It was Thursday November 21st about 6 pm I had been on vacation since the 15th. I like to take this week off for opening weekend of rifle season as well as making these dates available to guide hunters for waterfowl. I was looking at the weather for the next few days and saw that rain was predicted for the next morning. I didn’t have any clients scheduled for the next day so I was contemplating a deer hunt or a duck hunt. If I decided on a deer hunt that would have taken me to our cozy dry deer hut up at deer camp over looking our food plot. This choice would have required a 20 minute drive, a 5 minute ATV ride up to the hut ending with 10 minutes to set up. If I decided on a duck hunt that would have taken me to our blind down in Addison VT which would be about an hour drive from my house to the boat launch, followed by a 10 minute kayak paddle, finished only after a 15 minute decoy set up. Having deer hunted since opening day that past Saturday I decided on the duck hunt. I knew the ducks would be working the bay that we have this blind in. The blind we built has an over hang that has a dual purpose of hiding us from the approaching ducks while also providing some refuge from the weather.
So like every potential hunt I gathered all my gear the night before. In this case for the duck hunt the night before I prepped my truck with the kayak, decoys, life jacket, and a paddle. I put my gun bag, hunting coat and waders by the door. I always grab my gun out of the gun safe and slide it into the gun bag in the morning before heading out. I loaded all of this into the front cab of my truck. I have done this so many times it has become somewhat robotic. This morning was no different so with all the gear loaded I jumped into the truck excited to head to the duck blind. Well one thing that was different was that I was alone. It’s common for me to hunt alone during the season but mainly for deer or turkey. Yes I have hunted alone for ducks before. I have even hunted geese alone which can be a ton of work having to haul out, set up then pick up all the goose decoys. This morning I’m hunting alone as I didn’t have a client nor was I successful talking Leo or Rene into joining me.
I make the usual stop at the Mobil station to fill up the thermos and pick up a few snacks for the gun bag. As I merge onto the interstate I start to see the first few rain drops hit the windshield. The radio is tuned to some classic rock. My mind starts wandering as I as play out the potential morning hunt. Not having a client or Leo or Rene with me makes for little conversation on the way to the duck blind. I say little conversation because I did laugh out loud a few times thinking about the past opening weekend at deer camp. We have a lot of fun at camp between my Dad, all the cousins, my uncles and the other characters that stop in to visit. I’m not sure if singing Sweet Home Alabama out loud is considered conversation but if it is then I did have a little conversation while heading to the boat launch.
The rain is starting to come down a bit harder which snaps me back from my one man karaoke show. I realize even more now that it could be a wet morning. True die hard duck hunters love this weather. I’m completely fine with it as I consider myself a die hard.
I start to think that Leo & Rene will wake up for work soon. I am certain they will think about me getting soaked. I can promise you they are glad they pasted on the invite to join me. I know this because they have texted me 10 times each in the last 5 minutes . At this point I starting laughing out loud again while imagining how cool it would be to limit out on Mallards and Divers. I love sending texts to them teasing them when they miss a great hunt.
45 minutes into my hour long ride I turn down the road to the boat launch and get this odd sense that I forgot something. For whatever reason I get that feeling so I quickly look into the back seat of my truck scanning for my shotgun. Phew, I see it there so I started scanning for my other gear. Gun bag, check, waders, check, life jacket, check, hunting coat, hum, hunting coat, oh shit, no hunting coat. I’m writing the word shit but you can imagine what other words I used. I think to myself, you have got to be kidding me. Great time to realize I don’t have a hunting coat. It’s raining a cold, wet, nasty rain with winds in the double digits.
At this point it’s to late to turn back now. For a few seconds I consider bagging it and heading back home. As I sit in my truck thinking of what MacGyver trick I can come up with to be able to get to the blind in the pouring rain without getting soaked to the core a car pulls in with a father and his son. I can’t leave now and chance looking a little crazy. So my brainstorm is to use one of the 55 gallon trash bags in the back of my truck as a rain coat. This covered with my life jacket should be fine. I unload my kayak then load all my gear into the floating sled which I tow behind the kayak. This works great to haul in my gear. I briefly talk to the father and son as they are about to head out to let them know my blind is across the river on the other side of the portage to make them aware where I will be set up. I strategically wait until after they are gone pull on my garbage bag rain gear so I won’t look like a complete nut. Once the coast is clear I quickly paddle over to the other side of the river bank where I begin to port my kayak and sled to the blind. I quickly deploy my hand carved Leo LaBonte decoys along with my MOJO mallard robo duck for some motion. Today my set up consists of 6 blacks, 5 whistlers and a bufflehead that Leo has made for me over the years. We had been seeing divers working this bay already. They seemed to be working this side when they do. It wasn’t long after I was set up that I had several blacks floating in my decoys. The issue was that it wasn’t legal shooting yet. I tend to get there way before legal shooting time. Today was no different. This isn’t an issue normally but it was pouring and I was wearing a garbage bag and a life jacket. While watching these blacks float around about 20 yards from me and about 5 yards from Leo’s decoys I consider starting a new camo pattern for waterfowl which would be a shinny dark green garbage looking pattern as it seemed to be working great.
Finally the rain lets up a bit so I pull off my makeshift rain gear to go with just the life jacket over my Fields Bay Outfitters sweatshirt. Normally I don’t wear a life jacket while in the blind as the water is only knee deep but it was working well to keep me warm and dry. After wresting with the garbage bag I hear a splash off to my right. Sure enough it was the blacks taking off after what must have been a comical site of me pulling off my trash can style rain gear. I got a quick chuckle from that and began to think that this was going to be a nutty morning. Finally it’s legal shooting and at this point I am so ready for this hunt to be worth all the craziness. Time passes a bit giving me time to consider a coffee as the morning sun starts to make its way into the sky. Sadly the sun offers little to no warmth and very little light as its foggy with a cold dampness that only a duck hunter can imagine. There is a quiet calm that is covering the bay which makes all the trouble to this point well worth it. Just as I’m thinking man this is cool, a drake Mallard buzzes my decoys. I give him 3 valiant attempts from my Benelli with nothing but 3 splashes hitting just feet behind him as he peels away. I said out loud to myself, “seriously you could have waited for him to land”. We all know that this would not have been as sporting but I sort of wish I had let my green headed friend land so that I would have a bird in my bag. It seems only a minute later I spot a flash of white moving from my right to left out in the center of the bay. As luck would have it the flying object banks my way and comes right in. I can tell its a diver heading toward my diver set up off to my left. His wings started to back peddle, the landing gear was deployed and then splash. This one I let land just outside the decoys putting this drake bufflehead within range. Again I chuckle at this good fortune and think, take your time, make a good shot. He swam around a bit to check out his new friends. Just as I readied myself for the first shot he must have realized these fellow ducks are made of cork and wood and he takes flight. With my Benelli shouldered – Boom, I send the steel shot his way. He keeps flying gaining speed and altitude, another Boom, and then a third Boom. He flys back to the safety of the center of the bay. Once again I start talking to myself. I said “seriously you just missed a drake Bufflehead floating in your decoys 30 yards away”.
At this point it’s an hour into the hunt I find myself thinking I’m going to get skunked. Oh I forgot to mention the 15-20 texts that I have been sending and receiving from Rene & Leo asking about my hunt. Yes they got a chuckle when I told them I had a garbage bag on and how I missed a drake mallard that I could have caught with a fish net because it was that close. At this point I haven’t had the chance to mention the drake Bufflehead yet. Suddenly to my right I see those blacks fly over giving what seemed to be strong consideration of rejoining my 4 black duck decoys. No such luck they lift up and headed over the river behind me. I turned my attention back to the decoys out in front and spotted an inbound duck flying about 75 yards out and 20 yards off the water. I think to myself focus and make a good shot. Instinctively I shouldered the Benelli and took the shot as the duck was heading directly over head and 20 yards up. Boom one shot and it folded like an umbrella in the wind. It’s momentum took it behind the blind but I knew it’s a dead bird. Having 2 shots left in my Benelli I did a quick scan of the sky to see if any others had the same idea. Nothing near by so I set out to retrieve my duck. I had a good mark on it as it went into the brush but I didn’t want to lose that mark by waiting to long. I chamber another round, click on the safety so I will have 3 rounds, and I walk over to pick up my bird. Once again I find myself chuckling out loud and saying “there we go I didn’t get skunked”. About 30 yards behind the blind I found my bird. It’s a drake black duck laying there on a bed of grass like its asleep. When I retrieved the duck I realized I killed the bird with a single BB under the chin. No damage to the bird. It’s laying in the short grass clean as it was in flight. I picked up my bird and made my way back to the the blind with that feeling only a duck hunter can imagine after having a few misses earlier. It’s a redemption of sorts when you finally bag that first bird of the day to avoid that dreaded skunking.
I did what most hunters do once I got back to the blind, I set down the duck, took a picture and texted it to my buddies. While waiting for the reply from my antagonizing text I just sat and looked around the bay scanning the decoys. I realize why we go to such lengths to be able to just pursue these magical avian creatures. The surroundings that we encounter while hunting waterfowl is truly amazing. My thoughts were quickly disrupted by a flock of common mergansers approaching from my right to left 100 yards out in the center of the bay. They turn in a synchronized approach and head towards my decoy spread. Although mergansers are fair game we rarely harvest mergansers unless they are of the drake hooded merganser kind. I’m not going to say we haven’t knocked down a few over the years because they do beat up the fish population so harvesting them helps the fishing in area. However, they don’t make very good table fair so we normally chose not to harvest them. I do tease my buddy Rene about him shooting any and all mergansers which stems from one year he seemed to shoot more mergs than any other type duck.
The bay continued to offer up the sights and sounds that easily held my attention. The weather at this point started to improve which allowed my body temperature to increase to a safer level. With all the movement of ducks into the bay I had envisioned that I would leave with my limit for the day. This isn’t the normal outcome but we would be lying if we said we don’t always hope to walk out with a game strap full of ducks. I settled back in to finish off my thermos of coffee and decided I will give it another 30 minutes or so. I watch countless ducks & even a few geese make their way back into the safety of the bay from the river and the surrounding ponds as the hunting pressure from the other hunters are likely bumping the birds. Some I’m sure are simply returning from their early morning feeding in the fields. Although I have lost count on the number of ducks I have seen only a few have given me a look. This issue I’m facing is that once the real ducks start to settle in at another part of the bay they become very inviting for the others to follow. Without any other hunters working the bay these ducks are very content on joining the others. I notice off to my right the father and son are picking up and heading in. I realize that they didn’t take a shot and wonder what they must have thought of my hunt. At this point I have taken 7 shots with only 1 duck to show for it. This of course is duck hunting defining one of the many reasons we hunt waterfowl for the action. There have been many hunts that I have burnt up a box of shells that did not result in a daily limit. It’s not a testament to my shooting skills but more of a testament to how resilient waterfowl can be. Seeing the father and son picking up and heading in becomes somewhat contagious. There are 50 or so ducks sitting and feeding comfortably on the other side of the bay. This coupled with the lack of other hunters, along with the fact that I considered myself lucky to have even harvested 1 duck, which turned out to be a drake Black duck, I decide to call it a day. So I began the picking up process. This alone is easily a 30 minute process from picking up the first decoy to loading the kayak on the truck.
As I ease the kayak onto shore I run into the father and son at the boat launch. The son, who is likely 12 years old, walks over to me and asks “how did you do?”. I was certain from all the shooting he heard he was thinking I must have 3-4 ducks and that he would be surprised to see only one. Turned out the surprise came when he yelled over to his dad, “Dad come check this out he got a drake black duck how cool”. I was taken back by the fact that at 12 he new this was a drake black duck and was even more impressed that when, after seeing I only had one duck, he thought is was still cool. I realized at that moment that this boy’s father has raised what will certainly be an amazing hunter but more importantly an amazing person.
Once I had all my gear loaded back into the truck I jumped in to take a moment to reflect on the morning’s hunt. It’s funny how things play out and to realize what we truly gain from spending time outdoors in pursuit of wildlife. It’s never about bagging your limit each time out. It’s simply about being in the outdoors experiencing what these times have to offer. I will remember this hunt for ever. I will remember the misses and the harvesting of that one black duck. I will remember seeing all the ducks and geese that spent the morning with me in the bay. Although I’d like to forget leaving my hunting coat at home I will remember not turning back, but instead, sticking it out even when it would have been easier to turn around and to head home. I promise you I will remember my brief interaction with that father and son, who by showing up that morning, not only caused me to stick with my hunt, but in the end reconfirmed what effect spending time with ours kids when they are young can have on the type of hunters and the type of people they can become.