The Majors

low quarter

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.

“But…”

“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”.

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Sunk – Final

fire

The lake was worse than I had ever seen it. The waves were a solid four feet. The only saving grace thus far was that the warm front was still in control. The temps were only in the fifties. But soaking wet it was plenty cold.

In those days the lake was still very sparsely populated. There were plenty of houses along its banks but by and large they were summer homes and fish camps. Apart from a few true locals, most of whom lived well back from the lakefront where the more expensive summer homes were built, only a few homes would be occupied that time of year, in that kind of weather.

From where we overturned, with the wind pushing us the way it was, we were at least a mile from shore. We had made also made several crucial mistakes. Both of us had on life jackets, we both had our chest waders on, and Tommy had made the hunt in only a heavy shirt and long johns.

Tommy faced the shore from his position and I was facing back out into the open lake.

“If you see anyone try to wave.” I told him.

“I can’t let go of this boat.” He replied. The reality of our situation was clear in both our voices.

“If we can hang on somebody will see us.” I said in a trembling voice.

“I’m sorry.” I continued. “There was nothing I could do…” My voice cracked with fear.

“I know.” Tommy said. His voice shaky and strained.

“We’ll make it. Dad will see us.” I offered hopeuly

“I don’t see his boat.” Tommy said. “Maybe he hasn’t come in yet?”

“They won’t stay out much longer then. They’ll see us on the way in.”

We drifted and waited. There was no sign of dad returning and not sign of life in any of the lakefront houses. The cold began to set in and I could see Tommy’s teeth start to chatter, his body start to shiver. I too began to quake as my muscles began to chill and cramp. Still no sign of any along the shore. The road that ran along the edge of the highbank was empty.

We drifted for a longtime in silence. I relived the roll over and over again in my head trying to figure out what I could have done, should have done, and I prayed.

“I think I’m gonna have to let go…” Tommy said in a voice far to calm and reserved for what that meant.

“THE FUCK YOU ARE!” I screamed. “You WILL NOT let go of this boat!”

The harshness of my tone seemed to snap him out of his despair. And as only such circumstance can motivate me laughed.

“You don’t have to be mean about it.” He said. And we both broke into hard laughter through our chattering teeth.

Laughing in the face of death is something I had always heard of, but I never understood it until that moment. We started into each other joking and tease each other. If our conversation had been heard outside of the circumstances the listener might have thought it was just two old friends sitting around at the bar.

“You had to have a limit didn’t you?”

“I didn’t hear you complaining”

“Heck no! I wasn’t the one with a spoonie on my strap!”

“I didn’t shoot a boot lip!”

“You did.”

With a cautious waving hand gesture I looked at him and said. “Prove it!”

“OHhhhh, I see. Well then if you can’t prove you didn’t then you also can’t prove you didn’t kill four of em?”

“Don’t you dare!”

We laughed and argued about mythical limits for a moment then Tommy turned the conversation.

“You know why I am mad at you?”

“Um, because I may have killed us?”

“Well, beside that…” he chuckled. “No, because if you hadn’t broken the rules Forrest would be at the camp laying in a fire and cooking a big breakfast right now. Heck he might even, oh I don’t know…come RESCUE US!”

Forrest was our part time caretaker. He lived on the far end of the lake, dangerously close to the local Juke Joint. With it being Sunday and him not having to come to the camp we knew he wouldn’t be frying up sausage, building a fire, or looking out on the lake wondering when we would come in so he could finish up breakfast and get his cores done so he could play dominoes down at the landing.

“Well she wanted to come up and you know I can’t say no to girl that wants to …”

“Shut up. I know plenty about why you brought her up with you. Yall weren’t exactly quite last night!”

“Sorry.” I said with a grin.

“No you’re not.”

“Nope.”

As I let my mind wander back to my less than chivalrous conduct from the night before Tommy snapped my attention away from such frivolities.

“Someones on the bank!” He shouted, raising one hand to wave and yelling.

“HERE! HEY!!!!!”

I twisted myself around and managed to wave with one hand as we yelled toward the figure atop the ATV on the bank. They gave no sign or signal of seeing us. They paused for a time then drove back away from shore at a speed that certainly did not indicate any urgency.

“They’ll call help.” I said.

“They had to have seen us, right?” Tommy asserted.

“Had to.”  I told myself they were just slow drivers, surely they had seen us and were on the way to get their boat and come to our rescue.

We waited, we drifted, we didn’t speak. No one came.

“We’re heading straight for the lake house.” Tommy said, finally breaking the silence.

I looked back over my shoulder and studies the wave and our trajectory. He was right, the wind and water was pushing us at an angle that would end us up on the bank in the front of our lake house. All we had to do was hold on.

As long minutes passed with no sign of rescue we clung to the boat and holding out hope that it was just a matter of time before we see someone coming to launch a boat.

“You would have to pick a girl who sleeps late.” Tommy said breaking the silence.

“I kind of kept her up late. Sorry.”

We laughed again but the mirth was short lived. We were both exhausted, cold and afraid. Our progress toward the shore was slower than we had hoped. We were still heading the right direction. The only question was could we hang on long enough to make it.

“There!” Tommy shouted. This time not daring to let go of the boat but staring intently at the yard beside our camp.

I twisted around again and saw headlights on a dark blazer pointed out in our direction, then the blue lights atop the vehicle went on. It was the local sheriff. Someone must have reported our capsizing.

Straining to turn and wave I saw him open the door of his truck and stand in the doorframe. We were close enough now that I could tell he was looking at us with binoculars. I waved and yelled. He waved back dropped into his vehicle, flashed his headlights then quickly spun out of the yard, back toward the highway.

“Thank GOD!” we exclaimed as one. We knew now that help was one the way, and none too soon. The wind was growing even stronger and each wave threatened to take us over again or sweep us off our overturned boat.

We drifted, we waited, we watched. No one came.

We argued with each other about why. It solved nothing. We drifted on.

When we were within less than a hundred yard of the boat dock Tommy spoke up again.

“We’re gonna hit the pier.” He said, a new sense of fear in his voice.

I turned my head again to look. He was right. The waves were carrying us on a direct collision course with the steel pilings of the end of the dock. Watching them hit and splash and roll past to the bank gave me a better idea of just how bad the lake was.

The pervious summer had seen the lake at low water and we had mounted boards parallel to the water to secure our boats to and a second run of them nearer the decking for extra support. The two runs of two by tens were almost three feet apart, the top span just four feet from the decking.

With each wave the gap between the wood runners would vanish and the water would slam into the top board. Then the gap would appear again between wave, falling below the bottom run of boards.

“That’s not good.” I said as I watched the water slam into the structure. Several boards had been partially dislodge and hung from one end flailing in the waves, others were gone completely.

“Try to kick your feet” I told my friend. “We need to get around the dock.”

Tommy kicked hard and I used one hand to paddle. But it was no use, our course didn’t change and the cold cramped our muscle so quickly we were both forced to stop our efforts.

Nearer and nearer we came. We could hear the waves hitting the steel and wood. We could hear the structure groaning, popping and protesting the beating nature was giving it.

“All we can do it try to grab on and get out of the way of the boat when we get close” I said to Tommy.

“You mean let go?” he said in a panicked voice.

“Not until the last minute.” I replied. “Remember how we  would swing on the supports in the shade under the deck last summer? If we can grab on we can pull ourselves  to the other side and climb up the stairs.”

It wasn’t much of a plan but it was all I had. But I didn’t have it for long.

“One problem…the stairs are gone…” Tommy noted.

Sure enough they were, the pounding waves had ripped them loose and all that remained was one diagonal runner, long nails from the treads protruding from its slimy surface.

“Then just grab and get out of the way of the boat. Maybe we can hold on until the sherrif comes?”

There was not time to debate the plan. We were getting closer and closer to the pier. It would be a direct hit.

“I can’t see behind me.” I told Tommy, “You tell me when to turn and grab.”

“OK”

“Not yet…not yet…” the waves rose and fell, I feared we would make contact whenwe were at the bottom of a roller.

“Hold the piling and go down if you have to! Don’t let the boat hit you…” I yelled

Tommy nodded.

“Not yet…almost…NOW! NOW! NOW!”

I let go of the hull and rolled over on my back as the boat reached the crest of a wave. I pushed myself up from the hull as hard as I could and stretched my arms out in front of me. I felt the boat fall away, felt the weight of my full waders pulling me down. Then my arms felt the slick hard surface of a board and the cold slap of steel. I clung to what I had hit as hard as I could and looked over my right shoulder. Tommy had managed to get his feet on the lower course of boards and was wrapping his arms around one of the stell pipes.

The boat slammed and rubbed into the piling beneath us, glanced off am angled support and moved just far enough along the dock not to crash into us.

We clung to the pier our eyes locked on each other. Relief and terror washing over us as the boat slammed again and again into the steel.

“Did it hit you?”

“No. You?”

“No.”

“Can you climb?”

“I…I don’t know?” I said.

“Try.” Tommy yelled, himself already reaching for higher boards and struts that supported the decking.

I reach and pulled and strained. The pain in my limbs screaming at my brain to stop. The weight of my soaked clothes and full waders making the work all the harder.

We both reached the deck at the same time, flinging our upper bodies onto the flat surface, our legs hanging below as water poured out of our waders.

We clawed our way forward until we were both flat on our bellies, face down in the swaying deck.

“We made it.” I gasped.

“Thank you God, thank you.” Tommy whispered.

We tried to stand and the cramps in our bodies and trembling made us falter and kneel. We both fell onto our backs and breathed for a moment.

“Get your waders off.” I said and began fumbling with the zipper of my coat to access the suspenders that were beneath, holding my waders on. The cold that hit me when the coat opend was a shock. How Tommy had endured it that long I could not imagine.

We fought and squirmed and snaked our way out of the waders.

“Get to the house1” I shouted and we stood in muscle cramped crouches and began a dash to the shore. Our feet pounded on the swaying boards of the pier as we headed for dry ground. Above the water the wind cut into our wet clothes. We stripped soaked layers as our feet hit the grass and we climbed the hill to our camp.

We were shivering so hard and our teeth chattering so badly it was hard to communicate.

I tried to pen the front door but my hands refused to grip the knob.

“L…l…l..o…c..ked?!?”

Tommy shouldered me out of the way and opened the door. The camp was not as warm as we had hoped. Temperatures overnight had been mild and the heater thermostat was set at only sixty five. Dad preferred a cool camp and in that moment I hated that aspect of him.

But the giant hearth still held hot coals from the night before. Dad was notorious for having a roaring fire even if it meant he had to turn the heat of to stand it. His strange ways  had their upsides.

Taking a handful of kindling and a cup of Kerosene Tommy brought the hearth to a blaze and we piled on more wood and stripped out of the last of our wet clothes. While Tommy got the fire roaring I raided the laundry room for any dry clothes I could find and towels and blankets.

We huddled shivering before the flames, not speaking for a long moment. Then with tears in our eyes we hugged each other like long lost brothers.

I cannot fathom the  sheer terror that must have raced through my father’s mind as he approached the lake house and saw my boat overturned and rolling against the sandy shore as the waves pounded the bank.

I can also not describe the look of joy and relief that was on his face as he and Doc burst through the door.

As he told it, he had spotted our overturned boat when he was more than a hundred yards from the landing. Doc swore dad ran full throttle from there on in nearly beaching the entirety of his boat when he reached the shore.

Not a small man by any stretch of the imagination, he had run onto the bank without even turning the motor off and was sprinting his six foot four, two hundred and fifty pound body towards the wreckage when he saw the trail of discarded wet clothes leading from the foot of our pier to the house.

Dad would tell the story for years to come of busting into the house and finding Tommy and I dressed in the wildest array of mismatched clothes, huddled, as he always put, it IN the fireplace.

He and Doc had us retell the story while they make coffee and filled small fruit jars of brandy for us.

The local sheriff stopped by while we were still thawing out and explained that he had seen us, but that the only boat he had was smaller than ours and the risk was too great. He had driven to several local homes in search of a worthy craft but had not been able to locate one.

His friends with Wildlife and Fisheries were trying to get a boat to him but they were dealing with other small craft accidents on other lakes. He had set himself up the boat launch down the lake and watched us through his field glasses while he waited for the larger boat to arrive. Calling off the rescue when he saw us make the leap from the boat and pull ourselves onto the deck of the pier.

My female “guest” slept through the commotion and she was none to please when I slipped under the covers looking for a little extra warmth. Apparently the warmth of the brandy and coffee had not reached the outside of my skin. I fell asleep shivering and my dreams were fraught with nightmares of drowning.

When I awoke later that evening I was alone in the large bed. I descended the stairs and saw the girl’s car was no longer parked outside. Dad, Tommy, and Doc were seated in front of the hearth watching football. Forrest was in the kitchen cooking up dinner.

“You get warmed up?” Dad said to me with a grin

“Warm enough I guess.” I replied, taking my usual seat on the hearth.

“Forrest got the boat out. Motor’s gonna need work.” Dad said.

“Outside the large plate glass windows I could see that winds had laid down. The limbs of the trees in the front yard swayed only slightly as the smoke from the chimney swirled down from above and hung above the wet grass that glistened in the porch light.

“Front pushed through.” Tommy said, seeing me staring out the window. “Temps are falling fast and Forrest said there are a lot of birds showing up on the indicator holes.”

“Tomorrow out to be good.” Doc said then cursed at the television. “COME ON Saints! What the hell was that supposed to be!!!!????”

“Thought maybe we’d all try the chute tomorrow?” Dad said. “Figure you boys might rather an Argo ride over boats for a day or two?”

“I’m just glad we’re still here to the option.” Tommy said and I nodded my agreement.

Dad stood walked over to the hearth to stir the fire. HE place one giant hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“Glad yall made it.” He said with the slightest crack in his voice. “But you get to tell your Mamma, not me.” Laughter spread easily among the gathered men and we paste the rest of the night without another mention of the accident. Tomorrow was another day and the season was still underway.

Sunk – Part 2

With the boat back beneath the blind we again re-set the decoys. While making the adjustment several fights of birds tried to pitch into the spread. Once we finished we climbed back into the blind and get ready.

It didn’t take long for the first group to drop in over the trees of the outer island. Four mallards set their wings and ditched air as they cleared the last cypress. Tommy fired first crumpling a hen my first shot found nothing, the second did no better. I pulled off the bird I had twice missed and swung on a fat drake that was trying to climb back over the trees. I squeezed the trigger.

Click

In the rush and confusion of chasing cripples, getting wet, and retrieving my friend I had forgotten to put the third shell in my gun. Tommy had made the same mistake leaving him with only one shot. But he had made his count.

Even though the birds had been well within range when he dropped the greenhead the wind was now so strong that the downed bird was quickly drifting out of the hole. Tommy scampered out of the blind.

“Load mine.” He called out to me as he waded fast toward the mallard.

I finished loading my gun, double checked the safety and placed it in the corner. I rummaged through Tommy’s bag and withdrew threes shells. I was closing the action when he called up from below.

“ON THE LEFT!” he shouted.

Looking up I saw a wad of ducks bank hard and the flutter of several dozen wings. I shouldered Tommy’s gun and flock shot like a child, putting a spoonie drake on the water with the one shell I had managed to get in the gun.

“Ooops!”

“Nice shot anyway?” Tommy said climbing back into the blind after picking up both birds.

“Thanks But I’m pretty sure I wasn’t aiming at that one.”

Tommy reloaded and we stung the birds on our lanyards.

“Two away” he said as we settled back in our positions.

Another flight of smiling mallards fell in among the decoys with the reckless abandon only shovelers can display. We drew on the flock but let them flush and depart unscathed.

“Good ducks only?” I asked, knowing he agreed before I ever spoke.

“All I’ve killed is good ducks.” He laughed.

The next four flights were spoonbills or jacks. We let each pass and giggled like schoolgirls as they would fall into the spread then explode from the rough water when we yelled “BANG” down from our hide.

A pair of teal made a pass riding the wind from behind us and brought both of our guns up and blasting. We shot so far behind the fleeing birds I doubt they had any idea they had been our targets.

A large groups of pintail taunted us next. Their long necks and pointed tails giving away their identity when they rolled in from the lake. They worked several times and twice or more were well within range but we had gotten greedy. We wanted them in the blocks. They finally settled in on an outside swing, well out of range.

We watched them bob and swim toward the inner island, parts of the group vanishing in the troughs of waves while others road the crests.

The decoys were again tangled and out of sorts. Tommy and I both went out again to make corrections. This time placing the block father apart to prevent tangling and farther upwind to both give the birds a better approach and give us more time between re-sets.

Turning back to the blind the severity of the waves became very clear. The boat was now beating against the supports of the ladder and rising up to hit the floor supports of the deck.

“It’s getting pretty bad.” Tommy said as we again took our places in the blind.

“It is.” I agreed. “But it’s not gonna get any better on the crossing.” I reasoned.

“This wind is supposed to stay up for the rest of the day. We may as well finish out before we make our way back?” I suggested.

“We only need two.” Tommy agreed. “It shouldn’t take that long.”

But it did. Our shooting was awful. Two more groups of teal escaped unharmed and a pair of widgeon made fools of us.

Twice more we had to move the decoys back up wind. Spoonbills and ringnecks continued to present easy targets but we kept letting them go. Mallards, gadwall and pintail in groups of various size were still working the hole regularly. We passed shots we should have taken and missed the ones we shouldn’t have.

Finally we managed to connect on a pair of gadwall and the hunt was done. We picked up the birds quickly and started gathering the now scattered decoys. Waves rolled through the shallow water and we both got our waders overtopped more than once even though the water in front of the blind was no more than bellybutton deep at the most.

Once the decoys were sacked and our guns unloaded we started putting everything back in the boat. A chill was starting to get to me so I slipped my coat back on and pulled my gloves on for the ride.

We positioned everything in the boat as best we could as it rose and fell in the waves. Tommy had to wade us out from the blind and hold us for a bit while I adjusted the motor to shallow run and fired it up.

Coming out of the cut it the scene before us was daunting. The stump field, flats and all the open lake were a sea of frothy whitecaps. The wind and waves would make it impossible to see, much less navigate through the exposed stumps.

We turned south along the outer island and idles in the relatively calm waters along its bank.

“What should we do?’ Tommy asked.

“Well we could go back into the floatroad and see if dad is still in the south blind?” I offered.

“I’m pretty sure I heard them leave about half an hour ago.” Tommy replied.

We studied the waters between us and the camp. It was bad, no two ways about it.

We settled on running south along the island and seeing if the south end of the lake was any better. We figured that at least we could try to cross there where the lake was narrower or maybe even see if cutting back toward the camp from farther upwind might make for a better crossing.

When we hit the southern tip of the island we knew there was not going to be any easy way to get home. The wind was angling straight toward the camp and trying to buck the waves to get to the southern back would be more than we knew the small boat could take.

I told Tommy to get down low in the bow of the boat and would cut our angle so go diagonally through them, heading for the far shore some two miles down from our camp and the nearest point where the waves appeared less harsh. From there we could beach the boat and hike up the steep bank to the blacktop road or nearest house and catch a ride back to the camp. I studied the waves, picked my angle and turned the boat away from the poor protection offered by the outer island.

We quickly learned that speed was not going to be our friend. Trying to plane the boat only made the waves crash harder into us, soaking us with spray and quickly putting standing water at our feet.

I eased the throttle down and rolled through the troughs of the waves until I felt the angle was right then turn us toward the shore. Anything more than a quarter throttle was trouble, anything less and steering was impossible. The force of the waves would shove the small craft off track and into the bottom of the swells f we did not manage some forward progress.

I found the sweet spots in the throttle, backing down and the bow dipped and easing up on it slightly as we crested each wave. Tommy, already fair skinned, was pale as a sheet and I am sure I wasn’t much better.

Progress was slow and the far bank never seemed to get any closer, though I knew from distant landmarks we were in fact making headway. Spray washed over the sides of the boat and a mist from the wind ripping the tops off the waves drenched us to the bone. But we were making it. Slow and steady but we were making it.

I saw the wave coming that was to be our undoing. The term Rogue Wave flashed through my head and I realized that though I had known the concept of such I had never seen one in person. I quickly became aware that I wished I never had.

The bow was pointed into the trough. The rouge wave broke over the bow just as we were about to start climbing the next wave. Somehow I knew we were about to turn over, I could even tell which way the boat would roll.

Tommy was in the bottom of the boat his back toward the bow to keep the spray out of his face. I guess he saw the terror on my face. He looked back over his shoulder just as I shouted.

“We’re gonna roll! Hang on!”

I felt the world go upside down, felt the cold water flood through my clothes and fill my waders. I heard the strange thunking sound of our gear as it slammed into the sides of the boat and I felt the cold metal of the boat gunnel beneath my gloved hand.

Without letting go of the boat I shoved myself out from under the hull as the motor chugged and stopped, the prop spinning slowly to a stop. I saw gas cans and paddles, stingers of ducks and boat cushion floating around me. What I didn’t see was Tommy.

I crawled up on to the overturned bottom of the boat gasping for breath, feeling the cold weight of the water in my waders. I tried to kneel for a better view but as I moved the boat tried to roll again beneath me. I lay flat across the stern and screamed his name.

I hand appeared just then from under the boat. I grabbed it and pulled with all I had. Tommy’s head broke the surface coughing up water and I quickly latched onto his shirt.

“Pull me up.” He sputtered.

I tried but the weight shift again threatened to roll us.

“Hang onto me.” I said gripping his arm and shoulder. Tommy reached out and got hold of my arms and I pulled him up as far as I could, keeping the waves and water out of his face.

We stayed locked like that for a while. Staring into each other’s eyes, not speaking.

“You’ve got to get up here.” I said at last. Again I tried to pull him up but again the boat pitched dangerously.

“Wait.” I said “Let me shift my weight to the other side, then you pull. Ok?”

“OK but don’t let go of me.”

“I won’t.”

I lowered myself flay onto the hull and stretch my legs out across the opposite side of the boat.

“NOW…PULL!” I shouted as I felt the weight of the water in my waders trying to pull me over. Tommy managed to scramble part way up on the hull, enough at least that his chest was flat on the bottom of the boat and he could grip the edge where the hull turned at a sharp angle.

As he maneuvered himself into position I adjust my weight as best I could to compensate. When it was done I lay at the far back of the boat stretched across the hull such that my legs dangled in the water on one side and I could grip the submerged gunwale on the other. Tommy managed only to get his torso onto the hull but could hang onto the edge of the hull with his legs from the thighs down hanging into the water. Faced opposite directions our bodies stretched perpendicularly across the overturned boat.

Sunk – Part 1

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Summer’s hard work had been paying off. For three days both new blinds had killed limits of “good ducks”. The occasional spoonbill or ring neck had taken up a flew slots on our straps but for the most part we were killing gadwall teal and mallards, something we had once though we would never do on the big lake.

When we woke that morning a fair chop had built on the lake. A front was pushing in and the afternoon forecast called for rain and thunderstorms warm gulf moisture and a cold Canadian air mass would meet up over the south delta to wrestle for control of the fall weather. The front, according to the droning, staticy voice on the weather radio, would drop temps into the thirties eventually but not before dropping several inches of rain on the area.

Tommy and I left the shore early, even after having to bail a bit of water out of the fourteen foot johnboat that the wave had splashed over the transom. We had beached the boat rather than tying it alongside dad’s much larger rig on the dock. The winds we knew, from the weather radio that was an all but constant soundtrack of life at the camp, had switched over night and the dock was not set up to harbor two boats in changing winds.

With no moon or starts to be seen through the cloud cover we began the crossing by dead reckoning and the occasional sweep of a spotlight. We knew these waters. We skied and fished them all summer and had seen the vast stump fields that stretched from Australia Island to the deep water channel of the highbank. Those flats had been exposed over the summer a few years back in an attempt by local conservation groups and resident of the lake to improve the fishing by promoting vegetation.

Those in the area that hunted waterfowl had also encouraged then to fly on some millet and other duck food to help bring ducks back to the lake. Both efforts had worked. But the lake still had a reputation of being somewhat of a “garhole” as far as duck hunting was concerned.  So, for the first few seasons after the draw down my father and my friends and I had the lake all to ourselves for the most part.

On the open lake the chop was brisk but manageable. The old 9.9 horsepower outboard was more than enough motor to get our light boat up on plane and we powered across the deep water to the sound of the bouncing hull on the wave tops and the spray of water beneath our hull.

As we neared the flats I dropped to three quarters throttle. The water was plenty deep to run but our recent knowledge of the terrain below our boat called for a modicum of caution.

The flats rose gently up from the channel and below the water’s surface was the remnants of a long vanish forest. The trees that had once stood there were now nothing more than stumps. They ranged in width and height but to the last they all shared one troubling characteristic.

The ages of shifting currents, when the lake was still wild and part of the Mississippi river, combined with the changing winds and waves lifting silt and sand from the old river bottom had sharpened each stump into points like the wooden palisades of frontier forts. We knew they were well beneath us at the start of the flats but with each turnoff the prop we also knew the depth grew shallower, lessening the safe distance between the innumerable, un-mappable mine field of “day wreckers”.

I eased the throttle down little by little as we moved deeper into the flats and into shallower water. The waters began to lay down and soon there were no waves at all, the big island still forested blocking the wind completely.

Tommy began making constant sweeps with the spotlight as we navigated the shallow waters where the stumps were now protruding from the glassy surface of the lake. If the light stopped I knew it meant something had caught his eye.

In code that I cannot recall ever verbalizing he signaled me to turn this way or that to avoid approaching obstacles. Fixed light position meant “You see that right?” and once the boats bow adjusted it angle the scanning would begin again. If the sweep stopped abruptly and the light danced to one side of the boat or other it meant “Turn Sharp!” some object having escaped notice until right upon us. His other hand, the one not running the light was my “safe speed indicator” with its own set of gestures and gesticulations for throttle up, ease it down, floor it and OH GOD STOP!

I don’t know how it is for waterfowlers on the bays and marshes but on the bayous and backwaters of home the value of a good spotlight man in the bow of a duck boat cannot be overstated. Their keen eye, quick judgement, and almost telepathic communications with the man at the tiller are all that stands between a safe but exhilarating boat ride and a cautionary tale n the local papers and weeping loved one standing at the graveside of a duck hunter.

Tommy was good with the light, even though he had only come into the world of waterfowling a few years before. He took the role seriously and didn’t have some of my father flaws where the task was concerned. He didn’t get distracted by flushing ducks or the occasional swimming raccoon or deer. He never lingered too long on some sight that would be better investigated in the light of day. And he could judge the gap between two trees compared to the width of a boat so accurately that I never doubted our ability to swing through the flooded woods at speed while he was manning the light. As much as I admired my father, the same could never be said of him and the bent and battered boats that made up or rag-tag armada gave plenty of whiteness to that fact.

When we reached the first of the scattered cypress trees that ringed the island I dropped the throttle down to idle and lifted the motor into shallow water run. Looking back over the transom I saw the sweep of another spotlight. Dad and The Doc were making their way around the lake to the south end of the float road. In his larger rig they had been able to leave well after us. But his boat drafted deeper so he could not make the run Tommy and were on. They would swing wide flowing the main channel of the lake then turn north into the mouth of the float road to our southern blind.

In total distance the blinds were less than four hundred yards apart. The blind Tommy and I preferred was on the north end. It was not much of a blind. Just a few boards and some decking nestled between three cypress trees. But it gave us a place to hide our boat and get up out of the water.

We made the turn and eased through the cut in the narrow island that separated the flats from the float road, turned north and eased up to the blind. Tommy climbed in from the bow and I cut the engine and began passing our gear up to him. The we had yet to have any competition on the lake for duck hunting we had lost a few dozen decoys and some folding chair to some less than admiral folks. So we always packed in and out everything we needed, or more accurately wanted, to make our hunts comfortable and enjoyable.

When the last of the gear and goodies were loaded into the blind I slipped on my waders and climbed over the side of the boat. The bottom in the floatraod was soft and sunk up to your ankles if not deeper. We had tried putting decoys out with the boat but invariably w wound up in waders adjusting the spread anyway. And with dad always taking the dog with him we would, hopefully, need to have them on to pick up birds throughout the hunt.

Tommy placed our gear in accordance with our spots in the blind, eased into his waders and joined me in front of the blind pitching decoys. Our spread was nothing fancy, around three dozen decoys, mostly mallards. They came from just about every known manufacturer of plastic decoys and ranged in age from this year’s model to some I am sure had seen service long before I started hunting.

The wind forecast for the morning was southerly at 5mph, shifting to the south west. It was an ideal wind for our blind, affording us straight on shots that would quarter slightly right to left. The main island blocked some of the wind but enough remained to give the decoys some motion.

As always we tried tossing the decoys from in front of the blind. Why we ever tried I am not sure. Half of them did not have weighted keels and you could bet on most of those landing on their backs and refusing to right themselves. And I was never satisfied with the spread as a whole even on the rare occasion I didn’t have to walk out and flip a few over. Still, it was what we did. Heck I still do it today. In nearly four decades of watefowling you’d think I could at least learn that lesson?

Once the decoy bag was empty Tommy climbed back up into the blind to set up our hunting gear and spots while I slogged through the soft bottom and thigh deep water to get the spread how I wanted it.

Everything was in place well before shooting light and I was already back in the blind I caught a glimpse of dad’s spotlight from farther south. Soon I could hear the loud sputter and splash of his motor as he powered the heavy boat through the shallows and up to his blind. A glance at my watch told me he had time to get ready, but he would be cutting it close.

Tommy rummaged through our bags and found the thermos of coffee. He poured me a cup in the thermos lid and passed it without my asking. We had developed a routine over the few years of hunting together and those last few minutes before “ready time” passed in the lent ritual that had become our way.

I got the first cup of coffee and Tommy would sort through his gear while I sipped. When I gulped down the last drop I would pass the cup back to him, with a brief acknowledgement of thanks. “That hit the spot” or some such.

While Tommy blew the steam from his coffee and sipped the hot black fuel I would follow his lead and arrange my gear bag, shells, and such. When the thermos lid went back on we would stand at the front rail of the blind, light a cigarette and listen while we watched the smoke drift over the water and make sure we had judged it right for our decoy set.

Eventually one of us would hear something, the rush of air through wings or the soft chatter of birds somewhere out in the darkness. The sound would set us in motion again as we would load our guns, dig our calls out from beneath or jackets and take our places as the minutes crawled toward legal shooting hour. That morning it was the jet engine like roar of wings that snapped us to attention.

“Ring-necks.” I said in a halfway questioning tone.

“Shit ducks of some sort” Tommy replied.

Though the occasional diver would wind up in our limits we tended to puddlers.  Today I don’t care for the derogatory term. I have come to appreciate most all waterfowl in their own right and have shared some fantastic gunning for divers with friends from across the country. But still, on any given day I let them pass.

With legal shooting hour fast approaching we both stood at the rail of the blind. There had been a fair number of greenwing teal around for the last week and they tended to practice  touch and go landings in this part of the lake in the predawn.

Sure enough a cluster of teal whipped by the blind just as it was legal to shoot but their arrival and departure happened   so quickly neither of us could get a good swing on them before they vanished again out into the darkness beyond our decoys.

“They came from your side.” Tommy half scolded me.

“And left on yours.” I replied, turning to face back toward the brightening skies south of the blind.

The next group wasn’t so lucky. I heard shots from dads blind and the feverd pace at which he and doc had emptied their guns hinted to the species.

“Get ready” I whispered before I had caught the first sight of the small flock.

The dozen teal skimmed over the tops over the scattered cypress and I made a fast high pitched series of calls. They dropped down below the tree tops and ran a slalom course between the heavy trunks of the trees, in the poor light I could just make them out as they closed the gap.

“They’re coming.” I whispered.

“Which side?” Tommy asked just as the flock erupted from behind the nearest cypress trunk.

“BOTH!” I explained as the flight split, nearly colliding with our blind, banked hard and in a clutter of confusion splashed down in the decoys.

I swung around as Tommy raised his gun and the flock sprang again into the air. We each managed to drop a bird from our side of the groups and made a mess of center bird that tried to escape the noise and panic by climbing straight up over the blind. Two shots of twelve gauge steel 2s at less than 20 yards did an effective job of bring the bird s down but it would leave little for the stew pot.

A cloud of feathers drifted down as we reloaded and scanned the water to make sure the other two birds were not cripple. Bellies up they floated a short distance from the blind.

“Keep an eye on those two and we’ll grab ‘em in a minute.” Tommy said.

The wind was up slightly from earlier but looked to be pushing the downed birds toward the outer island, so we were not worried about losing them. And we weren’t about to get caught out of the blind in the middle of the hole during what was usually the sunrise flurry.

But the flurry had come and gone. We heard two more short volleys from dad’s blind but apart from two seagull and a Blue Herron, each of whom had brought us to near cardiac arrest when they materialized out of the corner of our eyes, noting more happened in the north blind for what seemed like an eternity.

“That outside bird might make the open water.” Tommy observed. As we   waited and watched.

“I’ll make the hike.” I said. Resting my shotgun in the corner of the blind and ducking under the shooting rail. “Cover me.”

I grabbed the mangled bird we had both shot and pitched it to the blind.

Tommy caught the bird one handed and recoiled slightly as the meat, blood and feathers made contact with is palm.

“Not one we are going to be mounting.” He said as he dropped the bird onto the floor of the blind.

“Still counts.” I replied as I turned and began trudging through the soft bottomed lakebed toward the next bird.

I adjusted my trajectory when I saw that the far bird was drifting a bit faster than I had expected. The neared one would drift to the brushy bank of the island so I knew I could get it on the way back. When I got about sixty yard from the blind I could feel that the wind had again increased. I heard my partner make a short hail call and hunkered down slowly, craning my neck to look back toward the blind.

A trio of gadwall responded to his call, banked down wind and slowly began circling the spread. Soft chatters and quacks came from the blind as Tommy coaxed the birds to make another swing. They set up for approach but lifted just out of range.

Tommy was crouched down behind the shooting rail and cover and I watched and listened as he pleaded again to the small group, turning them once again just as I thought they might continue south toward dad and the Doc.

We had a gentleman’s agreement between the two blinds. About half way between then stood a tall bare limbed stump of an old bald cypress. If the birds crossed that line, traveling north or south. The other blind was obliged to let them go and let the other hunters work the birds. It as a fuzzy line but we all honored it as best we could, though we would each admit if asked that we called awful hard at flights as they reached that silent sentinel.

But the birds turned well before they were out of play, this time dropping much lower, their wing beats slow, their heads swaying side to side as they murmured soft calls to their plastic relatives.

“He’s got these” I said to myself. I could see the change in the way the birds were flying, their feet beginning to dangle just slightly. At a distance on overcast days, all gadwall look the same just about. But what I guessed was the hen took a few stronger wing beats and assumed the lead of the group. She banked on the right side of the float road and led her suitors softly on their decent toward the spread.

They set up perfect but their approach if kept would be a problem. They looked as though they would put down on a straight line between myself and Tommy. At that distance the shot would not have killed me, but I damn well knew it would hurt and I hoped Tommy did to.

At the last minute they raised their approach just a hair and banked again, taking them safely toward the far side of the decoy spread and the worst side of Tommy’s shooting lane, for them anyway.

I saw my friend rise from behind the cover, shoulder his gun and saw the bird react to the shot just a fraction of a second before I hear the shot. The gadwall rolled in midair and fell with a fine splash. Tommy fired again but the two remaining birds climbed quickly to safety, caught the wind and made for the safety of the big lake.

As the birds climbed in the sky I rose from my crouch and yelled my congratulations to Tommy. He gave me a thumbs up and I watched as he set down his gun and climbed out of the blind to pick up his bird.

The water grew slightly deeper and the bottom much softer as I headed to the far teal. Soon I was up to my waist, my legs mired to the shins with each step. My pace slowed by the conditions I could now tell the was almost beyond the last trees at the end of the outer island and its angle of drift would send it to out into the stump field flats if I didn’t pick it up soon.

I stomped and trudged my way to the teal, the soft bottom becoming more solid as I drew nearer to the bank of the island. Knowing it would let me make better time I turned off my direct approach, made for shallower water then turned again toward my target.

As I splashed through the shallow at a brisk pace I knew I had made the right choice. The bird was almost past the button willow point at the end of the island and showing now signof slowing. I added a bit more speed to my steps. Though it was cool and the wind now steady I could feel the sweat building beneath my coat.

As I stomped past the point I head the sharp call of an alarmed hen and looked to my right. A dozen mallards sprang from the protective pocket of brush at the tip of the island and flew directly over my head. They were so close I could see the drops of water forming and falling from their feet and bellies.

I watched them climb, level off and head south, cussing myself for not having carried my gun with me. As they got into formation I saw that they were not as frightened as they seemed at first. They slowed their wing beats and cruised toward our blind. Tommy was almost back in as they passed overhead. He called and begged for a few moments but the birds paid him no mind and were soon beyond out no-go point.

“Get ‘em Papa.” I said to the air and turned to finish the last few yards of my retrieve.

With the far bird in hand I turned to head back toward the blind. I could not see the other teal but I knew that by then the wind would have pushed it up into the trees and brush of the outer island. Looking out over the open lake as I turned I could see that the wind had brought up a pretty fair chop on the lake. It explained why the mallards had been hold up in the button willow patch and why the teal had been all but a no-show. For whatever reason the little ducks never flew well on the lake when the wind picked up.

Making my way through the shallow sandy waters near the island I caught occasional notes from my father’s calling as the rode the wind up from his blind. As I searched the bank for the last bird I heard several shot and wondered if he had been working that same group of mallards I had flushed at the point.

Tommy was back in the blind and directed me to where he had last seen the teal. I stomped around for what felt like an hour before I finally found it. The wind had pushed it up into the splayed folds at the trunk of a big cypress. If the little bird had not been belly up I doubt I would have ever seen it.

I was soaked in sweat by the time I climbed back into the blind. I stripped off my coat and dug a game strap out of my bag tossing it to Tommy. While he strung the birds I leaned on the front rail of the blind and downed a can of soda to cool me down and quench my thirst.

The win had shifted slightly and blew refreshingly cool air through the buttons of my heavy hunting shirt. As I stood at the rail I could tell the wind was continuing to gain speed. I mentioned to my friend that the lake was getting choppy and we speculated on it effect on the teal and whether or not dad had managed to pull that flight of mallards down to his set.

As I finished my coke Tommy marked a flight of ducks moving towards us from the north. In haste I lowered myself to my stool and started calling. Flying into the wind it seemed to take the small group of ducks forever to approach.

Their demeanor was uneasy as they closed in on our set. Fighting hard into the wing they scanned and scrutinized our spread for a long time. They were at the very edge of range when they crossed overhead and Tommy and I both made a halfhearted stand and shoulder move as the got directly above us. But we both whispered “no, no, no” as the birds got beyond the bushy tops of the trees and made a slight turn.

The wind caught their wings and the flock whirled around, still just on the edge of range but making another pass down wind of the blind. This time they came past on the west side of the float road, wide but still interested. I saw raising his call to his lips as they passed.

“Wait” I whispered, my own call held just in front of my mouth. “Wait…wait…”

I let the bird get farther than usual. The now strong wind would make them bank too soon and turn too soon if we rushed it.

“Now” I said with a touch of urgency.

Tommy and I let loose a barrage of hail calls, stacking them one atop the other, varying our tones and cadences, trying for all the work to sound like way more ducks than our small spread could possibly be.

The ducks wheeled as if their wings had hit a poll. They dropped half their altitude and bore down on our decoys like a fighter formation. Over the spread the mixed flock of gadwall and widgeon made another one eighty and threw their chest perpendicular to the water as they backbeat with their wings and stretched out their splayed feet.

We cut into them with abandon.

White bellies betrayed the whistle birds and they took the brunt of the first salvo. Three fell on the initial report and we peeled off two other birds as the group scattered on the now gusting wind.

But there was no time for congratulations or celebration. Two of the birds were head up and swimming fast. We reloaded and raked the gadwall and drake widgeon as they tried to put distance between themselves and the carnage in the decoys.

Our shots wrapped both birds in pellets every time but they refused to submit, each bird taking a different path of potential escape.

Tommy and I both new what was happening and quickly stuff a few shells into our pockets and dropped into the water to chase the cripples down. I grabbed one gadwall and a stone dead widgeon as I made for the bird heading toward the outside island, Tommy grabbed another widgeon as he race-walked straight toward the northern mouth of the float road where the other cotton top was swimming hard, head down, bobbing into sight as it crested each wave.

Each bird kept a good distance ahead of us and we both stopped periodically to sling steel in hope of halting their escape. The gadwall I was after dove after my second shot and as I tried to rush toward it and reload I came dangerously close to falling headlong into the water. I recovered by going to my knees but not without soaking my left arm and spilling my extra shells from my shirt pocket.

Getting back on my feet I loaded the only extra round I had into my gun and looked out toward to open lake to see how Tommy was faring.

Though still dry as far as I could tell he wasn’t doing much better than me. The water was well above his waist now and the waves seemed timed perfectly to keep him from connecting his shot to the fleeing duck. I saw his shot string twice rip through a wave just as the drake surfed down the far side, the shot catching the tips of the waves ahead and behind him.

My own chase was equally fruitless. I managed to close within range of the gadwall several times but it dove in each occurrence before I could get off a shot. I would stop and scan the surface waiting for it to rise in some sensible direction from where I had last seen it. But every time it would pop up it would be off to my side or behind me. I probably sank two feet in the mud as I pirouetted in place trying to get a shot.

At one point the blasted bird popped up nearly between my legs. That little move scared us both so bad we each let out a alarmed plea and as I plunged my right arm into the muddy water the bird vanished, bumping my legs as it dove but never to be seen again.

As I gave up and turned back to the blind I was shocked at how far Tommy had gone. He was well over a hundred yards, maybe two hundred from the blind. I was also surprised to see just how much the wind had strengthened. The waves out where he was were now clearly rolling. Glancing back to the blind I saw that the wave there had picked up as well. Enough in fact that the decoys had started to drift a bit several ha tangled together.

I yelled to my friend but he clearly could not hear me. I tried blowing my call but it to did not gather his notice. Finally I fired two shots into the air, He turned to look back and I waved him in.

Back at the hole I re positioned the decoys, climbed back in the blind and waited for Tommy to return. The boat beneath the blind began rubbing on the supports for the ladder and I climbed down to reposition it. Tommy was still quite a ways from the blind so I opted to pull the boat out, fire up the motor and save him a hard haul back to the blind.

When he saw me start up the motor he stopped walking and rested his shotgun across his shoulder. With one hand he pulled up on the top of his waders and I could see that the wave were getting dangerously close to going over their top.

It was not a pretty pick up. The wind and waves out in the more open water where he was were strong enough that I had to approach him from don wind and keep the motor on, kicking it in and out of gear at its lowest throttle while he grabbed on and hauled himself over the side.

“Did you get yours?” he asked as he rolled up onto his seat.

“Dove one me.” I told him and started to point the bow towards the blind.

“Run out just a bit and I bet we can find this one” he said.

I spun the boat and followed the line he gave me but the widgeon was not to be found. What we did find though was white caps.

The relative protection from the wind offered up in the float road had concealed from us the true strength of the blow. From the stump field to the far bank the lake was now dotted with white capped waves, not every one of them but enough to let us know the weather man had missed his forecast by several hours.

We turned around again and pointed the bow toward the blind just in time to see four mallards pitch into the decoys in front of the empty blind.

“Well that figures!” Tommy yelled over the sound of the motor and the thumping splash of the hull against the waves.

Going nearly dead into the wind we had to go slower than I wanted. We watched the mallards swim off into the calmer waters of the island only to see another flight of ducks, spoonbills this time, pitch right down where their more glamorous friends had.

“Just Spoons” I bellowed over the nose as Tommy pointed.

“Those aren’t!” he yelled back, bringing the flight of pintail to my attention. They to swung right in front of the blind before drifting down between the mallards and the shovelers.

We gave each other a broad grin and said not a word. I twisted the throttle another quarter turn and as we closed the distance to the bind several more flights of ducks of various worth either drops slap in the center of the again scattered decoys or swung within easy shot of the blind.

The weather may have been getting worse but it sure looked like the duck hunting was about to better, MUCH BETTER.

The Big Lake

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           The big lake had never been something we hunted much. Since being cut off from the river, long before my time, it had come to be mostly a fishing spot. You would see the occasional raft of divers out in the open water and of course coots. But by and large we ignored it as a duck hole. Although in his day my father and his family had killed good numbers of mallards and other puddle ducks along with plenty of divers on its waters.

            The lake is an old oxbow of the Mississippi River, nearly twelve miles from end to end and two miles wide. It forms a near perfect horseshoe. Our old camp sat at the apex of the bend facing the widest point of the lake on the far bank were the shallow, cypress studded flats of the old float road, a man made cut used in the age of steam powered river boats to move log rafts and lay aside barges.

            I had started hunting it when I was in my early teens. But even then it was just a place I could hunt ducks a few weeks earlier than usual.

            Our bank of the river was Mississippi, the far bank Louisiana although it had long since been cut off from the river, pinned in by levees and seen the last of its great paddle wheelers. And though it technically sat within the border of Mississippi the inside of the lake’s bend was still the property of the state of Louisiana, and they opened their duck season a few weeks ahead of my home state in those days.

            The camp on the lake served mostly as our fishing camp for most of my life. Our duck hunting took place farther inland in the delta and a bit farther north. But we also went there for holidays and the traditional opening of deer season.

            Though my father had long since given up his passion for antlers for the pursuit of waterfowl he still kept a membership in an old deer camp he had had a hand in forming many decades before. The deer camp was just a few miles down the road from the lake house and so when thanksgiving rolled around we usually spent the holiday at the lake house with the whole family, and then some. We would deer hunt once or twice and always had a few good meals and poker games at the deer camp but none of the hunters in my family really cared much about anything but ducks.

            My first trip hunting ducks on the lake was little more than a whim. I was at the lakehouse with my family and a large group of friends for the Thanksgiving Holiday. While deer season was open, I had sat on a stand twice already and didn’t much care to do it again. It hadn’t helped that while waiting for deer that never showed up I had heard and seen a few ducks cruising the old bayou near my stand.

            When I had told my father about the ducks he mentioned that the season was open in Louisiana but that the chute at the deer camp was too low to get to across the state line. But he said I could go try across the lake if I wanted.

            He helped me clean out the small john boat and scrounge up a handful of decoys and a tattered, mildewed piece of burlap camouflage netting and sent me on my way.

            I had NO idea where to hunt. All I know was I had to be on the other side of the lake and that there was pretty good cover along the island on the outer side of the float road. Cypress trees and button willow ran along the island and made great cover for fishing spawning crappie in the spring so I knew the general area and habitat.

            The small six horse motor eased me across the smooth midafternoon waters of the lake. It was warmer than I would have wanted but at least without a chill the boat ride was not unpleasant.

            Once across the main channel I lifted the outboard to shallow water run and eased my way west toward the island. As usual a fair number of divers and plenty of coots loafed and rafted in the shallows of the flats. The ducks stirred and rose into the air as I motored, the coots just swam a safe distance from the boat and kept on doing their thing.

            As I neared the island I turned parallel to the shore and searched for a good spot to blind up. There was no shortage of cover but the first few places I tried proved to be too shallow even for my small boat. I finally settled on a spot between two giant cypress trees with low hanging braches I could use to hang the heavy, stinking netting, tied off the bow and stern, pitched out the raggedy half dozen or so decoys, hung my camouflage net and settled in for the hunt.

            I can’t say as I recall the whole hunt but certain specifics stand out to me as clearly today as they must have then. I remember wishing I had brought a fishing rod with me as I scanned ducksless skies. I remember the sounds the coots made as they puttered around in the shallows diving for food and creating the only ripples in the still, shallow waters near me. I remember the sound the diving ducks made when they would, for reasons I still do not know, all together decide that they needed to be a short distance away and en mass take to running across the surface of the water, only briefly catching flight before settling back to their bobbing raft. I remember the red orange color of cypress needles as they drifted on the black water in which my decoys sat nearly motionless. And I remember the bold, stark contrast of color and motion over them as a mallard greenhead out of nowhere banked once, set his wings and tried to land among the poor plastic imitations of his beautiful species.

            With one quick motion I raised my gun, fired and folded the drake. He fell within a few feet of my boat and without thinking about the fact that the water might be over my knee high rubber boots I swung my legs over the gunwale and sloshed out to retrieve him.

            Save for the ride back, the setting sun turning the lake red orange like the cypress needles and the mallards legs, I don’t recall the rest of the hunt. Records my father kept tell me I killed two more greenheads that day.

            What stands out to me most in my memory is the pride in my father’s face when I slogged up the hill from the boat ramp, wet to my knees carrying three fat greenheads. The pride on his face that day show just as strong now as I look back through the yellowing pages of his field notes. “Brad hunted the Float Road today and killed 3 Greenheads BY HIMSELF!!!”

            Until now I had not remembered, somehow in the thirty five years I have been chasing ducks and geese that aspect of that day had faded. I had truly come into my own as a waterfowler. Leave it to my father, dead now these many years, to reach back through time and remind me of a near sacred moment for myself and the man who taught me.

Thanks Papa. Had you lived to this day and beyond there could never be enough words of gratitude for teaching me the ways of a waterfowler. Until we all meet again, keep your gloves dry and give Yella a pet on the head for me. I miss you both more than my heart can stand.