Though Tal’s brief alligator wrestling had given us some quality entertainment it wasn’t long before we all focused again on the hunt. The ducks had all but stopped working the oil well pond and Howard gave the order for everyone to pack up. After the recent excitement Tal did not offer to help pick up the decoys. In fact there was a brief pause in all of the grown up’s movement when that time came. But, as men will often do, they teased each other enough about being scared of the gator that nobody was going to dare refuse to wade back into the hole.
Once all the gear was loaded back in the trucks our group gathered around the tailgate of Howard’s Bronco.
“So what’s the plan?” Dad asked
“There were a lot of birds working somewhere off to the North.” Howard replied. “Let’s see if we can make it over to Hawk’s Camp Ridge. They might be keeping something open over in The Tupe or Fish Hole.”
With that we loaded back up, cranked up the heaters and our caravan started picking its way north. The trails in this part of the woods were narrow and winding. The Blazers and Bronco parade moved slowly as it wound its way around trees and thickets. There were several places where full halt had to be called to scout out more open forest or move downed tree tops. Progress was slow but with every stop we could still see low flights of mallards working in the distance. The Tupe might well be frozen but the ducks had not left.
The wind was up by then and as we rumbled through the woods brief breaks in the clouds cast brilliant cold sunlight down through the bare gray braches of the trees, the deep blanket of leaves, in shades of muted auburns and browns rustled at the feet of aged oaks, bitter pecan and hackberry trees. Bright red berries sparsely scattered in thickets stood out in sharp contrast to the more humble hues of winter in the delta.
We crossed several small swags, the weight of the trucks easily breaking through their ice covered waters. But a glance out the widow showed how deep the freeze was. Hunks of broken ice skittered across the surface of the sloughs none thinner than half a inch.
Twice Howard stopped ahead of us when I could see no obstruction to the trail. He and Jimmy would partially emerge from the doors of the truck, standing on the floorboards with their arms on the open doors looking above and ahead. Though I could not see the objects of their observation dad explained their behavior. They were scanning the skies watching the low flights of ducks, trying to pinpoint the birds’ destination.
A third stop came just at the edge of what appeared to be an impenetrable thicket. Howard’s left arm extended from his lowered window and gave a sign for us to stay in our vehicles.
“Look.” Dad said in an unnecessary whisper. We were still inside our vehicle with the windows up but I knew from his tone that we were close on the mallards’ trail. I leaned forward and peered through the mud spattered windshield. At first I didn’t see what he was looking at, then, through the thick tangle of tie vines and small trees I caught a flash of movement. A respectable size flight of mallards, cupped up and low were pitching down through the taller timber in the distance. With the new wind and scattered sunlight their decent was a colorful chaos of acrobatic decent. They fell from the skies and vanished behind the bare branches of the woods ahead of us. Then another group and another made the same air show stunt before us.
Howard again signaled for us to stay in our trucks but this time he slowly opened his door and stepped out of his Bronco, easing the door closed as exited and began slowly walking back to us. He walked up to dad’s window and dad slowly turned the handle to lower the mud mottled glass. There was a sparkle in his eyes when he leaned in and began to talk.
“Bill William I think we found em.” He said. “There’s a pretty decent oak flat on the other side of this thicket. I’dve thought it was solid ice but I guess they kept it open.”
Howard’s voice was low but excited, his words tumbled out in short sharp setences.
“We can’t get around this thicket. Gotta go through it. So just follow close. If you get stuck, get out and hop in another truck.” And with that he was gone, walking back to the other vehicle to undoubtedly deliver the same message.
When Howard go back in his truck he waved his arm like a cavalry commander calling for an assault.
“Hang on!” dad said and we charged headlong into the thicket.
Limbs slapped the windshield. Vines snagged at the bumper and braches and briars made screeching sounds as they drug across the hood and sides of the truck. Small trees pounded into the grill and bent beneath the bodies of the trucks. Our tires were spinning and the small colum of trucks slid, swerved and slushed through the tangle being beaten on all sides by brambles, branches and briars.
“Look at THAT!” dad shouted as a prime swamp buck leapt from a downed tree top just ahead of Howard’s truck. His horns wide and nearly white the deer bounded from the cover and broke through the thicket with our convoy close on his hoves.
Howard cut a hard right turn and followed the big buck out of the dense low forest into the open woods. The deer cut back to the left and the trucks followed as he loped, seeming only slightly alarmed down the higher center span of a ridge.
A mammoth fallen oak obstructing the open woods made the buck take an ninety degree turn toward the button willowed edge of a slough and our charge came to an abrupt halt as Howard’s Bronco slide sideways, unable to match the whitetail’s talent for turns.
When the buck vanished into the button willows the earth rose up with ducks ahead of him. As far as I could see through the now cracked windshield mallards were boiling up from the still unseen waters ahead of us. I heard dad’s door open and quickly jumped out of the truck myself. From the corners of my eyes I saw that everyone was out of their vehicles, standing in stunned silence staring at the sight before us.
The ducks that had been startled by the fleeing deer covered the sky and his path could be marked by the continuing lift off of countless mallards. But the birds did not depart. They rose in clouds of color and noise, parting at either side of his path, swarmed then resettled back beyond the button willows. The sound was eerie, almost alien. No hens called but the drakes strange sound was like the hum of a hornets nest played over the soundtrack of an angry ocean as their wings tore air from the crisp winter woods.
We stood in silence for long moment before anyone spoke. Looking around I expected to see smiles but the faces of the men and boys around me spoke only of awe and reverence.
Jimmy finally broke the spell.
“Grab your gear and let’s get em”
Everyone scrambled to gather their guns and shell bags. Demery and Howard each shouldered a sack of decoys and with the hum of hordes of mallards ahead of us we marched toward the slough still concealed before us.
As we approached the edge of the button willows the ducks began to roll. Still they did not climb into the sky and leave, they simply lifted as high as was needed and flew only so far as they must to evade our entrance to their lair. The edge of the slough was a solid sheet of ice and not even the larges men of our party broke its surface as we beat and busted a path through the thick cover.
When the button willows gave way to the more open part of the slough the ice began to give. In just a few steps all the men were breaking through the ice, the water rising up to their knees.
“Howard.” Dad said as he saw what was coming. “Why don’t yall go on out and find the opening and Brad and I will hold up here and try our luck?”
I felt my heart fall again. With no waders I was going to be left behind.
“Oh HELL no!” Jimmy said. Stomping back to our side. “Lawyer you hand me yall’s gear and put that boy on your back. He ain’t gonna miss this!”
Jimmy, Howard and Demery divvied up our gear and I climbed onto my dad’s back.
“Now Bill William you’re an old bastard so you let us know when you need a break.” Demery said as we stomped and tromped through the thick ice. The ducks could still be heard in the distance but open water was nowhere in sight. Dad carried me for about fifty yards before he called for a break.
“You getting old Lawyer!” Jimmy teased him. “Bring that boy over here and put him on this stump while you catch your breath.
Dad stomped his way to the large stump Jimmy had indicated and lowered me down.
“Lets hold up here and see what these birds are doing.” Howard offered as he made his way over to my perch.
“Give that boy his gun Demery.” Howard said. “We might wind up having to tree top a few while the old man recuperates.” Howard looked at me and winked.
“Who’s go my gun?” Dad asked
“Hold up now Lawyer. Nobody said anything about YOU getting to tree top?” an easy laugh passed through the group but dad remained gunless.
The drone of the ducks could still be heard through the woods and occasionally we caught glimpses of them through the trees, either fluttering up and resettling or walking on the ice covered water among the scattered timber. A few flights drifted over our heads but nothing came low enough for shots. Our four footed party member paced cautiously on the suface of the ice, throwing his nose into the wind and whining when the scent of the ducks drifted to him.
“I think it gets a little deeper down that way.” Howard said, pointing in the direction of the last group of ducks we had seen filtering down through the trees. “Let’s ease that way and see if that where they are keeping it open.”
With that dad started to make his way back over to my stump, having wandered a short distance away to sit on a log while we rested.
“I got this little shit.” Jimmy said, wading up to me. “Can’t have an old SOB like you falling out on us way out here.” Dad protested and again offered for he and I to stay back while the rest of the group went on but Jimmy wasn’t gonna hear any talk of that.
“You just try to keep up Bill. I can tote this boy all day.”
“And anyway” Howard added. “We can carry the boy around fine but if you try and wind up dead out here the whole lot of us couldn’t drag your big ass outa this swamp”
We made our way further into the slough but open water was nowhere to be found. I was passed from Jimmy, to Howard to Demery several times as we search for liquid water. They made stops where a log or stump offered a place for me to stay up out of the ice and give their backs and shoulders a rest.
During one of our stops Howard had the men bust open a few small holes in the ice and scatter a half dozen decoys close to their feet in the openings. When a flight of ducks came by they all called with as much energy, pleading and volume as I had ever heard. A good group of mallards finally got too close for their own good and together we managed to drop a half dozen mallards onto the ice around us.
While the dog made his uneasy retrieves, the ice creaking below him, the ducks from further down the slough at last had had enough and began lifting up above trees. Soon the skies above us where swarming with ducks. Howard and his crew tried to coax the birds into range for a time but the mallards would not be fooled. Eventually Howard told everyone to stop calling and just hold still. We would watch and see what the birds did and then decide from there what to do.
“And don’t shoot til I say.” Was his final command.
The ducks milled and drifted above us with very little calling. The wind was not rather strong and the birds seemed to be having trouble lining up their approaches. In the distance we saw a few flocks get down through the trees again but their decent looked more like controlled crashes than landings.
From the log where they had placed me the far bank of the slough was visible. The shore in that area was clear of button willow and the shallow frozen waters spread out around the bases of a stand of red oaks and bitter pecans maybe a hundred yards away.
All at once a single greenhead dropped through the canopy and landed on the ice at the edge of the oak, then another followed and then it seemed every duck in the delta decided it was time to rest their wings.
They were too far away to shoot but as we watched hundreds of mallards drifted, dropped and plummeted down from the cloud studded skies all seeming to want to settle on a spot no bigger than a beach towel.
As each flock broke own through the trees another was setting their wings and preparing to land. On the ice ducks touched down and waddled to the sides as the next group crowded down on their heads.
Soon the ice in the distance was covered with mallards and the skies were again empty. The ducks milled about for a moment then in a nearly single file line began walking towar the edge of the slough. At first I thought they might have seen us and were putting distance between themselves and our itching trigger fingers. Then Howard whispered.
“I’ll be damned! They’re dry feeding!”
I didn’t’ know what that term meant at first.
“What’s that?” I whispered back, transfixed at the sight of hundreds of mallards looking for all the world like they were playing on the bank like children in the leaf piles of a freshly raked yard.
“They’re eating acorns off the ground.” Dad whispered back.
“Now that ain’t something anyone is ever gonna believe” Jimmy said in a low voice of amazement.
As I studied the ducks I could see what the men were talking about. The mallards were rooting around in the forest liter with their bills, finding red oak acorns. They would grab one in their bill, toss their head back ad choke down the hard acorn then immediately go back in search of another.
As they fed they made a strange mummer unlike any call I had ever heard before. And the sound of them rustling through the leaves with their bills and flat, webbed feet was crisp and loud.
Eventually they wandered out of sight but we still stood in silence for a time listening as the din of their unusual feast filtered through the trees.
That was the last we saw of ducks that day. The skies had cleared and the winds had risen to a roar by the time the men took turns carrying me on their backs and shoulders through the thickening ice. By the time we got to the trucks and back to the camp it was beyond bitter cold and even the flowing waters of the bayou and canal at the foot of the levee were covered in ice.
Dad made a big pot of canned chilly and potent batches of coffee and Nippy for the group and as we warmed ourselves inside and out we recounted the day’s events again and again.
Slowly the crowd thinned out. The freeze was on and until it broke there wasn’t much point of staying at The Tupe. Howard and his crew mentioned trying the river but dad was having nothing to do with that.
“I promised my maker I’d never be fool enough to hunt that river again if he got me off of it alive last time I hunted it.” He told them. “That river is for brave hearted young men and fools.”
Dad and I cleaned up the camp after everyone was gone and drained the water pipes as best we could to try to prevent them from busting in the freeze.
I doubt I made it to the levee before I was asleep on the ride home and I don’t have the slightest recollection of dad carrying me into the house and putting me in bed. What I do recall though is waking up the next morning to find a brand new pair of shiny, green rubber chest waders on the foot locker at the end of my bed. I remember the salty taste of tears of joy that streamed down my face and the strange chemical smell as I pulled the waders on over my pajamas and stumbled own the stairs to show dad how well they fit. I remember knowing that I had graduated to The Majors and become a true waterfowler. And I know now that I had done so upon the shoulders of giants.