up, the latecomers will crowd in anyway. The ducks love the area, and for that reason, so do all the hunters. I spoke before of duck hunting as a religion in Louisiana. In places like the bean field, or the lakes branching off Frank LaPierre Creek, you will not want for fellow congregants.
I prefer to do my worship in a quiet cathedral of pin oaks, with little company save for a close friend and my dog. Occasionally, I meet a stranger in these cathedrals, and we acknowledge each other with a quiet word and a knowing smile, and move off to a respectful distance. We both know how hard it is to get back in here, and how precious the solitude we both seek.
A familiar bend in the river looms ahead, and I cut the throttle a bit, scanning the left bank for the channel buoy and the houseboat moored a hundred yards north of it. I ease up alongside the houseboat and cut the motor, and Paul stirs and raises his head.
“We there already?” he yawns, stretching. Sprite stands on the deck at the front of the boat, tail wagging.
“Not yet,” I reply quietly. “Grab hold of the railing there and hold us in place for a bit.”
I turn and look behind us. The spotlights are gone, lost in countless bends of the river twenty miles behind us. The only sound is the gurgle of the current rushing past us. We’ve been motoring for close to an hour, and my hands are stiff. I pull off my gloves and check my watch.
Five minutes till six. We’d better hurry.
“Push us off,” I order. “We’ve got thirty five minutes to find a spot and set up.”
“Set up where?” Paul wonders. “All I see are a bunch of damn trees!”
“Just sit in the front of the boat and watch for limbs,” I smile knowingly. “We’ll find something.”
Dubiously, he perches in the front of the boat, Indian style. “Crazy bastard gonna get us lost up here,” I can hear him grumble. “Prob’ly in Arkansas by now, and I don’t even have an Arkansas license…”
Chuckling to myself, I turn at a right angle to the channel and motor west, directly into the woods. It doesn’t take long before the branches start to slap at Paul, threatening to knock him out of the boat.
“Hey, dammit!” he gripes. “Slow down a little! Let’s at least turn on a light so we can see where we’re going!”
“Lie down on the front deck, Paul,” I order. “Grab the spotlight, but only turn it on very briefly. Shine on the water right in front of the boat, and keep a sharp eye out.”
“Stumps, and rafts of pin oak acorns,” I grin. “I don’t need the light to navigate.”
“We don’t need to find an open spot?” he asks dubiously, turning to look at me and blinding me with the spotlight in the process.
“Nope. Now please get the light out of my eyes and look for stumps.”
Grumbling under his breath, Paul lies on his belly on the front deck, chin propped on the bow light, spotlight flickering occasionally on the water in front of the boat. Frequently he calls out course corrections and warnings. “Come right…now straight ahead…ease to the left…duck your head, big limb coming down the right side…it would be helpful if I knew where the hell we were going…”
I’d tell you, but I don’t know myself. Where we’re going isn’t so much a place as a feeling. I’ll know it when we get there. It’ll feel right.
Twenty minutes pass, and innumerable logs and stumps, and I estimate we’re perhaps a mile off the river channel. I cut the motor, and plumb the water at the stern of the boat with a short paddle.
Hip deep. Almost right.
“This is it,” I announce. Let’s tie up the boat and unload our gear.”
Paul gingerly climbs out of the bow, and promptly snags his foot on a log, almost falling in. He drops to his knees, and the water comes to within an inch of the top of his waders. “Uhhh, a little help please?” he begs.
“It’s not a duck hunt until you do a hat-floater,” I observe wryly, walking over and helping him to his feet. “You falling in is always a good omen.”
“Screw you,” he retorts, once he is sure of his footing. “And I’m not always falling in.”
“You could put an inch of water in the Wal Mart parking lot…” I recite.
“…and Paul would find a way to fall in over his head,” he finishes snidely as he straps a decoy bag across his shoulders. “You know, that was funny only the first few hundred times y’all said it.”
“Nonsense,” I chuckle as I spread camo netting across the boat. “It’s funny every time, because it’s true.”
“Only one sack of decoys?” Paul asks, nodding at the other sacks still in the boat. “And what am I, the pack mule?”
“Yep,” I retort, “and I’m the guide. Let’s go, Sprite.” I grab her dog stand, my blind bag and gun, and wade further into the woods. I go slowly, pushing my feet along the bottom carefully, making little more than a ripple as I feel for obstacles. Behind me, Paul sounds like an epileptic having a seizure in the bathtub. Sprite swims ahead of us, meandering through the trees aimlessly. Occasionally, she swims back and makes circles around me, whining softly.
Almost there, soup hound. You can rest in a minute.
After a couple hundred yards, the water is only up to our thighs, and my flashlight illuminates the occasional raft of acorns piled against a floating log.
This is the place. This feels right.
“Let’s set up right here,” I announce. “I’ll take this big pin oak, and you take that one on the right. Throw out a dozen or so decoys, and stash the rest somewhere.”
In just a few minutes, the thunder of distant guns will announce legal shooting hours, even though the vague pinkening of the eastern skies announce that actual sunrise is still thirty minutes away. Paul rushes to set out the decoys, and true to character, he throws them out haphazardly, with no regard to spacing. As long as they’re upright, he couldn’t care less about anything else.
True to my character, I am overly picky about my decoy spread, so I go behind him and rearrange them, spreading them out, segregating them, moving most of the spread upwind of us, leaving a big open pocket right in front of us. I place a hen decoy on the downwind side of the pocket, and three wood duck decoys in a cluster on the far edge, forty yards out. Perfect range markers. When I’m done, I take a few seconds to admire my masterpiece.
Perfect. When the ducks make their downwind swing, they’ll still be able to see the lone hen out there. They’ll make their upwind landing pass, right up the chute to the pocket right in front of us. Perfect.
That is, if the ducks cooperate. When I was a boy, I eagerly devoured the pages of Outdoor Life or Field and Stream, scrupulously memorizing the decoy patterns occasionally illustrated there. The Modified J, The Fishhook, The Funnel…I knew them all. Skillful calling and a little trickery will often lure them close enough for a shot, but I fear the nuances in decoy arrangement matter to no one but me.
That’s not the point, though. I like the way it looks. If the ducks don’t like it, I’ll rearrange them into another pattern that will be just as perfect, because that’s the pattern that will pull thousands of greenheads from the sky into this little pothole. Or the next pattern will. Favored decoy spreads are as unique and personal a thing as say, blind bags or your relationship with your outboard motor.
I strap Sprite’s dog stand to my tree, help her climb aboard, and screw a couple of tree steps into the trunk off to one side. I hang my 870 from one, and my blind bag and thermos from the other. Paul watches the whole operation with a pitiful expression on his face, standing there with his blind bag still hanging from his shoulder.
“Here, ya’ big baby,” I relent, wading over and handing him my last tree step. When you’re standing in thigh-deep water, you don’t toss anything that doesn’t float.
“Thanks,” Paul grins. “Just for that, I’ll try not to outshoot you this morning,”
“You couldn’t hit water if you fell out of the boat,” I retort. Both of us know I’m the better wingshooter, but not by much. With a rifle, I can’t match him. But Paul is just that – a shooter. Hunting is secondary to him. He’d have been just as happy fighting the crowd at the bean field, content in the knowledge that he could scratch down more ducks than anybody else.
I settle in at my tree and check my watch, and Sprite shivers and whines softly. Ice is already forming on her coat.
Six thirty-two. Three minutes until legal shooting time.
To the east, distant guns thunder over the rice fields.
“The mudpuppies are starting a bit early, ain’t they?” Paul winks, thumbing shells into his gun. “Shoot the Hollywoods first?”
“Or gadwalls, or teal. Maybe even widgeon,” I agree. “Whatever presents itself. The mallards will be along later.” In the flooded timber, wood ducks are the first to stir, rocketing through the trees like agile little missiles, announcing their passing with a screech and a piercing squeal. They’re among the flashiest of ducks, colorful and gaudy, and more than just a little flighty. Hence the nickname, Hollywood Mallards.
South of here, there is a cypress brake that winds its way through the pin oak flats, and the Hollywoods flock to it like starlets to a nightclub opening. They weave through the trees at blistering speed, wave after wave of them until the sun finally climbs above the horizon. Hunting that brake is a non-stop, can’t-keep-your-gun-loaded, barrel-melting, kamikaze storm of crazy little ducks with green heads and bright red eyes. You don’t even need a call or decoys. After the dawn flight, the wood ducks evaporate into thin air and the place is barren.
“Hollywoods out front,” Paul hisses, nodding downwind. A distant screech gets steadily louder, and I pick up three blurs moving through the trees, barely visible in the dim light. I barely have time to reach for my gun before they flash over us…
Paul’s sweet sixteen barks twice, and two drakes crumple in midair. I swing on the third, and…click.
Damn. I knew I forgot something.
“You know, I think it works better if you actually load your gun,” Paul observes innocently.
I give him the finger, and look at Sprite. She’s focused on something behind our tree, leaning over the edge of her platform, rump hovering just off the seat. Every muscle is corded and trembling. “Sprite,” I command quietly. With this dog, it’s not so much a command as a release. A command would be required to stop her. By the time the sibilant S has passed my lips, she has launched herself in a smooth, graceful leap. Swimming powerfully, she is on the duck in seconds, and turns back to me.
I help her back onto the platform, take the duck from her, and see that she is locked in again. This time, when I give her release, she lets out a jubilant little yip as the launches herself off the platform. I toss Paul’s duck to him and load my gun as she swims for the second bird.
“Nice shooting,” I say.
Paul grins and starts to say something, then freezes and lowers his head. I know that look.
I lean back against the trunk of my tree and roll my shoulders around, scanning the sky behind me. I search desperately for the birds Paul has spotted, and see nothing until…
…there, below the tree tops, feet down and committed. Four of them. Widgeon.
Time slows down as I point at the highest bird, barely ten feet off the water, just hanging there in space, right beyond the bead at the end of my barrel. My gun recoils once, and the bird folds in a slow motion puff of feathers. Without conscious thought, my barrel picks up one of his compatriots, rising from the water, wings clawing for altitude. My gun barks again and I see him stagger in midair, wings still pumping furiously. The clack of the slide is as loud to my ears as the shot, and the barrel is just a half-noticed shadow as the drake climbs above the trees, my barrel swinging beyond his head now as my 870 bucks for a third time. The only thing vividly in focus is that drake widgeon, silhouetted against the brightening sky as my third shot hits him and he locks his wings and sails…
…and just like that, time starts spinning again as he splashes down in a shower of twigs, perhaps a hundred yards out into the woods. I look down and see Sprite standing on her hind legs, front paws on her platform, with Paul’s duck in her mouth. I help her aboard the platform and take the duck from her, and again she is zeroed in without want or need for direction from me. I watch her body language and where she is looking, and I can see that she is locked in on the first bird, floating dead in the decoys. The crippled bird is a hundred yards beyond.
“No bird,” I tell her softly. “Heel.” She whines softly, prancing on the dog platform. I step over to the left of the dog platform, and raise my hand near her head. I lean into her until she pivots away, and I give her a line with my hand until I’m sure she’s locked on the cast I’m about to give. “Back!” I bark sharply, and she launches herself from the platform again, this time on a line about thirty degrees left of the bird in the decoys. She whines sharply, as if to say, “I know where the bird is, so why are you sending me this way?”
She passes twenty feet to the left of the dead widgeon, turning her head to look at it longingly as she swims by. I let her continue a bit further, and blow a short blast on the whistle. Immediately, she turns to face me, treading water and watching me expectantly.
“Back!” I cast again, extending my right arm over my head, angled slightly to the right. Obediently, she turns again, swimming in the direction I pointed. Thirty yards further, and she veers off the line slightly and seems to hit another gear. She’s seen the duck.
“God, I love watching that dog work,” comes Paul’s voice from behind me, his voice almost reverent. “She’s…perfect.”
“Yeah,” I reply softly without turning, trying not to lose sight of her through the trees, “that she is.”
“Remember when we were kids, when your dad would take us hunting? Or all those times we hunted the potholes without a dog?” he continues. “Or hunting with that chocolate lunkhead Jason used to own? All those times, I thought that was duck hunting. It wasn’t. That was just…shooting ducks. This is duck hunting.”
He gets it. Maybe he isn’t just a shooter, after all. Now he just needs to learn how to call.
Sprite eventually finds the duck and turns back. I can’t see her, but she’s making that peculiar snorting sound that comes from breathing around a mouthful of duck feathers. Presently, I can see her wake spreading behind her through the water, and her head appears as she clambers over a log.
“Not even seven o’clock, and four birds in the bag,” Paul observes. “Not a bad start to the morning. So what’s for breakfast?”
Rolling my eyes, I nod at my blind bag. “Hot chocolate in the thermos, and goodies in the bag. Help yourself.”
“Mucho grassy ass,” he grins as he rummages greedily through my bag. He passes me a honey bun and a cup of hot chocolate, and we lean against my tree and silently watch the rising sun filter through the trees as we eat. Though the air is full of ducks, none of them are low enough to be of interest. Huge chevrons of migrating birds, pushed south by the approaching cold front. They’re so high, they oughta be wearing oxygen masks.
“So when do the rest of the ducks show up?” Paul wants to know.
“Give it time,” I advise. “Mallards are late risers. Kinda like you.”
“So give those ducks a holler,” he suggests, pointing straight up.
“Those ducks?” I snort derisively. “Paul, those ducks are so damned high, they’re not even worth paying attention.”
“Give ‘em a holler anyway,” he urges. “Let’s hear the old Stuttgart highball.”
“Dude, that’s contest calling, and it sounds like a duck about like Sir Mixalot sounds like Bocephus.”
“Do it anyway,” he challenges, “That is, unless you’re chicken.”
Shaking my head resignedly, I take a deep breath, and cut loose with a long, eleven-note hail call, a series of notes that sounds like a duck to the uninitiated, but one that no duck makes in the wild. The effort leaves me breathless, and I take the call from my lips and take a sip of hot chocolate. “There,” I start to say, “are you satis-“
“Mother of God,” Paul breathes, staring at the sky. “Look at that.”
I look up, and several chevrons of flight ducks have broken up, swarming chaotically in the sky like a cloud of gnats. As I stare in wonder, they wheel about, circling and losing altitude.
Jesus. Don’t tell me I had something to do with that.
“Hit ‘em again,” Paul says, still staring awestruck at the sky. I consider telling him to put his head down, but I’m not sure ducks that high can even see a white face, much less be frightened by one.
I raise the call to my lips and call again, a six-note hail call this time, trying to make the notes raspy and insistent, like a bossy old hen demanding that they drop lower. Amazingly, the entire flock cups its wings and sails, rocking from side to side as they sideslip to lose altitude. More are above and behind them, doing the same thing.
“I ain’t believing this,” Paul exults as he wades quickly back to his tree. He pulls his cap low over his eyes and lowers his head, watching the wheeling flocks of birds without moving his head, looking for all the world like a demented Jack Nicholson as he rolls his eyes this way and that.
For the next twenty minutes, ducks rain from the sky. Flocks of twenty to thirty filter through the trees, sometimes alighting in the decoys for minutes at a time. Thousands more are stacked up at different altitudes, like airliners in a holding pattern at a busy airport. I’ve never seen anything like it. I only call sporadically, but when I do, the ducks wheel about as if I had them all on a string. By unspoken accord, neither Paul nor I shoot, and instead watch the show.
And a show is exactly what it is. God’s pageantry on display.
Several large groups of mallards have settled in the woods nearby, and the hens have added their voices to the mix. I’m competing with real ducks now. After watching perhaps a thousand ducks pass within shooting range, I look over at Paul, and he just shakes his head in silent wonder. I make a crooking motion with my trigger finger, and he nods in agreement. We’ll take the next couple of groups that we can decoy into range.
We’ll have to. My dog is about to have a stroke watching all this.
I scan the wheeling flocks, and focus on a group of twenty or so a couple hundred yards downwind of us. I raise the call and blow a staccato, insistent series of notes – a comeback call. As if I had commanded them telepathically, they wheel in unison and lock their wings, gliding into the wind as they approach our decoys.
I turn my head and hiss to Paul, “Big bunch on the left, cupped and sailin’. Get ready.” I wait until the stragglers have their feet out, committed to landing, before I push away from the tree. I can hear Paul’s sweet sixteen already barking as I shoulder my 870.
There, a drake just getting out of the decoys.
I watch him rise, my barrel almost languidly tracking him. Water droplets cascade off his feathers as he claws for altitude, and my 870 bucks. I watch barely long enough to see him tumbling over backward, as I shift to another target.
Drake, right over the edge of the spread, going away and rising. Take him now.
My 870 bucks again, and the drake folds, splashing into the decoys a second after the first. I lift my head from the stock slightly, looking for targets, and spot yet another drake rising above the treetops. A glint of silver flashes around his left leg. By the time I get on him, he’s tall, but still reachable. I shoot my last round, and see him stagger.
Damn. I shouldn’t have lifted my head.
“That one’s wearing a Rolex!” Paul hoots, and I watch helplessly as he climbs out of range, wounded but still healthy enough to escape. A full second later, Paul’s sixteen barks again, and the drake folds.
Damn, that was a nice shot. That duck had to be sixty yards.
I say as much to Paul, and he grins proudly. “Did you see the band?” he asks, excited.
“Yep. That’s why I was shooting at him.”
“You hit him. He was wounded when I shot,” Paul offers. “I’ll flip you for the band.”
“Nah,” I shake my head, “your shot put him on the water. The band belongs to you. That’s the tradition.” Actually, there’s no such tradition, so far as I know. But I have duck bands, and Paul doesn’t.
He does a quick count. “Five ducks out of that volley. Not bad shootin’!”
“Not bad at all,” I agree, and send Sprite for the first bird. She picks up all five birds in short order, pausing only long enough to deliver the bird and lock onto the next duck. All I do is take the birds, give her the release command, and hang the ducks on the strap.
“She’s like a machine,” Paul chuckles, then does into a credible Michael Biehn impression. “The Duck Terminator, a cyborg. Cybernetic organism. She doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or the pain of having icicles hanging from her nipples…and she will not stop – EVER! – until all the ducks are retrieved.”
I laugh aloud at the thought, inadvertently blowing my whistle a bit, causing Sprite to turn around in mid-swim. “Good girl,” I call to her. “Back!” She yips in frustration, and resumes her retrieve.
When she comes back, she’s carrying a hayseed brown duck from Paul’s side of the decoy spread. I take the bird from Sprite and toss it to Paul. “Here you go, hen shooter,” I call sarcastically. “I believe that one belongs to you.”
Paul gives me the finger as he reloads his gun, and I chuckle as I watch the ducks mill about in the sky. Our volley rousted those who had lit in the woods, and now they were wheeling around, looking for a place to rest and feed. I watch them over the steam rising from my cup, and whisper quietly to my dog.
The rest of the morning was anticlimactic, if the best day I’ve ever had duck hunting can be described as such. We killed our limit on the very next volley. Twelve birds killed with only fifteen rounds expended, and we were loading the boat by eight o’clock. There have been days before and since when I’ve killed many more ducks, but never a day so perfect as that one. Both of us hated for it to end, and so we drug our feet, taking the time to pick up our empty hulls floating in the water, lingering over the last of the hot chocolate and snacks before we finally clambered back into the boat.
All the while, birds were wheeling overhead, cupped and sailing until they were right on top of us. Some of them would land and swim around in the decoys. Others swam off through the trees. To this day, I can still picture it; shafts of sunlight filtering through the pin oaks, and swarms of mallards weaving through the branches, iridescent green heads shining in the sun as if the paint God had decorated them with was still wet. Their wings roared like a distant roll of thunder.
On the trip back to the landing, everywhere we looked, we could see ducks working. The crowd on Frank LaPierre Creek and the bean field was still hammering away. I wouldn’t be surprised if every hunter on the river had shot their limit that day, but I doubt that any of them had been privileged enough to see what Paul and I had seen. At least, I hoped they hadn’t.
Later, back at my kennels, Sprite and I dozed on the couch after a lunch of duck fajitas. The phone rang, and I answered on the third ring, “Chauvin Kennels.”
“Where have you been?” my girlfriend demanded. “I’ve been calling you all morning! You didn’t even answer your truck phone!”
“Paul and I went duck hunting,” I explained.
“God, I don’t know what you get out of stand around in freezing water before the crack of dawn, just for the chance to shoot a few stupid birds! It was twenty degrees at ten o’clock this morning, did you know that?”
“Honey,” I smile patiently, “you just wouldn’t understand.”
“Whatever,” she snorts dismissively. “Are you coming over tonight?”
“Yeah,” I answer, “but I can’t stay too late. It’s supposed to be even colder tomorrow.”