Birthday Ducks

Hunting and fishing is not for pessimists. Only an optimist can sit hour after hour freezing in a deer stand seeing nothing or cast a fly endlessly with no results. We optimistically believe that in the next moment game will magically appear or that a heavy trout will rise to our fly. People who grow up watching televised basketball on wet, cold and windy days regard people like me who prefer to be out duck hunting on those nasty days as more than a little insane. Of course, we in the Brotherhood know full well that the ducks fly best when the weather is worst. But, even that knowledge often isn’t enough to motivate the most ardent out of a warm snug bed at 0 dark 30 on a miserable morning.

It took a lot of optimism to pry my arse out of my warm comfortable nest when the alarm went off at 5 am on a Sunday in early November. It was tempting to roll over for some more blissful sleep before a nice brunch and the early NFL game on TV. But, I could hear the wind in the trees outside the bedroom and the rain on the window sounded like the ticking of a spasmodic clock. It then occurred to me that this was my 65 birthday. What better present could I give myself than a day of duck hunting? With a “What the Hell” I threw off the covers and stumbled down to the coffee pot.

After a hasty breakfast I tossed my trusty Remington, a bag of decoys and the rest of my gear into the Durango and headed off to the Club. The traffic was non-existent on this wet morning and the wipers beat a steady rhythm with my headlights boring into the murk. As I drove I realized that our season thus far had been a bust…. the worst in anyone’s memory. The weather had been hot and dry with clear calm days. The golfers, bikers and beach goers of Vancouver were happy but the members of our Club were not smiling. The opener and the subsequent weeks had produced more mosquitoes than ducks and the only good news was that I had missed most of it. I was out of town. My first outing had been a sunny Wednesday (we shoot Sat., Sunday and Wednesdays) and it had been painfully slow. A lot of hours for a couple of birds. I was beginning to wonder if the bird flu scare might be real after all.

When I arrived at the Club I was surprised to find I was alone. No one else had showed up, a highly unusual circumstance this early in the season. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. No matter. I slid into four-wheel drive and slowly negotiated the deeply rutted road out to the West side of the large paddy. After dumping my gear in one of the blinds and ditching the truck out of sight, I waded into the paddy and started tossing out the decoys. A few mallards had noisily exited the paddy when I waded out. Not enough birds to generate great optimism but, something. Our Club has two large paddies, flooded oat fields surrounded by low dykes. The water varies from knee to gonad deep and the big one is about 350 yds long and 150 yds. wide. The other that we flood later in the year is slightly smaller. Permanent covered blinds are built into the dykes on the east and west sides. It is, without a doubt, a great set up.

The rain had subsided into a steady drizzle driven by a brisk North wind… definitely a lousy day for golf. The sky began to brighten a bit as I settled into the blind and organized my gear… load the 870, dump some shells into my pockets, hang my duck calls around my neck and pour a cup of coffee from my thermos. I zipped up my hunting jacket and sat back to await the dawn. I kept expecting to see the headlights of someone else bouncing their way out to join me, being grateful I’d already put out the decoys. But, nothing. Just the wet, windy predawn and me.

Out of nowhere two mallards plopped into the convenient hole I left between the two pods of decoys (just like it’s drawn up in the “how to” books). I ignored them. Too early. I took a sip of my coffee and a puff on the first cigar of the day. Looking up I spotted a flock of a half dozen ducks ghosting over the decoys and with wings whistling they accelerated out of sight. Getting a bit anxious now, I stared at my watch. Five more minutes. Finishing my coffee I groped for my duck call as another flock hove into view. I could see the far side of the paddy now and my watch said it was time. I gave a hail call and a couple of quacks, twisting around to figure out where they had gone. Suddenly they were right over the decoys with wings set. Surprised, I jumped up, fired too quickly and missed. My second shot collapsed a mallard in the decoys.

As I retrieved the duck I looked back at my blind. The large bush on the right side of the blind blocked my view from that side. The ducks were landing into the north wind but they were not circling and checking things out as they usually do, they were diving straight in. Well, if they kept that up I wouldn’t see them until they were over the decoys. So be it.

In the next half hour I put four more ducks in the bag, three of them mallards and one pintail. Ducks were pouring into the paddy with the wind under their tails. I’d be watching one flock and another would dive into the decoys. I didn’t have enough eyeballs to keep up with the action. I was still alone and wishing someone else had shown up. With only three birds to go to my limit, I decided to shoot only mallards. That resolution lasted only five minutes until three widgeons came in perfectly. Right down the chute they came three abreast with wings set in a picture pretty enough to be in a duck painting. I rose to take the easy triple and call it a day. Two came down cleanly and I missed the third…. Cleanly. It was like blowing a two-foot birdie putt. Oh well, five minutes later I made a nice shot on a passing mallard and my bag was full.

I unloaded the shotgun, poured myself another coffee and lit a fresh cigar. With the rain pattering on the plywood roof of the blind and the mountains shrouded in mist in the distance, I watched flock after flock of ducks wheeling and landing in the paddy. “Not a bad birthday” I mused. I thought of all the friends, some duck hunters, some not who were no longer with me in this life. I thought of the young ones who had left their blood on the soil of Southeast Asia and the others taken too soon by cancer.

I remembered all the dogs that had graced my hunting days. How they would have loved this wet morning. Zeke was the best of them. An English setter and highly intelligent with an exceptional nose, he was incredible on pheasants. Zeke went duck hunting with me often. He liked the action but didn’t much care for the taste of ducks. A pheasant or grouse he would bring to my hand, but a duck was a different matter. Oddly enough, he would swim out to retrieve a duck but when his feet were on shore he would drop the duck at the waters edge and refused to pick it up again. It was a compromise I could live with. It was easy to imagine him sitting next to me in the blind, wet and shivering with his keen eyes scanning the sky. He would have loved this day.

I laughed as a flock of teal buzzed the decoys like a squadron of F-4s and wheeled in perfect formation at the far end of the paddy. I shook like a spaniel to chase the ghosts of old friends and dogs away. I dug a dry rag out of my pack and carefully wiped the rain from my 870. I had purchased the gun in the Navy Exchange in Little Creek, VA in 1965 when I was assigned to an outfit now called SEAL Team Four. The gun was like me, old and worn with quite a few dings, but still functioning. I slipped the 870 into the case, dumped the dregs of the coffee and tossed the butt into the bushes. I stood and stretched the stiffness out of my bum knee. “Happy Birthday you old fart” I mumbled. “Quit bitching. You’re on the right side of the grass. Go pick up the decoys”.

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