Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pop, and Learning to Hunt and Fish

I remember…
                It was early.  The stars were still blazing in the frozen sky as we crossed the barbed-wire fence and started into the woods on a long-unused road bed around the side of the mountain.  The deep grass was white with a heavy frost that gave the impression of a light snowfall instead.  It was cold.  To my ten-year old body the cold was a probing blade seeking gaps in my none-too-efficient armor which consisted of an old pair of Texas Steer work boots from Kmart with all the socks I could fit in them, long johns and denim pants topped off with an undershirt, a long sleeved pull-over, a flannel shirt and a coat.  My head was capped with a knit cap, primarily called a toboggan in the Western end of North Carolina. 
I wasn't worried about the cold at this moment; I had one thing on my mind, and that was   squirrels.  The mountains around Maggie Valley, North Carolina are full of them and this was the first day of hunting season.  And my dad, whom we have always called Pop, was taking me and my brother Roy hunting.  It would be the first of many trips into those woods learning the ins and outs and ups and downs of squirrel hunting.  We made it a tradition and we almost never missed first day until my brother and I each joined the military and could no longer make it. 
Pop planted the seed…
Pop got us our first guns.  My first was a daisy BB gun and my brother got a Crossman air rifle.  Later we graduated to our first shotguns; a .410 for me and a 20 gauge single shot for Roy.  We were in hunting heaven.  He taught us gun safety early and often, and we learned to respect firearms.  We had no question what they could do; the evidence was vividly displayed in our first squirrels and doves.  Young people who actually learn to handle real guns don’t have a problem with treating them with the respect they are due.
…back to the hunt…
We eased quietly around the dark mountain in the graying dawn and up to a ridge that runs out from the side of the mountain, where he turned us up and back into a large stand of old-growth hickory trees.  The mountains across the valley were turning grey by now and Pop picked us out two nice spots and told us to watch the trees above as the morning progressed that the squirrels loved the hickory nuts and would be in for some breakfast.  He was going to circle below and get some at another spot, just down the mountain from us.  Pop had taken us with him hunting near home along the Catawba River many times before we got old enough to carry a gun so we were safe. It never occurred to us that we could be otherwise, besides, looking back, I realize that he needed to kill his limit, if possible, to help feed our family of six, at the time.  Money was tight and squirrels were good food for the cost of gas and a few shells. 
Roy and I sat and waited while he eased off the ridge to circle the base of the mountain.  The cold came creeping and probing in short order.  It’s one thing to stay warm while you hike around and up a mountain.  It’s an entirely different story when you stop moving and your heart rate slows down.  My fingers and toes went numb first, and then I started shivering.  Then I couldn't sit still.  I wanted to move, which Roy tried to discourage at first, but he was in the same boat.  We were several yards apart watching trees in different directions, but close enough to whisper rather loudly to each other, which we did more than we should have.
The sun was behind the mountain and we were on the western slope.  We watched as the sun crept down the mountain across from us.  It looked so warm over there, and the ridge to either side of us was glowing with the sun peeping around the side of the mountain.  The tops of our hickory trees lit up brilliant yellow as the sun began to creep down them.  The leaves were still on and at the height of their autumn color explosion, a part of the tradition that over the years I began to love even more than the hunting.  Soon enough we decided the trees over there were just as likely to have squirrels as the ones we were watching, so we gave in and crept over where the sun was shining.  It was deliciously warm. 
Pop’s gun began to boom with a rhythmic regularity as he circled below.  We continued to see nothing.  Finally Roy spotted one in the trees to our right and he started trying to sneak up on it.  I don’t think he got the first one, or maybe even the second one, but I think he got one or two before we left that section of woods.
Pop came back and we hunted with him for a while. He showed us how to trick the squirrel into circling the tree by sending one ahead while the other waited behind and stood quiet and still.  When the lead guy went by, the squirrel would try to keep the tree between him and the hunter and would circle to where the second guy could get a shot.  By taking turns we could each get chances at several kills.   There were many other things we learned through the years of hunting that mountain with Pop.
…Pop shared his knowledge…
Pop seemed to know every tree and bush.  He knew what it was called, what the leaves look like, what it was good for, if anything.  He pointed out weeds and told us their names.  A bird or an animal would appear and he would identify it and tell us its habits.  We learned of sourwoods, dogwoods, maples, hickory, oak, and so on.  We learned what ragweed, milkweed, Indian paintbrush, goldenrods and black-eyed-susans were.  We saw wood hens, goldfinches, mountain bluebirds, crows, ravens, hawks, blue jays and doves.  On and on, Pop opened up the wild to us, and we made it our own. 
He taught us how to walk quietly in the woods, even in dry leaves.  I was never perfect, but always passable and before long I could creep up on a tree with a squirrel in it and for the most part not give myself away.  Stalking was something he was really good at, and he taught us the tricks.  Sometimes he would whisper and tell us what to do.  Sometimes a hand gesture or even a nod of his head would indicate what he wanted us to try to do.  Sometimes we failed miserably and sometimes we nailed our quarry.  Often, we didn't even realize we were learning something about the woods, but then years later I recall doing something and suddenly realizing I had learned that from Pop.   

Pop taught us to enjoy it…
Pop took his deer and squirrel hunting seriously.  I think he had to.  He had a family to feed, and had hunted growing up to help feed his brothers and sisters. But dove shooting and rabbit hunting was another matter.  We dove hunted on the same farm where we squirrel hunted, only lower on the mountain in the cow pastures.  There was a group of us that went year after year to the farm to shoot the sky full of holes trying to kill a few birds.  We were good friends and when good friends go hunting together, the good times roll.  The hills rang not only with the sounds of gunshots, which echoed and rolled down the long valley, but with the shouts and laughter of friends poking fun at each other and each other’s shooting. 
There were times we were laughing so hard we couldn't shoot.  There were times we couldn't believe the shot someone just made.  There were times the birds flew in, in numbers that seem unbelievable when I look back, and there were days we sat and watched the empty skies.  Not one of those days will be forgotten and not one of them was wasted. 
When we started rabbit hunting we had no dogs.  Guess who played the beagle?  Most of the time it was me stomping through a brush pile or a thicket to scare up a rabbit, while Pop and a friend flanked the cover to either side and waited for me to run them out, but I got my share of shots when we would work our way up the valley in a skirmish line.  With rabbits, we didn't have to be stealthy or soft-spoken.  Once again we let the insults and laughter fly.  I had a Remington and our friend had a Winchester and we got a lot of mileage out of poking fun at each other’s favorite gun.
…Pop was a fisherman…
                As far back as I can remember, I recall Pop bringing home stringers full of fish.  I can’t clearly recall my first fishing trip.  I remember black Zebco 202 reels on fiberglass rods, with bobbers, hooks, and sinkers.  We dug “wiggle worms” and caught night crawlers in the yard for bait, which we used to catch bluegill, bream, and catfish in the river.  Pop showed us how to tie hooks and lures on with a knot that wouldn't slip out when we hook a big one, not that we hooked many of those, but just in case.
                Pop taught us how to cast lures and retrieve them at a speed and with some action to attract the fish we wanted to catch.  We learned that “fish ain't growing in the tree’s, boy”, and “leave it in the water long enough for them to find it”, and “all that racket’s going scare the all the fish in the river”, and many other pearls of wisdom associated with fishing. 
                Pop took us trout fishing on Buck Creek and Little Buck.  We sat in the truck in the dark and listened to the creeks as they tumbled over rocks and old dead logs into pools we hoped were full of trout eager to bite anything we had to offer.  Often they were.  Pop showed us how to float corn into and out of a pool or eddy to present it to a hungry trout.  Later we learned to use other lures and work them to get a wary trout to come after its dinner, only to become ours.

…Pop was a deer hunter…
                I remember from before I started grade school that Pop loved to deer hunt.  At some point in those early years, some idiotic hunter shot at Pop during deer season and hit the tree he was standing next to.  It was years before he would let me or Roy go with him deer hunting.  Finally, one year I saved up my money and bought a rifle and got it sighted in.  It was a lever action 35 Marlin and it was used but in good shape.  So we scouted an area and I picked out a deadfall that looked down into a hollow which had several intersecting deer trails.  Pop thought it was a good place and I was excited and expecting to make a kill on my first hunt.  It wasn't to happen that day, but that morning I saw a very nice buck jump a log on a logging road bed that was out of range of my 35.  It was as beautiful a picture as ever you will see in any magazine and I was hooked.
                As it turned out, It was several years later, after my military enlistment was up before I got my first deer, but It was Pop who arranged the hunt and helped me learn the lay of the land. 
…Pop passed, and still passes, his knowledge along…
                From trailing deer, to catching fish, to sneaking up on a wily old squirrel, to the best way to lead a flying bird to get a killing shot, Pop was free with his help and guidance to not only my brothers and I, but to several other young people he took under his wing at various times.  He also often gave advice to older hunters who wanted to know the secrets of his successes in hunting and fishing. 
…And then I had a son…
                My son John was born in 1993 and before his first birthday I had his lifetime licenses purchased.  The Bible says “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  I was determined to raise my son to love the outdoors as much as I do.  I began when he was old enough for a cap gun and a toy lever action.  Early and often I talked about gun safety and respect for the weapon and the game.  I had toy raccoon and other stuffed animals that we pretended to stalk and kill. 
                Later I got him a BB gun and took him with me hunting for squirrels and doves.  I taught him the same things my Pop had taught me.  My father-in-law handed down to my son his old .410 and I got John a Henry lever action .22.  I had him on the right track, but more and more I had to put in some long hours at work and a lot of weekends.  My ability to get him to the field and woods was severely impacted and both he and I got frustrated with it. 
                One sad week I wanted desperately to take my son hunting but was mandated to work again.  I was upset terribly.  Then the thought crossed my mind.  Send him with Pop.
                I called up my dad and asked him, “Pop, are you going to the mountains this weekend?” He said yes and I asked if he could take my son along.  He was happy to get the chance to do that and I sent him off with Pop on Friday evening so they could go groundhog shooting in the mountains on Saturday. 
                Sending my son on that hunting trip turns out to be one of the best things I have ever done.  Pop took him under his wing and taught him more about hunting and fishing than I ever could have and in the process built a bond between them that will last forever. 
                Groundhog hunting is like a fine art in long-range shooting.  You find a groundhog way off down the valley with your binoculars, estimate the range, figure out your windage and try to bust it in one shot.  It’s a primo way to hone your sniper skills, and my Pop is the best I have seen at it.  I’m mediocre at best.  Pop has now spent ten years teaching my son to make that kind of shot and my son is now as good as Pop is, and a better shot than I will ever be. 
                That is why my son is deadly on deer.  Pop has taught us both everything he can about deer hunting and we both do very well almost every season in recent years. 
…Pop is 73 years old…
                To this day, Pop is still taking new hunters under his wing.  A couple or so years ago, he began to take one my nephews on hunting and fishing trips, and this year he started with another young nephew who needs a mentor in the outdoor skills he needs to become a hunter.  He has begun to nurture the interest there that will bring these young men into the hunting fold with the rest of us.  If you look at his legacy, my Pop has done a lot for his family and for our heritage of hunting, fishing, and loving the wild outdoors.  Every time we go, we will have stories and laughs to share and remember with and about the man who showed us the way. 
                Now it’s our turn.  The next generation is coming and they are a blank slate.  I hope I can teach more to my nephews, once my Pop no longer can, as we continue to hunt and fish the hills and valleys of western North Carolina and beyond. Then the torch passes to them.

James Lee Frady (c) 9/21/2014


Friday, April 25, 2014

Ramblings and Disjointed Memories about Johnny, the Fishcamp, Skates and Skateboards

Johnny Justice was my best friend growing up.  He used to live upstairs in the Dolphin Fish Camp.  Roy and I used to go spend the night as often as we could get permission.  It was great fun.  We played all kinds of different games, pretended we were Kung-fu or Karate masters, or just tried to learn something about them by reading the exercises and moves in a book Johnny had.  We had big ideas about getting black belts and whooping people’s butts, but in reality we learned very little.

We could stay up as late as we wanted and we watched TV, sometimes until the color test pattern came on way, way up in the wee hours.  If you are of a certain age, you will remember the color pattern. If not, don't worry about it. It really wasn't that entertaining. We watched the late show, the late, late show, and the way-too-late-for-young-boys-show.  All the old horror movies would play in those late night programs.  Sometimes we watch the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits on a show called Those Were the Years, hosted by Mike McKay.

One of the best parts of staying over at Johnny’s house was the food.  When we got hungry, whatever time that may be in the evening, Johnny would call someone downstairs in the Fish Camp kitchen and before long up the steps would come a tray with plates of food.  The only thing I can remember clearly was the cheeseburger and fries.  The burger was fantastic to me and I loved it with slaw and mustard.  It came with a pile of french-fries that buried the plate.  I always ate every bite of mine. 

Downstairs was mostly a mystery and I can only remember going into the kitchen area once or twice.  I think we were told not to go down there, and now that I’m aware of all the health regulations involved in a restaurant, I understand that perfectly.  That was fine with me, Johnny had plenty of toys and games and we had lots of room up there to play.

If you went outside and around to the back, there was a small yard and then a road.  Just a few yards away with its own parking lot, was another fish camp called the River Breeze Fish Camp.  I can’t recall having ever eaten there or any of the food from there.  I guess we didn't want to support the competition of the Dolphin, since we were friends with and went to church with the owners. 

Turn left toward the main road and about one hundred yards out was the Catawba Swimming Pool.  Johnny’s brother owned that.  Often in the summer we would go swimming there.  Roy once fell asleep on the concrete there and got the worst sunburn I ever saw him have.  It was bad.  He was as red as a boiled lobster and blistered badly.  All on one side.  No one ever flipped him over to let the other side get done, I guess.  I felt sorry for him because the burn was very painful over the next several days.  I got sunburned a few times growing up but I never was bad to burn.  I spent so much time outside that from early spring until cold weather in the fall; I stayed tanned brown as an Indian.  I don’t recall anything, other than the tops of my feet a few years ago, ever getting burned as badly as Roy came home that day.

The juke box at the pool stayed current with all the hits every summer that we lived on Garden Creek.  I knew most of the songs because in the summer from the time the pool opened until it closed in the evening, all the hits were rolling out on the breeze at max volume.  And since my house was only two or three hundred yards away as the crow would fly, I heard them loud and clear.  Not every day, but very regularly.  I could sing along with most of the hit parade back then without ever buying a record of my own.  The music of the seventies is still the best, even up as far as the mid eighties, but that’s another topic. 

It cost a dollar to go in at the pool.  It was shaped like an L and was around three and a half feet at the shallow end and a deep twelve feet at the deep end.  The deep end had two diving boards.  One was about three or four feet above the water and the other was way up there.  It was ten or twelve feet above the splash down.  I belly flopped from up there once.  It was ugly.  It was painful.  It was hilarious…to everyone except me.  I came out almost as red as Roy’s sunburn. 

Later in life I found out it was a lot of fun to deliberately belly flop from the low dive and splash water all over sunbathers around the edge of the pool.  I got a lot of mileage out of that trick before it got old.  I got so good at it that in summer camp at Elks Camp for Boys I came in second place for the big splash competition.  The winner weighed three times what I did at the time. 

It took Johnny a lot of talking to get me to go off the high dive the first time ever, and I was nervous about it every time for a long time.  Diving head first was out of the question but I could knife the water pretty sharp going toes first.  I was the bomb doing cannon balls…pun intended.  We had a dive called the can opener I think that was popular for a little while.  I never really got the form down.  But we didn't get to go over there as often as you would think from reading this.

Across the road from the swimming pool was a skating rink.  I got my one and only adventure in skating there.

One of my elementary school field trips was to the skating rink.  I am unsure now of the educational connection to that trip, but we didn't complain at the time.  Well, I had never put a pair of them suicide suede shoes on my feet before that day, so I spent more time down than up.  I didn't know my legs could actually go in so many directions in such a short time, immediately followed by a loud “THUMP!” as some body part or another hit the hardwood floor.  There was a trick to this, and I wasn't getting it.

Finally after an hour or so of struggling, I managed to stay upright, though a bit wobbly.  After several minutes teetering around the edge of the floor I got enough confidence to stray out into traffic.  This proved to be a poor decision. 

In my class was a group of girls who no doubt went on to become Olympic Roller-skaters.  One of them was an exceptionally mean girl whom got great delight from tormenting boys whom she knew couldn't fight back.  Every time one did, he ended up in the Principal’s office explaining why HE was picking on HER.  She had a way of turning things around on you.

Well this girl spied my feeble attempts at skating and began to devise an evil plan to crush my budding talent out of existence. She got about four friends and they all began to skate side-by-side with arms locked.  They swept around and around the rink like a giant scimitar slicing through the air seeking flesh to chop into minced meat. 

By this time I was actually moving along steadily, though slowly, in the same direction as the galaxy of more talented stars on roller skates.

Suddenly something grabbed my left arm and held on.  It was HER. 

“I’ll help you.” She said.  Her friends all heard her.

“I’m doing ok. Just leave me alone.”  I said as I realized they were speeding up.

I was being accelerated also.  In seconds they were a five-girl-wide catapult with a projectile named James locked and loaded.

They took me all the way around the rink, growing faster by the second. I was hanging on for dear life, and somehow managing to stay on my feet.  I don’t know how.

Then in an instant of time, forever burned into my brain; she turned loose. 

Now at first thought, that might seem like a good thing.  Well, let’s examine the facts: 1. I was a brand new skater, with no, none, zip, zilch, nada skills.  2. I was on a hardwood floor surrounded by railings and barriers on all sides, plus other skaters. 3.  I was at that instant travelling slightly faster than warp factor six.  4. I had no clue how to stop.

In a blink there was a series of loud noises that I thought must be sonic booms as I obliterated the sound barrier.  Those noises were me hitting the railing, bouncing off, hitting another skater, bouncing off, and hitting the floor, and bouncing. The need for speed was replaced by a need for body casts.  I lay there and groaned for a minute as I inventoried body parts.  Legs…check. Arms…check.  Head…well, it’s spinning but it’s still there…check.  Multiple bruises and abrasions and pains…check, check, check.   But on the brighter side I was still alive…or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

My manly pride was demolished.  I rolled over, took off the skates and limped to a seat somewhere.  I was ready to go back to school.  My teacher wasn't interested in what happened.  In fact it seemed like no one noticed it at all.  Little Miss Mean-and-Evil got off free as a bird.  I hatched a series of plans for vengeance that never came to pass.  I am not sure what ever became of that budding young serial killer.  She is probably selling used brooms at Hogwarts or something.

I never took an interest in skating again.  That was for other people: People who were magically gifted with multiple axes of coordination; People who had grace and style.  I could climb any tree on either side of the Catawba River, but couldn't stay upright with a set of wheels strapped to my feet.  It was a curse I could live with.

Skateboards were a different story.  I took an interest in them.  Which led to an intense interest in a thing called Road Rash.  My cousin Bobby, who was a few years older than I, was a wizard on a skate board.  When we visited my aunt and uncle in Bent Creek, there were several times I saw him do some amazing tricks on his skate board.  Naturally, when I got one I had to push the limits to ride that thing.  Near my house was a road named Airport Road, which, amazingly enough, goes out to the Marion Airport.  There is one long, curvy hill that is not too steep, but it’s long…and curvy…and had some wear and tear. 

Skateboards have the most amazing wheels on them.  You can spin one and it goes on and on and on and on, before it slowly winds to a stop.  The bearings in the wheels are smooth and have very little friction.  They are also noticeably short on brakes.  It doesn't take much of a slope for a person on a skateboard to build up some impressive speed.  One method of controlling your speed is to swing back and forth in a wide zigzag to burn off speed in the curves.  It kept your speed down and made the ride last longer too.  

There were only two sources of energy to move a skateboard; one being push with one leg while riding with the other, the other is simply gravity.  So once you went down a hill the only way to recharge that thing was to ride and push, or to pick it up and carry it back up the hill.  I always started pushing but switched to carrying and walking before long.

The hill on Airport Road was often call roller coaster hill by Roy, Johnny and I.  It didn't go up and down, but on a bicycle or skateboard it made for some pretty impressive speed and the curves were smooth enough to glide through without braking, until you flattened out for a short distance before dropping off a short steep hill to Garden Creek Road.

On a skateboard we would start at the top and quickly start building speed.  I generally would start swinging side to side pretty soon so as to control my speed.  If my speed got to climbing too much I would jump off while I was still slow enough to stay on my feet, and run to a stop, hop back on and start over. 

Sometimes it just didn't work out.  One such occasion was a nice sunny summer day when I was heading down the road, keeping it under control.  Then I met some traffic.  I straightened up and stayed in my lane until the traffic passed.  That’s when I realized I was too fast to jump off and run it out.  I was also too fast to attempt to start swinging to burn off speed.  I was smokin’ it down that hill straight down the center of my lane gaining speed by the second.  I kept my knees bent and kept my balance terrifically as I zoomed by driveways and mailboxes.  At first I was terrified, but I was doing so good and going so fast I started getting comfortable.  “Wait till I tell everyone about this”, I thought.  “I’m probably the fastest person to ever ride this hill on a skateboard.” 

A little wobble brought me back to reality.  It would be bad to lose control now.  So, on I went; down and around the last curve and out into the flat.  I had this ride in the bag and would soon have it to brag about.  Thank goodness I was beginning to lose some of that speed.

There’s a remarkable property of those amazing skateboard wheels I spoke of earlier.  They can spin with very little friction and incredible speed, but they will stop dead for a piece of gravel the size of a pea.

As I flew by one of the driveways down near the bottom of the hill, I discovered that cars exiting the drive had carried some small gravel into the road.  When I say discovered, what I mean is that at one instant I was cruising along on a screaming red acrylic skateboard, and one microsecond later I was flying four inches above the pavement with nothing under me but air and raw pavement.  The board was sitting in the road behind me like it had been there all day. 

They say when you are about to die, your whole life flashes before your eyes.  I don’t know about that, but I am quite sure time slowed to a crawl so I could take note of the things that were about to attempt to kill me.  The pavement was growing closer and clearer at a remarkable rate, the gritty, rough surface reaching up to try to shred me like cheese on a taco.  The green weeds and grass were just to my right promising a softer, gentler landing.  It was a promise that proved to be just out of reach before the first bounce. 

Slam! “Left elbow, left knee are reporting major damage sir.”  Slam!  “Right knee has taken a hit, sir.” TumbleTumbleTumbleTumbleTumble  Tumble   Tumble    Tumble Slide Slide Slide….Stop. 

When I opened my eyes, There was a clear blue sky above with only a couple of cotton-ball clouds.  There were deep green trees waving in a soft breeze.  There were birds singing from the branches and shrubs.  Wow, I must have made it to heaven.  

Then the pain hit.  Nope, I reckon not. 

I heard through the roar in my head a car coming down the hill.  My skateboard was still in the road.  I jumped up and hobbled out and grabbed it and stumbled back into the ditch.  I gave the driver a feeble wave and a weak smile as the car went past.  Then I looked at my knees.

I had some solid battle wounds.  I had road rash on both knees, the left worse than the right.  It was skinned about half the size of a dollar bill pretty good, with more scrapes around the edges that fanned out into a fair-sized area.  The right knee was about half that, and my left elbow was missing enough skin to cover with a silver dollar.  I had several smaller scratches form tumbling and landing in the weeds. 

All in all I fared pretty well.  I didn't even have to go to the doctor for that one. There were several accidents that took me for stitches at the doctor’s office.  The skateboard wreck I washed off in the river and tried to keep it hidden, but Mom saw it pretty quick that night when I came in.  When she asked all I told her was I fell down when I was going down a hill.  She cleaned it up with that most dreaded of solutions:  Rubbing Alcohol.  That was worse than the original pain, but I eventually got over the agony.

Sometime later I was playing with that skate board and attempted to “walk” it by standing on the front tip and the back edge.  I would shift my weight from right to left and back alternately lifting the front and back off the ground and shifting it forward.  When my weight came down on one step on both ends at once, Bam! The skateboard broke clear in two, right in the center.  I was fairly upset, that was one of my favorite toys at the time, but I think maybe it worked out in my best interest.

I never owned another skateboard.  My interest drifted to other things and I never got around to getting another one. 

James Lee Frady (c) 4/25/2014

Saturday, February 1, 2014

My First, and last, Duck Hunt

Duck Hunting

            It was in the last bright days of Indian Summer, those magical few warm days before the temperatures plunge for their final descent into the coldness of winter that Pop came home from squirrel hunting down the river with more than the four or five squirrels that would soon become dumplings in my mom’s biggest pot.  This memorable day he also had killed four or five ducks to clean for the Frady table.  As far as I can remember, it was the first time I had ever seen wild ducks killed and brought home. 

            I was amazed with these ducks.  I had read the outdoor magazines and read about duck hunting, but that was something they did somewhere else, far away from our little corner of the state.   They hunted in fields near lakes and swamps; we had the fields and a river.  They had hunting dogs that jumped into freezing water and swam after downed birds. We had a Feist squirrel dog that wouldn’t jump in the river in late fall for a t-bone steak.  They hunted from blinds set up near decoys with duck calls and fancy shotguns.  We had no such arrangement.  No, the thought had never crossed my mind to go duck hunting along our piece of the Catawba.

            These ducks were Mallards.  The beautifully colored males had the shiny metallic green heads with a white ring around the base of their neck while the female was better camouflaged in grays, browns, and tans.  Both had bright teal stripes near the back inner part of their wings.  Mallards are one of the prettiest birds around and they never fail to make me think of autumn and hunting, even though I’m not much of a duck hunter.  At least these days I’m not.  But there was that one hunting trip I made….

            A week or so after my dad brought home the ducks, there came a perfect fall day and the great outdoors were calling my name loudly and with urgency.  I had to hit the hunting trail.  So I grabbed my brother’s 20-gauge shotgun and a pocket full of shells and went after a mess of squirrels.  I followed the edge of the river down across the empty cornfields toward the cow pastures below.  There were a few rabbits along that side of the fields next to the river but not really any squirrels.  However, once you got down to the pastures, there were some oaks and a good number of hickory trees along the river.  Squirrels were plentiful when the trees had hickory nuts and acorns on them and we had brought home a good number from those trees. 

            Once I was across the fence and approaching the first of the groups of oak trees I slowed to a stealthy pace and tried to keep silent, with other trees and brush between me and the trees I hoped had some squirrels in them.  One slow step at a time then pause, and search the tree from bottom to top for any sign of my prey.  For the first several trees I had no luck. The squirrels weren’t moving.  Then as I approached a couple of hickory trees standing together, a tell-tale flash of gray followed by the hoarse bark of a big squirrel told me my first squirrel was dead ahead.

            Ever so carefully, step by silent step I eased along the riverbank with my eyes scanning the tree.  There he was! About forty feet up near a fork in the first hickory; I saw the squirrel circle the tree.  I watched and waited but he wouldn’t budge back to my side.  I eased in a circle around the base, looking up the trunk and searching every nook and cranny for the squirrel.  After a few scans of the tree I spotted a section of the bark on the trunk that seemed a bit smoother than the rest.  Softly three or four steps back I crept, watching that spot.  I could make him out now.  He was flattened tight against the bark, high up in the tree.  Now that I had him spotted he was an easy shot and I raised that old twenty up, set the bead on the squirrel and squeezed off a shot.  BOOM! And the squirrel tumbled from the treetop down and out to land ten or fifteen feet from where I was standing.  My first squirrel of the morning was in the bag.

            I watched those two trees for several more minutes in case I had missed one, but nothing else showed there, so I turned on down the river. 

            I moved from one group of trees to another hoping for another squirrel but it was a little while before I saw my second one.  This one didn’t try to hide, but took off running from tree to tree trying to reach the security of its nest before I got to him.  I hustled along to get down to where the squirrel was running through the limbs of one tree to head for the next and got there just as the squirrel ran up a long limb and leaped for the next tree.  I brought my gun up and followed through as he ran down the limb toward the safety of the thicker foliage.  BOOM! And the squirrel rolled down the limb and off into thin air before plummeting to the ground near the base of the tree. 

            I retrieved number two.

            By this time I was approaching a shallow bend in the river, which usually had a wide sand bar along the bank I was on.  The bend in the river forces the current over to the far bank and water on my side slowed dropping all it’s sediment.  The sand bar often had remains of fish and fresh-water clams along the water.  Evidence that animals of various kinds had come there to feed and with good success.  I had often spooked up a crane when approaching the sand bar, and had seen the tracks of opossum, raccoon, and bobcat.  It was a popular spot among the animals, it seemed. That day it would become the scene of a terrible massacre.

            Across the river and downstream about twenty or so yards, a large rock protruded into the river current from the far bank.  On the glorious day, what should be on the rock waiting to test my hunting skills?  Six. Large. Ducks. 

            I hunkered down in the underbrush to check my eyes.  A second and third count revealed that indeed my eyes were telling me the truth.  There were six large ducks standing on the rock above the water.  All I had to do was sneak within gun range and I might get lucky and get two. I was pretty fast at popping shells into the old single-shot twenty. 

            I went Full Indian Mode.  Down on all fours, I crept silently through the underbrush.  I wriggled through vines and under bushes.  I got a tree between my prey and me, and I crept straight at them.  I finally eased up behind a tree trunk just across the river from the ducks and peeked across at them.  All were still there waddling around on the rock, occasionally quacking as if in idle conversation.

            I laid out three shells besides the one in the gun chamber. 

            I cocked the hammer back softly.

            I carefully placed the bead on the head of the duck closest the edge.

            I squeezed the trigger slowly.

            BOOM! The first round fired and the first duck hit the water.  Click! Pop! Plunk, Snap! And a new shell was in the chamber and the gun was coming up and…the ducks had not even moved. 

            In my mind I thought I was such a good hunter that those ducks had no idea what had just happened.  Now if I had thought a moment, I would have realized those ducks should have flown simply from the noise and it was unnatural for them to just sit there, but I couldn’t wait to get another so:

            I cocked the hammer back softly.

            I carefully placed the bead on the head of the duck closest the edge.

            I squeezed the trigger slowly.

            BOOM! The second round fired and the second duck hit the water.  Click! Pop! Plunk, Snap! And a new shell was in the chamber and the gun was coming up and…the ducks had not even moved. 

            Hmmm!?  Dang.  These ducks have no idea what’s going on here.  I have them completely fooled.  There was someone being fooled all right, but we’ll get to that soon enough.  There’s ducks need’n killin’ so:

            I cocked the hammer back softly.

            I carefully placed the bead on the head of the duck closest the edge.

            I squeezed the trigger slowly.

            BOOM! The third round fired and the third duck hit the water.  Click! Pop! Plunk, Snap! And a new shell was in the chamber and the gun was coming up and…the ducks had not even moved.

            Ok fine, I’ve found the stupidest flock of ducks in the state.

            So, I aimed at the next duck without due diligence and BOOM!  The fourth duck hit the water and this time the remaining two ducks lit out like their tail was on fire, running up the hill on their side of the river.  Running? Now that’s weird.

            No time to ponder that.  I had ducks to retrieve and no dog, so it was my plan to outrun them to the next big curve to the left where the current would push the ducks right to me and I could scoop them out of the water one by one.

            I wriggled through the brush and across the barbed wire fence into the cow pasture and took off downstream at a good jog.  A small branch ran through the field and I had to cross it at a point where fishermen had stamped out a trail, so I veered into the trees next to the river down one bank, up the next and on down the river I went. 

I think it was probably three hundred yards down to the curve.  The fields end at the curve and I left my gun in the tall grass next to the fence and scampered through the woods and down the steep bank to the riverside.  I worked out onto a rock in the current and looked back upstream. 

Sure enough there came my first duck and I could see the second just beyond.  The third and fourth would be in sight soon I knew.  I waited and watched as the duck floated nearly straight toward me.  I couldn’t wait to see Pop’s face when I showed him my four ducks.  I was daydreaming about that as the first duck swept into the curve.  It swept past the end of an outstretched log, spun around a couple of times and went right on downstream against the far bank, far out of reach of anything I had to reach with.   Rats! 

The second duck followed the same pattern and though marginally closer it was a lost cause.  The third and fourth ducks followed suit, and I watched helplessly as they washed on down the river toward Lake James.  I was crushed. The greatness of my epic hunt was destroyed by the loss of all the ducks.  The water was far too cold to swim after them and at this point in the river it was far too swift as well.  Dejectedly I watched them float away and slowly disappear from sight. 

With all the spring gone from my steps and a long way to walk back home I climbed back up the bank and out to the edge of the field.  Retrieving the shotgun, I put another shell in the chamber and picked up my squirrels.  I didn’t do any hunting on the way home.  I just walked and thought about those ducks.  What a waste. 

Later that evening when Pop got home, I told him the whole story and how I had killed the ducks and how they didn’t run and how I lost them in the curve.  I was bummed. 

Then he asked me what kind of ducks were they?

“I don’t know, they were just big ducks.”

Then he asked me what colors were the ducks?  Were they green and brown like the ones he killed? 

“No these were even bigger than those and they were all snow white.”

“Holy Cow boy, you shot some farmer’s flock of ducks!  Those were tame ducks and you killed almost the whole bunch.”

With a few choice words he told me he hope to @*%&# that farmer didn’t figure out were his ducks went.  Then he laughed about it and as near as I can remember nothing was ever said about it again. 

Now, I have never gone duck hunting since then, and don’t have any desire to now.  I don’t have the dogs or the lakes, or the blinds, and heaven knows I don’t want to chase them to the bend in the river just to watch them float on by.

James Lee Frady (c) 2/1/2014