The patient rituals of the duck hunter
BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
Daybreak was a number on a watch face that I could not read; a rumor whispered too soft to be heard. Dawn was a concept more than reality. It was very dark and the world was of black and gray and shadow and nothing was distinct.
The moon shone clear early evening prior, a waxing moon, less than a week away from full; the Hunters Moon. But later, clouds gathered and passed in front of the moon as ships at sail. Now, near dawn, heavy cloud. The air smelled of fallen leaf and swamp and rain to come.
I had walked down the hill to the lake with my headlamp lighting the path. I loaded the boat with decoys and pushed off. There was a breeze; northerly and chill. I paddled into it and tossed the decoys one by one. In the time it took me to unwind the cord and anchor the wind would push the boat down too far and I’d have to paddle back into the breeze to set the next decoy.
“Much of hunting is about settling in and waiting. At least it is for waterfowl over the autumn waters with a wind that brings hint of cold weather to come.” Mitch Mode
When the last one was placed I let the boat drift downwind then turned it and paddled to shore. I picked up shotgun, binoculars and shells. Then I walked into the woods along the edge of the lake to where I’d placed the decoys. It was still dark and even though I knew it was close to shooting hours I could not see well enough to worry about it.
I’d built a ragged excuse for a blind a few weeks ago. A handful of saplings pushed into the soft, boggy muck; some spruce branches to fill it out, not much more. I sat on a five-gallon bucket turned upside down, a boat cushion on top for some measure of comfort. It would do.
It was still dark with the heavy shadow of passing night. I held my watch up but still could not read the face. I loaded the shotgun, leaned it against a small tree, pushed my hands in my coat pockets and settled in.
Much of hunting is about settling in and waiting. At least it is for waterfowl over the autumn waters with a wind that brings hint of cold weather to come. If you hunt ducks you learn to wait. So I hunched against the breeze and relaxed.
It did not get light as much as it gradually got less dark, as if the darkness was being peeled away like thin layers off an onion; white center exposed only after much effort. In time I could see the far side of the lake and I could read the watch. It was well past legal shooting hours.
It was still not very light, only finer shades of gray, and I saw movement across the lake and the movement was a duck fighting the wind, rising with the breeze. In a moment it was gone into cloud and wind and mystery of early morning ducks; now you see them, now you don’t.
I heard crows before I saw them; a dozen or so, riding the wind as if for sheer joy of doing it, cawing and carrying on as they do. I had the idle thought: When are there enough crows in a group to be called the term for a group of crows which is, that term, a murder? I thought about that as I sat on the bucket on the gray morning: what number makes a murder?
That’s where your mind goes at times alone on a lake waiting for ducks to come from a cloud-laden sky. You wonder how many crows it takes to make a murder and decide perhaps it’s the same number of ducks to make a flock. One or two or three doesn’t do it, you need more than that, more to make a flock and more to make a murder. I watched the dozen crows fly and decided that, yes, that must be a murder. Then I saw movement that was not crows but ducks and perhaps ten or twelve. No doubt: a flock of ducks.
The ducks flew low then pulled up, made a wide sweeping turn and came back with the wind at their tails, full bore. Down the length of the lake and then back, into the wind, slower. Then they tipped toward the far shore and landed on that side of the lake. They settled in.
I had reached for the shotgun when I saw the ducks and now it lay across my lap. I left it there. The weight felt good for some reason.
In the next hour I saw more ducks, mostly distant, singles and a few pairs; no flocks and nothing came close. That’s how it goes on some days; promise in the air but nothing comes of it save for an occasional moment of high attention and a tightness and a rising excitement.
The five mallards were on the water to the north of me and I will never know where they came from. I did not see them land so maybe they had been there all along and now, for some reason, were swimming toward the decoys. I kept my head down and let my right hand move to the stock of the shotgun then slide up to the trigger guard. They came on, against all odds, steady and sure until just outside the decoys. They slowed and drew closer together and I stood and the ducks took flight and I covered one in the sights and killed it with one shot.
The other four were gone into the hazy shadows of that still-dark day and in moments the echo from the shot was gone as well. I stood in the wind of that fall morning and watched the duck drift with the waves. The drizzle that had been falling turned to rain. I bent to pick up my gear and then walked down the shore to the boat in the rain and the wind and the autumn morning.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.