During the 2017-18 duck season, I crossed off a few bucket list items. I had always wanted to spend the numbers of days afield that a guide got to spend, full-time duck hunting, and getting paid to do it. I had guided many hunts before but never had I made it my full-time gig. This season, the stars aligned and I was able to take off for two months and do nothing but duck hunt for a living. I shared many a good day with many different kinds of people in the duck blind this year and overall it was very pleasurable. I highly doubt I will do that again. Apparently, I am a homebody and a family man; more so than I thought. I missed my family greatly. I missed hunting with familiar faces in familiar places. I missed being around the house in the growing Christmas tension awaiting the day of Christ's birth celebration. I came to realize that it may have been the last Christmas Katy was actually at home with us full time, and I missed it. I was home a good bit comparatively speaking, but I was gone more than I was home and that wore on me. God bless the over the road truck drivers and the guys on oil rigs and our precious military who go and sacrifice months, or years, at a time, away from their families. That is a tough sacrifice and I feel for them. Yet, I digress. The guiding business, although it was an easy job to love, is not likely in my future again. I was good at it. I had great feedback from my customers and everyone left very happy and spoke of coming back to me next year. In contrast to many others in the area, we consistently killed ducks in decent numbers as well. We had our days in which we struggled to get only a few, but almost every group had a good day that always seemed “to make it all worth it.”
Throughout the season, I hosted a few clients that had never duck hunted before. They were my favorites. It was wonderful to watch the beauty of the sport unveil itself to them little by little. Every aspect of duck hunting has a certain magic about it and it has a way of testing your steel. If it's not because of the cold, it's because of the work, the lack of sleep, or the ability to hit a target clumped with an ever-changing mass of other targets all moving with a certain grace at near 60 mph. The Magic starts in the predawn darkness, as you step out of the truck for the first time and the wind bites you. You can hear the cries of snow geese migrating overhead in the inky black sky. The wind is damp as you make your way to the edge of the water and headlamps pierce the dark in search of the blind. You look east and a thin pale line begins to appear on the horizon and you know time is racing you.
I am particular about my decoy spread. I stand there envisioning what it should look like and then, I begin the overhead swing of the first decoy and I throw the furthest decoys first. There is magic in the sound of that first decoy hitting the water. The Lab is usually standing near me and whines with anticipation at the tossing of each one. He knows the difference but he still watches me throw them and worries over them. The magic is in full swing.
As the light of morning increases ever so slowly the world around you begins to wake up. You may hear small birds begin to chirp or a field not far away laden with snow geese comes alive as they are disturbed and tens of thousands of geese lift into the predawn light. That faint light begins to burn orange and yellow and the reflections start painting their way across the water in front of you. As the last decoys are set and you make your way into the blind you can feel the light sweat you broke while attending to the final details. Before legal shooting light has arrived, you can hear the familiar sound of wing tips hissing rapidly overhead as the early risers check out what is making all the commotion on the water. Two ducks may swish into the decoy spread while you are climbing in and taking off the headlamp. For a brief moment they are trying to understand the depth of their mistake, so you pause, staring at them. It is still too early to shoot and in my opinion, it is always good luck to just watch the first ducks of the morning anyway, so you watch and it sinks into them, they have been terribly deceived. With a burst of energy, they break the tension of surface water and make for the sky. The Susie quacking loudly making known her disapproval of his decisions that brought them into such a predicament in the first place. In a second they are gone and you can finish getting ready for the morning. Somewhere down inside you, there is a warmth because of the connection you just made with a world wild and free. You have no idea where they came from or where they are going. They could have just landed from migrating all night. Just days ago they could have been leaving the vast prairies of Canada on the front of a winter storm. You may have been the first human eyes they ever looked into. Either way, they touch you. They draw up in you a desire to deeper understand the mysteries of migration, the wonderment of the wildfowl.
Duck Hunting demands a type of change in a person. I saw the Real Estate Broker who could speak with virtually anyone without the slightest bit of nervous energy, transform back to high-school giddiness with a touch of awe about the whole experience. He got it. He felt the magic. I witnessed a 70 something-year-old realize he had been missing something and felt a deep appreciation for having had the chance to gain new knowledge. I hosted a 12 year-old, eyes wide with intense focus as he watched his first slow flock of Speckle-bellied geese descend into decoys and the true joy as he hefted his first dead goose from the mouth of the lab after the guns spoke. I watched several very proud fathers smile as their son's lifted the morning's bag for photos knowing that these are times you simply cannot create sitting at home by the warm fire. Duck hunting proves something to you. Exactly what it proves is different for every person, yet everyone who experiences it goes away with a different type of satisfaction. That is what I call magic.
It changes the way a man views the world around him. Months later, that Real Estate broker will walk out of a lawyers office, after a long closing, feeling the stress of work and demands of the office on him. He will be halfway to his car in the late afternoon, the sun will be setting and he will hear the whistle of wings and his head will snatch around so he can get a glimpse of two mallards headed to the local park ponds. Last year he would not have heard it. No one else in the group will even notice. They may see his reaction, they may not. Deep in his soul, he will be taken back to the edge of the flooded field where the only sound he was waiting to hear was the unmistakable “shew shew shew shew shew” of wing tips. He will smile. He may even ask someone, “Did you see those ducks?” They will just give him a strange look and suggest to each other, later, that he is in bad need of a vacation. It's in him. He is ruined. Or simply modified. For the better, if you ask me. He will see movement in the sky that he has never noticed. He will hear the distant “heeronk!” of a Canada goose and take pause regardless of the importance of the immediate moment. Waterfowling takes you hostage.
There are those hunts that are like almost every other duck hunt. As a guide, some portions of it all become routine. There are magical moments in each and every hunt, however, some of the aspects wax mundane. Then, the extraordinary morning creeps up on you. Honestly, I was dreading it. The weather reported a crisp 20 degrees with a 20-30 mph wind. The system had been rolling along from Texas and Louisiana from the morning before with plenty of moisture in it smashing into frigid air directly from the north. It had dumped several inches of snow from the coast of LA and hadn't slacked for 24 hours. At 4 am the snow was beginning to layer the parking lot and we were layering cold weather gear. When we pulled out at 4:45 the roads were white save for two tire channels leading us out of town. The driving snow crossed the highway completely perpendicular to gravitational pull. I couldn't figure out how the snow was accumulating when nothing was actually falling down, it all seemed to just be blowing southward. Yet, the ground and the cars and the roads were covered well. Being from the south, we do not get to actually hunt while it is snowing very often. When it happens, it is always good. We turned north on county road 543 and the lights combined with the horizontal snow virtually blinded the driving. We crept the short distance to where we would disembark. Out in the country, away from the confines of buildings and assorted other breaks, the wind hit us with full force. There was a bite to it that challenged the heartiest of souls. The sleet and snow stung the face and found every crack in the insulated armor we had layered on earlier. The need for gloves was immediate, and not thin, warm weather gloves either. The best you have, dig em out and put em on. You wouldn't function well enough to shoot in short if you didn't.
I pulled on my waders adding another very sufficient layer to what already seemed enough clothes to render me useless. I slipped on my parka over my shoulders and knew that was only there until the shooting would start. I knew what we would be in for out there and I knew that any puddle duck wasn't going to be in the main line up for today. I began heaving down the sacks of decoys and told the guys, “Open em up, dig out the hens only, put the greenheads back in the bags. If you come across Gadwalls they will work too. Hen teal will do the trick as well. But, we don't need anything but darker decoys at this point. The Bluebills are gonna die today boys!”
I didn't know for sure that we wouldn't see anything but bluebills, but I knew enough about hunting catfish ponds in the snow that if there were ducks, they would likely be divers and although there was a chance of seeing some canvasbacks, bluebills were likely going to be the main course. They were. In the predawn light, they were skidding in behind me while I was setting the last of the dekes. We were on a dike of sorts, between two catfish ponds. The blind was originally facing north, halfway down the bank of the north pond. We quickly realized how futile that was going to be so we wrestled it 180 degrees to face the south pond. This put the blind very close to a corner on the south pond because it was only about half as large as the north pond. We utilized the corner well. Running a straight line of decoys parallel with the East bank of the pond I strung out about 11 decoys perpendicular to the face of the blind. I then created a second line headed out to the center of the pond from the southwest corner of the blind. From the blind I extended a line further with the use of about 14 dekes in a haphazard fashion about 30 degrees south/southwest creating a lopsided “V” of sorts. I then plopped a mojo right in front of the blind to give them a target to fly to. With the wind, the blocks danced wildly on the water. With the snow, seeing anything in detail was going to be difficult, even for the sharp eyes of waterfowl. I broke out my green wing teal call and pulled on the reed just a touch to get a little lower grunt out of it. “Burt..buurt..burt” it sounded great. The blind was too small for all 5 of us. I put them in the blind and slid over to the corner of the pond about 15 yards to their left and slightly in front of them. “Don't shoot me.” I flatly reminded them. “Shooting the guide is never ok.” I expelled some extra shells from my blind bag for quicker retrieval and I placed it behind where I would make my hide. I pulled some natural vegetation up from the soft, damp soil and began to place it all around me. I soon had a clump of reeds and grass that would easily disguise me as “edge of the pond overgrowth” and I sat back into my hole. Reclined against my blind bag, just under the edge of the bank, I quickly realized I could get real comfy in there. I knew for sure I was much warmer and more comfortable than my guests... but don't tell them! I laid my shotgun across me at an angle for quick access and I settled in for the show.
I would always allow my guests to make several shots before I started shooting. It is just bad business for the guide to kill the first ducks of the morning. However, it is not bad business to shoot ducks they cleanly miss. These boys were Ga duck hunters. They were not used to the flight of bluebills. They were not used to shooting in the snow. The first group ripped across and turned at us from 90 yards out and were on us so fast I am not sure anyone got their guns off safety. I do not recall if they got a shot off. I coaxed them to be ready. It was only a short while and a small group poured in from the left of us and as usual to bluebill flight they decoyed without hesitation. There was no “working” these birds. I hadn't even blown the call to either of these groups. They saw the imitations and must have guessed “these birds have something figured out” and poured right in. The snow and wind picked up and I wondered about how long it may take us to get back to town after this kind of snow storm. But we were committed now and the bluebills were flying so we would just have to deal with that when we got to it. The temps had dropped since daybreak and at times the snow and sleet were so thick we had a hard time seeing the ducks if they were beyond 50 yards. I called just in case they were out there and occasionally that seemed to work. For sound carrying purpose, I used my mallard call and about half the time I would let out a hail call and a minute or so later we had ducks close by. They didn't always come into the decoys but they were flying well that morning.
The group had managed to knock down a few by an hour after daybreak and I was thoroughly enjoying the show. I decided I would shoot at the next few groups and I positioned my self a little better to be ready. I shoot left handed so my location wasn't ideal so I twisted slightly to the left, leaning a little on my left leg. It wasn't long before I glanced out to the right to see a group of about 6 burning their way towards us. “Ducks!” I hissed in the loudest whisper I could muster. They banked and followed the southeast leg of deceivers right at the blind. They were not going to land on this pass and I knew they would never make a fly-by without being shot at with these boys. At 20 yards out I told the guys to kill them. Steel 3's flew wildly and ducks flared in all directions. I saw one fall off to the right of the blind. Two banked over the blind and then behind me to make their escape to the East. I rolled over on my left side raising the gun to my shoulder while in motion. Rolling off of my recliner I was now looking upside down, at the birds making haste to get away. Sight picture is still the same even when you're on your back and the gun is upside down. The trajectory of their flight demanded that I get a little below them and snap. The gun barked and luck collided with opportunity and the bluebill on the right folded. “Back!” I ordered Winston with a cool presence about me. The guys went nuts to see that shot and I acted like it was just ordinary, everyday business. On the inside, however, I was jumping up and down and screaming and hollering like a middle school girl. I will never make another shot like that, likely because that shooting scenario will never present itself again. Had I missed I would have laughed at myself for taking such an idiotic shot in the first place. Winston overshot the mark because for one, I think he couldn't believe that I had made that shot either and only half expected to actually find a dead duck out there. Secondly, because that duck fell about 80 yards to the left of us at the bank of a different pond. They were easily 50 yards out at the shot and the afterburners were glowing. I got up and directed him a little and he came back with a beautiful hen bluebill. Honestly, I couldn't believe I had connected on that one and to keep me humble the next bluebill that came in was directly overhead and wandering through the decoys lazily and I missed cleanly. In good fashion, my client cleaned up my poor shooting. He was easily the most beautiful lesser Scaup I had ever seen. I had gone there that morning with one goal. To kill a drake bluebill in the snow that was worth mounting for the sheer nostalgia of it and to somehow connect with one of my favorite stories from my all time favorite writer. I did not completely fulfill my bucket list desire. However, the next day, in the same blind, with all that freshly fallen snow on the ground, I cleanly killed the second most beautiful lesser scaup that I had ever seen. I will take that as “close enough for memory's sake” and never forget the two days we spent shooting bluebills in the snow.
I would be remiss to keep from you, some unforgettable passages of said story about shooting bluebills in the snow. I could only wish that I could share any idea with such mastery and eloquent usage of our language as does Gordon MacQuarrie. I will close this endless droll with a few quotes from the story which put that quest on my bucket list in the first place.
The Stage was set in Northern Wisconsin where two great friends had answered the call to hunt in the same kind of weather I described for you above. “We own this lake today. Even a duck hunter won't brave six below (and blowing snow) for a chance at ducks in this place.” The sun had risen to find ducks “skimming the horizon everywhere” and the two of them had begun plucking ducks from the onslaught of slashing, decoying bluebills. Following are some words of the work of arguably the greatest outdoor writer of all time. Penned in the 1930's, with incredible insight to conservation and the understanding of all things wild and free, especially the heart and soul of waterfowling. From volume 3 of The Stories of the Old Duck Hunters; Enjoy.
Long live the bleak bitterness of such a morning. Long live the memory of that churlish dawn. Ducks, of course, are the leading actors in the hunter's drama, but the setting is as important. The real duck hunter never lived who didn't thrill to his early-morning quest, who didn't know, standing there in a blind, that he was close to the heart of things. Let others lie abed and rise three hours later in the full light of day. The duck hunter, probing the secrets of a new day, sees the night retreat and nothing is so fine as daylight coming and night departing while wings overhead whisper the old and unsolved mystery of migration.
I pity the duck hunter who goes for ducks alone. I pity the duck hunter who has not filled his being with the dawn magic. I pity the one who cares not, or knows not, what he has killed....Certainly few, if any, of the outdoor sports can rival the dramatic zest of this game. Entirely aside from the immediate lure of this sport, which has to do with decoys, blinds and weapons, there is an extra urge that comes from the quest of birds of passage, flying from their northern homes to the smiling marshes of the southland.
City-worn folk with furrowed brows have heard this music, as has the rustic country lad, crouched on the edge of a marsh with his father's shotgun. There is a great deceit in duck hunting by which men count their sport in terms of “bag limits” and “good shooting.” (guilty) Be not fooled. These same men (the true duck hunters who get it) would greet the rising sun in season though they knew their chances of killing even a single duck were very, very poor indeed....
If I must choose among the sports that draw me into the open, it will be duck hunting. No other sport with rod or gun, holds so much mystery and drama. The game comes out of the sky. Perennial messengers to the south, the ducks bring to the gunner a sense of having had a part in the autumn pageant of migration.
With the peaceful beauty of a June trout stream, with the gentle silence of snow clad north woods in winter, with the warm brown fields of October, I have had much to do. But I have never been so caught up and carried away as when hunting ducks. I never wrote poem in my life. But if I do, it will be about duck hunting.
Never were there written better words describing what a snow-blown morning with recklessly-decoying bluebills will do for the soul of the true duck hunter. Let them all have their mallards and pintails. I will never say I don't enjoy shooting at them. But there is something completely different and special about squinting through the snow and watching those white breasted butterballs blaze through the teeth of the wind into your decoy spread. Something deeply satisfying about it all. Magic at its best.