By Mitch Mode
I took days off last week. I had modest goals; hunt, do some housework, ride the bike if I had time. Hunting would start each day and I carried into the week the optimism that every hunter holds close at heart.
I would hunt upland birds, grouse and woodcock; ducks, should things work out. I would go forth not with the mindset of a glutton but with a more reasonable expectation: perhaps a game dinner, maybe two, or, now that I think of it, a dinner of grouse, one of woodcock and a final one of duck. A not unreasonable goal; I had the time and I’d been seeing birds. How difficult could it be? Six days off; three meals; what could go wrong?
I will summarize what will follow thusly: My week was bracketed by two hunts for upland birds: “The Day of Shooting Wildly” and “The Last Hurrah”. In between: “The Duck Hunt: A play in three acts.
“The Day of Shooting Wildly” dawned clear and mild. There was purity to the air, a somberness to the woods. Fall color has peaked; beauty still remains. I took Riika and Thor. They were well rested, eager to hunt. I filled pockets with shells, for woodcock would certainly by down by now. Grouse? For all the talk of a slow season we’d been flushing them.
I missed the first shot at a rising woodcock, held steady, killed it with the second. Ten minutes into the hunt; things were working as I’d planned. A three bird limit; well in reach.
I will hand it to the dogs; they performed admirably. My own performance? Abysmal. After that first bird I did not kill another. Did I shoot? Oh, let me tell you, did I ever! I don’t know how many birds the dogs put up but I do know that I missed every one, sometimes with two shots. The birds were in the thick stuff and the dogs worked tirelessly. I’d shoot, they’d come to me eyes meeting mine, looking for the downed bird.
I wrote a friend that evening and admitted that I did not care if I killed a stack of birds but really, after a lifetime of doing this, is it any reach to think I’d be able to shoot better?
The next day brought “The Duck Hunt: Act one”.
I’d scouted a small pond; wood ducks were thick, lingering in the late October warmth. I eased down before daybreak, set out a dozen decoys, hid in the brush, waited; most of duck hunting is in waiting.
Two ducks, then two more swung wide of the decoys in the half light, tipped their wings and landed; too far down the lakeshore. They held there, just out of range. A minute later, five more joined them. I waited; they sat. An impasse. Then I moved and they were up and away.
I was peeved. So close yet just too far. Two more landed down the lake. None came close. Nor did the other dozen or so that I saw. I sat, I waited, I did not take a bird. I was unhappy.
“The Duck Hunt: Act Two”.
I’d learned from the first day. On Day Two I set up exactly as before but with a new plan: If the ducks landed where they had on the previous day I’d race down the shore, stand where they were landing and sit there. But first I waited; I had to see if the first day was a fluke or a pattern.
Four ducks flew in front of me, banked toward the decoys, then flared ever so slightly and landed down the lake, exactly where they had the previous day. That was it! I grabbed shotgun and gear and lurched to my feet. The four ducks looked at me in astonishment then took to the air and were gone. I did not care. There were more ducks to be had as soon as I could get there!
I was maybe halfway there, and it was only 40 yards of so away, when I stepped in a mud hole in the bog. I was up to my knee in thick, stinking muck; the boot filled with cold, rancid water. I had gone down fast and hard and my other leg hit a stick and my knee flared in pain.
And as I floundered, one leg up to the knee in mucky water, the other hurting, my shotgun pinned under one hand, I heard a noise and in the same instant caught movement. Twelve, maybe fifteen wood ducks were over the decoys, wings fanning in the early light; panicked now that they saw me. They were no more than twenty yards away, right in front of where I’d been.
Their wings found purchase in the cool air; they flapped furiously, wild-eyed, then were up and away. I saw tail feathers as they headed over the dark line of distant trees.
I pulled myself up, emptied the boot, limped down to where the ducks had landed earlier. I never saw another duck.
“The Duck Hunt: Act Three”.
I was wiser now and on the third day set the decoys and under the over of darkness hobbled achy-kneed down the shore where the ducks had landed on Days One and Two. I was ready. I waited. For two hours.
I never saw a duck.
Which led, on my final day off, to “The Last Hurrah” on which I took Riika and Thor, and drove to the forested areas that they have hunted for a decade plus. There, under a late October sun we walked, my dogs and I. They worked hard, moving in the thickness. They put up birds, 5 grouse, half a dozen woodcock in the hour and a half we were out. I had one shot; missed it.
It was a beautiful day and the dogs were in their glory, an afternoon more fulfilling, in the end, than any game dinner would ever be.
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