Bradley Carleton, Contributor
The dawn is cloaked in the darkness of the wetland grasses. Oak trees and swamp maples can barely be made out against the faint moonlight of the horizon. Something splashes in the pool in front of the duck blind. A beaver slaps his tail on the surface, triggering an owl to hoot from its perch on a distant pine.
My duck-hunting partner, John, hunkers down in the corner of the blind, savoring a cup of hot espresso from his aged thermos. I can smell the sweet smoky fragrance, and I pick up my own thermos to toast the season. Without speaking we clink cups. Mine is French roast with a spoonful of maple syrup. We grin like two 10-year-olds.
As the eastern horizon begins to display a dark hue of purple filtering into a sage green, we hear the whispering of wing pinions in the black sky above us.
I stand up abruptly in the blind and something hits me in the forehead, hitting the brim of my camo baseball hat and throwing it to the floor of the blind. The aerial projectile continues its trajectory and squeals a loud “peeeep!” “Did that just really happen?” I ask John. “I do believe that you have just been hit by a teal in fighter jet formation.” I reply “Well I’m glad he didn’t hit me square between the eyes! We’d have both been hurting!”
More wing beats penetrate the sounds of dawn. Small difficult-to-see objects whip down the watery corridor in front of the blind. We peer out of the cattails that camouflage the platform.
As the light begins to build behind the trees to our east, we can begin to identify the birds as teal. “In the decoys!” John whispers loudly.
I take a deep breath and speak in a complementary whisper, “Ten more minutes!”
The next ten minutes bring building anticipation, our hearts racing with excitement. More birds pile into the decoy spread and start quacking and peeping. A wood duck’s “wooooeeek” squeals in the waning darkness above.
We can now see the ripples in the water in front of the blind.
“One more minute,” I say. “Remember, no shooting on the water. Let ‘em flush when we stand up.”
John and I share a desire to respect our prey. Neither one of us enjoys seeing an animal suffer. It is paramount to us to make good, clean, quick kills. Shooting a bird on the water rarely results in a responsible kill.
“Ready?” I ask.
“On the count of three. One… Two… Three.”
We stand up, shotguns shouldered, peering down our barrels at a couple dozen waterfowl targets—none of which seem to mind that we are standing there.
“What the h***!” I shout. Still nothing. The greenwing teal, wood ducks and a sprinkling of immature mallards keep swimming around, dabbling in the weed beds and generally showing callous disregard for our presence.
Gunfire from across the swamp finally rallies them to jump into the air, all at once, spinning in a dozen different directions at once.
John swings his gun to the right and I to the left, trying to pick out one target at a time. But the swarm of confusion throws us both off. It’s just too much! Birds are flying every which direction and we are trying to be conscious of our own shooting lanes.
After a long pause the birds are all gone.
We look at each other and start to laugh.
“Why didn’t you shoot?” we ask each other at the same time.
“Too many birds.” “None of the birds I was leading went where they were supposed to go!”
As we stand in amazement, embarrassed by our overly respectful concern for staying within our safe shooting zones, a big greenhead mallard drifts into the spread and plops down in the center and begins quacking loudly as if to laugh at us.
“Take ‘em!” I say to John. “No! You take ‘em!” “You’ve got the better shot,” I reply. Before he can shoulder his gun, the bird has flown out of range.
Now, if you think that John and I are poor duck hunters, you haven’t seen the pictures in our scrapbooks or read our journals from past seasons.
Maybe we’ve just gotten to point where respect for safety and being able to laugh at our follies are sufficient entertainment.
Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature and raises funds for Traditions Outdoor Mentoring, which mentors at-risk young men in outdoor pursuits.