Shots continued to echo through the woods from the distant blinds in the heart of The Tupe. Inch by inch, foot by foot, the world was being revealed. But still we waited. In every direction the sounds of calling mallards, beating wings and splashing, unafraid ducks encompassed us.
“Just watch.” Howard whispered. “Don’t move, just watch.”
With our heads tucked to our chests Chris, Howard and I glanced around and at the scene unfolding across the flooded flat. I could feel my cheeks taught and aching for the grin I wore. The same broad smile was one the other human faces whenever my minute movements offered me a glimpse of Chris and Howard.
A mallard hen drifted within inches of Chris’s legs and let loose a commanding but contented call.
I heard a snort from my friend as he strained to hold back his laughter. Then a giggling fit spread to everyone in our party. Guns in hand, surrounded by ducks, we stood in the center of a spectacle that continued to unfold around us. We snickered like children in church, trying to suppress our joy lest we be rebuked by our elders, or in that case the wild waterfowl that were conducting their own Sunday service around us.
As the sound of wing beats slowly began to diminish and the louder calling of the ducks settled into a hum of happy feeding sounds my anticipation for order to shoot overtook my need to laugh. I glanced at Chris and Chris and Howard, wildly cutting my eyes and arching my eyebrows trying to convey my eagerness to cut loose into the mass of mallards that floated on the stained waters wherever I looked.
Chris’ face too was turned toward our hero. Surely, he was not cruel enough to make us wait any longer? But the shake of his head told us our torture was not over.
“Flush em, but don’t shoot.” He whispered. The shock and disappointment that must have been clear on our face requiring him to reply. “Just trust me.” We did.
With a half step from our hide, all three of us turned our faces up to take in the full picture around us. For a split second the bird seemed to pay us no mind. Then heads began to rise, necks elongated, and the now nervous birds changed the tone of their calling, turning head first into the light wind that blew from our back.
“GET ON!” Howard shouted. And the world around us exploded.
Wings slapped the water and alarmed quacks blared from every direction. Standing in the center of the mallard maelstrom we watched, turning in our tracks as wave after wave of ducks leapt into the sky. Water from their departure showered down around and onto us. The wind of wings could be heard and felt from every compass point. In miraculous moments they pin oak flats emptied of ducks.
Chris and I uttered a string of astonishments, some sprinkled with profanity we were only allowed to use at the hunting camp.
“What a sight!” Howard added, his eyes squinted by his smile, his head shaking side to side.
“They’ll be back.” He said. “Let’s ease back up into that tree-top and get ready”
We reclaimed our previous places. Chris and I still trembling with excitement, chattering to each other about what we had seen.
From what we could now tell was my father’s blind a rolling volley of shots reported the route at some of the departing ducks had taken. Then other ollies followed from several points in the distance. The staccato pops of single shots telling us the birds had not all escaped unharmed, as the hunters finished off cripples.
I was preparing to ask Howard if we might should have shot when I saw his small black call touch his lips and heard the first sharps notes of his greeting call float up through the timber. Dropping my head to my chest and peer out from under the bill of my cap I caught a quick glimpse of the group of mallards I assumed he was working. My hands tightened on the stock of my gun. My finger hovered over the safety.
Watching from the corner of my eyes I tried to comprehend the flocks’ motions and Howard quacked, coaxed and called to the gabbling group. The muddy water at my feet offered a poor reflection as I strained to keep up wit the birds by looking down instead of up, as my father and his friends had taught me. The WHOOSH of wings told me the birds were low, and close, but for the life of me I could not figure out where they were.
Remembering another lesson from my father, I tilted my head to the side and focused on Howard’s face. He would have an eye the birds, and by watching him I would be able to get an idea of their approach.
The chatter of the working birds grew nearer and a lone hen from the flock took up a measured call, quacking rhythmically as she led her troop around and around over the opening that had been created when our natural blind and toppled to the earth.
The little black call took on a more urgent sound as the lead hen’s voice began to fade into the distance. Longer notes rang from Howards lungs and I watched as he relaxed from his hunker and pleaded with the departing flock.
Turning to face where Howard was looking I saw the mallards break through the gray branch and drift down to the water, landing well out of range but in clear sight.
Before I could ask what went wrong, Howard was gathering his gear and stepping out from the limbs of the fallen oak.
“Get your gear and follow me.” He said. Chris and I followed without question. “Stuff that decoy bag in the hollow of that tree.” He continued, pointing to a large hackberry tree a short distance from the upturned root ball of the old oak.
Every time I opened my mouth to enquire about our operation Howard answered my question before I could utter a sound.
“They didn’t like something.”
“We need to back up off this hole just a bit.”
“Pick out a good size tree on either side of me and stay behind it.”
Chris and I followed his instructions without question. We hadn’t gotten more than ten yards from our pervious hide when a single drake mallard fluttered down through the opening and landed among the handful of decoys Chris had deployed in the dark.
The drake barely hit the water before he was up and gone again.
“That’s what we want!” Howard said as Chris and I selected our trees and sought out places where we could stash or blind bags. Howard rummaged through his pockets and withdrew a good-sized screw bent at nighty degrees a few inches below its head. Scraping away the deeply grooved outer bark he began twisting the bent hunk of metal into the tree, then hung his bag and gun from the hand fashioned hook.
“You boys did well.” He said, leaning one shoulder against the tree where he stood. “You kept your faces down and didn’t move.”
“Thank you” we replied with a sheepish pride.
“When the next bunch starts working,” he continued. “watch me close. If I kick the water, yall do the same. But when I stop, you stop. Understood?”
Chris and I nodded our answer and again before our voices could offer any of the dozens of questions we were eager to ask, Howard raised his call to his lips and purred the D-2 into action.
Without so much as a single circle the five mallards dropped their left wings, pirouetted in the sky and began back peddling down through the opening in front of us. Their orange feet extended, they beat the air hard to control their decent and turned face towards us. With the lead duck just inches from the surface Howard called the shot.
Three guns ripped the air and three drakes continued to the water unaided by their wings while the hens made their escape flying within feet of our heads. Though the two face-down drakes could be seen to swim in lazy circles and the one belly up kicked hopelessly at the cool air above him, it was clean none of the three required a finishing shot.
“Way to go boys!” Howard congratulated us. “That’s how we want to shoot em.”
Chris was easing out from beside his tree to retrieve the downed birds, but Howard assured him they would neither escape or bother future flocks. Backing up to his station Chris withdrew two purple shells from his pocket and slid it into the battered sixteen gauge he carried. His action reminded me of my own need to reload and I found two yellow shells in my pocket and slipped them into my gun. Howard only required one shell to reload.
The next visitors to grace our presence was a pair of mallards. The hen quacking loudly as they dropped below the upper branches.
They swung wide once below the trees, moving to my left as they prepared to land.
“Shoot that drake!” Howard called as I raised my gun to my shoulder.
At the sound of Howards voice the greenhead made an acrobatic move to adjust his landing, placing a cluster of brush between his outstretched neck and my unsteady barrel. The limbs between us splintered and the drake dug his wings hard into the air as he shifted landing to escape. Twice more my twenty gauge chased the fleeing bird, but all that fell to disturb the waters at my feet were twigs, leaves and the wadding from my shots.
Crestfallen, I turned an apologetic face towards hunting companions. Chris was shaking his head, but Howard just gave a quick gin and told me to load back up.
Shoving shells back into my gun I tried to make excuses for my misses. Blaming trees limbs and poor footing and anything else my mind could conjure. But the truth was, I had just flat out missed.
“Won’t say it was a tough shot.” Howard replied. “But I can’t say I haven’t missed easier ones myself.” His words gave me back some small degree of dignity.
“But let’s not have a repeat performance.” Chris chimed in from his station. And Howard laughed as hard as I think I had ever heard him laugh.
I took the good-natured ribbing in stride, as much as I could, though secretly hoping my friend would show an equally pathetic display of marksmanship before the day was done. If not, I could always remind him of his recent sockless encounter with the whitetail of the woods. Chris’ deer hunting was rife with ammunition for a good taunting.
As we settled back into the hunt a respectable flight of mallards drifted over the trees, low and looking for company. Howard set to work on his call and the dozen or more birds made a lazy circuit of the flats, slowly losing altitude but clearly in no rush to select their final destination.
We watched as best we could as Howard expertly worked the meandering birds. When his left foot moved to stir the water, we mimicked his movements. If the birds were tail to us, and a safe distance away, he kicked the water with enough vigor to send splashes and showers of droplets falling around his tree. If the birds worked close his leg moved more delicately, and if they were directly overhead he remained still.
The flock made innumerable rounds and half-hearted faints at dropping through the trees. Each time, slowly abandoning their glide path and lifting above the opening to make another low circle over our decoys.
“This is it.” Howard whispered as the flight made another banking turn. I couldn’t see anything different in their manner from the previous several approaches, but as Howard’s hand moved slowly towards his gun, I took him for his word and braced myself against the self-doubt that still lingered from my earlier misses.
Sure enough the birds made a full commitment, stretching out their bright feet and pushing back against their descent. They dropped into the upper reaches of the hole and I could see Howard slowly start to lift his gun form the hook.
“BOOM!” a shot plowed through woods and the flight reversed their path amid frantic calls. Leaving before I knew what happened.
The shot was too close to be any of the other members of our camp and in a direction that made it unlikely to be another duck hunter. It was come from the area of the woods where the highest ground escaped the winter waters except in years of floods.
“Damnit” Howard muttered under his breath, releasing the hold on his gun, dropping hi calls to his chest and shaking his head.
“I hope to all hell they killed that deer!” he said, stuffing his hands into his pockets and turning his face to the sky in search of another opportunity.
We all mumbled, cursed ad shook our heads as we waited for the next sighting. Soon it became obvious we had entered a typical early morning lull. A quick glance at my watch marked the time as only shortly past full sunrise and was surprised by the earliness of the hour.
“What was it Cedric always said when that happened?” Howard asked as we waited.
Doing me best to imitate my father’s longtime hunting partner and dearest friend, Cedric Fiberman, I straighten up and looked towards the heavens.
“A most fortuitous turn of events!” I spoke to the spirit of the man whose company would no longer grace our gatherings.
We all laughed and noticed Howard wipe tear from his eyes. Whether born of joy or sorrow I cannot say, but I imagine it was a mix of both.
We passed the time telling a few stories of Cedric. Laughing at he well worn memories of the small man who’s memory filled every corner of the wildlands we hunted. In our recollections we lost track of time. But when the soft call of a drake mallard shocked us back into the moment the sun had risen enough to cast an iridescent glimmer of the lone mallard’s head as he crossed the sky over the decoys.
Howard took to his call and on the second pass the drake was joined by another trio of mallards. The birds made another swing and their number grew again, now a solid twenty or more claimed the blue heavens above us.
In another wide circle their numbers tripled. Then other flights fell under the spell and before long several different groups were circling and gliding over the tall oaks. The birds were very vocal and as their number grew Howard’s calling became more mellow. Alternating between crisp but soft quacks and muttering chatters he kept the flights focused on our hole. We joined him as he kept the water below the trees stirring and the swirl of ducks continued to grow above us.
“Give em a little chatter.” Howard alerted us with a hoarse whisper.
Without thinking Chris and I abandoned my father’s stern instruction from the previous night to keep our calls in our coats. We fumbled out the old wooden double reeds we both blew and tentatively added our voices to the calling.
The birds made three more passes before melding into one solid flock. Howard kept up the bulk of the calling while Chris and I maintained a constant chatter.
Seeing something in the attitude of the birds Howard issued another command.
“That’s enough, get ready.” He said maintaining a slow string of quacks as the leading squadron applied their brakes and began whiffling down through the trees.
The first dozen or more of the birds hit the water but countless more mallards were descending through the opening and others above were banking on slow wings to join the rain of waterfowl.
With the sun now well above the trees the colorful heads of the drakes and the bright orange feet of all the fluttering flock brought sharp contrast to the brown and gray world of the flooded timber.
I couldn’t guess how many birds landed, or how many were still back peddling over their brethren when Howard called the shot. But I remember that as far back as I could see ducks were still lining up to fall among our decoys.
The first blast sent only two drakes crashing to the water. The next round only two more. The last few shots to punctuate the event went safely into nothing and again the world around us returned to silence.
“Shoot that cripple!” I heard Howard bark. Chris and I both hastily reloaded and in unison raked the escaping drake with converging fire that ended his attempted exodus.
“What happened?” Chris asked. “How did we only kill four?”
I knew better than to try to claim the two birds I felt certain I had killed. So I kept my mouth shut on that front, asking instead as I glanced around if he was sure it was only four.
“Hell boys. Every duck I picked out was falling before I could pull the trigger!” Howard laughed. “Then anything I swung to next was a hen. If it wasn’t for that one that tried to escape on my side I wouldn’t have cut a feather!”
I watched as Howard slipped a single shell into his gun. Sure enough he had only fired once. The lack of more dead mallards rested solely on the shoulders of myself and my friend.
“That puts us at seven.” Howard stated mate-of-factly. “Good job picking drakes.”
Before the last ripples had faded from the falling ducks another group of birds make a low faint at the opening and again we fell in behind Howard’s calling, adding our now confident chatter to the mix.
For a reason known only to the ducks themselves the group decided to drop in from behind us, falling through the trees with the wind and faster than I had ever seen mallards try to land. They were on us before we knew what was happening and Howards was scrambling for his gun before Chris and I had a chance to turn to face the birds.
“Take em!” Howard called, as Chris and I fumbled and fussed to get turned around.
Howard’s A-5 sounded once and two greenheads folded, stone dead, splashing water onto Howard and nearly striking him as he turned sideways to the feathered projectiles.
The hunt as done. Reductions in the mallard population had shortened our seasons and reduced our bag limits, but it had done nothing to dampen the spirits of the men of The Tupe. If the mallards would still come they would hunt them, and that day we could not have asked for a more perfect hunt.
After gathering our birds, we stood for a long while watching birds work the flats. Howard never touched his call again that day. Instead he told us to just watch the show. While the birds worked he pointed out slight changes in the way they flew, trying to show us some of the things he looked for when working birds.
We tried see what he saw and pretended to understand the lifetime of knowledge he offered us there among those towering trees. Maybe we retained s few of his lessons, but mostly we just sat in awe of him, watching him watch the ducks. Listening to his voice as he whispered his lessons and color commentary explaining the unfathomable ballet the winter winds had set in motion over our heads and all around us.
Before we left he told us leave the decoys stashed in the old hollow tree.
“You boys need to bring Lawyer Ramsey with you in the morning and call a few ducks in for him.” He explained, referring to my father by one of his many nicknames. “I appreciate yall putting me on some ducks.”
I do not think I ever felt so proud in my life. I knew even without our limited calling, Howard would have landed every duck we had shot, but it was the greatest compliment I could have imagined. To this day I mark that morning as true entry into the brotherhood of waterfowlers, and nothing before or since has changed my estimation of that milestone.