It was like being called up to the majors from third string on a T-Ball team. Although I was only in my third season as I duck hunter I knew what it meant to joining Howard and his crew on a duck hunt.
Dad and I were sitting around the kitchen table of the musty little trailer that served as our camp eating a dinner of squirrel and dumplings, listening to the weather radio when we heared footsteps on the stairs.
“Ramsey! You in there?” a voice boomed outside the kitchen window.
“Come on in!”
Howard and Jimmy stepped in from the night air and the cold spilled into the little trailer. Both men wore heavy coats and still had on their chest waders. Howard was lean and fit with salt and pepper hair and a lanyard around his neck holding two black plastic calls and more duck bands than I had ever seen. His regular hunting partner Jimmy stood a good bit taller, his olive skin. Black hair and bushy beard hinting to his Greek ancestry.
“Have a seat.” Dad offered. “Care for some supper?”
“I appreciate it Bill but we need to get back to town.” Howard spoke for both men. “But if you have a batch of Nippy tucked away in a flask somewhere it sure wouldn’t hurt.”
Dad was known to always have a batch of “Nippy” somewhere in the trailer or on his person when we were at the camp. It was short for Nip I Diddee, named for an old top water fishing lure the concoction was three parts apricot brandy and 1 part Wild Turkey 101. Dad’s longtime friend Judge Guider had given it the name, saying “This stuff is like a Nip I Diddee, one little taste and you’re HOOKED!”
“Right there by the town water.” Dad said.
Though we had running water from a well at the camp it wasn’t fit for much other than washing stink off duck hunters and mud off boots. It was clear enough but smelled and tasted like rusted cast iron. I never investigated it much deeper than that but dad swore it would turn scotch purple so he even made ice with town water less it ruin his highballs.
Howard and Jimmy each took a fair pull off the flask and placed it back on the counter.
“Pretty tough out there.” Dad said and the men shuttered from the burning warmth of the liquor. “That batch is fifty-fifty on account of the cold.”
“Might need to have a backup made before morning.” Jimmy said, reching back to the flask and taking another small pull.
“We aren’t gonna hunt tomorrow.” Dad said. “Too cold. The Tupe is frozen solid!”
My heart crashed. This was the first I had heard of it and dad could see I was fighting back tears.
“We might ease down the bayou or go check the sunflower once it warms up a bit though.” He said in hope of not completely crushing my spirits.
“Well that’s why we stopped in.” Howard said. “Why don’t you and the Brad join us in the morning?”
From the depths of despair my soul soared to its highest summit. A hunt with Howard and his crew was more than I could have dared hope for. These men weren’t just duck hunters, they were duck KILLERS.
Throughout the delta Howard had the much deserved reputation of being a living duck hunting legend. He, Jimmy and Demery were the top of the mark.
Long before waterfowling became an industry. Before there was any such thing as a celebrity duck hunter, before videos and web sites, heck before there was such a thing as hunting shows on television, these men were renowned for their skill and determination when it came to killing ducks. And though I was still wet behind the ears as a duck hunter their “fame” was already well known to me.
“I don’t know Howard it’s gonna be mighty tough out there…” Dad started. But I cut him off at once.
“I can wear Tom’s heavy coat and I have extra socks. I’ve got two pairs of long johns and I can wear my sweats under the jumpsuit and…”
“See Bill the boy knows what to do.” Jimmy said giving me a wink.
“Hell Howard it’ll be froze solid everywhere in the morning.” My father replied. “We couldn’t even get the boat to the blind today.”
“Don’t need one.” Howard said. “But if you don’t want to go…”
My spirits began to plummet again. A lump formed in my throat. Dad was about to ruin my chance to hunt with Howard and his crew. I could feel the tears building in my eyes.
“You just sleep in and we’ll take Brad along with us.” Howard said, giving me a smile.
At that I saw a look come over my father that I knew meant we were in.
“What did you find Howard?” Dad said, placing his empty bowl in the sink and walking over to the bar to pick up the Nippy.
Howard went on to explain that they had seen ducks moving north that morning but not low enough to think they were leaving. They had followed them and found the mother load of mallards down the old board road in the deeper waters of an old oil well site. We could drive our trucks to within fifty yards of it and could stand on the high spoil bank around the sunken hole that I now know must have been a reserve pit for the well.
“It’s gonna be a big group.” Howard said. “Braddock is bringing Tal and Demery will join us as well. I think Donnie and Trey might be there also.”
This last clue told dad all he needed to know. If Howard was inviting the masses it meant he had a burner of a shoot lined up. When he and his guys found em thick they would bring in every gun they could find, so long as they knew none of them would tell where they found the birds or go back to that spot without him.
“What time are we leaving?” was the last thing I remember him saying. My head was already swimming with visions of my short twenty gauge folding fat greenheads.
“You dress plenty warm.” Howard said as they stepped out of the door. “And bring plenty of shells.” He gave me a wink and stepped out into the cold night.
I spent the rest on the night rummaging through my hand-me-down hunting clothes, trying on every conceivable assortment of clothes. I plundered drawers and closets, packed and repacked a shell bag and practiced shouldering and swinging the 1100 20 gauge.
I was small for my age and the gun was too long for me to start with, the countless layers of ill-fitting clothes I had on under my rolled up camouflage jump suit didn’t help the matter at all. But I was determined to make it work.
I didn’t join dad for our usual nightly visit with the men of Strickland Deer Camp. Though I knew Mrs. Annie had cooked one of my favorite meals, fried deer meat, green, rice and gravy, I stayed in our little trailer trying on clothes, checking to make sure I had plenty of fluid for my hand warmers, LOTS of shells and anything else I could think of that might fit within the straining seams of the canvas satchel I had reallocated from my brother’s hunting gear.
Dad forced me to get into my bunk when he returned so I could get some rest. I obeyed the order but sleep was tough to come by. I dreamed of mallards crumpling before my gun, of Howard and his crew remarking on how good of a shot I was and tried to imagine what duck hunting by an oil well might look like?
I had visions of derricks and the pump jack dinosaurs popular in television commercials of the time. I puzzled over where we would hide and why the ducks would come to a place with giant steel machines tottering away in the middle of the woods. I tried to picture what a board road would look like, fancying a great broad boardwalk or bridge winding through the towering oaks. And finally I slept.
The sound of mud tires on wet gravel brought me bolt upright in bed before I knew I had been sleeping. The light was on in dad’s bedroom and the old electric percolator coffee pot was gurgling its first slow surges in the faint glow from the light over the stove.
Pajamas and all I burst out onto the porch to see who all was there. The truck belching steamy exhaust in the frost covered parking lot was not one from our party. Every member of The Tupe drove some sort of Bronco, Blazer or Scout. The vehicle I had heard was a pick-up, the tiger tail hanging from the gas cap told me it was Mr. J.C. I waved and turned to look at the thermometer mounted beside or door.
“Get your little butt back in that house boy!” J. C. yelled as he stepped out of his truck. “You’ll freeze to death before the ducks start flyin’.”
The temperature read twenty two. My breath brought clouds forth as heavy as the exhaust from J. C.’s truck.
“Yes sir…I’m hunting with Howard today…I got plenty of warm clothes…” I began yelling back to the old man who had taken a shine to me from my first trip to the camp. I had only just met him when he had bestowed on me the nickname that stuck with me for years around the camp.
“Get your ass inside and put em on then Tiny Shit!” He bellowed. And headed to the warmth of his own camp.
I ran back inside and before the coffee pot could finish was dressed in everything I had selected the night before, and a few extra layers just for good measure.
By the time everyone arrived I was sweating and pacing the floor. Dad had gotten up a little early and cooked extra sausage and biscuits for everyone but nobody, especially me, wanted to wait around to eat. Dad wrapped the warm breakfast in a flour sack towel then wrapped that in several layers of tinfoil and stuffed it deep into his blind bag beside the Nippy and a thermos of the hottest, blackest coffee I have ever known.
The parade of vehicles rolled out of the camp and into the darkened woods. Every one of the camp members owned an ATV of some sort. On warmer days you would see the strange array of them trundling off into the woods where we now bounced along within the warmth of our trucks. There were Hustler six wheelers, four wheel Coots, with their bizarre articulated bodies, and maybe a Max or two representing the round tired design. For tracked vehicles you had Kid and Tracksters and one other strange contraption that I am still not certain was not made in someone’s garage our of leftover tank and bulldozer parts.
They were all amphibious, or at least they were supposed to be, as reported by the grinning repair men in town who usually were the ones who sold us the contraptions. Three wheelers were just coming onto the market and aside from being notoriously unstable at high speed they couldn’t swim the deep cypress brakes or haul the mountain of men and gear that was usually part of a duck hunt in The Tupe. Mind you half of the gear was the tools and spare parts not a single amphib owner would dare leave home without, but that was part of the fun. You never knew when one would break down, throw a track, decide it was only going to run in reverse, etc. They were an endless source of entertainment. If laughing at your buddy breaking down in the middle of a swamp was your idea of fun. And for the men of The Tupe that was clearly the case.
When one of the other members walked into camp it always meant an afternoon repair or recovery operation. Everyone learned how to work on their own vehicle and those of their fellow camp members. And all of them became pretty fair shade tree mechanics, all of them but my father.
Dad had the ability, as Mr. Herman put it after helping dad repair his second brand new hustler in the span of only two seasons, to tear up an anvil with a rubber mallet. My father became so notorious for this total lack of mechanical skill that when anyone destroys a piece of equipment, ATV or otherwise, they were said to have Ramsmerized it.
My father’s Blazer was about the only thing with moving parts he didn’t seem to be able to destroy. He could get it stuck in wet grass mind you but other than the utter filth and funk of the beast it never gave him the least bit of trouble, much to the chagrin of the auto dealers who had heard of the riches filling the coffers of the local ATV mechanic dad used.
The dive seemed to take forever to me. Not having any idea where we were going I asked my dad about every low spot and swap the trucks splashed through, spinning tires and crunching thick sheets of ice that had formed over the past few days. In spots the trucks didn’t even break through, spinning and sliding and generally making for a thrill ride in that black woods that left more than a few dings and scratches on the trucks. I’m sure it seemed just as never ending for my father with a ten year old boy leaning up from the back seat bombarding him siwht questions while he did his level best to keep the trucks back end from passing its front.
After several deep water crossings where dad had put the pedal to the floor and told me to SIT BACK and everyone else to HANG ON, we broke out of the woods and onto the open gal pipeline that cut through the swamp. We crossed one more low spot and then from font to back each vehicle turned off its headlights and the procession dropped its speed to a crawl.
Brake lights came on and the ride was done. My heart began to pound. I saw men and boys emerging from the trucks in front of us, illuminated by the interior lights of the vehicles as the doors opened. Steam rose from every truck and I could hear hissing and ticking noises from the engine of dad’s blazer.
“Brad, you wait in here til we are ready to go…” Dad called back over his shoulder as he exited the truck.
“I’m ready.” I said popping up from the darkness when he opened the rear hatch of the truck, startling him more than I should have had I known of the heart condition that would surface a season or two down the road.
While dad was walking to the tailgate I had climbed over the back seat and begun ransacking the pile of gear piled in the back. I bounded down from the truck and started to march off toward…I didn’t know where. I was just going to get as close to Howard as I could and follow.
“Hold up!” dad whispered leaning in close and grabbing my shoulder. “Look son, you have got to slow down. Nobody is gonna leave you. We have a long walk from here and I need you to stay close to me. The board road will be icy and if you get wet now…”
“I won’t Dad…” I started to protest, pulling a flashlight I had stolen from my brother’s gear out and flipping it on.
Dad’s giant hand wrapped around the end of the light and darkness returned.
“Listen son, we don’t want to turn lights on if we don’t have to. And keep your voice down. You don’t want to scare off the ducks do you?” His voice was stern but pleading and I could tell he was trying to teach me something. I clicked off the light and removed his hand. In the distance I could hear Tal being scolded by his father to take on my imposed silence. Then another sound reached my young, knit facemask hat-flap covered ears.
Somewhere in the blackness a mallard hen let loose a ringing hail call. For a moment there was silence as everyone stood stock still. The she was shouted down by another hen, then others chimed in. Soon the entire dark world seemed to be alive with the sound of mallards. He’s called on top of each other and the buzzing sound of the drakes talking to their ladies murmured the background full of sound. Slowly, quietly our group slipped into a huddled bunch, silent in our own rite listening to the roar of ducks, the individual calls of any one hen now lost in the clamor of the as of yet unseen throng.
For a long moment we all stood there in the dim light that escaped the open door of one of the trucks. Behind the clouds of steaming breath I saw smiles on grown men’s faces that rivaled the ones on either of us two children. Then I saw something that threatened to ruin my day completely.
Tal, another member’s son, no bigger than me and in my same grade, was wearing waders!
I had begged my father for a pair of my own from the day I first knew they existed. Waders were the sure sign of a duck hunter. They meant you could hunt the flats and sloughs where no blinds had been built. You could chase down dead ducks where the boat could not penetrate the walls of button willows. With waders you were one of the men, not a “Low Quarter Boy”, a derogatory term my father used for pass shooters and sky busters who didn’t own chest waders like a real duck hunter. With waders you were no longer a little boy relegated to the banks and blinds.
Dad had sworn he would get me some but that they didn’t make them in my size. How wrong he was! There, in living proof was my age mate, standing gloriously in a fine pair of shiny green rubber waders, just like every other duck hunter in our group. And there I was, wearing sixteen layers of hand me downs stuffed into a calf high pair of rubber boots with laces no less. I was crushed!
Though I had been admonished to be silent I could not contain myself.
“Dad! Tal has waders!” I all but shouted.
“SHHHHhhhhhh!” Dad said putting his finger to his lips.
“Hush!” Dad leaned in and I could see he meant it. “I’ll find out where he got them. But you need to hush!”
I knew better than to push my luck. So I stood there admiring my friends waders, jealously eating my very soul as the men wrangled up the last of the gear and we set up in the darkness walking single file toward the raucous sound of the mallards somewhere beyond.
The Board Road was less spectacular than I had envisioned it. In the faint light offered by a full moon shining behind a thin layer of clouds I could just make out the old rotting planks. They and the weeds that had grown up through their gaps and cracks were coated in a heavy frost. But their relative regularity still stood out in sharp contrast to the other rutted roads that crisscrossed the swamp.
The lead through the overhanging forest traveling in a fairly straight line. Each step solid under my feet but treacherously slippery from the frost. I made the walk transfixed by two things, the sound of the ducks in the distance growing closer with each step and the sight of Tal’s waders.
Without warning our column came to a halt and for a split second the woods fell totally silent. Then the silence erupted around us as the ducks took flight with alarmed quacks and what sounded like waterfall or rushing rapids as they leapt into the night. The backlit clouds showed silhouettes of ducks fleeing in all directions and to a man we stood transfixed by the sight and sound before us.
When the skies cleared Howard and his crew gave the rest of the party their orders and set to work. Dad, Gerald, Tal and I were to set up on the spoil bank on the edge of the pond. Howard, Jimmy and Demery hauled the decoys out to the hole. They used the heavy decoy bags to bust through the thick ice at the edge and began setting up the spread.
As the rest of us made our way around the edge of the hole scattered clocks of ducks milled overhead chattering and dropping into the opening, some even splashing down alongside Howard and his crew as they placed the decoys and opened up a larger area by busting the thick ice into sheets and sliding it under the ice that remained.
When they were satisfied with their handiwork they joined us in the cover afforded by the trees along the spoil back and we were given the go-ahead to load up.
Ducks swirled overhead as we waited for legal shooting light. Scattered groups dropped into the opening and splashed down in the open water, some landing on the ice as well. Anticipation had mounted to a fevered pitch when Howard at last let us loos on the swarm. Shots rang out from every barrel, ducks flushed, ducks fell, guns roared and men cheered as the initial echoes faded.
Looking out over the opening and the ice beyond I saw several ducks down, some floating and several on the ice at the far side of the pond. A drake mallard stood up and started slip sliding his way toward the far bank.
“Shoot that cripple!” Someone called.
Shot raked the mallard and his escape was thwarted. Another shot rang out as one of our party noticed another duck thrashing in the open water trying to dive.
“Get a count.” Howard ordered. “And load back up. Jimmy, send the dog.”
At his master’s command the lab sprang from the bank, busting through the ice and made short work of the water retrieves. But when he was sent back again to the far birds that had fallen on the ice the sturdy dog ran into trouble.
Try as he might he could not climb on top of the ice and though he pounded it with his paws the ice would not give. He whined and whimpered as he fought the ice but at last Jimmy had to call him back. He obeyed but stopped twice in his return voyage to look back at the fallen birds as if to ask. “Are you sure? You see those don’t ya boss?”
Jimmy sent his pup back to his station on a high hump covered in button willows along the spoil bank. He waded over to pat the black dog on the head and reassure him he had done fine.
“It’s ok Buster, we’ll get em in a bit.” The tenderness in the big man’s voice spoke volumes of his relationship with the dog. “You did good, boy, you did fine.”
In the first wave seven guns had only brought down six ducks. I know for myself I might have hit one, but after that everything I tried to take a shot on was already falling or got out of my line of fire. I had emptied the little 20 gauge but even at that age I know most of my shots were more noise than anything.
“We gotta do better than that!” one of the men announced, including himself fin the poor marksmanship like a true sportsman.
Howard and his crew cut off the discussing with a series of hail calls. And we all leaned back into the brush and waited.
The next group was working wide as Howard, Jimmy and Demery played off of each other’s calling. Together they sounded like far more ducks than the few decoys we had scattered in the hole. But still, the ducks were edgy and working wide, slow circles. Several times they set up and look as though they were about to drop in, only to lift at the last minute and go around again for another look.
Then, unseen by anyone on their approach, a wad of wood ducks streamed in over the trees, swooped low over the decoys and overshot the open water of the hole, landing and sliding and crashing into each other on the ice. Not a shot was fired, the calling quit and we watched as the squealers righted themselves and looked around almost embarrassed.
Shooting wood ducks was a no-no in those days. Young boys on their first few hunts were allowed to shoot them, but after that they were all but off limits. Sure we might occasionally take in an afternoon shoot for them on one of the sloughs where we never hunted mallards, but when the decoys were out and we were after mallards, the only wood ducks to ever get shot were by guests or mistake. The point system was still the law of the land and it was a badge of shame to take up a greenhead’s spot with a high point square tail. Hen shooters got worse treatment and if they were guests seldom save another invitation come their way.
The slap-stick comedics of the wood ducks distracted most of the party so when Howard called the shot none of us knew what in the world he was talking about. His gunshot brought our attention to the flight of mallards that had pitched in from over our backs as we were watching the ice capades.
Jimmy and Demery each folded another greenhead while the rest of us tried to get or acts together but their three birds were all that fell from the twenty or more mallards that had been suckered in by the decent of the wood ducks.
“What the HELL? Why didn’t yall shoot?” Demery asked as he took a few short steps and retrieved the drake that had fallen just off the bank.
Our excuses were nearly identical and some good natured ribbing eased the anguish of watching the rest of the flock escape unharmed, but it didn’t erase it.
“Well damn Howard when you call the shot with your gun it’s hard to catch up.” Dad teased his friend.
“Now Ramsey don’t be telling lies in front of that boy of yours. You know good and well I called the shot while yall were sitting there birdwatching.”
“Yea, ‘Take EmBOOM’” Dad replied. “You ought to be ashamed bird hogging like that in front of the children!” he finished with a grin.
“Boys, now yall pay attention.” Jimmy chimed in. “This your fathers just showed you how NOT to kill ducks.” He burst out laughing.
“That’s right.” Howard said. “You boys watch me and these two.” He said gesturing to his friends. “Don’t try to look up at the birds when they’re working. Those bright little smiling faces will flare em every time. Keep your head down and watch us. Those mallards didn’t want to do it but when the wood ducks pitched in and didn’t get shot to pieces them big old ducks figured it was safe.”
The next group of mallards were even more uneasy. On several passes they descended well within range but still would not commit. Demery even asked Howard if he wanted to let us young boys try our skills on a particularly low pass.
“No tree-topping” Howard responded firmly. But after a few more passes the birds simply drifted off to our north.
“There’s something they don’t like.” Howard said abandoning his spot off the bank and climbing up on dry ground with us.
“Demery, Jimmy, get up on the bank in more cover.” He called down the line. With everyone in place the hunt resumed.
Scattered small groups of birds worked the spread but other than a lone drake Gerald dropped on the ice nothing would commit.
Howard adjusted the decoys a few times and all the men helped knock the ice back and off the decoys. Still the birds wouldn’t work. There were enough birds around the keep us hopeful but the flocks that did circle would all eventually drift off to the north.
“I guess it’s as good a time for breakfast as any?” Dad said, rumbaing through his satchel and pulling out the foil wrapped bundle of sausage and biscuits.
“By God Ramsey I knew there was a reason we kept you around!” Jimmy said as dad offered up the repast.
Our little group had been spread pretty evenly along the back until the food and coffee was brought out. With a general lull in flights going on we gathered in a loose group and shared our simple meal and took turns drinking from the thermos lid as it was filled and refilled with steaming black coffee. Tal and I shared luke warm hot chocolate from a thermos his father had packed for him.
Sometime in our breakfast break someone noticed as strange lump protruding from the ice at the edge of the bank. It was slick and rounded, dark in color and not coated in ice. It seemed to bob just a touch keeping the ice around it from locking it in.
Jimmy was the first to point it out.
“What do you boys recon that is?” he said pointing with his biscuit filled hand. We studied the object for a moment.
“A log…no, a turtle…yeah, a big turtle.” Tal and I agreed.
“I’m not so sure about that?” Jimmy said “Keep looking”
As we stared at the lump two slits opened on opposite sides of the dome shaped protrusion. Tal and I both stepped closer to get a better look.
“I think you might want to stay back just a bit boys?” Howard said grinning. Tal and I froze in our tracks. “Take good look now.”
“Its and ALLIGATOR!” we said in unison.
“Yes sir that is an alligator.” The men agreed as Tal and I both backpedaled up the bank just a bit.
“Shit! I was standing right by that thing all morning!” Jimmy said. Everyone laughed at his delayed alarm.
“I guess it don’t like Greek food!” Howard chimed in poking fun at his friend’s heritage.
“Or dog?” Dad added. “But then it’s your dog so I guess that’d be Greek to?”
“Fuck you Ramsey!” Jimmy laughed taking the joke in stride. “He ain’t big enough to mess with this Greek God anyhow!” Jimmy said.
“Can we shoot him?” Tal asked excitedly.
“Now, that old gator ain’t done one thing to you Tal.” Howard put in. “And beside, this could hardly be called self-defense? That little ole gator is just down there trying to stay warm, he hasn’t done anything other than make Jimmy soil his britches.”
We all watched the gator for a while until we were brought back to the hunt by another commotion on the far side of the hole.
One of the drakes that had fallen on the ice had resurrected from the dead and was making quite a fuss about it. He was calling in his nasally “Dreeep..Dreeep…Dreep” and flapping one wing. Buster caught the motion and bolted from his place on the bank.
“Buster NO!” Jimmy shouted but the dog had had enough. He was past the recently discovered alligator and half way across the open water before we noticed a possible source of the mallard’s remarkable recovery.
Two large brown creatures were waddling along on the ice on the ducks trail. Their coats glistening with ice as steam rose from their bodies and they made strange grunting sounds. While science will tell you that a Nutria is a strict omnivore, this memo had apparently not reached the mallard. And to be honest I am not sure it had reached the nutria either. To a man we all thought the marsh rat was on his way to have a mallard snack. Buster seemed to agree with us also as was not about to let that happen on his watch.
From our angel none of us could get a clean shot on the mallard or the nutria. Jimmy called, blew his whistle and cussed his dog. And to be fair he had a few choice words for the swamp rats and mallard as well.
Bust again failed to break through or find purchase to get himself atop the ice. He swam back and fourth as the chase on the frozen pond ensure, backing, whining and gasping for air. Jimmy was beside himself and after Buster’s gasps overtook his barks, began sprinting and stripping all at once around the dry bank of the hole. But before he could reach the far shore Buster had found an old log extending from the ice sheet and was scrambling up it and onto the ice.
With the mallard fleeing the nutria, the nutria fleeing the dog and the dog raising all kinds of hell as he tried to run on the ice only to slip, fall, slide and spin in his haste and anger we watched.
“This is gonna end bad for somebody?” Dad chimed in.
The first nutria had shuffled off into the bushed but the large one was standing it ground, hissing and baring its long teeth at Buster. By now the mallard was well out of the fray but still noisily protesting his current circumstance.
Buster was livid and his anger was getting the better of him. He was trying so hard to run he couldn’t keep his feet under him. Jimmy had reached the closest dry ground to the standoff at this point and was stomping his way through the ice still trying to call Buster off. But he had made the mistake of taking a direct line and again found himself with no shot on the irate rat.
During the commotion we had not noticed Demery’s absence from our little gallery. The report of his gun and the skidding of the now dead rodent brought his new location to our attention.
He was up to the very top of his waders, half way across the pond at an angle from us. The move had given him a clear shot and he had brought the whole commotion to an abrupt end.
Buster tensed at the shot, as we all did. But the dog caught on to what had happened well before we did. He stood, trembling and still sliding as he walked and eased out to the nutria, his bark now just a low growl. He picked up the lifeless body and turned toward his master who was now waist deep in an ice trench he had made in his efforts to enact a rescue.
The nutria twitched and Buster growled deeply, shook his head and bit down. The sound of crunching bones reaching the ears of all who were within sight. Then the proud black lab lifted his head and made straight for his owner.
“Buster! Drop! Buster NO!” Jimmy protested but there was not dissuading him. “Take that stinking rat to Demery! I didn’t shoot that thing!” Jimmy fussed as his faithful hound delivered the prize. Jimmy had tried to backtrack away from the dog but he was not successful in time and With buster seated next to him on the ice he begrudging took the bloody wet retrieve and hurled it back over his shoulder, only barley catching hold of Buster’s collar before the dog went to get his new found furry bumper.
The huge Greek man let out an all too feminine yelp as he tried to restrain the dog and the beast set Jimmy of balance, allowing just enough water into Jimmy’s waders to let him know just how cold the water was.
By this point everyone but Jimmy was howling with laughter. Even Buster seemed to be grinning as he backed away from the cursing man and sat patiently awaiting his next order. Jimmy finally made it to the back amid a cloud of profanities that had Tal and I blushing and giggling with excitement. Buster crept onto shore and placed himself at heel by Jimmy’s side.
“Oh, hell Jimmy send him on those birds. Might as well?” Howard called across the pond.
Man and dog made short work of the retrieves. Buster found the Lazarus duck in a fallen oak top a short distance from the back right away and though his steps were much more measured made the ice retrieves with ease.
“Lawyer!” Jimmy said when he made it back to our group. “I would could use a cup of that coffee if you have splash left.”
“Well I guess you earned it?” Dad said with a chuckle. Reaching back into his satchel. “You to Buster dad said, flipping the dog the one remaining sausage and biscuit.” Buster ate the treat in one gulp and his master polished off the last of the coffee almost as fast.
“But I don’t suspect a dog oughta have a sip of the Nippy?” Dad said, withdrawing a small metal flask from his coat and tossing it to Jimmy.
“I’m gonna kiss you!” Jimmy said as he caught the flask.
“I’d rather kiss the dog. If I gotta smooch a damn Greek!” Dad shot back. “He’s got a little less hair on his face.”
The small flask made the rounds and was returned to dad’s coat. “No Nippy for dogs or Pups” he said as Tal and I looked on.
When the story had been told and retold from serval points of view the men debated our next move. Howard had been watching the northern skyline and had seen several more groups of ducks low and traveling that direction. A move was clearly in order but as all good hunters do they decided to give it another half hour. They had all seen it happen before, for no discernable reason a slow hunt can turn into a burner in the blink of an eye.
While we waited and watched boredom sat down on the shoulders of us younger hunters. We perked up every time one of the men called at passing ducks but our interest was short lived. Before ten minutes had passed Tal and I had both asked more than once how much longer we had.
By fifteen minutes we were all but about to lose interest when we decided that maybe we could have some fun with the alligator. I picked up a few twigs and tossed them at the nose that protruded through the ice. The reaction I got was far less than satisfactory. Tall upped the stakes by finding a very long stick and poking the gator nose with it. But this to was anticlimactic. The glistening lump just submerged for a time then resurfaced. Several more good jabs gave equally pathetic results.
Noticing our attempted entertainment the men began to encourage us, just a bit. They helped us find stronger sticks and got me real good by goosing me in the ribs once just as I was about to touch the gators nose with my latest weapon.
Tal teased me unmercifully when I leapt backwards and fell in my butt on the bank. I then had TWO reason to be mad at him. Not only did he have waders but he was boasting about how brave he had been when the same trick had been tried on him. I scowled at him as he continued to tease the unresponsive knot.
“Tal.” Howard chimed in at long last, breaking my glare. “You know alligators don’t have much strength when it comes to opening their jaws.” He let the information hang in the air for a bit.
“All their power is in closing them. Down in Florida I’ve seen gator wrestlers hold their mouths shut with nothing but heavy rubber bands like they put on lobster claws.”
“Nuhuh!” said Tal. But I could see he was interested.
“It’s true.” Jimmy said.
“Yep, just a big rubber band or a wrap of tape” Demery agreed.
Tal looked back over his shoulder to his father for confirmation.
“That’s true.” His dad reassured him.
“Well I’m not gonna grab him by the nose if that’s what you’re suggesting!” Tal shot back. “And we don’t have any big rubber bands anyway.”
“Your right.” Howard said “But you know I do have a big spool of heavy decoy cord I was gonna use to rig up a jerk cord?” The mischief was as clear as day on Howard’s face.
“Oh, that’d do it.” One of the other adults offered. “Oh yeah, that’d hold his mouth shut.” Another added.
We all saw the reservation on Tal’s face. The men though could tell they were onto something.
“You know, alligators get real slow when it’s cold like this. They practically hibernate.”
“Sure enough. They can hardly move.”
“Yep. Now if you had poked that little ole gator in the snoot in the summer time he’d of most likely shot out from that bank eaten that stick and you!” his own father put in.
“But cold like this one of those little gators can’t do much….”
“How big do you think it is?” Tal asked his interest peaking.
“Oh by the six of his nose and the distance between his little nostrils I bet he isn’t over five feet long? Wouldn’t you say Ramsey?” Jimmy asked my dad.
“Maybe five.” Dad offered.
“Maybe.” Howard added.
“Tell you what Tal.” Howard suggested. “I’ll fix up a lasso and you ease down and slip it over his nose. Me and Mr. Jimmy will hold onto the slack up here and when you get that string around his nose you tighten it up real fast and we’ll drag him up on the back for you to look at.”
“I wanna help pull him in.” Tal insisted. “If I’m gonna lasso him I get to help catch him!”
Gerald said nothing.
“OK, ok…” the rest of the men agreed and set about fashioning a proper gator snare for the eager young hunter.
“I want to help!” I piped up. Dad, grabbed my shoulder gently and I looked up and caught a wink in his eye just as Tal blurted out. “I’m catching this alligator. You don’t have any waders. You can’t reach him.”
Dad firmed up his grip on my shoulder and gave me another wink. It didn’t help. Tal was going to catch a gator and all because I didn’t have waders. I couldn’t understand why dad was winking or why he hadn’t known they made waders in my size. I would have pouted but I knew hunters couldn’t get away with that sort of nonsense, or at least I thought so.
When the cord was fashioned into a snare Tal eased into the edge of the pond via the path Jimmy and Buster had made right next to the gator. He tried to toss the loop over the gator’s nose but his aim was off. Several more attempts got him no better results. He next tried to push the loop out with a stick but he was unable to maneuver the opening of the line down over into the hole and around the gators mouth, or at least where it should have been. All the while the gator breathed slow breaths and occasionally dropped its snout before the surface.
“Alright Tal, I tell you what. Next time he goes down you ease out a little closer and just lower the bottom half of that loop into the edge of the hole.” Howard said. “Then when he comes up again you just pull backwards out toward the opening and straight up real easy and that noose will slide down over his nose. As soon as it’s tight we’ll all pull him up. That oughta get him.”
“Yeah! That’s gotta work?!?” Tal said enthusiastically. Inching closer and closer Tal dangled the heavy cord loop over the tip of the gator’s nose and waited. At last the gator went down Tal carefully lowered the snare half way into the hole as instructed, and waited.
When the nose came up again the cord was on either side of it, a perfect placement.
“You got him!” The men exclaimed. And with that Tal snatched the rope up and backwards as hard as he could. But before anyone could help Tal pull the ice behind the gator’s nose exploded. And it exploded much farther than five feet behind the hole.
I learned lot of very important things in that instant. First, it is all but impossible and totally foolish to attempt to judge a gator’s size by the tip of his nose. Also that gators can go from near torpor to REALLY active in no time flat. And right there and then I learned that waders on an eleven year old boy who is sure he is being eaten by an alligator give him the ability to walk on water. Fool that I was and still am though, even while seeing my friend, waders and all trembling in his father’s arms, I still wished it had been me with the waders. My jealousy was as green as those ill-fitting rubber waders and as green as my friend and I were to the ways of the waterfowler.
The day was not over and Tal and his waders would stay the focus of my envy as I continued on through my last hunt as a “low-quarter boy”.