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.

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