Duck Hunters by TR Michels
Each fall as the cold descends upon the northern lands many species of waterfowl begin their migration south to warmer climates. Duck hunters also begin their yearly migration. They leave their everyday lives as farmers, laborers, clerks, doctors, lawyers, businessmen and the thousands of other jobs that occupy their lives for long hours. They leave behind their normal existence to experience a renewal of their mind and spirit. They gather together boats, canoes, waders, camouflage clothing, decoys, calls, guns, shells, thermos bottles and dogs, and load them into all manner of vehicles. Then they take to the back roads that lead to the sloughs, ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and backwaters where ducks and geese feed and rest.
They drive through the early morning darkness, the headlights of the vehicles leading the way to their destination. Once they arrive they unload the carefully stowed gear and often reload it in the watercraft and launch it onto the water. The excitement begins to build. The entry to the water is like opening a door to another world. All the pressures and worries are forgotten as thoughts of where to setup and how to place the decoys occupy the hunter’s minds. The decoys are eventually put out and the hunters retire to a stand of brush, grass, cattails or a blind to await the appearance of dawn and the coming of the ducks. As the hunters check their guns and pour a steaming cup of hot coffee a hen mallard quacks lazily across the water; quack, quack, quack, quack. Somewhere a coot splashes in the water, and a muskrat swims slowly by.
As the first light of dawn approaches a flock of Wood Ducks swings overhead, whistling as they fly; wheet, wheet, wheet. If it is late in the year and conditions are right the hunters may hear the rush of wings as a flight of bluebills passes by, sounding more like a jet than a flock of ducks. On special late season days there is the lonely cry of the swans as they move south; whoo, whoo, whoo. Or maybe the guttural sounds of a flock of Sandhill Cranes. The Marsh Wrens begin to flit in the grass or cattails, and occasionally, an owl can be heard. Often there are the sounds of blackbirds and grackles as they stream by in their seemingly endless flocks, stretching in waves across the sky. The noise blocks out all other sounds as the birds call incessantly.
The hunters peer intently through the cloud of birds, knowing that a flock of teal or mallards may slip in unnoticed, and there, beneath the blackbirds, is a trio of Bluewing Teal. The hunters crouch low, avoiding the wary eyes of the ducks. They reach for their calls and try to coax the birds in. For a while there is the sound of calling. The teal buzz the decoys once, twice, and then bank into the wind and out of sight, hurtling past like miniature fighter planes. But, as if the calling has attracted more ducks, a flock of Mallards appears, and before the hunters can relax, the birds begin to descend from the sky. Again the hunters crouch low, cupping their calls and guns.
This time the ducks respond without hesitation and head for the “hole” in the decoy spread. The hunters wait in anticipation as the flock gets closer, hoping they come into range. They can see the bright green of the drake’s heads as the sun glints off their iridescent plumage. The ducks get closer until the hunters see their red feet as the birds cup their wings and extend themselves to land. Unable to wait any longer the hunters rise up, shoulder their guns and barely feel the recoil as the concussion of the shells pounds the air. Two of the greenheads fold and fall, splashing as they land on the water. The remainder of the flock speeds away into the sun, and once again there is stillness in the air.
Then the black Labrador leaves the blind, front legs reaching out as he leaps into the water with a splash. The hunters talk about how the ducks came in, and how they lead them before firing. They talk excitedly, not thinking about their lives, the news, work or the urgency of civilization. For the time being the hustle and bustle, the stress of life is forgotten. The only thing on the minds of the hunters is enjoying these brief hours spent with friends who understand and enjoy the time spent on the water.
These duck hunters are a strange breed, almost despising the warm beautiful days of autumn. Instead they look forward to the miserable days. They embrace stormy weather with cold winds and biting sleet, rain or snow. They revel in frozen oar locks, ropes and hands. Ice covered decoys, clothing and equipment is expected and spoken of proudly as they recount their hunts, because others of their like know and understand that this type of weather brings the ducks, keeps them flying low, and willing to come to the decoys and the call. It’s almost as if the hunter who has not gotten wet, cold, frozen and gone home empty handed has not earned his stripes. He has not paid his dues in the duck blind. He has not earned the right to be called a duck hunter until he has spent long hours in a blind waiting for the ducks to fly. Until he has endured and withstood the weather, and gone home countless times, after many hours, without even firing a shell, he is not a duck hunter.
The duck blind is the proving ground; the long hours and harsh weather the test; the water soaked clothing, and the frozen cheeks and toes the badge of honor; the experience and endurance the essence of memories. The duck blind is where hunters of all ages and backgrounds pit their stamina, courage and will against, not the ducks, but nature. Even though it is not a place for the weak of heart, the impatient, or those frail of body, it is a place where the young, the old and even the disabled venture in search of the experience.
The duck blind cannot be about shooting ducks, for there are too many times when no ducks are shot, no ducks are even seen, for shooting to be all that matters. The duck blind is a place to get away, if only for a few hours. The hunt is a short vacation, a respite from everyday life. It is a place to spend time with a wife, husband, son, daughter or hunting partner. It is a place to relax, unwind and enjoy the beauty of nature and the environment that God created. The duck blind is something only a duck hunter can understand.