I probably should have been more up front about the duck hunting potential my great state offers. Anyone that hasn’t hunted here probably wouldn’t understand the great task that it is to find an area with great potential and low pressure. In fact, it is probably more correct to call that scenario nirvana, left solely for the elite or the rich, to which I am neither. Let it be said that I make no great claims to be the best of hunters. My wife even jokingly ordered me a shirt that reads, “World’s most average hunter”, which suits me perfectly. I am neither great, nor am I horrid. I am persistent. So I apologize if you entered into this expecting some great tales like the ones of Buckingham and MacQuarrie. I can offer you nothing in comparison. I can, however, offer up something even sweeter than stories of large flocks of ducks, even better than tales of perfect scenarios. I will attempt to give you the rationale of why I do this, why I continue to wake up before the sun, why the most difficult hunt is sometimes the sweetest.
-Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016-
- 31 degree low
- Light East wind
- Sunrise 6:59am
The season has been in for 4 days now and this will be my 3rd hunt of the year. The small one man boat was loaded into the back of the truck the night before. My shell bag and gun are by the door when the alarm goes off at 3:45am. Even though I have been getting up this early for 5 days in a row now, it still hasn’t gotten any easier. This morning will bring the coldest temperatures yet, 31 degrees, chilly conditions for a southern fellow like myself. I slide into insulated pants, a merino wool undershirt and a heavy over shirt. I will save the jacket until I am set up.
The drive is relatively short for a duck hunting trip, 30 minutes over to the farm, through the gate and to the back of Papa’s land, closest to the river. The dashboard clock reads 4:45am when I put the truck in park at the far edge of a small food plot. The one man boat is brought down from the truck and loaded down with a few decoys, the gun, seat and paddle. My shell bag is packed with some water, shells, and my large over coat stuffed in the top. I lift the front end of the boat by its carry handle and point my headlamp into the wood line in front of me.
Inside the tree line, I play over the route to the river in my head. It has been a couple years since I had made the walk back to the river from this spot. Even though several floods have happened since my last trip, I was confident in my plan. I would walk straight in through the trees, come to the first creek bed and follow it past a fork and be at the river in less than 400 yards or so, I imagined.
The boat was heavy but manageable. It was important to follow trails wide enough for the little one man and I. The headlamp would only reveal a small tunnel of travel, the edges of light quickly eaten up by the dark shadows beyond its limitations. I ran into dead end trails often. Once I reached the creek, I tried to float the boat rather than carry it but the muddy bottom was more exhausting than dragging the boat. I made it to the bank, lifted the nose again, and continued on. I did my best to stay just to the right of the creek, but an occasional fallen tree or tangle would put me off course. The walk seemed further than I originally thought. Blaming it on the weight of the boat, I trudged on.
Just a few short minutes in and I was breaking one of the cardinal rules of cold weather survival and I knew it. I could feel it running down my back, making my wool shirt cling to my skin. I was sweating, from my shoulders down to my socks. Fortunately for me, the weather outside wasn’t severe enough to threaten my life but it was cold enough to make me miserable when it was time to stop moving around. I took a quick pause to remove my toboggan and change hands on the little boats handle. My right forearm was burning from gripping and pulling at the boat for so long. “Just up ahead”, I thought, “There’s no way it could be much further.” So I pushed on making a special point in my mind to not even consider consulting the gps on my phone for some direction.
I walked through a few more feeder creeks and over a few tangles of briars and washed up debris. I stopped more often now to catch my breath and to switch up my grip, both forearms tingled now. Each break I took seemed to diminish my confidence in my bearings, my pride was still too strong to consult the map on my phone. “This was my papa’s land after all, I grew up hunting and exploring this place”, I boasted to myself, as if trying to convince my own conscience to concede that I was right. The heartbeat in my chest was now reverberating off the temples of my head. The stream of light from the headlamp showed the steam rising off of me, so thick that it even clouded my view of the path ahead. A few more efforts and pauses and I was beat. By this time, my lungs were starting to burn from the cold air and my water bottle had lost half its volume. I reached down to my phone to check my time. I was stunned when the clock revealed I had been traveling for 45 minutes. “How could that be”, I muttered to the lit screen in front of me. The seriousness of the situation was taking hold. Swallowing my pride, I clicked the app that would pinpoint my location on a satellite image and waited for it to load.
Man, was I off. Somewhere in my journey I had taken a turn to parallel the river. I had gone so far that I wasn’t even on my own land anymore. I had walked two tracts down, which thankfully happens to be the very back of my stepfather’s property. “Great!”, I thought as I shook my head in disbelief. The beauty of the map, though, was that I could now point myself in the right direction. Since I was running short on time and energy, I pointed myself to the fastest route to the river, checking my track every 30-40 steps. I could not afford to deviate at all. I reached the river in less than 200 yards, my ego was too bruised to respond.
Now that I was in the river, I could use the little boat instead of suffer for it. I paddled down river at an easy pace, each passing foot made my legs and lungs a little more thankful. I checked my phone twice more before reaching the bend in the river that was the original rendezvous point. With a few minutes to spare, I set out my 3 decoys, threw on my heavy jacket and settled in for shooting time and hopefully a chance at some ducks.
Shooting time came around the same point I finally caught my breath and my thoughts. In the far distance I could hear the shots of another group of hunters pursuing the same game I sought this morning. Even closer, a hen turkey clucked, announcing to her sisters and all of the river bottom that the sun was rising and all was right with the world.
Each second that passed brought on the tension of a potential fly by duck or possibly a group that would see my decoys and work to light down beside them. Every second was more hopeful than the last. “Surely, the duck gods will shine some light on me after this morning”, I joked. As it turns out, the duck gods even do reward ignorance like mine on occasion. Not long after that thought had trailed by, three wood ducks lit on the water out in front of me. I couldn’t tell where they had come from, the only thing that gave them away was the notorious “T-shhh” of them landing in the water. The ripples gave away the location of one in clear view, and without hesitation, I lifted my gun up and fired. His two friends, being smart ducks, leapt off the water and into the shadows of branches and trees until they climbed well out of shooting range. I looked back to see my one duck still floating where I had seen him first, before he saw me.
That would be my only opportunity that morning. I sat for 30 more minutes hoping for another chance before I called it quits. After picking up the decoys and enjoying a few mouthfuls of jerky, I loaded my app again to see exactly the direction I needed to head. The creek that would lead me back was 20 feet away. It was deep enough to paddle down, thankfully, and in 10 minutes of drifting I was able to see my truck from the boat. I just shook my head and laughed.
This will most likely be my favorite hunt of the year. Call me crazy, but I found a sense of accomplishment in that one duck that is hard to find in the easier hunts. I realize that most of my hardship was due to my own incompetence, still it was rewarding on a deeper level. I set out to do something and I did it. I learned something the hard way. I got a great workout and I killed food for my table. When I reached the truck that morning, I felt more alive than I had before I left, that’s the kind of feeling that keeps me coming back.