The tradition of waterfowling is full of legendary characters, archetypical personalities that no good hunting story could be without. We all know them, they are such a part of the fabric of waterfowling lore that every one of us has heard of them or hunted beside them. But like any other sport, there is also a second tier of unsung heroes without whom the experience of waterfowling would diminish. It is time that they got the recognition for which they are long overdue.
The first of these lesser legends we will call The Sponge. This is the waterfowler who, even when hunting in a seemingly dry field, can somehow manage to get sopping wet. I once watched my hunting party’s own sponge almost make it out of a hunt completely dry, a feat that had taken quite some doing. The hunt took place in a backwoods hole where the water depth threatened at every move to breach the top of our chest waders. It was so deep, in fact, that the mere act of standing in one place for too long was a serious hazard. The soft bottom of the brake caused the hunters to creep slowly towards China and nearer the limits of their waders. Foregone conclusion: The Sponge would be wet before long. Yet, somehow he managed to stay dry, and the longer he remained so the more fear the rest of us in the party had. You see, The Sponge plays a key role and an unenviable one. A universal law of duck hunting is that someone is going to get wet, but if you have among your party a sponge, the rest of the party can feel secure.
On this particular day we all managed to make it back to the bank dry. We were so shocked at this that we even threatened to toss The Sponge in the swamp, lest we depart without the feel of actually having been hunting. We were quickly dissuaded of that notion by the size of our particular Sponge, who stands just taller than your average safe, and has the same approximate build and weight. We began the long hike back to our vehicles, somewhat disappointed in the day. Sure, we had killed a few ducks, but our Sponge was dry.
Along the walk, wide, murky puddles emerged in our trail, opportunities for The Sponge to redeem himself. More than once I saw the twinkle of mischief in the eyes of my fellow hunters, hoping The Sponge was ready to take a header and round out the day. A failed attempt to assist the sponge in doing so dashed our hopes, and for the rest of the walk he gave all bodies of water larger than a teacup an extra-wide birth.
The last leg of our hike was tough. Deep, muddy ruts marked the last hundred yards of our way and again our hopes rose. With gasps of joy we watched The Sponge slip in his footing and come dangerously close to one of the deeper ruts. But alas, a muddy Sponge is not nearly as satisfying as a wet Sponge.
Back at the trucks we unburdened ourselves of ducks and gear, slipping out of our waders for the ride back to the camp. Having not brought along an extra pair of boots, The Sponge stepped over to a shallow roadside ditch to wash off some of the mud. We had all but given up hope of a wet Sponge when we heard it, the resounding splash and obligatory swearing that made our day whole. The sponge was wet. He had managed to lose his footing in a gravel-bottom puddle no more than three inches deep and gone straight over backwards, nicely filling his waders. He wasn’t the slightest bit amused, either by the fact that he had fulfilled his role or by our request that he do a repeat performance so that we all could see. After all, half the fun of having a Sponge along is watching them do what they do best.
If all duck hunts were sure-fire, limit-out, nonstop action, our second lesser legend might go unnoticed. But we aren’t that lucky, and it is in those lulls that The Philosopher is at his best.
The Philosopher is, more often than not, a quiet type. He is not one to partake in the good-spirited banter of the pit or bring up the topic of last night’s game. No, this waterfowler will tend to sit at the end of the bench, eyes fixed on some distant point. He may join in light conversation if pressed, but the workings of his mind are only revealed in the depths of those long lulls. Silence is his cue, and a long silence primes his pump. His obscure musings spill forth from his lips when skies are empty and most other minds have drifted to thoughts of departing, or perhaps breakfast.
“You guys ever wonder…?” is the hallmark of the Philosopher, and chances are good that, No, in fact you had never even considered X, nor did you care to, and if the fates are kind the whole notion will never cross your mind again.
We all know how much money is involved in waterfowling, but let’s hope our S.O.’s (significant others) don’t. Perhaps this is, in part, how our third lesser legend, The Hobo, came into being.
The Hobo is the member of the party that can be found wearing nothing from any mail order catalog printed after the early 1960’s, and even then it surely came from the Bargain Basement Closeout section. This is not to imply that The Hobo is a fellow of little means. More often than not, The Hobo is the wealthiest member of any hunting party, even though he looks like he should be standing in a soup line rather than a duck blind. His waders, bordering on antique, appear once to have been composed of rubber, but now are principally inner tube patches, yards of shoo goo, and duct tape. If this party member owns any camouflage at all, it is certain not to be in any pattern conceived after WWII. Quite often, what is mistaken for an unusual camouflage pattern is little more than several decades of coffee spills and the dried blood of every game species on the North American continent.
The Hobo is also a master of thrift. Why would he bother to buy a blind bag when he has all those perfectly good plastic bags around? Ducks surely don’t care that his shells are in a much-used zip-loc carried in a Save – Some grocery bag that has been in his service since that store went out of business during the Nixon administration. And so what if the sweater vest he wears for extra warmth is navy blue and has not fit him since it was issued to him at his boarding school in the fifth grade?
“Its warm,” he will tell you as he unwraps his brand new, high-dollar, custom-fitted shotgun from a piece of old tarp or draws forth from his military surplus reject coat a hand-checked, one-of-a-kind, custom duck call that is tied around his neck with a cast-off length of decoy cord. The Hobo always has a tell.
Unlike The Philosopher, who draws upon his inner world for subjects of conversation, our next lesser legend, The Observer, takes his notes from the world around. This party member is the keenest observer of the natural world and is somehow able to relate each observation to the hunting experience at hand.
“Did you guys notice that we didn’t see any rabbits on the road while we were driving in just now?” he asks. “Last time we drove in and didn’t see any rabbits the birds didn’t fly until after the woodpeckers started working on the old dead stands. Of course, that day there was a low ground fog and the cows in that pasture up by the turn-off were at the fence…”
He continues recounting until you are not sure you were even in the same county as he on the aforementioned trip. A word of caution: Whatever you do, do not mention your doubts to The Observer, lest he recall some observation about you from that day in sincere hope of taking you back with him.
“Sure you were! It was that morning that you dropped your coffee on the way out of the camp. I remember because I noticed that the frost on the grass around the truck was thick, and the steam from your coffee hung close to the ground, like the fog on the field with the cows…”
A second word of caution: Do not, under any circumstances, be so misguided as to believe that this party member’s keen since of observation can be of practical use. For instance, you might be inclined to ask, “Hey, __________, I missed what that flashing warning sign said back there, something about a bridge? Did you catch that?”
To which The Observer answers, “Sign? what sign? Did you guys notice that the leaves in the water on the left side of the road were…”
The title of our next Lesser Legend, The Magician, is a bit misleading. This party member has an uncanny ability to make their gear vanish. It should also be noted that this party member generally has more gear than all the others combined, and furthermore, that each and every piece of that gear is deemed an absolute necessity. He is, however, more tolerable than his counterpart TAIFM (short for Turn Around I Forgot My).
It is possible to have both these types in a hunting party, or even in one party member, though I doubt many have survived more than one season, having either been drowned by fellow hunters or having been forced to hunt alone. It is of vital importance that neither of these types EVER be responsible for any portion of essential gear. This includes items such as, but in no way limited to, the following: Gate keys, decoys, paddles, flashlights, boat plugs and even boats. I have seen these lesser legends get so far as the ramp before realizing that the boat was not behind them.
Our next lesser legend, The Springer, is always up for a hunt, anytime, anywhere, but it is not his eagerness that earns him his name. This admirable quality does get them limitless invitations to join in on hunts, though seldom with the same party more than twice.
The Springer is always on time, well-equipped and eager to help with the details of preparation for a good hunt. Inevitably, when they are around the birds are thick, and herein lies the problem. After the second or third phenomenal flight drops into the decoys, he speaks up.
“Oh, by the way, I did tell you guys I have to be back in town by 8:30, didn’t I?” Hence, The Springer’s name – he always springs something on you. It should be noted that the Springer’s own vehicle is almost never parked within walking distance. It is in town or at the camp, whichever is most inconvenient. The exception to this rule is the time that The Springer has convinced the entire party to ride with him.
But this is not the only way he comes by his name. The other, less endearing means, is the last minute phone call that goes something like this:
“Yeah, I’m on my way. Oh, by the way, I’m bringing along (insert name of annoying friend, untrained dog or overbearing boss). I hope that’s all right?” The Springer cannot be broken of these habits, so you have to either be a saintly soul well practiced in Zen or keep a criminal defense attorney on retainer if you plan to hunt with a Springer for very long.
The Sure Shot can be both a blessing and a severe trial for the hunting party. No, he is not a topnotch marksmen; he is merely “sure” he shot any ducks that happen to fall within a four-mile radius of his muzzle. It doesn’t seem to matter whether he even fired his gun or not.
Perhaps Trick Shot would be a better name for this legend, as his skill knows no bounds. Taking one shot at a teal passing on the left side of a blind, he manages to kill three mallards hovering over the decoys off the right side. Mallards that, apparently, all the other hunters missed.
It is possible to make Sure Shot work to your advantage. Simply allow him to claim every bird shot early on in the hunt. Congratulate him, shake your head at your own miserable shooting, and in short order they he has his limit and the rest of your party can enjoy the remainder of the hunt. One small problem that can arise out of this tactic is the presence of a band. In such a case the only way to handle the situation is to tie Sure Shot to a tree and hope you still have that attorney on retainer.
The last of our lesser legends of waterfowling is the most disturbing and potentially dangerous, Captain Destructo. His destructive force goes beyond the understanding of both science and religion. His mere presence causes mechanical objects to cease working and move beyond the realm of repair. In truth, I do not believe their powers to be limited to the mechanical. Given the opportunity, I firmly believe Captain Destructo could render an anvil useless by simply walking into a blacksmith shop. What is particularly insidious about him is that he seems to have no awareness of the havoc he wreaks, and more often than not fancies himself quite handy with tools. Whatever you do, never, under any circumstances let him near any functioning object if he has so much as a screwdriver in his hand, unless of course the object is well-insured and/or in need of replacement. If allowed to pursue his handiwork, within minutes Captain Destructo can have said object in such a state that no adjuster would ever question your claim.
“Yes sir, just as you said, it looks like a boulder fell on it just after the herd of buffalo ran through your garage while being shocked repeatedly by the freak electrical storm that seems to have burned the whole thing to cinders. Here’s your check. Damn shame about your anvil, my condolences.”