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Duck Hunt; Mama Wants a Quacker

January 12, 2010

December 14, 2009

I’ve never had so much fun not catching anything. It was already pretty cold when we headed out for the evening shoot. Silk long johns, a pair of polar fleece pants, waders, a turtleneck, wool sweater, polar fleece vest, Carharrt jacket, fur hat, scarf and grandma-knitted fingerless wool gloves had me set for an arctic expedition. Traversing the windswept sand headlong into the nasty had me thinking it was going to be brutal. The sun was already sinking low, sending pink and lavender hues through the sky and ushering in an ever-colder evening. The sand swirled and attacked our legs, but we were geared up and ready for the assault.

On the way to the chosen spot we flushed a couple pair of black ducks and took a few unprepared long-shots into the wind that netted nothing but a feeling of hopefulness for the area. After a few more yards of trucking through waist-high grasses anchored in stinking, sucking mud, we jumped a pair of mergansers and Tony blasted two shots, sending one of the pair wobbling through the turbulent air. The duck fought the wind and the insult and carried on, flapping away to the safe interior.

We set up eight decoys, some hand-carved and some semi-valuable antiques and settled into the mud and reeds at the edge of the marsh. Tony assuaged my fears about using decoys that should be propped on a mantle or beam and ahhed over by explaining that they have to be used – they need the tales within their tails. My weapon was a Remington 1100 automatic shotgun holding three shells of number four shot, not exactly the high-velocity number two shot recommended in a recent edition of Field and Stream, but a good deal at the Goose Hummock Shop and I hoped close enough. My pocket was filled with more shells for re-loads. Crouched there on the damp ground we took to telling stories of duck hunts. There was the duck  perfectly nailed overhead that landed in the blind and the time a sharp-shooter loaded a slug into the gun and shot the head clean off a duck. And the time Tony took a black duck on his way to the blind, shot his limit of Canada goose from his spot and stopped at the beach on his way out to catch five or six stripers, one weighing 56-pounds, before heading home.

Relaxed as we were in the blast of cold, warmed by good company and good yarns, our eyes scanned the sky, looking for the sudden appearance of waterfowl. The first bird in range was nothing if not sudden in its presentation. It winged over from behind me, paying no mind to our exposed presence in the marsh, and by the time I wheeled around and got the gun out of the reeds and found the safety with a frozen finger it was gone. I cursed my lack of readiness and started playing with the safety and raising the gun to my shoulder, pressing my cheek to its cold stock and looking down the barrel at an invisible future kill.

For all you experienced skeet-shooters and duck hunters, let me explain, though I won’t win your admiration. I have spent exponentially more time shooting a compound bow than a shotgun. I’ve also spent more time with a pistol-grip crossbow, a 22-calibre rifle and even a handgun than a shotgun. I also have shot more mean games of pool than shells from a shotgun. I’ve never shot skeet, though getting into the rod and gun club to do just that has been on my ‘bucket-list’ for years. I was dreadfully unpracticed in the art required for this hunt. Just how unprepared I was became clearer as the day grew shorter.

Did I mention how much fun I had? Feeling little chill but the wind-burn on my cheeks and fingers, I happily inhabited the marsh, sometimes kneeling and searching for a duck coming in for the night and sometimes reclining into the relatively dry coffin created from laying flat the marsh grasses. After the colors in the sky changed a little, then a little more, as we weren’t keeping time, a pair of black ducks flew into the area following the same course as the one that got away. They were clearly eyeing the decoys. I told Tony to call them in and he obliged. It seemed to work. This time I was ready. I calmly raised the weapon to my shoulder and waited for them to come closer. When they looked like they were as near as they might get, I lowered the barrel and shot, watching sparks and the puff of gunpowder escape the gun in the foreground of my vision. The birds reacted, one seemed to careen, and without lowering the gun I blasted another shot – then another. One duck, the farther of the two, peeled off and flew for the distant flock already safely paddling around in the estuary. The other, the one I was aiming for, seemed to sputter and flap around before slowly following suit. How could I not have shot that duck?

Well for one thing, I aimed at it. I have heard and read over and over that you have to swing the shotgun and release the shell as you pass the duck. My difficulty illustrates my own lack of duck hunting savvy and the fact that hearing something or reading something sometimes does little to prepare you for the moment you inherit that role. All the careful visualizations and mental pre-game mantras fall flat in the face of inexperience. I’ve also never had to swing my bow.

Something else crossed my mind: how many ducks get hit by some pellets from that spray and wander off to die elsewhere – maybe soon and maybe later? I was assured that “when you really hit them they either drop or glide off and crash.” Logically, I’m not so sure about that. The many pellets in these shells create a wide pattern of impact, which widens as the distance to the target increases. How many pellets does it take to drop a duck, and where do those injuries have to occur for death, or loss of flight, to quickly follow? The waterfowl’s world suffers from an almost complete lack of medical care or intervention. A duck may well get hit and soldier on, only to encounter a scenario of declining health resulting in a shortened lifespan. These aren’t really things to discuss during the hunt, I assume, so I left it at the duck weirdly flying away to a great life of dabbling and preening, and I resolved even more to squarely nail any future targets.

With those three shots under my belt I was emboldened, feeling more comfortable with the shotgun and more willing to relax and take my time before shooting. I waited eagerly for another chance. It didn’t come easily. After the success in jumping, but not shooting, the first four birds, my mind wandered to the thought of stalking the marsh before the sun went down. Visions of Elmer Fudd danced in my brain. I retained faith in the decoys and held put. We chatted, the wind increased, the sun dropped precipitously lower and the temperature dropped with authority. We froze and waited for ducks. Finally, the sun disappeared without illuminating any more ducks, so we headed into the wind again to retrieve the decoys and pack them away for another day. We sat in the marsh for a minute, tempting fate and readying for the walk to the buggy. Just then a solitary duck came flying crazily toward us from the opposite direction of our previous shots. We crouched and I readied the gun telling Tony, “Call it in, call it!” He called, it came and I waited until it was close, but not overhead. Bang! Bang! Bang! That duck stopped still in mid-air, turned on a dime and started high-tailing it out of there on the first shot, but I followed it with two more. Well, it didn’t drop. It just headed off, low and steady, and disappeared.

We marched back through waist-high grass, sinking in mud in some places and cracking through hard ice in others. We found pot-holes, two, where the first jumped ducks must have alighted from, and we are ready to jump those spots in the future – if I can get grandma to babysit for this tomfoolery again. (I think grandma would have been more encouraged had we come back with something, but isn’t that the sportman’s rub?) By the time we made it to the 4X4 we were deeply chilled, but cheered from the thrill of a fun hunt featuring plenty of action and the great relief of finding that one low tire still holding onto some air for the off-road travel home.

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