The dim headlights of the Hustler revealed our stopping point, white blazes of paint at shoulder height on the bark of an over-cup oak that marked the end of our camp’s property.
When the engine sputtered to a steaming stop we sat for a long moment, letting silence of predawn return to the world around us. The eerie call of wood ducks was the first sound break the newborn quiet, followed closely by the hoot of an owl.
Sitting in silence as our warm breath fogged the close dark world before us we listened as more wood ducks took up the dim symphony that sung of the coming sunrise. But when the first sharp notes of a mallard barked through the timber every man and boy quickly set into motion.
Guns were uncased, blind bags grabbed and the bag of far too many decoys were hauled down from the roof of rack of the 6-wheeler.
“I’ll get those.” Howard spoke into the darkness. But before he could reach to shoulder the burden Chris had the bulky bag secured to his back. I rummaged through my blind bag and withdrew a battered flashlight. The frail beam of the light shrank our world to within its feeble reach and with glance at the small round compass pinned to my coat I headed toward the sound of the waking waterfowl and my hopes for the day’s hunt.
The day before the walk had seemed simple. The ridge that stood between us and the pin oak flat consisted of large trees, spaced well apart by natures design. But in the darkness, now burdened with our gear, a forest of vines, saplings and briars seemed to have sprouted overnight. More than once we were forced to turn from my northerly track or pause to free Chris and the decoys from the ensnaring vines and thorns of the woods.
Shooting light was still a safe distance away but with every turn and tangle I worried that we would be rushed in getting our decoys deployed and ourselves ready when before the first echoing shots on some distant slough signaled legal shooting time.
Soon enough though the slight slope of the ridge could be felt under our feet and within a few strides our party was standing at the edge of the shallow flats that just the day before had been teeming with mallard.
We paused again to listen as a startled wood duck alerted her companions of a nearing threat and launched noisily into the darkness. More of her kin could be heard in every direction but the droning buzz of feeding mallards that had drawn me to their location before was not to be heard. Howard told me to douse my light and when our eyes had adjusted it was evident that the world around us was slowly filling with light.
“Where are we going to set up?” Howard asked, a slight edge of anticipation in his voice.
“There is a big fallen tree about half way to the Water Ash where the flat is split in half.” I said, raising my flashlight and preparing to search out my intended destination. Howard eased his hand through the darkness, placing it on my wrist.
“Let’s just ease out towards that area. We’ll find it when the light comes up a bit more.”
And with that he eased into the shallow waters with me and Chris close behind.
As we waded wood ducks fussed and flushed around us in the dark, but there was not a sound from the mallards I had expected to be waiting on our arrival. When the water reached our thighs, Chris unshouldered the decoys and the rumble of the unsettled blocks sent several set of wings to light. As the escaping birds broke into the pale eastern sky the lead hen of the dozen or more mallards that were rapidly departing called down through the trees. It wasn’t the throngs of birds I had scouted out, but it began to ease my worries none the less.
The large fallen tree I had spotted the day before materialized out of the darkness. Its massive turn and root ball partially submerged, its thick branches still clinging to their leave stretching out beyond our sight.
“Good looking spot.” Howard said as we began placing our bags and guns on the trunk and among the limbs.
“They were all around it yesterday.” I said. Beaming unseen with pride. “Here and all along the flat to the east and west.”
Chris had opened the decoy bag and was unwrapping the first of the fakes when a trio of wood ducks landed within feet of our hide and left as fast as they had come.
“Let’s just toss out a few for now.” Howard said. “We don’t have long before legal.”
Chris deployed less than a dozen of the blocks in a scattered arc to the side of the fallen tree. Returning to the cover of the branches and fishing shells from the tattered, green army surplus bag he used to haul such necessities.
The unmistakable metallic clap of his shotgun breach told me Howard was loaded Chris and I quickly followed suit. Stuffing our pockets with extra shells and securing our ditty bags in the branches of the tree within easy reach.
“Now boys, this might be some tight quarter shooting. So be very careful.” Howard instructed. “Shoot what’s in your lane and the end guns can shoot the edges.”
“Yes sir.” We answered as one.
Or voices had hardly faded when the world above us came alive with the sound of wings and chattering mallards. It was still too early to shoot when the Howard’s call trilled to life.
The old D-2 he always blew had a strange quirk to it. No matter the temperature it required a strange rolling purr to get the reed freed up. It was the most unnatural sound a duck call has ever made, but I knew from experience that it didn’t bother the ducks. I also knew that as soon as that reed was freed up, Howard would produce a sound that I had never seen mallards be able to resist.
When the first few notes of his opening greeting bounced off the flooded trees I hear the unmistakable sound of mallards cutting air and turning on a dime. Before the last note of the hail call sounded the first wave of ducks was filtering down through the timber, quacking loud as if scolding some greedy hen who had clearly set down at the table before the rest of the party arrived.
Duck hit the water all around us. Water splashed on to us and the wind of wings could be felt from every direction. It was the most unceremonious landings I had ever witnessed. The ducks practically crashed through the trees. You could hear wings hitting tree branches and each bird that made it to the water did so with a “plopping” sound that is usually only made when one of their kind meets headlong with a load of shot at a fair altitude and collides with the water.
Before we knew it, the entire world was teeming with ducks. From the air and the water hens quacked and called, while all around us the strange “dreep…dreep…” of the drakes grew into a droning buzz and the general clamor and chattering of ducks in every direction drove all other sounds from the world, save the pounding of my heart and the unsteadiness of my breath.
From the south the boom of another blind told us legal shooting light had come. The distant shot was nearly drowned out by the raucous clamor of the ducks on the water and their brethren that continued to flutter and fall through the canopy. But the ducks hardly seemed to care. My muscles tensed, and I swear I could feel every one of our hands moving to click the safeties off on the three guns that waited in the cover of the fallen oak.
“DO…NOT…SHOOT!” Howard whispered with as much force and authority as his hushed voice could command. From below the bill of my cap I glanced sideways at Chris. His posture was a matchto mine, head down, shoulders hunched, trying to make himself as small and still as possible. I saw ripples emanating from the water at his legs, and noticed quickly the same come from my own, and Howards.
It was not the cold. It was not an attempt to create motion in our decoys, the ducks were doing that just fine. As shooting time came and went two young boys and a grown man, a man who had hunted more seasons than my friend and I had been alive, stood in trembling awe of the magic of the migration.
(To be continued)