Reflections on duck hunting from along the willow bank
The truck’s headlights desperately tried to pierce through the thick gray haze of the October morning. Driving through the fog, a strange, eerie feeling came over me. It looked as if I was driving right into a scene from a scary movie. The weather forecaster had never mentioned anything about fog in the forecast. They are seldom wrong, honest mistake. Only a few weeks away from All Hallow’s Eve, I thought that I might see some monster from a 1950s horror movie step out onto the gravel road at any moment.
I arrived first and exited the truck to begin preparations for the morning’s duck hunt. My two cohorts would be arriving soon. The air was brisk and there was a welcomed coolness, enough to cause a chill. Still groggy and feeling sleep-deprived, I pulled out my waders. It had been a long time since they had been used. The waders had retained odors from last season, still smelling of wet marsh grass. While I performed the delicate balancing act of putting on my waders, headlights approached from opposite directions.
Doors slammed shut and nods given, we stowed our gear into one of the greatest inventions in the duck world — waterfowl sleds. The loaded sleds could be pulled easily over a variety of terrain: grass, sand, rocks, snow, ice, and even logs. Like oxen pulling a burden through a field, the three of us took off down the well-worn path, each pulling a sled.
On our way, we pushed aside mats of strewn leaves as thick as a carpet. Neither the movement of animals nor the ominous creaking and swaying of branches slowed our journey. After traveling a couple hundred yards, we arrived at the shore of a shallow inlet on public land. We pressed on along the winding shoreline until we found the ideal location. Hardly any words had been spoken.
The entire area still enveloped with thick fog, we each waded out to survey the water. The fog would prove to be both a blessing and a curse. While fog affords additional concealment, it can also make ducks wary. When flying in dense fog, ducks will typically stick together and circle around before landing on the water. Shots would have to be quick. While it was our hope that the ducks would fly low, we also knew that meant they would appear quickly and be gone just as fast.
The three of us spread out to take our positions along the willow bank. Each carefully placed his decoys in the water to their own specifications. Dan, to my right, was placing a pair of motion decoys in the middle of his spread and hoping that movement would catch the eye of ducks flying in the fog. Macy, his Deutsch Drahthaar, sat on the bank watching inquisitively. I had dispersed a half-dozen blue-wing teal dekes into the gray water. To add a bit of color, I threw in a trio of reconditioned mallard decoys that I had painted to mimic blue bills. Masterpieces they were not. I referred to them as my black-n-whites (note the law enforcement reference for those of you who know me). Hutch had an assortment of decoys, mostly mallards, with a motion decoy thrown in for good measure.
As the fog was lifting, I was knee-deep in water and snuggling with one arm against a large tree trunk. The tree looked like an octopus with its many outstretched branches and dark brown roots resembling tentacles dangling out into the water. In the darkness, I put together a makeshift blind out of willows. Shotgun in one hand and my duck call in the other, I stood before a beautiful canvas adorned with scattered red and yellow leaves.
The stillness was pierced by the familiar “wheet-wheet” squeals of wood ducks. Like a banshee wailing across the marsh, the shrieks only added to the eeriness of the morning. Their nasal wails were heard coming from the edge of the woods as the woodies cruised along the streams from their roost. Marsh witches is what I call them.
Another squeal, this time right in front of us: the woodland banshee flying through the gray fog, taunting us with its cries. Your mind wanders in these moments. I wondered if these cries invoked fear or uncertainty to those who ventured into the flooded woodlands for the first time. Did our forefathers tremble with fear not knowing the sounds were from ducks?
We stood in the water, anxious eyes directed skyward into the gray mist. Searching. Listening. Though the sun was still hidden from us, hints of rays were fighting to get through the fog. Suddenly, that tell-tale whistling sound brought me back from nothingness . . . TEAL! They appeared before us as if they had been conjured up by some act of magic. Motionless, I stood. I could see the willows swaying gently in the breeze. Using only my eyes, I tried to track the squadron of ducks. They were small, fast. Green-wings. They vanished into the grey.
I glanced over to Hutch, who was also peering up into the fog-filled void. A fresh batch of fog was now rolling in on us. Hutch motioned they were coming back around. As quickly as the teal were engulfed by the fog, they again materialized out of thin air, more October spookiness. I slowly shouldered my over-under, the double-barreled shotgun extending past my window of branches and leaves. Fiery explosions pierced the quiet morning. Two ducks fell into the water. With shotgun in hand, I waded out into the murky water to retrieve our prizes. As I approached, I could see the speckled cream underside of the teal. Its green mask on the rust-colored crown was a dead giveaway that it was a drake. Hutch had also connected on a drake teal. Both beautiful specimens lay buoyant in the water.
No sooner had I returned to my camouflaged roost when we were buzzed by another pair of fast-flying ducks. Hutch, notably quick on the draw, had already fired and was in the water with his retrieving pole in hand. Both of us had forgone the use of Dan’s Drahthaar, much to Macy’s disapproval. His duck appeared to have been caught in a current as it drifted farther out. With his retrieving pole fully extended, he was able to hook the duck. As he got closer to the willow bank, I could see it was a hooded merganser, its flamboyant black-and-white hooded crest stark against the gray surroundings.
Soon after, the action started picking up and all three of us got in a little trigger time. Both Hutch and Dan scored with additional ducks, all green-winged teal. I could hear Dan sending Macy out into the water to retrieve the downed birds. Like a dark-haired beast looking for its prey, she swam out into the water to retrieve her master’s quarry. I, on the other hand, had more misses.
Throughout the morning, the fog had slowly begun to dissipate. We had all come together along the willow bank to boast about shots taken, admire each other’s feathered trophies, and recount how fast and mysteriously the ducks had appeared. There were laughs, jokes, and a bit of prodding. Among the three of us waterfowlers, we had a combined total of seven ducks. This wasn’t a particularly good duck-to-hunter ratio (the limit being 18 for the three of us), but it was testament to the fact that it is not about limits for us. It’s about being outdoors, experiencing the thrill of whistling and cupped wings, and the moments before, during, and after the hunt meant to be shared with each other.
In retrospect, when pursuing ducks, the quality of the hunt is judged by factors which cannot be measured. This is typical and standard for all types of hunting. It is incumbent on the hunter to determine how to measure success.
As Charles F. Waterman said in his book Duck Blinds, “There are no bad days in the duck blind.” This holds true–it isn’t all about numbers. There are subtle perks to which only those who were in the duck blind, present for that hunt, can attest. To be a witness to the spectacular views, the array of beautifully adorned ducks, the emotions that stir from the quacks and whistles of ducks flying overhead, and one’s heart beating in anticipation of the perfect time to yell out, “Take ‘em!” It is a unique experience. Especially for those who are not present to experience the hunt, it can be difficult to describe a great duck hunt.
The action had slowed as the sun finally conquered the gray. Risen into its rightful place, it presented a gift to us: blue skies. The fog that had enveloped us had whisked away, as if God himself had gently blown the gray clouds aside to allow the sun to rise and set its rays upon our location. Trees, bushes and leaves had begun their transformation. Late summer greens were holding on desperately as colors of russet and brown had begun to take over the vegetation.
Again, we took to not speaking, knowing the hunt was over. We set about gathering our decoys and our gear without words. Just as we’d started, we entered into the now more bluish colored water to retrieve our decoys, each of us working quietly and each with our own thoughts. Every time I am afield, I am reminded of how precious it is to be able to hunt on public land and waters and to understand the significance of hunters and conservationists working together to set aside places for all to enjoy.
With sleds loaded, we each began the walk-out. I brought up the tail end of the crew, only to revisit the events of the morning with each step of my waders. Every so often, I would turn and look back. What was I looking for? I think the places we hunt are just as important as the game we hunt. They mold us as hunters. I realized I had distanced myself from the others as they were almost out of sight. Looking around I barely could make out the place we had hunted. I turned and quickened my pace to catch up with thoughts of returning soon for another great and rewarding hunt along the willow bank.
Last modified: May 2, 2020