Like PawPaw (Chapter 5)

A seemingly endless parade of wood ducks buzzed low over the hole. He made practice swings with the old double on a pair or two, but he held his fire. By sunrise the squealer had all but stopped flying and the occasional flight of grey ducks was all that gave the opening a look for the next half hour. His heart began to sink, just a bit. But again, the words of his grandfather’s gunning log ran through his mind, melding into his own experience, knowledge born of countless days in the timber, his, his fathers, and his father’s father’s. “Wait. Be patient. They will come to the timber when their bellies are full.”

He past a bit more time, watching a fat red squirrel make its morning rounds through the oak and bitter pecan trees of around him. The sound of cast aside acorns plunking down into the water marked the busytail’s path through the bare limbs. Waves of noisy black birds swept through the forest, lighting in great waves and moving on with a roar of wings and a chatter that blocked out all other soft sounds of the morning woods.

He was twisted around, facing back into the thick stand of young trees behind him, seeking out the travels of the old fox squirrel when he heard the soft call of a drake mallard over his shoulder.

In one fluid motion he spun, raise the gun to his shoulder drew down on the single mallard hovering inches above the nearest wooden block, and missed clean, with both barrels.

Old habits die-hard, and he kept the gun aimed at the fleeing greenhead as its wings drove frantically to push the bird high and away, he felt himself pulling on the trigger, wondering why his last round wouldn’t fire. When all that was left was the sight of tail feathers and the silence after the echo, he lowered the gun, laughing at his poor shooting and his puzzlement as to why this dang broad barrel wouldn’t fire a third shell. “This ain’t your auto.” He scolded himself lightly.

Opening the breech he drew out the two spent shells. The swollen paper hulls made a satisfying “fhwoop” as he pulled them out, a thin trail of smoke escaping from the warm tubes. The smell of the paper hulls warmed his soul. He lifted them to his nose and breathed in deep. His mind whirled back through the decades; to the first day his Papaw had let him fire a gun for real. That old twenty-eight gauge was gone, lost on river hunt years ago when nature turned violent and his father had saved them both from drowning though the bulk of their hunting gear had been lost.

He slipped the spent shells into one of the large billow pockets of the coat. It didn’t matter to him that they were supposed to biodegrade, he had been taught never to leave his hulls floating, not so much out of fear that the ducks might see them, but out of a respect for the wild. Sure they had a few small man-made intrusions here in the woods, but the men of the camp had always kept the place as pristine as possible. They came to the woods to be in the wilds, not to be reminded of the world that awaited them when the season was done or the business of life required them to return to town. It gave them a feeling of being the first to see these woods, unspoiled and mysterious. They just liked it that way.

Two more shells were loaded into the gun and he turned back to look out over the decoys. “Sorry Papaw. But, at least he knows what team I’m on.” He spoke out across the decoys.

The words had hardly left his lips when a dozen mallards, low and looking drifted past the opening. He put the call to his lips as they moved away and hit a note that almost made him cry. But without hesitation he regained his composure and sent out a comeback call in perfect pitch and cadence. The lead bird spun like its left wing had hit a pole and the rest of the birds followed right on her tail feathers.

The boss hen of the bunch belted out a greeting call and he answered with an equally exuberant invitation. She led the pack back over the opening, right down on the tree tops, well within range. Her neck was craned down and scanning side to side as she passed. Hugging tight to the tree he turned his face downward and watched the birds in the black mirror of the backwater as they drifted slowly over. The hen called again and he answered, kicking the water with one leg to create ripples once the birds had their tails to him. Again the old hen belted out a song and he shouted her down as soon as her last note cleared, then at once set in to a mix of chatter and quacks.

The flock swung again riding past the opening heading south a bit faster now but on gliding wings. He let the group get down wind about seventy yards and eased off of pleading comeback call. In and fraction of a second the group turned closed the gap and set their wings.

They came in down the shoot, the low spot in the canopy left by the fallen oak. Fluttering down from his left side the group back paddled down to the water straight in front of the Y Tree.

The old hen hit the water first and at once began calling to her descending companions. The double gun came up, roared twice and a pair of greenheads crashed the last few feet to the water as the remains of the flock scattered out through the woods in several directions.

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Like PawPaw (Chapter 4)

A tear for an unknown loss slipped from his eye as he shouldered the decoy bag, cradled his grandfather’s gun under his arm, lifted the shellbox and stepped past the remains of the old house.

The path from the old house site to the river bottoms was well-worn. As the rough grass rope of the homemade shoulder strap on the decoy bag dug into his shoulder he chided himself for his stubborn refusal to believe what his grandfather had preached so strongly to new duck hunters. “Don’t bother with decoys in the timber. Just kick the water and call. If the ducks are coming to the timber decoys are just fancy table dressing, they don’t add to the feast.” He had seen it, but he had always believed that a few decoys would make even those spooky birds work down through the canopy. So, maybe this wasn’t just like Papaw would have done it, but the heavy old wooden blocks had belonged to him, thought they only knew the open waters of the cypress blind in those days. Stopping to catch his breath he shook his head. “Well, I took the time to paint the darn things, I’ll be hanged if I’m not gonna see ‘em float!” he said back through time to the old man he hoped was watching. And with that he started off again puffing clouds of warm breath into the frosty morning air.

By the time his feet carried him to the edge of the timber he was beginning to worry about getting to the Y Tree hole in time. Under the burden of the decoys, in confined by the unyielding canvas waders he had been forced to stop several times to catch his breath and readjust his load of gear. Taking out the pocket watch he turned to let the moonbeams strike the face of the time piece. “Hour to go.” He whispered through rapid breaths.

Setting down the gear he opened the wooden shell box and took out a battered head lamp. With just one match the carbide light leapt to life, again reducing his world to the stream of man-made light. He strapped the light around his cap loaded up again and began crunching through the skim of ice above the leaf cover floor of the flooded oak woods.

The Y Tree stood out in the bare canopy of the forest, a colossus of an oak. Decades of storms, thunder, lightning, ice and wind had shaped the stately figure. Her trunk was broad and straight with two main limbs left to send forth leaves in the spring and shower the bottoms with acorns when fall came around. Half way to its upper limits the evidence of old branches, jagged snags and hollow openings showed the scars of time’s relentless wear. It stood on the east edge of the opening and from the concealment of its great shadow many a mallard had come to know the end of their days.

The north wind was perfect for this hole. It gave the birds a clean approach and kept the hunter out of their sight, hidden beside the towering oak standing knee-deep in black water.

The “hole” was more of a thin spot in the forest than anything. Ages ago, perhaps even before his granfather’s days another grand had fallen, its crash felling smaller trees on to the south, parting the canopy and making a glide path down into a hardwood banquet for travel weary mallards. The decayed remnants of the old tree still remained, a wooden troth that would fill with leaves, acorns and water, a favored pit-stop for the beavers, coons and nutria that lived in the bottoms. It was the focal point of countless yellowing photos, images filled with grinning faces as they posed beside a line prime mallard drakes arranged to show the reason for the broad grins of the men who stood or knelt as the backdrop for the picture. In old black and whites the log still held its round, and it was beside this very marker he too had stood at the end of his first hunt, a small thing boy flanked by grown men proud as every to pose with the boys lone mallard positioned perfectly centered on the log.

He rested the gun case on across the log, balancing the shellbox on one edge and unshouldered his burden of decoys. One by one they were placed around the opening, nine mallards an a pair of black ducks. The blacks were only slightly out-of-place to his way of thinking. Now days few blacks made their way to this part of the flyway, now days there weren’t many black to go anywhere. But in his grandfather’s time, black ducks were no strangers to this area. Old gunning logs told of mornings when, both on the big lake and in the woods, those elegant birds made up a significant portion of the bag. A straight mallard limit was a fine hand, but a brace of blacks thrown in and you were holding a royal straight flush.

“Eleven?” He said in disbelief as he surveyed the spread in the beam of the carbide lamp. “Felt like I carried a truck load.” He thought as he waded gathered his gear and waded over to the Y tree. “Papaw,” he said to the lightening eastern sky. “Was it that you didn’t need em, or you just didn’t want to tote em?” Laughing he leaned against his hide and set the shellbox down on a crude shelf long ago nailed to the tree for just such use. The rusty zipper of the tattered leather case scratched open and he slid the side by side out with a near reverent motion. The case he hooked on a bent nail that he would swear had gotten higher up the tree every year, and likely it had.

He cradled the double gun, breech open in his right arm and flipped open the shellbox. Shining the headlamp down into it he saw the waxed green paper shells. True, they were “modern” nontoxic loads, made for the notion of being “eco-friendly”, a term Papaw would have puzzled over in his day, but the feel was there, and from a far distant childhood memory he could recall the smell of burnt powder from a singed paper hull.

“Close as I could get, Papaw.” And he drew out two shells and slid them into the tubes.

The eerie, lonesome whine of a wood duck snapped his mind back to the present. He put out the light of the headlamp and hung the contraption on the nail with the guncase. Feathers cut the air somewhere in the blackness before him, wings beat hard to slow the decent, water splashed and clipped “WHEEP” the first arrival called out from the opening to others of his kind that buzzed low over the tree tops going to and fro as shooting light finally came.

Like PawPaw (Chapter 2)

As he rowed up to the giant cypress he swung the boat down wind and eased up to the weathered gangplank leading from the nest of cypress knees to the far shore. The walkway had been built right into the tree, over the years the dead timbers slowly consumed by the living trunk and knees. With the boat tied off securely he unloaded his gun, shell box and decoys onto the thick planks then fought his way into an uncooperative pair of thick canvas waders, buttoned the suspenders and cinched the waist with a doubled length of rope.

The weight of the decoys in the musty canvas sack slung over his shoulder made him a bit uneasy as he “walked the plank” the short distance to the dry ground of the far shore. Setting the decoys down he returned to the boat for his gun and shell box. Half out of breath and sweating under the heavy coat and wool shirt he paused at the foot of the walkway and sized up the labor that lay ahead.

From here the oak woods lay a quarter-mile across the low ridge that divided the cypress lake from the river bottoms. The path was usually simple, and he was more than a little temped to cheat just a bit and fire up on of the four-wheelers that rested under the leaning roof that was the remains of the old cook’s quarters.

Long before his name was entered into the camp ledger, an old farm family had lived on this piece of ground. Mrs. Lurlean and he husband Duke had “come with the property the old members had joked. Truth was, when the men of the camp had bought the land from an old farmer, who had tired of loosing crop after crop to the annual flooding, Lurlean and Duke had been prepared to move on. But though there wasn’t going to be much in the way of farm work for them the couple to do, the men of the camp asked them to stay on, keep an eye on the property and in the bargain the camp would build them a new house, let Duke hunt and fish as he pleased and hire Lurlean to take care of the meals and keeping the camp house in order. It was a match made in heaven.

Lurlean and Duke had no living relatives; they had planted the last of their children in the high ridge by the road when scarlet fever had swept through the county. Together they knew more about the woods and waters around the camp than the farmer and all his kin ever had. They had dreaded the thought of leaving.

Papaw and the other members of the club built “L” and Dukes house first. Sparing no expense and signing over to them a note on the house and five acres, “For so long as your good souls should stay on this earth.” the paper read. “L” and Duke became and lived til their last days as the adoptive parents of the men of the camp and the generation that came after. But their shadows had ceased to move about the lake and woods long ago. Lurlean had gone first, and was buried by the men of the camp in the plot with her children. Duke followed within a week, and was laid to rest beside his wife. The men of the camp bought fine stone markers for the whole family, and more than a few grown men cried like children as the covered the last of these fine folks with the rich soil of the river bottoms.

Like PawPaw (Chapter 1)

The clatter and clang of the old Big Ben alarm clock jolted him from his hard-won slumber. Reaching over to the bedside table he fumbled with the clock trying to find the small plunger that would silence the din. Out of habit he reached up to switch on the lamp, “Not today.” He reminded himself.

In the cold darkness of the empty camp he swung his legs out from the covers and sat up on the edge of the bed. The air around him was cold and he fought the urge to dive back under the heavy warmth of the musty old army blankets. “The good old days?” he mused as he rummaged in the darkness, found the box of wooden matches and stuck one on side of the box.

By the wavering yellow light a coal oil lamp he pulled on an ill-fitting union suit and a thick pair of wool socks. He would finish dressing once the fire was going again. A warm bed of coals made short work of the scraps of kindling and soon a small but vigorous fire was burning in the pot-bellied stove. Tossing on a few respectable size splits he closed the slotted iron door and warmed his hands by the stove as the pot and roar within promised heat enough to knock back the chill.

Two more oil lamps cast a warm glow about the small cabin as assembled the percolator pot and set it on top of the stove. As he finished dressing he could hear the water begin to boil and soon the camp was filled with the smell of coffee, strong and black. In the heady mix of aromas, coal oil, pecan wood and strong coffee he assembled his gear and withdrew the old pocket watch. “Two and a half hours til shooting light” he said aloud to the empty room. ” Best get going. And with that he swigged down the last of his coffee, eased the pot over to the edge of the stove, tossed a few more sticks of wood on the fire and dampered down the flu.

The late December air was sharp on the exposed skin of his hands and face as he stepped out into the darkness, worn leather gun case in one hand, railroad lantern in the other.

Though he knew the path from the camp to the boathouse by heart, the short walk was difficult in the pail lamplight. Roots and vines grabbed at his feet and the step up onto the dock seemed to have grown in the darkness of the passing night.

He walked past several boats, decked out with the latest motors, blinds and bulging sacks of decoys. At the end of the dock he hung the lamp on the last post and looked down at the craft that would take him into the timber. Solid wood from stem to stern, made by his own hands, and today, powered by the same. In the back of the boat a canvas sack lay covered with frost, a glass eye of one of the decoys peering out at him through a small opening where the bag was cinched together at the top. “Those are gonna be heavy.”

He slipped down into the boat, set the oars in place and carefully stood to untie the bowline from the dock and douse the lantern. Seated, he shoved off shifted his feet and laid his back into the oars. The camp vanished in an instant. Above a half-moon shone down on his wake. The reflection of stars swirled and mixed in small whirlpools left by each oar. He did he best to set a rhythm to his rowing, glancing over his shoulder now and again to keep from wandering off the trail and into the thicket of button willows that flanked his path.

When the brushy willows gave way to the open lake he felt a chill run down his neck. Turning up the threadbare collar of the stiff canvas coat he made a mental note of the wind speed and direction. “Due North, or near enough.” He thought. “Not strong, but steady, should be a good day for the Y Tree.”

As the waves lapped against the side of the boat he put a little extra push in the right oar and again glanced over his shoulder to mark his course. “Head straight for the high cypress and keep your eyes on the rail-yard light.” The words from his grandfather’s journal ran through his mind, his memory of the grand old man making the written words ring through time in the old mans voice.

Apart from the sound of his rowing and the lap of waves against the boat, the world was silent. No one would be at the camp today; he had blocked out this morning just for himself. No guests, no family, no friends, just him and the woods and waters his family had hunted for generations. Today he would hunt these woods the way his grandfather had, for better or worse. No outboard motors, no fancy guns or hi-tech insulated clothes, today it was all old school. This was the day he would retire his grandfather’s gun and he would do it Papaw’s way, right down to the last detail or at least as close as he could.

Watermarked

Something tells me I must have seen it before then. The small trailer was far from new. It had served its time on the banks of Steel Bayou and Paw Paw bend at two of the deer camps my father had run. I had visited the latter with him but have no recollection of staying in it there.
My first memory of it was looking at it through a pair of binoculars from the levee along side Deep Bayou. Dad and his friends had just moved it to there to serve as our duck camp. It was stationed next to Strickland Deer camp, set on cinder blocks and at the end of a road that was notoriously bad after even the slightest rain.

Spring rains and heavy snow melt up north had conspired to bring flood waters to its doorstep and in one of the strange social outings only a southerner may understand my father had rounded up some friends and their wives for a ride up through The Delta to see the flooding and check on the camp.

In a caravan of four-wheel drive trucks we had wound our way through the fertile, flooding farmland and from our perch atop the highest ground in the area, the levee, we glassed across the watery landscape to see if the trailer was still high and dry.

While the wives of the waterfowlers spread out a magnificent picnic on the tailgates the men took turns scanning the area with their field glasses and taking pot shots at snakes and other critters that had sought the safety of the levee’s high ground.

How long we lingered I can’t recall. The camp was still a foot or more above the water but with the river forecast to climb over the coming weeks dad and the men he hunted with agreed that the trailer wasn’t going to stay out of its murky path.

They spoke of past floods and pointed out the high water marks on the trunks of trees, each one telling those who knew the exact year of its birth. In The Delta time is measured in uneven increments starting from 1927, the year of The Great Flood. Scientists and the like call them 100 year events, and perhaps that is so when viewed through the long lens of geographical time. But even the floods that do not reach the catastrophic levels of 27 become benchmarks etched into memory by loss, destruction, change and the spirit of oneness displayed as the people of The Delta pull together to fight the inevitable and lend a hand to neighbors.

Floods destroy but they also renew. They renew the rich soil of the farmlands, restock old oxbows long abandoned by a river that we only pretend to control. The also renew our faith in our fellow-man. Rich and poor, black and white, the river on a rise makes no distinction.

So when the waters come it is all hands on deck. Banker, beggar or brother Delta folk stand shoulder to shoulder filling sand bag as the water rises, driving boats out to rescue those stranded and cleaning up and rebuilding once the waters recede. The wake of the flood brings brotherhood.

The waters of ’79 did not spare the camp, though mercifully the damage was mostly superficial. With my first season as a duck hunter approaching my father decided to take me along for the clean-up. To my young mind it was an honor and a rite of passage. I to would be “watermarked” by the recent flood. It marked my entrance into a world that has been the core of my being ever since.

570
Duck season for us down here in The South ended almost three months ago to the day. Spring has arrived and only a handful of bluewings remain this far south. For the Southern Waterfowler the migration is all but done for this year. For many duck and goose hunters the “Off Season” is in full swing. Not for me.

In part by chance and in part by choice I grew up with a year-round view of waterfowling. From my earliest days there was always something duck hunting related that needed to be done on the weekends. My family was fortunate to own some very prime hunting ground in my home state of Mississippi and though I did spend a good bit of the spring and summer fishing local lakes and rivers, there was a large amount of time spent working on projects that directly related to duck hunting that had to happen in the so called “off season”.

It generally started just days or weeks after the close of the regular season. Large decoy spreads left in front of the big permanent blinds had to be picked up, boats hauled back to the camp, blinds stripped of things that would not weather well until we returned in the fall.

Were it not for the fact that our swamp seemed to always fill up with ducks just after the season closed these projects might have all been completed in a day or so. But as it was we spent a lot of time just watching the ducks and dreaming of next season. With such fine company it never really seemed like work.

As spring came on dad would set aside chores for turkey hunting. I gave it a try but it would not be for several decades that I caught the turkey bug. So while dad fought mosquitos and  pitted himself against the thunder chickens I would fish and wander the woods, always viewing things through the filter of a waterfowler’s eye.

I might have been casting lures between cypress knees or dropping jigs into thickets of button willows in search of fat largemouth bass or slab crappie but my time on the waters around my home were always also a survey of those places for their duck hunting potential.

Now days I have found some small corner of my father’s love for spring turkey hunting, but in all honesty I plan my hunts more for their waterfowl habitat scouting potential more than for their likelihood to end with a long beard on my shoulder.

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My family lost all their land long ago and life took me far away from home for a few decades. I returned to my beloved southland some ten years ago as the game keeper for a close friend whose family owns some of the most magnificent waterfowling grounds I have ever known. I worked for them and for other private lodges for several years and the depth of my love and understanding of waterfowl habitat grew.

Life now finds me seeking my fortune in the oilfield but my heart remains in the wilds. I do not own a patch of ground myself but at any given opportunity I am helping friends and acquaintances with their own little patches of heaven on earth.

It extends my season and feeds my soul.