The Duck Hunt
by John Fern

It was back in 1982.  I had been laid off from my job due to the poor state of the economy.  Normally, I worked on week-ends but since I had some extra time on my hands, my Father invited me along for a duck hunt. I hadn't been for quite some time.

Growing up in Minnesota, it used to be a regular event,  but as I got older, the job would take precedence over old pass-times.

"I don't know if I can find my gear," I said. "I think it's buried in the basement somewhere."

"Oh, heck, just bring your gun! I've got enough gear for an army," he told me.

"Let's do it!"  I said, making a mental note to check the barrel of the gun and possibly pick up a gun-cleaning kit, along with some shells.

"Great!" he said. "And I've got plenty of shells so don't worry about that." He told me, reading my mind.  "Swing by here early and we'll make a day of it!"

We rolled down that old country road that was so full of ruts and holes, I thought the transmission was going to fall out.  When he spotted the marker he was looking for, we drove down onto a dirt road that would have been invisible to anyone who didn't know it was there. I could just barely make out the water in the distance as he shut off
the engine.

"We'll have to wait a bit," he said, going through the shells before handing me a box.

Finally he said, "It's time," as he grabbed his hip waders from the back seat of the car and looked over to make sure his 12-guage was still leaning against the back of the old Plymouth.

We didn't want to head down to the pond too early.  The trick was to put out the decoys and be back in the blind just before we could legally shoot.  He pulled on his hip waders and grabbed a small duffel bag that he had picked up at an Army surplus store.  It contained our Thermos of coffee, some sandwiches and a couple of donuts.

"Got this for fifty cents!"  He'd brag, holding up the ratty duffel bag.  Most of his hunting gear had come from Army surplus stores. That and garage sales, thrift stores and estate sales.  Except the clothing and supplies that he had kept over the past fifty years since he had started hunting as a boy.  And the old Remington pump-action.  It had belonged to his Father.

I used an automatic but he could work that pump just as fast as mine would put another shell in the chamber.  And his never jammed.  He had been using it since he was a kid hunting during the day while his Father worked.

Back then, it was the cheapest way to put food on the table. You made your shots count because shells were expensive.  You couldn't afford to be sky-blasting at a duck that was out of range. You waited until you knew you could drop it; and retrieve it before you squeezed the trigger.  One duck.  He acquired those skills at an early age, and never lost them.

He would voice his obvious disgust at the hunters across the lake that would start shooting long before the ducks were even close to being in range.  "Those dang sky blasters!"  He'd say. "What the heck are they shootin' at?!"

"Well Dad, that's what happens when ya start hittin' the beers before sunrise." I'd add.    He'd shake his head in disbelief;  looking in the direction of their blinds.

"There's just no excuse for that! It doesn't help our chances at all, if the ducks are afraid to land." Sometimes that was the effect, but in all fairness to the 'sky blasters',  there were other times that those scared ducks would turn, and fly our way; where we were more than happy to accommodate them.

We carried the duffel bag, our guns and a sack of decoys down to the bank, where our transportation was waiting for us, tucked in among the rushes. I felt the vast depths of the sludge and slime sucking my feet down as I trudged out onto the bogs before I got a hand on our duck-boat.  I climbed into the unstable craft and out of the ooze.  I slung the bag of decoys at the head of the boat, and  took my seat.

My Father climbed into the back and using the duck-bill push stick, launched us out into the murky water under the cover of darkness.  It was a nice, cloudy morning.  Even a little moist but not enough where we'd have to wear rain gear.  Just right  for the ducks to fly low, and slow.

He rowed the old boat slowly out into the pond like we were Navy Seals embarking on a mission.  All that was missing was our camouflage face-paint.  The boat may have been old but he kept it in good shape.  Any paint that had peeled or rusted would be restored to its original condition before opening day. You could bet your bottom dollar on that.  A month before the season would start, he'd start preparing all the necessary gear and equipment.  I think this was half the fun.

"Start throwing the dekes out."  He'd whisper.

I'd pull the first one out of the old gunny sack;  unravel the anchor from around its neck, and toss it a few feet from the bow.  The sound of the first decoy hitting the water was music to my ears. KER-SPLOOSH!

After that,  the rest had to be strategically placed, so that any respectable duck wouldn't notice something amiss, and decide to set down somewhere else.

It was quite a collection of decoys he had amassed over the years.  Some were in pretty rough shape.  Bee bee holes in the heads from when we were taking shots at the hell-divers that were flying over the decoys so low to the water that there were bound to be some casualties. Others had bills that had to be re-attached from rough use or just getting old.  He'd pick up new ones along the way but all in all, it was a collection of six or seven different models.

When the work was done,  we'd head back into the rushes as quietly as we had gone out. After pulling the boat up on shore, throwing some gunny sacks over the front of the blind for better cover and parking our tired behinds on a campstool or an old log that some busy beavers had been kind enough to leave for us,   Dad would say,  "Well, I think a little hot coffee would go down good, right about now!"

"Amen to that!"  I'd say approvingly.  Just seconds after he'd fish that old Thermos out of the sack and pull the cork, the smell of the strong coffee would drift my way.   He'd  pour us both a cup, and hand mine over.

I drink a lot of coffee at home and at work but never does the joe taste better than when you're sipping it from a plastic, thermos-cup, in front of a pond, on a cold morning, sitting in a duck blind waiting for shooting time to start.  This is when all is right with the world.

When the time came, we'd start scanning the skies for ducks.  Take a peek out among the decoys from time to time just in case, a loner had swam into the bunch, without you noticing. 

The occasional shot heard around the farms near by let you know that ducks were in the area. You could feel the skin on your neck getting sore brushing up against the heavy collar of your duck-coat as you looked from left to right, then right to left, then back out across the pond. You didn't want to get caught off guard and miss the perfect opportunity to draw a bead.

But as the morning wore on and maybe a little sun would break through the clouds, your mind would start to drift and in no time at all, you'd be contemplating the beauty of nature.  The combination of the open land, the endless sky and sparkling water rolling up onto the rushes, gave you a new appreciation that filled up the senses and left you feeling more alive than ever.

"Even if I don't get a shot in all day, I still love to hunt."  My Father would tell me at least once on every trip.  "It's something that I've always enjoyed since I was a boy."

We'd shoot the bull for a while.  Talk about past hunting trips.  This generally led to the great 'Armistice day' storm that had caught everybody off guard back in 1940.

"The temperature dropped like a rock and the blizzard hit with a fury. We barely made it out of there in time but a lot of hunters that were snowed in,  froze to death."

I could see it in his eyes when he told me that story, that even though he had an overwhelming appreciation of the beauty of nature, he also had a deep respect for what it was capable of.

Even though he didn't mind leaving empty handed,  I did.  I wanted my limit!  And if I couldn't get my limit, I would settle for a duck.  And if worse came to worse, at the very least, I wanted to get a shot off at a passing teal.

He would say, "Look at the bright side, we don't have to clean any!"  Or being the eternal optimist, if we didn't even get a shot off, he'd say, "Hey, now we don't have to clean our guns!"

But, more often than not, we'd bag our limit.  He'd stash them in the back of his hunting jacket. The big mallards would be bulging out the sides making him look like Harpo
Marx after he'd stashed a set of pots and pans in the pockets.

Once,  a duck regained consciousness after he'd stashed it and began flapping its wings frantically.  He was reaching back trying to retrieve it spinning around in circles like a dog chasing his tail.  I laughed so hard I cried. 

When our day was done, we'd gather up the decoys, pick up our spent shells and make sure we hadn't forgot anything.  Once the guns were empty and cased, and the car was loaded, we'd stop and have a last look around.

"How about a beer?"  He'd ask, already pulling two of them out of the back.

"Well, if you're gonna twist my arm!"  I'd say.

"You did some mighty fine shootin' today, Son!"  He'd tell me, while handing me a warm beer.

"Thanks, Dad.  I learned from the best."

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© 2002 by John Fern. All rights reserved.

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