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