November 13, 2019

For me, duck hunting is royalty at its finest—kings, queens, and princes taking to the sky, painting the air with their finery. The obsession started for me 40 years ago when my father suggested I draw a duck. Ducks were always around our house, not live ones, but an extensive collection of vintage decoys. The madness was solidified when I was 10 and whiffed on a bull pintail drake that showed up in a flooded corner of a cornfield during, of all things, a December dove hunt. He hung there deceptively, counter-rotating his wings, long tail extended, neck craned and looking at me. I still see him decades later. He haunts me. I hate him and love him at the same time.

You see, I don’t really know that much about duck hunting. What I do know is that it’s simply awful. I also know that I’ll never give it up. If you are looking for insight or instruction, you might as well stop reading now; I can name a lot of folks who can help you with that. What I do know is this: I like the feel, and I like all the pretty colors, sounds, smells, weather, water, boats, guides, gear, blinds, pits, decoys, and dogs. I like the loose edges like in a Chet Reneson painting or in the words of the late, great Gene Hill “just being there.”

Duck hunting to me is so much more than duck shooting. And duck shooting is not duck hunting; those who know, well, they know. Duck hunting is time, money, and effort. It’s hours, days, and weeks spent scouting and driving around “looking.” It’s trying to bribe the pilot of a small plane to fl y even lower so my partner can coordinate locations on a map, and I can take pictures of a swamp (pre-Google Earth). It’s leaving the house at 3:00 a.m. to get to that swamp, sweating out every set of headlights or truck you see. It’s dragging a boat full of cork decoys a mile into said swamp. It’s the fleeting reward of decoying the king (more on him later) and the prince (back to the pintail) into that hole and making the shot. It’s losing a friend whom you later took into that swamp after swearing them to secrecy. It’s the endless piles of decoys and gear and the ongoing quest for the perfect duck gun. It’s opening and locking gates, dirt roads, causeways, dikes, water control structures, mud, cedar and pine branches, palm fronds, corn stalks, and phragmites. It’s farms, barns, sheds, tractors, four-wheel drive, and ATVs. It’s a 4:00 a.m. drive through a small town whose Christmas lights are burning brightly on the street lamps.

It’s Rose Bay oysters and countless Bojangles' drive-throughs, convenience stores and gas stations, clogged pores from face paint, fever blisters from wind, sunburnt lips, and too little sleep. It’s road trips to Maryland, North Carolina, Mississippi, and wherever. It’s driving 13 hours and shooting nothing and driving 20 minutes and shooting a limit. It’s gamelands, WMAs, and private impoundments. I don’t ever want to know the ratio of time and money spent to ducks actually bagged; it's financially irresponsible. It’s girlfriends who don’t understand but a wife who does. Duck hunting is indeed a fickle mistress. I own two sport coats and one suit but six duck jackets of varying description in which to court the fickle mistress.

It’s the slam of the bolt or the shell-seating rack of automatic and pump duck guns, the reassuring chuckle of a feed call, the pleading cadence of a goose call, the rattle of lanyards and pockets heavy with red, green, and black shells, the smell of a fi red magnum shell, the stench of a swamp, salt marsh, your waders, or an excited wet dog. It’s a cold pit or frozen blind. It’s windy, cold, and wet. It’s snowing, not cold enough, not cloudy enough, not sunny enough, not windy enough. It’s copperheads and spiders in a blind, alligators in a swamp, mosquitoes in your ear, too much or not enough water, rain, fog, ice, and more. It’s the hope and promise of the right amount of rain in Canada and the northern plains where the genesis takes place every spring. It’s the fall, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and cold January. It’s a constant state of complaining intertwined with eternal optimism. This will be the day, the season, the year. . . .

It’s season openers and splits.

It’s spirited debate over the morality and nuances of baiting. It’s making sure you have it all in order when you get checked. And you’d better, because you will get checked.

It’s going on January 1 and passing the pretty girls in black dresses and coats carrying their heels and swaying a bit as they are coming home at 3:00 a.m. while you are leaving at 3:00 a.m. and your friend saying we are indeed the idiots.

It’s life advice, lessons, downright gossip, and politically and socially incorrect conversations in a blind. It’s three generations of family sitting on a bench in a goose pit. It’s a glimpse into a different time and generation and those who have moved along, in this world and the next. It’s guides who have no filters and to whom you have to prove that you can shoot a duck or goose and not them, their decoys, or their dog. It’s quick mathematical equations of limit calculations and statements such as “get right,” “stay still,” “behind the blind,” “out front,” “shoot the cripple,” “what are you doing?” “do you have shells in your gun?” “did you drive 10 hours to come up here and miss?” and on, on, and on. It’s the dreadful and heartbreaking click of a shell not fi ring when the goose turns into the wind, drops his feet, and sets up 20 yards out on your side and you know you are right; he looks at you and you at him. It’s the guide smirking and laughing at you and calling you an unprintable name. It’s then and there deciding you need to buy yet another gun. It’s that same guide running across a field to chase down a winged and running cripple. It’s you giving that same rotund guide a fresh bottle of liquor every year. It’s dreading the season closing before it’s even over and yet wishing it would mercifully end so you could just quit going. It’s friends, relatives, sons, daughters, and wives in blinds. It’s being in one state when you thought you were in another. It’s the guide saying emphatically we need to leave now. It’s otters, deer, beavers, and redfi sh swimming in the decoys. It’s watching your son and his friends going through the same metamorphosis you did 30-some years ago and becoming more rabid about it than you once were. It’s sunrises, sunsets, and the eternal mystery of the full moon.

Regretting your choice of menu and perhaps refreshment the night before, regretting your choice of waders or clothing, regretting leaving your wife in bed, regretting you ever started duck hunting in the fi rst place, regretting your last shot, regretting your partner’s calling ability, regretting having to share a blind with someone who will shoot over you and not respect the code, regretting the last day of the season, regretting the fi rst day of the season, regretting your choice of knots as the canoe slides around on the roof racks.

Then there are the birds, the true royalty of the avian world. The unified knots of teal, the jet-like roar of diving ducks over the decoys, the neck-craning, all-seeing, and knowing gaze of a pintail or black duck circling before deciding to break off and disengage because you probably did something wrong or stupid or moved, the piercing scream of a wood duck in a beaver swamp, the chortle of mallards, the cats-meow of swan, the air-ripping sound of wings over you two minutes before it’s legal, and the geese. There is no sound like the sound of a wild goose in flight or thousands of them on the wing and the moving with purpose. It’s the thunk of a big goose hitting the dirt in a cornfield or the splash of a folded duck. And there is the gauzy feather fall when you, the decoys, and the gun do their part and all connect. The floating sculpture of good decoys. The magical combinations of letters and numbers that make up the legendary duck guns: A5, M12, M21, 870, 1100, Super 90, M2, and SBE 1, 2, and 3. And the grand payoff in the form of the sound of cast iron, olive oil, and breasted duck. . . .

And then there’s the part about the king and queen and all the pretty colors. Red, white, blue, and black. Not camouflage. Red was the color of the spent magnum duck shell that I put my hoped-to-soon-be fiancée's engagement ring in. I found that shell rattling around in the bed of my truck. It still hangs on our Christmas tree every year. White was the underlying color of my mud-encased Chevrolet truck with a duck boat sticking out of the back, double-parked in front of the jeweler’s. Black, the Eastern Black Duck that, in my opinion, is the king of all ducks; their plumage has the subtle colorings and hues that exceed description (my deepest apologies to the King Eider and the Canvasback). He was resting comfortably in the bed of the truck with the spent shells and the duck boat.

Blue was the color of her eyes. . . .

She said yes for some inexplicable reason, and here we are, 22 years and seasons later, and now we have our own 19-year-old duckaholic.

So, on that cliché-filled bitter December day, I killed the king, drove several hours in a windshield-warmed daze, and crowned my queen. I also left my gun leaning against the tire of my truck; intelligence has never been one of my stronger qualities. Hence the duck hunting nonsense.

If you want advice on where to go and how to call, set decoys, train a dog, or improve your wingshooting, I can off er no advice; I’m bad at all of them. If you want somebody to just go along, I can probably help you with that. I’ll get up, gear up, and meet you at the appointed time and place, and I’ll be on time.

The last time I duck hunted this past season, I tagged along with my son and his best friend. I had the opportunity to witness those young guys work a fl ock of nervous birds that ultimately broke off . It was a cold, sunny bluebird day. Didn’t fire a shot. But, I got to look at all the pretty colors as wings and plumage hovered, hesitated, and fl ashed by just barely out of range. We were duck hunting.

Written by David Sewell

Sporting Life