There are going to be portions of this story that may be long winded. My ramblings will not be out of vanity, but because I simply lack the vocabulary immense enough to express, in less words, the vast array of emotions this story entails. To be honest, I am not good enough to write this story. The only qualifying detail that gives me permission to write it is the sole fact that it happened to me. I just hope I do it the full justice it deserves. Looking back now, on one hand I am glad that it happened. The other wishes it was never my story to tell.
- Friday, December 9th, 2016: The day before the 2nd duck season opener
I managed to get off work at lunch time today. Between Andy and I, we had every piece of gear a duck hunter could need loaded into my truck when we pulled out of the driveway just after 1pm. If lady luck was on our side, we would make it to our get away destination in time to scout the evening flight of birds.
The road trip was filled with the usual talk of all hunting men. We caught up on the rumors of old friends, proclaimed our disgust for all things political, and, most importantly, we discussed the potential possibilities of what tomorrow’s hunt might bring. Talks such as those usually start out with deciphering between feasible locations to hunt. Once those options have been carefully weighed, we quickly move onto the day dreaming scenarios which is particularly common amongst me and my hunting partners. We fantasize about what the birds will do, how they will come in, which “trophy” duck we will finally cross off of our hit list. My partner, Andy, clung to his desire for a nice drake redhead, while I made it known that a pintail was in my sights. It’s around this time in the conversation that we both usually chuckle, only to exhale a sigh, usually, to the tune of, “Yea.. Wouldn’t that be nice.” Before this conversation has an opportunity to go full circle, we find ourselves arriving where we intended to be and the work of deploying boats and donning our cold weather gear for the brisk ride to the our scouting area begins.
The trip out was quick. The area we planned to watch over was familiar to both of us, like our unspoken “honeyhole”. The birds were exactly where they always are and we were proud of ourselves for having been there to prove it. As a hunter, I hate to get too cocky the night before a hunt, but seeing good sign always makes waking up the next morning a little easier.
- Saturday, December 10th, 2016
The alarm clock rings sharply at 3:45 am. Even though my eyes were closed, my mind has been up and running circles since 2:30 this morning. I call it my duck hunting check list. First, I recount all of the gear I have packed and where exactly it is located. I take a moment to consider leaving some things behind or bringing extras of something else. Then I move on to planning how the morning ride out will go, reminding myself of a sandbar at this spot or a possible log at this location. I retrace the journey over a few times until I feel comfortable enough to move on to something else. At this point I allow my mind to consider all the possibilities of the good things this morning could bring. The working ducks we could see, the spectacular things that are always just figments of my imagination or copies of things I have seen on tv. Then, without fail, my alarm blasts again and I rise up out of bed to dress in the layers needed for the chilling breeze blowing just outside. With everything on but my heavy over coat, I make my way to the den to congregate with Andy as we watch the weather forecast for any changes. Most of the time I’m not sure why we bother. They are usually wrong in their predictions and we will probably go whether they say conditions are good or not. I’m beginning to think it is more of a habit than an actual concern for what they have to say.
Arriving at the marina, we pull on our waders and carry the last bit of essential items down the dock. My little 16′ jon boat patiently awaits where we left her tied up the night before, our one man boats strapped down tightly on our her bow, ready for the morning ride. A final gear check is done, gloves snugged tightly down over the sleeves of our heavy over coats, and with the q-beam light pointed brightly ahead, we make our way out towards the big water. The winds reveal their tenacity out on the open bay. Quartering waves send sprays of foamy, white wash over the boats port side and into our already wind chilled faces. My grip tightens on the throttle in one hand and on the gunnel with the other. My moderate experience with mother nature’s habits on this particular area makes me shy slightly off of our original route in search of calmer waters and a safer passage. This path is found in a small channel between a chain of islands that will take us smoothly to the spot we intend to be. Despite having that knowledge, the tension coursing through my muscles will not ease until we have arrived at our destination, the anchor set, and the motor turned off. There is something eerily threatening about cold, dark mornings in a duck boat. The potential for disaster is always mere seconds away, and sometimes, completely out of your control. Luckily, for us, we made it without incident. An unspoken sigh of relief is always shared amongst Andy and I, whether we would like to admit it or not.
Our little one man boats slice through the calm waters near the bank as we near the set of decoys. We positions ourselves in the coves where the water is high enough to allow us to float. The high grass surrounds us, giving us the perfect camouflage we will need to fool even the wariest of ducks.
The moments after this are some of my favorites of the entire duck hunting process. The hard work has been done, the journey made, each decoy set, and now I find myself perfectly in place. This time is peaceful. Finally, all things are quiet again and you can let nature sing her own song, unadulterated by your agenda. I feel the north east breeze blow through the cord grass, against the small exposed portion of my neck. I listen to the first birds wake up and sing their tunes. If I’m lucky, I will have a few moments left to catch a falling star before the sun starts to show her mighty glow on the horizon. This is my moment to unwind, it is the thanks mother nature gives me for daring against her, and it is worth every second.
No matter how beautiful the morning may be, I can never forget the real reason we are here, and that reason starts to bring us back to reality the closer shooting time gets. 6:40am will be our saving grace this morning. Once the clock strikes that magical minute we will have full authority to shoot any duck who will give us the opportunity. This morning we just so happen to have a few early birds to grace us before shooting time. These kinds of things tend to build up the anticipation of what is about to come. It gives you the feeling that you might have done everything right and that’s not a feeling that seldom occurs when dealing with duck hunting, or nature in general .
A few minutes after shooting time and we have fooled our first group of birds. We let them land and realize quickly that they are hooded mergansers, not highly sought after in the duck hunting world. So we give them a pass hoping that the ducks gods will reward our good intent. These precious moments after shooting time are often spent under great suspense. The dim skies will often give a quick, low flying duck the advantage of swooping in, and sometimes right by, without notice. We keep our heads on a swivel, calling out to each other anything we think we might see. Not long after the mergansers wised up to our plan and left our mannequin-like raft of birds, we get our first real takers of the morning. We spot them straight out in front of our spread. They start out a little high off the water but continue to drop altitude the closer they get to us. 50 yards out they swing wide to my left, Andy is to my right, and cup their wings to glide in crossing our spread, wings cupped, giving us both a perfect left to right shot. We both raise up, draw our guns, and let shots ring out in front. My first shot is at a the lead bird, his wings spread wide as if to draw every bit of wind resistance to slow his speed. I missed him cleanly. I hear Andy’s shot ring out and the bird I had been following drops. I quickly draw bead on the next and fire at a bird who has now realized what is going on. Again, I miss. Andy’s gun rings out and I watch the bird tumble down to the water beneath her. At this point, I can’t help but laugh at myself and be proud of my friend. I had panicked on my shots and he had backed me up like a true wing shooter. I also found myself chuckling at the urgency in which he found necessary to make his way out to those birds. The excitement was radiating from him given that he shot a perfectly clean double out of his brand new one man boat. I pick at him now, but I probably would have done the same thing in his position, maybe even gloated a little as I paddled my way out to them.
With the birds picked up and Andy tucked back into his hole in the grass, it wouldn’t be long before our next group would come working in. This time a group of 8-10 were coming in hot, more so out in front of Andy this time. They came in so quick, so unaware that we were there, that we let them land before we called the shot. Andy rang out the first one on the water and I shot as the group picked up, knocking down two more. Then Andy managed to knock down another before the rest escaped out of range, leaving 4 dead birds in the decoys. We decided it was my turn to go out to retrieve the birds and I was happy to do so. The mere fact that our hunt had just begun and already we had 6 dead ducks meant that I would have done anything with a smile at that point. Retrieving the first 3 would prove to be easy, but the last one was still partially alive. Rather than chasing a diving bird around and risking flaring more working birds, I lifted my shotgun from my one man boat and shot him again from about 20 yards out. He didn’t move any further. I quickly grabbed him and made my way back to the bank to hide myself away for the next flock.
Backed into our holes, still laughing and conversing about the great start to our morning, Andy spots another group of birds working low across the water in our direction. I panicked, remembering that I only had one shell in my gun from chasing the cripple a few moments ago. So I reached down to break open my gun and load another shell. A loud “BOOM!!” rang out, as I felt my shotgun propel backwards under my shoulder and nearly out the back of the boat. I was so stunned. The sound was so familiar, like a gun shot, I thought to myself. Then it started to sink in, my gun had just gone off in the bottom of my boat. The same gun who’s barrels where just resting safely around my left foot. I looked down towards my feet at the smoking burlap that I had used to cover myself. Half of my brain expected a pain to register soon, the other half still struggling to grasp the full reality of what just occurred. I look over at Andy, “Man, I just shot my bag.”, I mustered out of quivering lips. My mind was still not processing everything. Andy was just starting to understand what happened. I ripped back the burlap just to ensure that I hadn’t shot myself, that what I thought was happening had actually happened. With the burlap pulled back, I could see my foot still in tact, my backpack torn to shreds, pieces of its components laid splayed out in the bottom of the boat. Andy was quick to ask me if I was ok, then to make sure my boat wasn’t sinking. My mind hadn’t even gotten that far yet. Thankfully, the bag and absorbed most of the blast and the foam flotation of the boat took what was left of the rest. This is when the full flood of emotions set in. Within an instance, I was both nauseous and terrified. A feeling as quick as the breeze came over me and I could no longer hold the gun in my hand. I passed it off to Andy. I wanted out of the boat and my feet on solid ground, so I got up. My mind was both racing with thoughts and empty at the same time. I thought of my wife at home and how I wanted to see her. I thought about what could have just happened, how literal inches could have rendered my left foot a bloody fragment of its original form. Each time I looked down at the bag or the boats scars I found myself more weak in my stomach, my mind more useless. At this moment, there was not a thing in the world that could pull my attention elsewhere.
After it was determined that I was ok and that my boat was ok, actually still very intact minus a few scars, Andy tried to get my mind off of it. A few more minutes passed by and I was finally willing to hold my gun again, although, I still did not get back in my boat. I crouched down on the bank as two more teal came in pitching into the decoys, I stood up and folded both of them. Had they not come at that moment, I’m not sure I could have continued on that day. Refusing to take my gun with me anymore in the boat, I handed it to Andy and paddled out to get the two fallen ducks. I choked back emotions like a hard lump in my throat. Before I left the bank, Andy had given me a smile and an encouraging phrase, “We are killing 12 ducks today.” 12 ducks would mean a two man limit. In the state of South Carolina, that’s something not to be taken lightly by any hunter of public waters. I thought about it a little more and he was right. It was only 7:15 now and we had 4 birds each, 8 total. The way the ducks were flying, two more birds a piece was a very real possibility.
I made it back to the bank with my two teal and backed the boat into it’s self made little pocket. After a little coaxing and a few deep breaths, I was ready to hold my gun in my boat again. I loaded it and made sure the safety was on, the barrel pointed out of the boat and in a safe direction. I was still slightly afraid to touch it.
A few more minutes passed by and another group of teal found our spread to their liking. Andy and I both shot a bird a piece. We both only lacked one more duck now. I insisted he hand me his gun before he paddled out to retrieve them. He obliged and quickly made his way out and back.
Birds continued to work the sky every passing minute. My mind would bounce back and forth from them to the other almost very real scenario. “I could have been on the way to the hospital at this point”, I thought, “or even worse, dead.” The thoughts turned my stomach. I abused my brain with all the safety lessons I was taught from a very early age. I knew better and I nearly paid a severe price for carelessness. Even worse, is that I could have made my friend pay a price with me. My heart felt for him. I could only imagine how it would have felt to be in his shoes, watching a friend shot his foot, feeling the urgency to get him help. I contemplated all of the horrific scenarios that could have taken place. The nausea crept back in and then Andy whispered, “Ducks.”
The pair passed right over top of us, their casual stride told us that they might be looking for a place to sit down. I grabbed my call and gave one cadence of quacks. They pitched and banked at the report of the sound. At their turn, Andy muttered the words, “Pintails”, the kind of words you don’t say jokingly to anyone in my group, and he was right. There they were, in all their wonder, beautiful and long, faced out towards us, cupping their wings against the wind as they eased towards our spread. I whispered to Andy, “They are gonna do it. Which one do you want?” I got no reply and I can hardly blame him. 30 yards out over the decoys, I called the shot on a pair of drake pintails. I pulled up and shot the first shell faster than I should have, clean miss. My heart sank and I continued my lead on the same bird as the second shot rang out. When the report came I saw the birds reaction, which in turn made me cry out, “I got one!” as I watched him fall towards the water. Unfortunately, Andy’s nerves had gotten the best of him and he shot his worst volley of the day at that very opportunity. We watched as the other bird flew off into the distance to live another day. A new emotion set in as I turned my eyes back to the water in front of us. I had finished my 6 duck limit with my first ever drake pintail.We celebrated with high fives and faces that proclaimed both excitement and amazement for having witnessed something so precious.
After handing Andy my empty gun, I paddled my one man boat as fast as my strength would let me move to the bird. I couldn’t really believe what had happened until I got a few feet from him. I could see the stark white of his neck contrasting with the rich brown of his cheeks, his black bill trimmed in a sky blue. This was it, I was about to pick up my first pintail drake and I savored the moment as best as I could. Although he lacked the sought after long sprig tail, He was beautiful to me in every way. The paddle back was another flood of emotion, both high and low. I couldn’t help but think about the other surreal event that took place this morning.
I made it back to the bank to show Andy my prize and I found it even more rewarding to put my unloaded gun in its case, knowing that the threat of mishandling it again was gone for the day. The rest of the hunt would be about getting Andy his last bird. It didn’t take long.
The next group of birds worked and set down into the decoys as pretty as anyone could ask for. Andy didn’t bother to fire a shot because we knew they were hooded mergansers well before they landed, but still we appreciated the show they provided. We continued to talk as mere minutes passed by. A few birds were trading back and forth in the distance. Andy begrudged himself for missing his shot at the pintails and I did my best to remind him of how epic the morning had been regardless. Shortly after, a flock of teal worked in out of nowhere. Andy rose up, picked the drake dead center of the pack and folded him in one clean shot. The only regret I felt at that moment was that I did not have a camera to record how beautiful it was. We high fived before I shoved him off the bank to go retrieve his 6th and final duck of the day, making that his first ever South Carolina full duck limit.
The highs and lows of today were so extreme on both ends that, even now, I still think I have a hard time absorbing it all. I feel as though they went hand and hand with each other, that one couldn’t have been appreciated without the other. At one end, I nearly lost my foot today, a life changing, or possibly life ending event. Just bringing it up puts a lump in my throat too large for any amount of water I could muster to swallow. The other end, my friend and I had a hunt that I will truly never forget. He accomplished one of his goals and I got to kill my very first pintail.
Despite it all, I would be lying if I didn’t say the sweetest moment of the entire hunt was setting foot on that dock when we arrived back, all body parts intact and everyone involved alive and safe. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget to appreciate that again, no matter how great the hunt is.