I sit on an old boat cushion and wait for ducks. It is the opening of the season. I, as much as I ever am, am ready. Clouds move slowly; the wind is a mere breeze. The water reflects flash of yellow, red; fall color this season comes from all directions save for the sky; the sky is gray and holds no ducks.
Half an hour earlier I’d pushed the boat out and paddled north, into the breeze. Eight wood ducks jumped from near the far shore, lifted and flew up, over the trees, silhouetted against the sky, unmistakable in profile.
I tossed a handful of decoys, pulled the boat up into the brush, grabbed gear bag and shotgun and looked for a place to sit. I could have built a blind earlier this month. I did not. Sometimes I like to sit in the marsh grass, lean against a tree, keep it simple. I don’t need a blind for that. So I pick a likely spot, clear a handful of grass, use a small saw to trim some spruce branches. I arrange the branches in front of me; a little cover is all I need.
Then I sit and wait. Which is mostly what hunting is all about; sitting, waiting, hoping. It is not like the fast and furious action that you see on TV, not even close. You sit and you wait and you hope, and if you are fortunate you will see birds, and if you are even more fortunate, they will come.
At the 9 a.m. opening there is a distant sound, a rumble, deep and faint, as the sound of faraway thunder. Not thunder, not this day; shotgun fire. On a pond over the hills ducks have come to some hunter.
I see nothing. I wait and I think. And I think to myself: Nothing, save things of little consequence has changed since the day years ago when I first sat in a duck blind and hoped for ducks. Of all things important, none changed.
The wind still blows, and the waves still rise and the sky goes on forever and, if luck has it, ducks will ride the wind and skim the waves and move to decoys under a gray sky. All of that is important, and none of it has changed, not since forever. All the change is in gear, and clothing and things of little consequence to the end goal, the least of which is in shooting a duck.
I think on this as I wait.
I hunt for two hours, it’s all the time I have. I see two ducks; kill one. Years ago I’d have sat for hours, measured the worth the day by the weight of game in hand. No more. I pack up and go.
Next day in the afternoon the sky is thick with cloud; the air heavy with humidity. I face a decision; Packer game or hunting. It is an easy call. The game can wait. I will not forgo time in the woods for time on the couch.
A week earlier I had hunted with Thor and Riika, and Thor came up lame, a growing concern, as it’s not the first time it has happened. I need to leave Thor at home, but if he sees me go, he’ll yelp and howl in protest as I take Riika hunting. I don’t want to do that. So Sally calls Thor and takes him out to the car, goes to the grocery store with him, Thor sitting up front like a prince. I hold Riika back and she’s puzzled as to why she could not go.
When Sally’s car is out of sight, I call Riika and then she knows. We climb into the truck and drive out of town. It is drizzling ever so lightly when we leave. The forecast calls for rain. I’ll take the chance; I won’t melt if I get wet.
We drive down paved back roads in a heavy gloom of near fog. The yellows of birch and the reds of maple and sumac are brilliant in the somber light. It begins to rain, lightly now, but steady, as we turn off. I drive a mile, two, then park, and Riika and I step out into a light but consistent rain.
Riika is not herself on this afternoon; she is tentative, working more on the edges of cover, less in the thick stuff. I wonder why. She’s nine years old now, on the edge of decline, but she has always hunted with unbridled intensity. Today she is different. She works slowly, cautiously, comes back often to check on me. We do not see birds, no grouse, no woodcock.
The rain comes harder. We clamber back into the truck, drive a mile, hunt another area. I’m soaked to the skin, and think to myself, if it was chilly, I’d be in trouble. If this was November, it would be a different story. But it’s not November, it’s not chilly, not at all, and I do fine.
We have seen birds here before, but on this day the woods seem empty. The underbrush is thick and heavy with muted tones of dark green spruce, slim white birch and light gray popple. Yellow leaf of birch, orange and red of maple, blood red of sumac; the world is filled with color.
It is apparent by now that we are wasting our time. There seems nothing to gain by staying out. I whistle to Riika and she comes to me and I tell her we’re done for the day.
We walk back to the truck, shotgun slung across my shoulder, rain coming down. The air is fresh and the sky above heavy with cloud. The yellow of birch and the red of maple seem to glow in the gloom. The woods smell of fern and grass and spruce. It is as it has been, always been; the air and the sky and the scent of fall in the air. All that is important has not changed, not for all the years that I have hunted, not for this season or last season or the string of seasons that reach back now to when I was 12 years old walking with my father, shotgun in hand.
Riika goes into the tangle of spruce and popple and I hear one, then two, grouse. I never see so much as a feather, only hear the heavy wing in deep cover. Riika works deeper, flushes a woodcock that flies out, over the road and offers an easy shot. I miss badly, and to drive home the point of bad shooting, miss again with the second barrel as well.
Riika comes to the road. She is soaking wet, weed and sticks tangled in her fur. But her eyes are ablaze, and she looks at me as if to ask where the bird is. I meet her eye and tell her she’s a good dog, and that I’m a bad shot, and that its time to go home and watch the last bit of the Packer game.
Riika jumps to the truck seat and I stand back, unload the shotgun and put it in the case. The rain patters on the truck, the only sound this late afternoon. Then I start the truck and Riika and I drive back to town in the rain and the lowering fog on a late afternoon in September, as I have for years driven home after the hunt in a season where all that is important has not changed, and all that is important will be there the next time we go out.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800.