Ragtag

 

(Below is the revised version of an earlier story entitled “Going Mobile”.)

 

Viewed through the lens of today’s culture of waterfowling we would have been laughed out of the water on just about any WMA or public hunting grounds. Nothing we had was new, and the majority of what we used was adapted to fit our needs. It certainly was not designed for the tasks e put it through.

As the youngest of five children myself, of seven for my hunting partner, hand me downs were just part of life. Though both of our parents’ were successful, neither Chris’s or mine were wasteful. While some of our friends got new this or that to pursue their “leisure activities” Chris and I were hunters and outdoorsmen, in the making. And all our siblings, the males anyhow, had all been brought up hunting. So, when it came to be our time in the wilds there was a veritable plethora of ill fitting, worn and faded camouflage and canvas coats, boots that required a couple layers of socks to even remotely fit, and old guns with only the faintest traces of bluing left to remark upon their former glory.

But it hardly mattered. We didn’t care that our camo didn’t match, our waders always leaked or that the bulk of our other gear had seen more winters in the woodlands and waters of the delta than we had been on earth. We used what we had, we improvised what we needed and at somewhere around 1986 Chris and I struck out on our own to chase waterfowl on the public lands and waterways of Mississippi and beyond.

Unlike my brothers and sisters, I had not gotten a new sporty car when I turned 16. Though I am sure my parents would have found a way to get one for me, had I asked. I knew what I wanted, what I needed, was a four-wheel drive. So, I had asked for a used pick up. Dad and my brother Bob had found one for me, with a decent number of miles and a stick shift. It took a few weeks, but dad had taught me to drive a standard, not satisfied to let me out on the roads until I had mastered the ability to hold on a hill without using the brake. But by the fall of that year my little Chevy S-10 pickup was outfitted with mud tires and a trailer hitch. From then on there was hardly a free hour or day that I was not headed into the delta chasing one sort of game or another.

Chris and I had become fairly accomplished duck hunters by then, or at least we thought so. We had been taking on the larger portion of scouting and calling for my dad at Tupelo Brake, even “guiding” some of his guests from time to time when we had found birds in remote parts of that seemingly boundless paradise. And there was always a spot for me in my father’s hunting party, and one for Chris or another of my friends most days. But something in me wanted to strike out on my own, to take on unknown places, to explore new grounds. I do not know if I could have expressed it then but looking back I know that I wanted to prove myself to my father and all my hunting heroes, that I could do it myself. Heck, I wanted to prove it to myself I am sure. But there was another factor that played a major part in my desire to spread my waterfowling wings.

With the new camp at the Tupe and thousands of acres of unspoiled bottomlands stretching out from our own ground, my father had become almost strictly a timber hunter. And though on rare occasion we killed a good strap of ducks in the woods and sloughs of Panther Swamp during rains or heavy overcast, more of those days were slow, if not bleak, from a duck killing perspective. But the same was not true for one of the camp members, the man my father had urged me to learn from and model myself after as a waterfowler.  Howard Miller killed ducks, rain or shine, high water or low, somewhere in the delta. He was so widely known for his skills that around the hardware store coffee pots and roadside diners that drew duck hunters old and young, the talk was almost always of Howard. And in tough times you would hear what became almost cliché.

“If Howard ain’t killing ducks, there ain’t no ducks to be killed.”

In fairness I must say that my father had had his days of chasing ducks as hard or harder than Howard. He had been a river hunter on the Mississippi for ages, until one too many close calls made promise the Lord that if he ever got off that river alive, he would never venture out on it again. And he had hunted the lakes and oxbows for years, starting as a boy, log before paved roads reached their banks or bridges spanned the innumerable cuts, bayous and ditches that eventually tamed some of the wilder parts of those lands. He had done his time fighting the gumbo and buckshot mud of bean fields, going so far as to buy a farm with visions of money and mallards that nearly send him into bankruptcy. He had even been one of the first few men in that area to have pit blinds built and buried along dependable sloughs and swags that cut through the gently undulating lands where he dabbled in farming while maintaining a thriving law practice.

But he had put those days behind him, opting more and more often for the comforts or a blind nestled among ancient tupelo and cypress trees or the relative ease of leaning against a towering oak in water below the knee, killing greenheads as they filtered down to feast on the acorn bounty of the forest. He was still a dedicated waterfowler and later in life I would once again lure him back to his old haunts, and even onto the river. But for the years we remained partial owners of Tupelo Brake, dad settled into those woods and waited out the days when the conditions were right, and the magic of the migration fell into a place that still holds more beauty than most duck hunters can imagine.

No matter how many time we returned with skinny straps of ducks, only to find Howard and his hunting partners, grinning and mud covered, holding hefty straps of mallards and pintail, Dad was happy enough to wait out the weather and be there at the Tupe when the conditions favored the woods.

But for two young boys, the duckless days were too much. Clearly there were ways to kill ducks when the skies opened up and rained out the timber. And so, with my father’s blessing Chris and I prepared to strike out on our own, certain we could find success somewhere in the vast expanse of woods and waters that was our delta playground.

I remember the day we cobbled together our rig. Dad had a small armada of watercraft he used in various locations around the Tupe. A couple of john boats, a few pirogues and an old V-hull boat with a stray rifle bullet hole through one of the thin bench seats. It drafted too much water to be piratical in the brake, but dad had hauled it there, after fishing season was over, as much to get it out of my mother’s yards as anything.

The paint was worn but the remnants of a few rattle cans of spray paint, left over from work on other, more regularly used equipment, took care of the silver floor where summers of bream and crappie fishing had scuffed away the paint. The dregs of the paint were used to great artistic effect in camouflaging the hull.

We scrounged around the pile of cast off decoys that had gathered for several seasons around my father’s area below the camp. We were under strict instruction not to take and of his newly strung and bagged decoys that he kept for hunting places other than his blind. But a few of them somehow managed to find their way among the others we sorted out of the pile that was home to everything from old Victor D-9s and shot pocked fakes that had long forgotten their days of use. It hardly seems mathematically plausible, but I am certain we didn’t have a pair of mallards in the bunch that matched year of make or manufacturer.

We used the last of dad’s good decoy line, arguing for ever about the required length of cord we might need as we envisioned ourselves running the rivers as well as hunting shallow swags and sloughs. When the new waxed twine ran out we pieced together the least rotten remnants that still clung to the keels of the cast offs.

We managed to find a handful of store bought decoy weights, and we rounded out the rest of our rigs anchors with everything from large bolts, nut and railroad spikes to rusty spark plugs and even a couple of busted bricks. Dad also gave us a dozen or so of his prototype decoys he had invented that he knew was going to revolutionize the waterfowling world.

He called them Timber Flats. They were made of quarter inch thick foam, printed on either side with photographs of mallards. These were generation two of his invention, having moved away from what was in fact a very realistic overhead painting of a mallard, to the grainy photos he had paid a wildlife photographer to capture by placing a feeding station directly beneath an elevated hide with a camera lens hole cut in the floor. Chris and I were instructed to be his field testers for his million-dollar idea, but I can only recall one or two hunts where he himself had dare to try the things.

In an old toy chest my mother had banished to the camp we found enough strips and scraps of camouflage netting to stitch together a piece long enough to run the length of the boat and a few extras to drape over the motor and red metal gas can that I imagine had been the intended target of our pilfered paint.

The rig was rounded out by an ether addicted six and a half horse Johnson outboard motor, a hand full of shear pins and carter keys, a couple of mildewed boat cushions that were to serve as life preservers and a warped wooden paddle.

The last thing dad gave us was a set of keys to my family’s lake house and deer lease gate and specific instructions to let my mother know what we were doing, when to expect us home and any reports from our hunts that she knew to relay to him when he ventured out to the hard road to check in via the nearest phone line.

He wished us luck, warned us to stay off the river, and with grin of pride waved as we rumbled out of the camp yard on our quest for waterfowling grounds of our own.

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