Sunk – Final

fire

The lake was worse than I had ever seen it. The waves were a solid four feet. The only saving grace thus far was that the warm front was still in control. The temps were only in the fifties. But soaking wet it was plenty cold.

In those days the lake was still very sparsely populated. There were plenty of houses along its banks but by and large they were summer homes and fish camps. Apart from a few true locals, most of whom lived well back from the lakefront where the more expensive summer homes were built, only a few homes would be occupied that time of year, in that kind of weather.

From where we overturned, with the wind pushing us the way it was, we were at least a mile from shore. We had made also made several crucial mistakes. Both of us had on life jackets, we both had our chest waders on, and Tommy had made the hunt in only a heavy shirt and long johns.

Tommy faced the shore from his position and I was facing back out into the open lake.

“If you see anyone try to wave.” I told him.

“I can’t let go of this boat.” He replied. The reality of our situation was clear in both our voices.

“If we can hang on somebody will see us.” I said in a trembling voice.

“I’m sorry.” I continued. “There was nothing I could do…” My voice cracked with fear.

“I know.” Tommy said. His voice shaky and strained.

“We’ll make it. Dad will see us.” I offered hopeuly

“I don’t see his boat.” Tommy said. “Maybe he hasn’t come in yet?”

“They won’t stay out much longer then. They’ll see us on the way in.”

We drifted and waited. There was no sign of dad returning and not sign of life in any of the lakefront houses. The cold began to set in and I could see Tommy’s teeth start to chatter, his body start to shiver. I too began to quake as my muscles began to chill and cramp. Still no sign of any along the shore. The road that ran along the edge of the highbank was empty.

We drifted for a longtime in silence. I relived the roll over and over again in my head trying to figure out what I could have done, should have done, and I prayed.

“I think I’m gonna have to let go…” Tommy said in a voice far to calm and reserved for what that meant.

“THE FUCK YOU ARE!” I screamed. “You WILL NOT let go of this boat!”

The harshness of my tone seemed to snap him out of his despair. And as only such circumstance can motivate me laughed.

“You don’t have to be mean about it.” He said. And we both broke into hard laughter through our chattering teeth.

Laughing in the face of death is something I had always heard of, but I never understood it until that moment. We started into each other joking and tease each other. If our conversation had been heard outside of the circumstances the listener might have thought it was just two old friends sitting around at the bar.

“You had to have a limit didn’t you?”

“I didn’t hear you complaining”

“Heck no! I wasn’t the one with a spoonie on my strap!”

“I didn’t shoot a boot lip!”

“You did.”

With a cautious waving hand gesture I looked at him and said. “Prove it!”

“OHhhhh, I see. Well then if you can’t prove you didn’t then you also can’t prove you didn’t kill four of em?”

“Don’t you dare!”

We laughed and argued about mythical limits for a moment then Tommy turned the conversation.

“You know why I am mad at you?”

“Um, because I may have killed us?”

“Well, beside that…” he chuckled. “No, because if you hadn’t broken the rules Forrest would be at the camp laying in a fire and cooking a big breakfast right now. Heck he might even, oh I don’t know…come RESCUE US!”

Forrest was our part time caretaker. He lived on the far end of the lake, dangerously close to the local Juke Joint. With it being Sunday and him not having to come to the camp we knew he wouldn’t be frying up sausage, building a fire, or looking out on the lake wondering when we would come in so he could finish up breakfast and get his cores done so he could play dominoes down at the landing.

“Well she wanted to come up and you know I can’t say no to girl that wants to …”

“Shut up. I know plenty about why you brought her up with you. Yall weren’t exactly quite last night!”

“Sorry.” I said with a grin.

“No you’re not.”

“Nope.”

As I let my mind wander back to my less than chivalrous conduct from the night before Tommy snapped my attention away from such frivolities.

“Someones on the bank!” He shouted, raising one hand to wave and yelling.

“HERE! HEY!!!!!”

I twisted myself around and managed to wave with one hand as we yelled toward the figure atop the ATV on the bank. They gave no sign or signal of seeing us. They paused for a time then drove back away from shore at a speed that certainly did not indicate any urgency.

“They’ll call help.” I said.

“They had to have seen us, right?” Tommy asserted.

“Had to.”  I told myself they were just slow drivers, surely they had seen us and were on the way to get their boat and come to our rescue.

We waited, we drifted, we didn’t speak. No one came.

“We’re heading straight for the lake house.” Tommy said, finally breaking the silence.

I looked back over my shoulder and studies the wave and our trajectory. He was right, the wind and water was pushing us at an angle that would end us up on the bank in the front of our lake house. All we had to do was hold on.

As long minutes passed with no sign of rescue we clung to the boat and holding out hope that it was just a matter of time before we see someone coming to launch a boat.

“You would have to pick a girl who sleeps late.” Tommy said breaking the silence.

“I kind of kept her up late. Sorry.”

We laughed again but the mirth was short lived. We were both exhausted, cold and afraid. Our progress toward the shore was slower than we had hoped. We were still heading the right direction. The only question was could we hang on long enough to make it.

“There!” Tommy shouted. This time not daring to let go of the boat but staring intently at the yard beside our camp.

I twisted around again and saw headlights on a dark blazer pointed out in our direction, then the blue lights atop the vehicle went on. It was the local sheriff. Someone must have reported our capsizing.

Straining to turn and wave I saw him open the door of his truck and stand in the doorframe. We were close enough now that I could tell he was looking at us with binoculars. I waved and yelled. He waved back dropped into his vehicle, flashed his headlights then quickly spun out of the yard, back toward the highway.

“Thank GOD!” we exclaimed as one. We knew now that help was one the way, and none too soon. The wind was growing even stronger and each wave threatened to take us over again or sweep us off our overturned boat.

We drifted, we waited, we watched. No one came.

We argued with each other about why. It solved nothing. We drifted on.

When we were within less than a hundred yard of the boat dock Tommy spoke up again.

“We’re gonna hit the pier.” He said, a new sense of fear in his voice.

I turned my head again to look. He was right. The waves were carrying us on a direct collision course with the steel pilings of the end of the dock. Watching them hit and splash and roll past to the bank gave me a better idea of just how bad the lake was.

The pervious summer had seen the lake at low water and we had mounted boards parallel to the water to secure our boats to and a second run of them nearer the decking for extra support. The two runs of two by tens were almost three feet apart, the top span just four feet from the decking.

With each wave the gap between the wood runners would vanish and the water would slam into the top board. Then the gap would appear again between wave, falling below the bottom run of boards.

“That’s not good.” I said as I watched the water slam into the structure. Several boards had been partially dislodge and hung from one end flailing in the waves, others were gone completely.

“Try to kick your feet” I told my friend. “We need to get around the dock.”

Tommy kicked hard and I used one hand to paddle. But it was no use, our course didn’t change and the cold cramped our muscle so quickly we were both forced to stop our efforts.

Nearer and nearer we came. We could hear the waves hitting the steel and wood. We could hear the structure groaning, popping and protesting the beating nature was giving it.

“All we can do it try to grab on and get out of the way of the boat when we get close” I said to Tommy.

“You mean let go?” he said in a panicked voice.

“Not until the last minute.” I replied. “Remember how we  would swing on the supports in the shade under the deck last summer? If we can grab on we can pull ourselves  to the other side and climb up the stairs.”

It wasn’t much of a plan but it was all I had. But I didn’t have it for long.

“One problem…the stairs are gone…” Tommy noted.

Sure enough they were, the pounding waves had ripped them loose and all that remained was one diagonal runner, long nails from the treads protruding from its slimy surface.

“Then just grab and get out of the way of the boat. Maybe we can hold on until the sherrif comes?”

There was not time to debate the plan. We were getting closer and closer to the pier. It would be a direct hit.

“I can’t see behind me.” I told Tommy, “You tell me when to turn and grab.”

“OK”

“Not yet…not yet…” the waves rose and fell, I feared we would make contact whenwe were at the bottom of a roller.

“Hold the piling and go down if you have to! Don’t let the boat hit you…” I yelled

Tommy nodded.

“Not yet…almost…NOW! NOW! NOW!”

I let go of the hull and rolled over on my back as the boat reached the crest of a wave. I pushed myself up from the hull as hard as I could and stretched my arms out in front of me. I felt the boat fall away, felt the weight of my full waders pulling me down. Then my arms felt the slick hard surface of a board and the cold slap of steel. I clung to what I had hit as hard as I could and looked over my right shoulder. Tommy had managed to get his feet on the lower course of boards and was wrapping his arms around one of the stell pipes.

The boat slammed and rubbed into the piling beneath us, glanced off am angled support and moved just far enough along the dock not to crash into us.

We clung to the pier our eyes locked on each other. Relief and terror washing over us as the boat slammed again and again into the steel.

“Did it hit you?”

“No. You?”

“No.”

“Can you climb?”

“I…I don’t know?” I said.

“Try.” Tommy yelled, himself already reaching for higher boards and struts that supported the decking.

I reach and pulled and strained. The pain in my limbs screaming at my brain to stop. The weight of my soaked clothes and full waders making the work all the harder.

We both reached the deck at the same time, flinging our upper bodies onto the flat surface, our legs hanging below as water poured out of our waders.

We clawed our way forward until we were both flat on our bellies, face down in the swaying deck.

“We made it.” I gasped.

“Thank you God, thank you.” Tommy whispered.

We tried to stand and the cramps in our bodies and trembling made us falter and kneel. We both fell onto our backs and breathed for a moment.

“Get your waders off.” I said and began fumbling with the zipper of my coat to access the suspenders that were beneath, holding my waders on. The cold that hit me when the coat opend was a shock. How Tommy had endured it that long I could not imagine.

We fought and squirmed and snaked our way out of the waders.

“Get to the house1” I shouted and we stood in muscle cramped crouches and began a dash to the shore. Our feet pounded on the swaying boards of the pier as we headed for dry ground. Above the water the wind cut into our wet clothes. We stripped soaked layers as our feet hit the grass and we climbed the hill to our camp.

We were shivering so hard and our teeth chattering so badly it was hard to communicate.

I tried to pen the front door but my hands refused to grip the knob.

“L…l…l..o…c..ked?!?”

Tommy shouldered me out of the way and opened the door. The camp was not as warm as we had hoped. Temperatures overnight had been mild and the heater thermostat was set at only sixty five. Dad preferred a cool camp and in that moment I hated that aspect of him.

But the giant hearth still held hot coals from the night before. Dad was notorious for having a roaring fire even if it meant he had to turn the heat of to stand it. His strange ways  had their upsides.

Taking a handful of kindling and a cup of Kerosene Tommy brought the hearth to a blaze and we piled on more wood and stripped out of the last of our wet clothes. While Tommy got the fire roaring I raided the laundry room for any dry clothes I could find and towels and blankets.

We huddled shivering before the flames, not speaking for a long moment. Then with tears in our eyes we hugged each other like long lost brothers.

I cannot fathom the  sheer terror that must have raced through my father’s mind as he approached the lake house and saw my boat overturned and rolling against the sandy shore as the waves pounded the bank.

I can also not describe the look of joy and relief that was on his face as he and Doc burst through the door.

As he told it, he had spotted our overturned boat when he was more than a hundred yards from the landing. Doc swore dad ran full throttle from there on in nearly beaching the entirety of his boat when he reached the shore.

Not a small man by any stretch of the imagination, he had run onto the bank without even turning the motor off and was sprinting his six foot four, two hundred and fifty pound body towards the wreckage when he saw the trail of discarded wet clothes leading from the foot of our pier to the house.

Dad would tell the story for years to come of busting into the house and finding Tommy and I dressed in the wildest array of mismatched clothes, huddled, as he always put, it IN the fireplace.

He and Doc had us retell the story while they make coffee and filled small fruit jars of brandy for us.

The local sheriff stopped by while we were still thawing out and explained that he had seen us, but that the only boat he had was smaller than ours and the risk was too great. He had driven to several local homes in search of a worthy craft but had not been able to locate one.

His friends with Wildlife and Fisheries were trying to get a boat to him but they were dealing with other small craft accidents on other lakes. He had set himself up the boat launch down the lake and watched us through his field glasses while he waited for the larger boat to arrive. Calling off the rescue when he saw us make the leap from the boat and pull ourselves onto the deck of the pier.

My female “guest” slept through the commotion and she was none to please when I slipped under the covers looking for a little extra warmth. Apparently the warmth of the brandy and coffee had not reached the outside of my skin. I fell asleep shivering and my dreams were fraught with nightmares of drowning.

When I awoke later that evening I was alone in the large bed. I descended the stairs and saw the girl’s car was no longer parked outside. Dad, Tommy, and Doc were seated in front of the hearth watching football. Forrest was in the kitchen cooking up dinner.

“You get warmed up?” Dad said to me with a grin

“Warm enough I guess.” I replied, taking my usual seat on the hearth.

“Forrest got the boat out. Motor’s gonna need work.” Dad said.

“Outside the large plate glass windows I could see that winds had laid down. The limbs of the trees in the front yard swayed only slightly as the smoke from the chimney swirled down from above and hung above the wet grass that glistened in the porch light.

“Front pushed through.” Tommy said, seeing me staring out the window. “Temps are falling fast and Forrest said there are a lot of birds showing up on the indicator holes.”

“Tomorrow out to be good.” Doc said then cursed at the television. “COME ON Saints! What the hell was that supposed to be!!!!????”

“Thought maybe we’d all try the chute tomorrow?” Dad said. “Figure you boys might rather an Argo ride over boats for a day or two?”

“I’m just glad we’re still here to the option.” Tommy said and I nodded my agreement.

Dad stood walked over to the hearth to stir the fire. HE place one giant hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“Glad yall made it.” He said with the slightest crack in his voice. “But you get to tell your Mamma, not me.” Laughter spread easily among the gathered men and we paste the rest of the night without another mention of the accident. Tomorrow was another day and the season was still underway.

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Sunk – Part 2

With the boat back beneath the blind we again re-set the decoys. While making the adjustment several fights of birds tried to pitch into the spread. Once we finished we climbed back into the blind and get ready.

It didn’t take long for the first group to drop in over the trees of the outer island. Four mallards set their wings and ditched air as they cleared the last cypress. Tommy fired first crumpling a hen my first shot found nothing, the second did no better. I pulled off the bird I had twice missed and swung on a fat drake that was trying to climb back over the trees. I squeezed the trigger.

Click

In the rush and confusion of chasing cripples, getting wet, and retrieving my friend I had forgotten to put the third shell in my gun. Tommy had made the same mistake leaving him with only one shot. But he had made his count.

Even though the birds had been well within range when he dropped the greenhead the wind was now so strong that the downed bird was quickly drifting out of the hole. Tommy scampered out of the blind.

“Load mine.” He called out to me as he waded fast toward the mallard.

I finished loading my gun, double checked the safety and placed it in the corner. I rummaged through Tommy’s bag and withdrew threes shells. I was closing the action when he called up from below.

“ON THE LEFT!” he shouted.

Looking up I saw a wad of ducks bank hard and the flutter of several dozen wings. I shouldered Tommy’s gun and flock shot like a child, putting a spoonie drake on the water with the one shell I had managed to get in the gun.

“Ooops!”

“Nice shot anyway?” Tommy said climbing back into the blind after picking up both birds.

“Thanks But I’m pretty sure I wasn’t aiming at that one.”

Tommy reloaded and we stung the birds on our lanyards.

“Two away” he said as we settled back in our positions.

Another flight of smiling mallards fell in among the decoys with the reckless abandon only shovelers can display. We drew on the flock but let them flush and depart unscathed.

“Good ducks only?” I asked, knowing he agreed before I ever spoke.

“All I’ve killed is good ducks.” He laughed.

The next four flights were spoonbills or jacks. We let each pass and giggled like schoolgirls as they would fall into the spread then explode from the rough water when we yelled “BANG” down from our hide.

A pair of teal made a pass riding the wind from behind us and brought both of our guns up and blasting. We shot so far behind the fleeing birds I doubt they had any idea they had been our targets.

A large groups of pintail taunted us next. Their long necks and pointed tails giving away their identity when they rolled in from the lake. They worked several times and twice or more were well within range but we had gotten greedy. We wanted them in the blocks. They finally settled in on an outside swing, well out of range.

We watched them bob and swim toward the inner island, parts of the group vanishing in the troughs of waves while others road the crests.

The decoys were again tangled and out of sorts. Tommy and I both went out again to make corrections. This time placing the block father apart to prevent tangling and farther upwind to both give the birds a better approach and give us more time between re-sets.

Turning back to the blind the severity of the waves became very clear. The boat was now beating against the supports of the ladder and rising up to hit the floor supports of the deck.

“It’s getting pretty bad.” Tommy said as we again took our places in the blind.

“It is.” I agreed. “But it’s not gonna get any better on the crossing.” I reasoned.

“This wind is supposed to stay up for the rest of the day. We may as well finish out before we make our way back?” I suggested.

“We only need two.” Tommy agreed. “It shouldn’t take that long.”

But it did. Our shooting was awful. Two more groups of teal escaped unharmed and a pair of widgeon made fools of us.

Twice more we had to move the decoys back up wind. Spoonbills and ringnecks continued to present easy targets but we kept letting them go. Mallards, gadwall and pintail in groups of various size were still working the hole regularly. We passed shots we should have taken and missed the ones we shouldn’t have.

Finally we managed to connect on a pair of gadwall and the hunt was done. We picked up the birds quickly and started gathering the now scattered decoys. Waves rolled through the shallow water and we both got our waders overtopped more than once even though the water in front of the blind was no more than bellybutton deep at the most.

Once the decoys were sacked and our guns unloaded we started putting everything back in the boat. A chill was starting to get to me so I slipped my coat back on and pulled my gloves on for the ride.

We positioned everything in the boat as best we could as it rose and fell in the waves. Tommy had to wade us out from the blind and hold us for a bit while I adjusted the motor to shallow run and fired it up.

Coming out of the cut it the scene before us was daunting. The stump field, flats and all the open lake were a sea of frothy whitecaps. The wind and waves would make it impossible to see, much less navigate through the exposed stumps.

We turned south along the outer island and idles in the relatively calm waters along its bank.

“What should we do?’ Tommy asked.

“Well we could go back into the floatroad and see if dad is still in the south blind?” I offered.

“I’m pretty sure I heard them leave about half an hour ago.” Tommy replied.

We studied the waters between us and the camp. It was bad, no two ways about it.

We settled on running south along the island and seeing if the south end of the lake was any better. We figured that at least we could try to cross there where the lake was narrower or maybe even see if cutting back toward the camp from farther upwind might make for a better crossing.

When we hit the southern tip of the island we knew there was not going to be any easy way to get home. The wind was angling straight toward the camp and trying to buck the waves to get to the southern back would be more than we knew the small boat could take.

I told Tommy to get down low in the bow of the boat and would cut our angle so go diagonally through them, heading for the far shore some two miles down from our camp and the nearest point where the waves appeared less harsh. From there we could beach the boat and hike up the steep bank to the blacktop road or nearest house and catch a ride back to the camp. I studied the waves, picked my angle and turned the boat away from the poor protection offered by the outer island.

We quickly learned that speed was not going to be our friend. Trying to plane the boat only made the waves crash harder into us, soaking us with spray and quickly putting standing water at our feet.

I eased the throttle down and rolled through the troughs of the waves until I felt the angle was right then turn us toward the shore. Anything more than a quarter throttle was trouble, anything less and steering was impossible. The force of the waves would shove the small craft off track and into the bottom of the swells f we did not manage some forward progress.

I found the sweet spots in the throttle, backing down and the bow dipped and easing up on it slightly as we crested each wave. Tommy, already fair skinned, was pale as a sheet and I am sure I wasn’t much better.

Progress was slow and the far bank never seemed to get any closer, though I knew from distant landmarks we were in fact making headway. Spray washed over the sides of the boat and a mist from the wind ripping the tops off the waves drenched us to the bone. But we were making it. Slow and steady but we were making it.

I saw the wave coming that was to be our undoing. The term Rogue Wave flashed through my head and I realized that though I had known the concept of such I had never seen one in person. I quickly became aware that I wished I never had.

The bow was pointed into the trough. The rouge wave broke over the bow just as we were about to start climbing the next wave. Somehow I knew we were about to turn over, I could even tell which way the boat would roll.

Tommy was in the bottom of the boat his back toward the bow to keep the spray out of his face. I guess he saw the terror on my face. He looked back over his shoulder just as I shouted.

“We’re gonna roll! Hang on!”

I felt the world go upside down, felt the cold water flood through my clothes and fill my waders. I heard the strange thunking sound of our gear as it slammed into the sides of the boat and I felt the cold metal of the boat gunnel beneath my gloved hand.

Without letting go of the boat I shoved myself out from under the hull as the motor chugged and stopped, the prop spinning slowly to a stop. I saw gas cans and paddles, stingers of ducks and boat cushion floating around me. What I didn’t see was Tommy.

I crawled up on to the overturned bottom of the boat gasping for breath, feeling the cold weight of the water in my waders. I tried to kneel for a better view but as I moved the boat tried to roll again beneath me. I lay flat across the stern and screamed his name.

I hand appeared just then from under the boat. I grabbed it and pulled with all I had. Tommy’s head broke the surface coughing up water and I quickly latched onto his shirt.

“Pull me up.” He sputtered.

I tried but the weight shift again threatened to roll us.

“Hang onto me.” I said gripping his arm and shoulder. Tommy reached out and got hold of my arms and I pulled him up as far as I could, keeping the waves and water out of his face.

We stayed locked like that for a while. Staring into each other’s eyes, not speaking.

“You’ve got to get up here.” I said at last. Again I tried to pull him up but again the boat pitched dangerously.

“Wait.” I said “Let me shift my weight to the other side, then you pull. Ok?”

“OK but don’t let go of me.”

“I won’t.”

I lowered myself flay onto the hull and stretch my legs out across the opposite side of the boat.

“NOW…PULL!” I shouted as I felt the weight of the water in my waders trying to pull me over. Tommy managed to scramble part way up on the hull, enough at least that his chest was flat on the bottom of the boat and he could grip the edge where the hull turned at a sharp angle.

As he maneuvered himself into position I adjust my weight as best I could to compensate. When it was done I lay at the far back of the boat stretched across the hull such that my legs dangled in the water on one side and I could grip the submerged gunwale on the other. Tommy managed only to get his torso onto the hull but could hang onto the edge of the hull with his legs from the thighs down hanging into the water. Faced opposite directions our bodies stretched perpendicularly across the overturned boat.

Sunk – Part 1

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Summer’s hard work had been paying off. For three days both new blinds had killed limits of “good ducks”. The occasional spoonbill or ring neck had taken up a flew slots on our straps but for the most part we were killing gadwall teal and mallards, something we had once though we would never do on the big lake.

When we woke that morning a fair chop had built on the lake. A front was pushing in and the afternoon forecast called for rain and thunderstorms warm gulf moisture and a cold Canadian air mass would meet up over the south delta to wrestle for control of the fall weather. The front, according to the droning, staticy voice on the weather radio, would drop temps into the thirties eventually but not before dropping several inches of rain on the area.

Tommy and I left the shore early, even after having to bail a bit of water out of the fourteen foot johnboat that the wave had splashed over the transom. We had beached the boat rather than tying it alongside dad’s much larger rig on the dock. The winds we knew, from the weather radio that was an all but constant soundtrack of life at the camp, had switched over night and the dock was not set up to harbor two boats in changing winds.

With no moon or starts to be seen through the cloud cover we began the crossing by dead reckoning and the occasional sweep of a spotlight. We knew these waters. We skied and fished them all summer and had seen the vast stump fields that stretched from Australia Island to the deep water channel of the highbank. Those flats had been exposed over the summer a few years back in an attempt by local conservation groups and resident of the lake to improve the fishing by promoting vegetation.

Those in the area that hunted waterfowl had also encouraged then to fly on some millet and other duck food to help bring ducks back to the lake. Both efforts had worked. But the lake still had a reputation of being somewhat of a “garhole” as far as duck hunting was concerned.  So, for the first few seasons after the draw down my father and my friends and I had the lake all to ourselves for the most part.

On the open lake the chop was brisk but manageable. The old 9.9 horsepower outboard was more than enough motor to get our light boat up on plane and we powered across the deep water to the sound of the bouncing hull on the wave tops and the spray of water beneath our hull.

As we neared the flats I dropped to three quarters throttle. The water was plenty deep to run but our recent knowledge of the terrain below our boat called for a modicum of caution.

The flats rose gently up from the channel and below the water’s surface was the remnants of a long vanish forest. The trees that had once stood there were now nothing more than stumps. They ranged in width and height but to the last they all shared one troubling characteristic.

The ages of shifting currents, when the lake was still wild and part of the Mississippi river, combined with the changing winds and waves lifting silt and sand from the old river bottom had sharpened each stump into points like the wooden palisades of frontier forts. We knew they were well beneath us at the start of the flats but with each turnoff the prop we also knew the depth grew shallower, lessening the safe distance between the innumerable, un-mappable mine field of “day wreckers”.

I eased the throttle down little by little as we moved deeper into the flats and into shallower water. The waters began to lay down and soon there were no waves at all, the big island still forested blocking the wind completely.

Tommy began making constant sweeps with the spotlight as we navigated the shallow waters where the stumps were now protruding from the glassy surface of the lake. If the light stopped I knew it meant something had caught his eye.

In code that I cannot recall ever verbalizing he signaled me to turn this way or that to avoid approaching obstacles. Fixed light position meant “You see that right?” and once the boats bow adjusted it angle the scanning would begin again. If the sweep stopped abruptly and the light danced to one side of the boat or other it meant “Turn Sharp!” some object having escaped notice until right upon us. His other hand, the one not running the light was my “safe speed indicator” with its own set of gestures and gesticulations for throttle up, ease it down, floor it and OH GOD STOP!

I don’t know how it is for waterfowlers on the bays and marshes but on the bayous and backwaters of home the value of a good spotlight man in the bow of a duck boat cannot be overstated. Their keen eye, quick judgement, and almost telepathic communications with the man at the tiller are all that stands between a safe but exhilarating boat ride and a cautionary tale n the local papers and weeping loved one standing at the graveside of a duck hunter.

Tommy was good with the light, even though he had only come into the world of waterfowling a few years before. He took the role seriously and didn’t have some of my father flaws where the task was concerned. He didn’t get distracted by flushing ducks or the occasional swimming raccoon or deer. He never lingered too long on some sight that would be better investigated in the light of day. And he could judge the gap between two trees compared to the width of a boat so accurately that I never doubted our ability to swing through the flooded woods at speed while he was manning the light. As much as I admired my father, the same could never be said of him and the bent and battered boats that made up or rag-tag armada gave plenty of whiteness to that fact.

When we reached the first of the scattered cypress trees that ringed the island I dropped the throttle down to idle and lifted the motor into shallow water run. Looking back over the transom I saw the sweep of another spotlight. Dad and The Doc were making their way around the lake to the south end of the float road. In his larger rig they had been able to leave well after us. But his boat drafted deeper so he could not make the run Tommy and were on. They would swing wide flowing the main channel of the lake then turn north into the mouth of the float road to our southern blind.

In total distance the blinds were less than four hundred yards apart. The blind Tommy and I preferred was on the north end. It was not much of a blind. Just a few boards and some decking nestled between three cypress trees. But it gave us a place to hide our boat and get up out of the water.

We made the turn and eased through the cut in the narrow island that separated the flats from the float road, turned north and eased up to the blind. Tommy climbed in from the bow and I cut the engine and began passing our gear up to him. The we had yet to have any competition on the lake for duck hunting we had lost a few dozen decoys and some folding chair to some less than admiral folks. So we always packed in and out everything we needed, or more accurately wanted, to make our hunts comfortable and enjoyable.

When the last of the gear and goodies were loaded into the blind I slipped on my waders and climbed over the side of the boat. The bottom in the floatraod was soft and sunk up to your ankles if not deeper. We had tried putting decoys out with the boat but invariably w wound up in waders adjusting the spread anyway. And with dad always taking the dog with him we would, hopefully, need to have them on to pick up birds throughout the hunt.

Tommy placed our gear in accordance with our spots in the blind, eased into his waders and joined me in front of the blind pitching decoys. Our spread was nothing fancy, around three dozen decoys, mostly mallards. They came from just about every known manufacturer of plastic decoys and ranged in age from this year’s model to some I am sure had seen service long before I started hunting.

The wind forecast for the morning was southerly at 5mph, shifting to the south west. It was an ideal wind for our blind, affording us straight on shots that would quarter slightly right to left. The main island blocked some of the wind but enough remained to give the decoys some motion.

As always we tried tossing the decoys from in front of the blind. Why we ever tried I am not sure. Half of them did not have weighted keels and you could bet on most of those landing on their backs and refusing to right themselves. And I was never satisfied with the spread as a whole even on the rare occasion I didn’t have to walk out and flip a few over. Still, it was what we did. Heck I still do it today. In nearly four decades of watefowling you’d think I could at least learn that lesson?

Once the decoy bag was empty Tommy climbed back up into the blind to set up our hunting gear and spots while I slogged through the soft bottom and thigh deep water to get the spread how I wanted it.

Everything was in place well before shooting light and I was already back in the blind I caught a glimpse of dad’s spotlight from farther south. Soon I could hear the loud sputter and splash of his motor as he powered the heavy boat through the shallows and up to his blind. A glance at my watch told me he had time to get ready, but he would be cutting it close.

Tommy rummaged through our bags and found the thermos of coffee. He poured me a cup in the thermos lid and passed it without my asking. We had developed a routine over the few years of hunting together and those last few minutes before “ready time” passed in the lent ritual that had become our way.

I got the first cup of coffee and Tommy would sort through his gear while I sipped. When I gulped down the last drop I would pass the cup back to him, with a brief acknowledgement of thanks. “That hit the spot” or some such.

While Tommy blew the steam from his coffee and sipped the hot black fuel I would follow his lead and arrange my gear bag, shells, and such. When the thermos lid went back on we would stand at the front rail of the blind, light a cigarette and listen while we watched the smoke drift over the water and make sure we had judged it right for our decoy set.

Eventually one of us would hear something, the rush of air through wings or the soft chatter of birds somewhere out in the darkness. The sound would set us in motion again as we would load our guns, dig our calls out from beneath or jackets and take our places as the minutes crawled toward legal shooting hour. That morning it was the jet engine like roar of wings that snapped us to attention.

“Ring-necks.” I said in a halfway questioning tone.

“Shit ducks of some sort” Tommy replied.

Though the occasional diver would wind up in our limits we tended to puddlers.  Today I don’t care for the derogatory term. I have come to appreciate most all waterfowl in their own right and have shared some fantastic gunning for divers with friends from across the country. But still, on any given day I let them pass.

With legal shooting hour fast approaching we both stood at the rail of the blind. There had been a fair number of greenwing teal around for the last week and they tended to practice  touch and go landings in this part of the lake in the predawn.

Sure enough a cluster of teal whipped by the blind just as it was legal to shoot but their arrival and departure happened   so quickly neither of us could get a good swing on them before they vanished again out into the darkness beyond our decoys.

“They came from your side.” Tommy half scolded me.

“And left on yours.” I replied, turning to face back toward the brightening skies south of the blind.

The next group wasn’t so lucky. I heard shots from dads blind and the feverd pace at which he and doc had emptied their guns hinted to the species.

“Get ready” I whispered before I had caught the first sight of the small flock.

The dozen teal skimmed over the tops over the scattered cypress and I made a fast high pitched series of calls. They dropped down below the tree tops and ran a slalom course between the heavy trunks of the trees, in the poor light I could just make them out as they closed the gap.

“They’re coming.” I whispered.

“Which side?” Tommy asked just as the flock erupted from behind the nearest cypress trunk.

“BOTH!” I explained as the flight split, nearly colliding with our blind, banked hard and in a clutter of confusion splashed down in the decoys.

I swung around as Tommy raised his gun and the flock sprang again into the air. We each managed to drop a bird from our side of the groups and made a mess of center bird that tried to escape the noise and panic by climbing straight up over the blind. Two shots of twelve gauge steel 2s at less than 20 yards did an effective job of bring the bird s down but it would leave little for the stew pot.

A cloud of feathers drifted down as we reloaded and scanned the water to make sure the other two birds were not cripple. Bellies up they floated a short distance from the blind.

“Keep an eye on those two and we’ll grab ‘em in a minute.” Tommy said.

The wind was up slightly from earlier but looked to be pushing the downed birds toward the outer island, so we were not worried about losing them. And we weren’t about to get caught out of the blind in the middle of the hole during what was usually the sunrise flurry.

But the flurry had come and gone. We heard two more short volleys from dad’s blind but apart from two seagull and a Blue Herron, each of whom had brought us to near cardiac arrest when they materialized out of the corner of our eyes, noting more happened in the north blind for what seemed like an eternity.

“That outside bird might make the open water.” Tommy observed. As we   waited and watched.

“I’ll make the hike.” I said. Resting my shotgun in the corner of the blind and ducking under the shooting rail. “Cover me.”

I grabbed the mangled bird we had both shot and pitched it to the blind.

Tommy caught the bird one handed and recoiled slightly as the meat, blood and feathers made contact with is palm.

“Not one we are going to be mounting.” He said as he dropped the bird onto the floor of the blind.

“Still counts.” I replied as I turned and began trudging through the soft bottomed lakebed toward the next bird.

I adjusted my trajectory when I saw that the far bird was drifting a bit faster than I had expected. The neared one would drift to the brushy bank of the island so I knew I could get it on the way back. When I got about sixty yard from the blind I could feel that the wind had again increased. I heard my partner make a short hail call and hunkered down slowly, craning my neck to look back toward the blind.

A trio of gadwall responded to his call, banked down wind and slowly began circling the spread. Soft chatters and quacks came from the blind as Tommy coaxed the birds to make another swing. They set up for approach but lifted just out of range.

Tommy was crouched down behind the shooting rail and cover and I watched and listened as he pleaded again to the small group, turning them once again just as I thought they might continue south toward dad and the Doc.

We had a gentleman’s agreement between the two blinds. About half way between then stood a tall bare limbed stump of an old bald cypress. If the birds crossed that line, traveling north or south. The other blind was obliged to let them go and let the other hunters work the birds. It as a fuzzy line but we all honored it as best we could, though we would each admit if asked that we called awful hard at flights as they reached that silent sentinel.

But the birds turned well before they were out of play, this time dropping much lower, their wing beats slow, their heads swaying side to side as they murmured soft calls to their plastic relatives.

“He’s got these” I said to myself. I could see the change in the way the birds were flying, their feet beginning to dangle just slightly. At a distance on overcast days, all gadwall look the same just about. But what I guessed was the hen took a few stronger wing beats and assumed the lead of the group. She banked on the right side of the float road and led her suitors softly on their decent toward the spread.

They set up perfect but their approach if kept would be a problem. They looked as though they would put down on a straight line between myself and Tommy. At that distance the shot would not have killed me, but I damn well knew it would hurt and I hoped Tommy did to.

At the last minute they raised their approach just a hair and banked again, taking them safely toward the far side of the decoy spread and the worst side of Tommy’s shooting lane, for them anyway.

I saw my friend rise from behind the cover, shoulder his gun and saw the bird react to the shot just a fraction of a second before I hear the shot. The gadwall rolled in midair and fell with a fine splash. Tommy fired again but the two remaining birds climbed quickly to safety, caught the wind and made for the safety of the big lake.

As the birds climbed in the sky I rose from my crouch and yelled my congratulations to Tommy. He gave me a thumbs up and I watched as he set down his gun and climbed out of the blind to pick up his bird.

The water grew slightly deeper and the bottom much softer as I headed to the far teal. Soon I was up to my waist, my legs mired to the shins with each step. My pace slowed by the conditions I could now tell the was almost beyond the last trees at the end of the outer island and its angle of drift would send it to out into the stump field flats if I didn’t pick it up soon.

I stomped and trudged my way to the teal, the soft bottom becoming more solid as I drew nearer to the bank of the island. Knowing it would let me make better time I turned off my direct approach, made for shallower water then turned again toward my target.

As I splashed through the shallow at a brisk pace I knew I had made the right choice. The bird was almost past the button willow point at the end of the island and showing now signof slowing. I added a bit more speed to my steps. Though it was cool and the wind now steady I could feel the sweat building beneath my coat.

As I stomped past the point I head the sharp call of an alarmed hen and looked to my right. A dozen mallards sprang from the protective pocket of brush at the tip of the island and flew directly over my head. They were so close I could see the drops of water forming and falling from their feet and bellies.

I watched them climb, level off and head south, cussing myself for not having carried my gun with me. As they got into formation I saw that they were not as frightened as they seemed at first. They slowed their wing beats and cruised toward our blind. Tommy was almost back in as they passed overhead. He called and begged for a few moments but the birds paid him no mind and were soon beyond out no-go point.

“Get ‘em Papa.” I said to the air and turned to finish the last few yards of my retrieve.

With the far bird in hand I turned to head back toward the blind. I could not see the other teal but I knew that by then the wind would have pushed it up into the trees and brush of the outer island. Looking out over the open lake as I turned I could see that the wind had brought up a pretty fair chop on the lake. It explained why the mallards had been hold up in the button willow patch and why the teal had been all but a no-show. For whatever reason the little ducks never flew well on the lake when the wind picked up.

Making my way through the shallow sandy waters near the island I caught occasional notes from my father’s calling as the rode the wind up from his blind. As I searched the bank for the last bird I heard several shot and wondered if he had been working that same group of mallards I had flushed at the point.

Tommy was back in the blind and directed me to where he had last seen the teal. I stomped around for what felt like an hour before I finally found it. The wind had pushed it up into the splayed folds at the trunk of a big cypress. If the little bird had not been belly up I doubt I would have ever seen it.

I was soaked in sweat by the time I climbed back into the blind. I stripped off my coat and dug a game strap out of my bag tossing it to Tommy. While he strung the birds I leaned on the front rail of the blind and downed a can of soda to cool me down and quench my thirst.

The win had shifted slightly and blew refreshingly cool air through the buttons of my heavy hunting shirt. As I stood at the rail I could tell the wind was continuing to gain speed. I mentioned to my friend that the lake was getting choppy and we speculated on it effect on the teal and whether or not dad had managed to pull that flight of mallards down to his set.

As I finished my coke Tommy marked a flight of ducks moving towards us from the north. In haste I lowered myself to my stool and started calling. Flying into the wind it seemed to take the small group of ducks forever to approach.

Their demeanor was uneasy as they closed in on our set. Fighting hard into the wing they scanned and scrutinized our spread for a long time. They were at the very edge of range when they crossed overhead and Tommy and I both made a halfhearted stand and shoulder move as the got directly above us. But we both whispered “no, no, no” as the birds got beyond the bushy tops of the trees and made a slight turn.

The wind caught their wings and the flock whirled around, still just on the edge of range but making another pass down wind of the blind. This time they came past on the west side of the float road, wide but still interested. I saw raising his call to his lips as they passed.

“Wait” I whispered, my own call held just in front of my mouth. “Wait…wait…”

I let the bird get farther than usual. The now strong wind would make them bank too soon and turn too soon if we rushed it.

“Now” I said with a touch of urgency.

Tommy and I let loose a barrage of hail calls, stacking them one atop the other, varying our tones and cadences, trying for all the work to sound like way more ducks than our small spread could possibly be.

The ducks wheeled as if their wings had hit a poll. They dropped half their altitude and bore down on our decoys like a fighter formation. Over the spread the mixed flock of gadwall and widgeon made another one eighty and threw their chest perpendicular to the water as they backbeat with their wings and stretched out their splayed feet.

We cut into them with abandon.

White bellies betrayed the whistle birds and they took the brunt of the first salvo. Three fell on the initial report and we peeled off two other birds as the group scattered on the now gusting wind.

But there was no time for congratulations or celebration. Two of the birds were head up and swimming fast. We reloaded and raked the gadwall and drake widgeon as they tried to put distance between themselves and the carnage in the decoys.

Our shots wrapped both birds in pellets every time but they refused to submit, each bird taking a different path of potential escape.

Tommy and I both new what was happening and quickly stuff a few shells into our pockets and dropped into the water to chase the cripples down. I grabbed one gadwall and a stone dead widgeon as I made for the bird heading toward the outside island, Tommy grabbed another widgeon as he race-walked straight toward the northern mouth of the float road where the other cotton top was swimming hard, head down, bobbing into sight as it crested each wave.

Each bird kept a good distance ahead of us and we both stopped periodically to sling steel in hope of halting their escape. The gadwall I was after dove after my second shot and as I tried to rush toward it and reload I came dangerously close to falling headlong into the water. I recovered by going to my knees but not without soaking my left arm and spilling my extra shells from my shirt pocket.

Getting back on my feet I loaded the only extra round I had into my gun and looked out toward to open lake to see how Tommy was faring.

Though still dry as far as I could tell he wasn’t doing much better than me. The water was well above his waist now and the waves seemed timed perfectly to keep him from connecting his shot to the fleeing duck. I saw his shot string twice rip through a wave just as the drake surfed down the far side, the shot catching the tips of the waves ahead and behind him.

My own chase was equally fruitless. I managed to close within range of the gadwall several times but it dove in each occurrence before I could get off a shot. I would stop and scan the surface waiting for it to rise in some sensible direction from where I had last seen it. But every time it would pop up it would be off to my side or behind me. I probably sank two feet in the mud as I pirouetted in place trying to get a shot.

At one point the blasted bird popped up nearly between my legs. That little move scared us both so bad we each let out a alarmed plea and as I plunged my right arm into the muddy water the bird vanished, bumping my legs as it dove but never to be seen again.

As I gave up and turned back to the blind I was shocked at how far Tommy had gone. He was well over a hundred yards, maybe two hundred from the blind. I was also surprised to see just how much the wind had strengthened. The waves out where he was were now clearly rolling. Glancing back to the blind I saw that the wave there had picked up as well. Enough in fact that the decoys had started to drift a bit several ha tangled together.

I yelled to my friend but he clearly could not hear me. I tried blowing my call but it to did not gather his notice. Finally I fired two shots into the air, He turned to look back and I waved him in.

Back at the hole I re positioned the decoys, climbed back in the blind and waited for Tommy to return. The boat beneath the blind began rubbing on the supports for the ladder and I climbed down to reposition it. Tommy was still quite a ways from the blind so I opted to pull the boat out, fire up the motor and save him a hard haul back to the blind.

When he saw me start up the motor he stopped walking and rested his shotgun across his shoulder. With one hand he pulled up on the top of his waders and I could see that the wave were getting dangerously close to going over their top.

It was not a pretty pick up. The wind and waves out in the more open water where he was were strong enough that I had to approach him from don wind and keep the motor on, kicking it in and out of gear at its lowest throttle while he grabbed on and hauled himself over the side.

“Did you get yours?” he asked as he rolled up onto his seat.

“Dove one me.” I told him and started to point the bow towards the blind.

“Run out just a bit and I bet we can find this one” he said.

I spun the boat and followed the line he gave me but the widgeon was not to be found. What we did find though was white caps.

The relative protection from the wind offered up in the float road had concealed from us the true strength of the blow. From the stump field to the far bank the lake was now dotted with white capped waves, not every one of them but enough to let us know the weather man had missed his forecast by several hours.

We turned around again and pointed the bow toward the blind just in time to see four mallards pitch into the decoys in front of the empty blind.

“Well that figures!” Tommy yelled over the sound of the motor and the thumping splash of the hull against the waves.

Going nearly dead into the wind we had to go slower than I wanted. We watched the mallards swim off into the calmer waters of the island only to see another flight of ducks, spoonbills this time, pitch right down where their more glamorous friends had.

“Just Spoons” I bellowed over the nose as Tommy pointed.

“Those aren’t!” he yelled back, bringing the flight of pintail to my attention. They to swung right in front of the blind before drifting down between the mallards and the shovelers.

We gave each other a broad grin and said not a word. I twisted the throttle another quarter turn and as we closed the distance to the bind several more flights of ducks of various worth either drops slap in the center of the again scattered decoys or swung within easy shot of the blind.

The weather may have been getting worse but it sure looked like the duck hunting was about to better, MUCH BETTER.

The Big Lake

baldcypress_10_13_08_a

           The big lake had never been something we hunted much. Since being cut off from the river, long before my time, it had come to be mostly a fishing spot. You would see the occasional raft of divers out in the open water and of course coots. But by and large we ignored it as a duck hole. Although in his day my father and his family had killed good numbers of mallards and other puddle ducks along with plenty of divers on its waters.

            The lake is an old oxbow of the Mississippi River, nearly twelve miles from end to end and two miles wide. It forms a near perfect horseshoe. Our old camp sat at the apex of the bend facing the widest point of the lake on the far bank were the shallow, cypress studded flats of the old float road, a man made cut used in the age of steam powered river boats to move log rafts and lay aside barges.

            I had started hunting it when I was in my early teens. But even then it was just a place I could hunt ducks a few weeks earlier than usual.

            Our bank of the river was Mississippi, the far bank Louisiana although it had long since been cut off from the river, pinned in by levees and seen the last of its great paddle wheelers. And though it technically sat within the border of Mississippi the inside of the lake’s bend was still the property of the state of Louisiana, and they opened their duck season a few weeks ahead of my home state in those days.

            The camp on the lake served mostly as our fishing camp for most of my life. Our duck hunting took place farther inland in the delta and a bit farther north. But we also went there for holidays and the traditional opening of deer season.

            Though my father had long since given up his passion for antlers for the pursuit of waterfowl he still kept a membership in an old deer camp he had had a hand in forming many decades before. The deer camp was just a few miles down the road from the lake house and so when thanksgiving rolled around we usually spent the holiday at the lake house with the whole family, and then some. We would deer hunt once or twice and always had a few good meals and poker games at the deer camp but none of the hunters in my family really cared much about anything but ducks.

            My first trip hunting ducks on the lake was little more than a whim. I was at the lakehouse with my family and a large group of friends for the Thanksgiving Holiday. While deer season was open, I had sat on a stand twice already and didn’t much care to do it again. It hadn’t helped that while waiting for deer that never showed up I had heard and seen a few ducks cruising the old bayou near my stand.

            When I had told my father about the ducks he mentioned that the season was open in Louisiana but that the chute at the deer camp was too low to get to across the state line. But he said I could go try across the lake if I wanted.

            He helped me clean out the small john boat and scrounge up a handful of decoys and a tattered, mildewed piece of burlap camouflage netting and sent me on my way.

            I had NO idea where to hunt. All I know was I had to be on the other side of the lake and that there was pretty good cover along the island on the outer side of the float road. Cypress trees and button willow ran along the island and made great cover for fishing spawning crappie in the spring so I knew the general area and habitat.

            The small six horse motor eased me across the smooth midafternoon waters of the lake. It was warmer than I would have wanted but at least without a chill the boat ride was not unpleasant.

            Once across the main channel I lifted the outboard to shallow water run and eased my way west toward the island. As usual a fair number of divers and plenty of coots loafed and rafted in the shallows of the flats. The ducks stirred and rose into the air as I motored, the coots just swam a safe distance from the boat and kept on doing their thing.

            As I neared the island I turned parallel to the shore and searched for a good spot to blind up. There was no shortage of cover but the first few places I tried proved to be too shallow even for my small boat. I finally settled on a spot between two giant cypress trees with low hanging braches I could use to hang the heavy, stinking netting, tied off the bow and stern, pitched out the raggedy half dozen or so decoys, hung my camouflage net and settled in for the hunt.

            I can’t say as I recall the whole hunt but certain specifics stand out to me as clearly today as they must have then. I remember wishing I had brought a fishing rod with me as I scanned ducksless skies. I remember the sounds the coots made as they puttered around in the shallows diving for food and creating the only ripples in the still, shallow waters near me. I remember the sound the diving ducks made when they would, for reasons I still do not know, all together decide that they needed to be a short distance away and en mass take to running across the surface of the water, only briefly catching flight before settling back to their bobbing raft. I remember the red orange color of cypress needles as they drifted on the black water in which my decoys sat nearly motionless. And I remember the bold, stark contrast of color and motion over them as a mallard greenhead out of nowhere banked once, set his wings and tried to land among the poor plastic imitations of his beautiful species.

            With one quick motion I raised my gun, fired and folded the drake. He fell within a few feet of my boat and without thinking about the fact that the water might be over my knee high rubber boots I swung my legs over the gunwale and sloshed out to retrieve him.

            Save for the ride back, the setting sun turning the lake red orange like the cypress needles and the mallards legs, I don’t recall the rest of the hunt. Records my father kept tell me I killed two more greenheads that day.

            What stands out to me most in my memory is the pride in my father’s face when I slogged up the hill from the boat ramp, wet to my knees carrying three fat greenheads. The pride on his face that day show just as strong now as I look back through the yellowing pages of his field notes. “Brad hunted the Float Road today and killed 3 Greenheads BY HIMSELF!!!”

            Until now I had not remembered, somehow in the thirty five years I have been chasing ducks and geese that aspect of that day had faded. I had truly come into my own as a waterfowler. Leave it to my father, dead now these many years, to reach back through time and remind me of a near sacred moment for myself and the man who taught me.

Thanks Papa. Had you lived to this day and beyond there could never be enough words of gratitude for teaching me the ways of a waterfowler. Until we all meet again, keep your gloves dry and give Yella a pet on the head for me. I miss you both more than my heart can stand.

Watermarked (Chapter 2)

deep bayou

My first trip to the camp at Tupelo Brake, or “The Tupe” as it was known by the men who hunted it’s vast cypress and tupelo swamps and low, oak covered ridges, came as soon as the flood waters receded and the brutal heat of our southern summer, which starts in spring, finally baked the gumbo mud roads into a passable quagmire.

The route from our home took us down from the hills of Vicksburg and along the eastern edge of the delta. From Ballground Plantation the road hugged the Loess hills on my right while the flat, fertile, farms stretched out to the horizon through the window that silhouetted my father as he drove me along a road I would come to know by heart.

The trip was narrated by my father as he pointed out scenes of flood damage, old hunting spots and the homes and farms of men I would soon come to know. At Satartia we turned west, crossed the Yazoo River and left the high hills behind.

Farms lined the road on both sides, save for scattered sloughs and brakes and the occasional patch of woods. Farmers had been hard at work and dad remarked at the varying conditions of crops. Soybeans and cotton laid claim to almost every tillable acre as we closed the distance to the camp.

When the numbing flatness of the delta was broken by the rise of the levee where I knew we would turn to make the last leg of our journey I remember trying to picture what it had all looked like just those few months ago, covered in the brown swirling waters of the flood. It hardly seemed the same place.

Though the trees were lush and green, the understory was nearly devoid of vegetation. A heavy layer of silt and debris covered the forest floor. What had been giant lakes were once again fields and the only standing water was in the barrow pits, bayous and sloughs, all still murky brown and filled to the brim from the floodwaters.

When the woods along the levee gave way again to a large patch of farm ground I knew we were nearing the camp. It had been here we had sat watching the waters rise. What look like flood debris spanned the canal that ran along the levee, but its order told me it was man-made.

The bridge across the canal was low, even with the flat ground of the delta, made of broad planks only slightly wider than my father’s four wheel drive, and could best be described not so much as a bridge as perhaps termites holding hands. As we rattled across it I could see the slow-moving waters beneath us through the gaps and missing boards. I could hear the timbers groan and the loose boards rattle. Dad, sensing my unease, assured me the bridge was sound.

“Thomas and them use it to get their tractors in here to the fields.” He said as his way of easing my nerves. It had little effect in that cause. But we clattered across and turned back south, back toward the towering trees of The Tupe and the little tan trailer I knew waited for me on the banks of Deep Bayou.

Like PawPaw (Final Chapter)

The chill crept inward, into the very bones of his legs, down to the fingertips of his left hand and up to the shoulder. He found himself shifting his weight from one foot to the other, then gradually he began stepping in place. His subdued calisthenics sending waves and ripple out across the opening, making the old wooden block bob and turn.

“Well the motion sure won’t hurt.” He thought. Fifteen minutes past without sight or sound of a ducks. A few gunshots from out on the river, far down stream, boomed hollow and distant. With each small volley his attention sharpened, hoping to coax in the escapees to this wooded safe haven. Nothing came.

With a half hour to go his body began to shiver. The cold had sunk deep into his bones and his teeth began to chatter. The need to move, to get the blood flowing called strong. Maybe he should just call it a day, or slip easily through the timber back towards the trail that led back to the boat. He could try to jump shoot the last of his limit. Sure, that would work; he could get warm and finish out the limit at the same time.

He was turning to gather his gear when he heard the whistle of wings behind him. Sneaking a look over his shoulder he saw a trio of mallards drifting lazily across the tree tops. He turned back to his station, drew out his call and began coaxing the birds back toward the hole.

On the first pass he could make them out, two drakes and a hen. The birds banked and he lost them for a moment as they swung behind his position. He called softly, waiting for them to emerge again, and he waited. Just as he thought the birds had drifted off they appeared again. Two more ducks swooped in out of nowhere and joined them. His calling became more aggressive. He feared the two interlopers would ruin it. Too many times he had seen it happen. You are working birds when and have the ready to commit, only to have a stray single fall in with the flock, and pull them off towards safer quarters.

But the new arrivals must not have had the rank to change the course of the hen and her suitors. The five birds now flew as one circling the Y Tree slowly, unhurried. Two more passes and they began to set their wings, dropped and then broke off at the last moment for another trip around the hole.

Coming back into view again they now numbered a dozen at least. “Where in heaven did they come from?” he thought, now dropping back to a more gentle calling. The birds were working well, all he had to do was keep them interested and they would set down any time now.

Then it was chaos again. From every compass point birds were dropping out of the stratosphere, calling hard, joining in with the whirling multitude. Four here ten there, birds joining in from low and high until the mass that made its rotation around the Y Tree must have number a solid hundred and a half.

The flock swung from the south and lined up to make another pass, directly over the hole. He turned his face toward the water but couldn’t resist peeking up from the bill of his hat at the throng of mallards. On slow steady wing beats the lead birds crossed the edge of the opening. Then without warning they simply fell from the sky. No locked wings, no glamorous glide; the birds just dropped their butts, stuck out their feet and fell towards the water rocking side to side on outstretched wings.

He let the first wave light, then the second. More birds crossed the threshold and cart wheeled down towards the water. When the last of the mallards where beginning their fall and a good quarter of the flock was backpedaling over the throng of splashing swimming birds he pick out two drakes about from the middle of the descending bunch and threw the gun to his shoulder.

He touched off the first barrel and the drake crumpled. As he swung the barrel to catch up with his second target he saw another bird crash down on the far side of the opening, his stomach turned over. A hen, he knew by the brown underbelly turned up in the black water. Lowering the gun he watched the rest of the birds throw themselves into the air and scatter out through the trees.

“Well, I guess that’s how it ends?” he thought. “Sorry Papaw, I never saw her.” He opened the breach of the gun, drew out the smoking hull first and placed it with the other two then put the live round back in the box.

In a mix of satisfaction and slight disappointment he placed the gun on the shelf and waded over to gather his make shift game strap. Only then did he notice the pound of adrenaline coursing through his body. He realized he wasn’t cold any more. But in the pit of his gut their road certain sadness. The hunt was over, sure, that was part of it, but dang it all, A HEN! He tried to brush off his disappointment as he waded out into the decoys to pick up the birds. This drake too was a prime, fat, northern mallard. He slipped it onto the cord with the other and waded towards the last bird. She had fallen in a brushy top belly up and as he eased closer to her he noticed something wasn’t quite right. It was the darkest hen he had ever seen in his life.

A lump rose in his throat. “No, it couldn’t be.” His pace quickened and he tried to hold back the hope that forced itself into his heart. Not until the bird was in hand was he able to believe it. This was no hen mallard. This was a prize bird, a black mallard drake, fat as a house cat and dark as pitch.

He cradled the bird gently and marveled at its beauty, and his luck. For long moments he stood there tears rolling down his cheeks and falling onto the creosote colored feathers of the bird. He lifted his face toward the northern sky and whispered to his creator and to the birds of the autumn wind. “Thank you.”

———————————————

On the day before the opener the following year he pulled into the camp early and unloaded a large crate. Alone he heaved and hauled it into the front door of the camp and began prying the boards away from the package within.

A glass fronted, rough-hewn, cypress box, some four feet tall two feet wide stood before him. Within the case a worn side-by-side leaned against the bark of a young oak cut to fit within the shrine. From one branch hung a simple leather lanyard with a small black call at its end, from another three fat greenheads on a frayed piece of rope. At the bottom of the box resting on a carpet of oak leaves gathered from around the Y Tree on a dry march day, were an old wooden decoy, three spent cardboard hulls and the finest black mallard you he had ever seen, looking for all the world like it had just been shot, and dropped gently to the ground beside the resting gun. Along the top edge of the box a narrow brass plaque read “Taken at the Y Tree, like Papaw would have done it.”

THE END

Like PawPaw (Chapter 6)

Two more smoking hulls were drawn from the gun, these he wrapped in a threadbare bandana and tucked carefully away in the shellbox. He rested the butt of the gun on the shelf and leaned it carefully against the trunk of the tree. Reaching down between the stiff canvas of the waders he drew out a tarnished folding knife, untied the rope from around his waist, cut off a short length of it and tied a loop on one end. The knife was folded and returned to the pocket, deep within the billows of the now sagging waders and he eased out into the opening to pick up his birds.

The two drakes had fallen among the wooden blocks, and he admired each with a deep reverence as the plucked them from the cold black water, smoothing their feathers and admiring how the sunlight made the colors of their heads shift from green to black as the turned them in his hands. They were good birds, fat and healthy, the curls of their tail feathers making full circles, their feet bright orange. With the birds secured in the makeshift game strap he turned to wade back to his hide.

Two steps back towards the tree, the world above him filled with ducks. It was as iff they had just materialized. From every direction he heard the soft chatter of mallards, the harsh shouting of hens and the gentle call of fat greenheads. He broke into a shuffling run.

His mind scrambled and raced, the gun was thirty yards away, unloaded. His hand dug into the folds of his coat searching desperately for his call. His right foot caught a decoy line and he tried even harder to reach the cover of the Y Tree. In two steps he reached the end of the decoy line and the hard wooden block met his shin with a resounding THUNK!

Head first, flailing with one arm while the other held the birds aloft, he plunged into the cold water. The cold water filled his sagging waders in the split second he was down. Coming up with a shout of frustration and shock he saw the unthinkable. The entire opening was filled with ducks, ducks in a panic as a flailing mad man erupted from the water and stood among them, slack-jawed, staring at the mass of web-footed confusion around him. While the nearest ducks, the ones that had managed to hit the water about the same time he had, sprang back into the air, other were still bombing down through the trees, realizing their folly and taking the quickest route they could find that would get them away from the steaming, dripping monster that had just emerged from the backwaters.

His momentary all system failure evaporated. He freed his leg from the decoy, and finished fishing out his call. With a string of notes begging the mass to return he hastily shuffled back to the tree, set the ducks to float at its base, grabbed and reloaded his gun and turned back to face the opening. The din of hungry, confused mallards slowly moved on and he leaned against the massive trunk shaking his head.

Regaining his composure he assessed his situation. The waders were not completely full, but cold water stood in them as deep as his shins. He looked around for the string of birds and found them floating gently beside the tree. He gathered up the loose end of the cord, and waded to a small tree near by that offered a low branch to tie the strap to. With the birds secured he thought about how he might get some of the water out of his boots. It was several hundred yards to dry ground, and he wasn’t about to leave the hole now, not after what he had just seen. He would tough it out, at least for a little while.

Back at his station he leaned heavily against the tree. His eyes and ears strained to find some glimpse of the mass of ducks that had just descended on the bottoms. The skies were empty and the woods were silent, except for the sound of water dripping from the soaked left arm of his coat.

His nerves where shot. At every whisper of wind he twisted his head, sure the onslaught was about to return, terrified of being caught of guard again. Nothing flew. Shivers set and a debate began in his mind. “Two mallards is nothing to be ashamed of. Papaw would be proud to have his gun retired with those two birds.” One voice in his head counseled. But the other egged him on “You know darn good and well as soon as you unload and start out of here the birds are gonna shame you again. Tough it out and you can end this one RIGHT, a full four greenhead limit.”

He took the pocket watch out and check both the hour, and the condition of the old-time piece. The watch ticked away, and he set a time limit for himself. “If they don’t do it by nine thirty, I’m going home. Papaw would come back, dig me up and kill me himself if I let myself die of hypothermia over this.” Less than an hour to go, he was sure he could take it.

Like PawPaw (Chapter 5)

A seemingly endless parade of wood ducks buzzed low over the hole. He made practice swings with the old double on a pair or two, but he held his fire. By sunrise the squealer had all but stopped flying and the occasional flight of grey ducks was all that gave the opening a look for the next half hour. His heart began to sink, just a bit. But again, the words of his grandfather’s gunning log ran through his mind, melding into his own experience, knowledge born of countless days in the timber, his, his fathers, and his father’s father’s. “Wait. Be patient. They will come to the timber when their bellies are full.”

He past a bit more time, watching a fat red squirrel make its morning rounds through the oak and bitter pecan trees of around him. The sound of cast aside acorns plunking down into the water marked the busytail’s path through the bare limbs. Waves of noisy black birds swept through the forest, lighting in great waves and moving on with a roar of wings and a chatter that blocked out all other soft sounds of the morning woods.

He was twisted around, facing back into the thick stand of young trees behind him, seeking out the travels of the old fox squirrel when he heard the soft call of a drake mallard over his shoulder.

In one fluid motion he spun, raise the gun to his shoulder drew down on the single mallard hovering inches above the nearest wooden block, and missed clean, with both barrels.

Old habits die-hard, and he kept the gun aimed at the fleeing greenhead as its wings drove frantically to push the bird high and away, he felt himself pulling on the trigger, wondering why his last round wouldn’t fire. When all that was left was the sight of tail feathers and the silence after the echo, he lowered the gun, laughing at his poor shooting and his puzzlement as to why this dang broad barrel wouldn’t fire a third shell. “This ain’t your auto.” He scolded himself lightly.

Opening the breech he drew out the two spent shells. The swollen paper hulls made a satisfying “fhwoop” as he pulled them out, a thin trail of smoke escaping from the warm tubes. The smell of the paper hulls warmed his soul. He lifted them to his nose and breathed in deep. His mind whirled back through the decades; to the first day his Papaw had let him fire a gun for real. That old twenty-eight gauge was gone, lost on river hunt years ago when nature turned violent and his father had saved them both from drowning though the bulk of their hunting gear had been lost.

He slipped the spent shells into one of the large billow pockets of the coat. It didn’t matter to him that they were supposed to biodegrade, he had been taught never to leave his hulls floating, not so much out of fear that the ducks might see them, but out of a respect for the wild. Sure they had a few small man-made intrusions here in the woods, but the men of the camp had always kept the place as pristine as possible. They came to the woods to be in the wilds, not to be reminded of the world that awaited them when the season was done or the business of life required them to return to town. It gave them a feeling of being the first to see these woods, unspoiled and mysterious. They just liked it that way.

Two more shells were loaded into the gun and he turned back to look out over the decoys. “Sorry Papaw. But, at least he knows what team I’m on.” He spoke out across the decoys.

The words had hardly left his lips when a dozen mallards, low and looking drifted past the opening. He put the call to his lips as they moved away and hit a note that almost made him cry. But without hesitation he regained his composure and sent out a comeback call in perfect pitch and cadence. The lead bird spun like its left wing had hit a pole and the rest of the birds followed right on her tail feathers.

The boss hen of the bunch belted out a greeting call and he answered with an equally exuberant invitation. She led the pack back over the opening, right down on the tree tops, well within range. Her neck was craned down and scanning side to side as she passed. Hugging tight to the tree he turned his face downward and watched the birds in the black mirror of the backwater as they drifted slowly over. The hen called again and he answered, kicking the water with one leg to create ripples once the birds had their tails to him. Again the old hen belted out a song and he shouted her down as soon as her last note cleared, then at once set in to a mix of chatter and quacks.

The flock swung again riding past the opening heading south a bit faster now but on gliding wings. He let the group get down wind about seventy yards and eased off of pleading comeback call. In and fraction of a second the group turned closed the gap and set their wings.

They came in down the shoot, the low spot in the canopy left by the fallen oak. Fluttering down from his left side the group back paddled down to the water straight in front of the Y Tree.

The old hen hit the water first and at once began calling to her descending companions. The double gun came up, roared twice and a pair of greenheads crashed the last few feet to the water as the remains of the flock scattered out through the woods in several directions.

Like PawPaw (Chapter 4)

A tear for an unknown loss slipped from his eye as he shouldered the decoy bag, cradled his grandfather’s gun under his arm, lifted the shellbox and stepped past the remains of the old house.

The path from the old house site to the river bottoms was well-worn. As the rough grass rope of the homemade shoulder strap on the decoy bag dug into his shoulder he chided himself for his stubborn refusal to believe what his grandfather had preached so strongly to new duck hunters. “Don’t bother with decoys in the timber. Just kick the water and call. If the ducks are coming to the timber decoys are just fancy table dressing, they don’t add to the feast.” He had seen it, but he had always believed that a few decoys would make even those spooky birds work down through the canopy. So, maybe this wasn’t just like Papaw would have done it, but the heavy old wooden blocks had belonged to him, thought they only knew the open waters of the cypress blind in those days. Stopping to catch his breath he shook his head. “Well, I took the time to paint the darn things, I’ll be hanged if I’m not gonna see ‘em float!” he said back through time to the old man he hoped was watching. And with that he started off again puffing clouds of warm breath into the frosty morning air.

By the time his feet carried him to the edge of the timber he was beginning to worry about getting to the Y Tree hole in time. Under the burden of the decoys, in confined by the unyielding canvas waders he had been forced to stop several times to catch his breath and readjust his load of gear. Taking out the pocket watch he turned to let the moonbeams strike the face of the time piece. “Hour to go.” He whispered through rapid breaths.

Setting down the gear he opened the wooden shell box and took out a battered head lamp. With just one match the carbide light leapt to life, again reducing his world to the stream of man-made light. He strapped the light around his cap loaded up again and began crunching through the skim of ice above the leaf cover floor of the flooded oak woods.

The Y Tree stood out in the bare canopy of the forest, a colossus of an oak. Decades of storms, thunder, lightning, ice and wind had shaped the stately figure. Her trunk was broad and straight with two main limbs left to send forth leaves in the spring and shower the bottoms with acorns when fall came around. Half way to its upper limits the evidence of old branches, jagged snags and hollow openings showed the scars of time’s relentless wear. It stood on the east edge of the opening and from the concealment of its great shadow many a mallard had come to know the end of their days.

The north wind was perfect for this hole. It gave the birds a clean approach and kept the hunter out of their sight, hidden beside the towering oak standing knee-deep in black water.

The “hole” was more of a thin spot in the forest than anything. Ages ago, perhaps even before his granfather’s days another grand had fallen, its crash felling smaller trees on to the south, parting the canopy and making a glide path down into a hardwood banquet for travel weary mallards. The decayed remnants of the old tree still remained, a wooden troth that would fill with leaves, acorns and water, a favored pit-stop for the beavers, coons and nutria that lived in the bottoms. It was the focal point of countless yellowing photos, images filled with grinning faces as they posed beside a line prime mallard drakes arranged to show the reason for the broad grins of the men who stood or knelt as the backdrop for the picture. In old black and whites the log still held its round, and it was beside this very marker he too had stood at the end of his first hunt, a small thing boy flanked by grown men proud as every to pose with the boys lone mallard positioned perfectly centered on the log.

He rested the gun case on across the log, balancing the shellbox on one edge and unshouldered his burden of decoys. One by one they were placed around the opening, nine mallards an a pair of black ducks. The blacks were only slightly out-of-place to his way of thinking. Now days few blacks made their way to this part of the flyway, now days there weren’t many black to go anywhere. But in his grandfather’s time, black ducks were no strangers to this area. Old gunning logs told of mornings when, both on the big lake and in the woods, those elegant birds made up a significant portion of the bag. A straight mallard limit was a fine hand, but a brace of blacks thrown in and you were holding a royal straight flush.

“Eleven?” He said in disbelief as he surveyed the spread in the beam of the carbide lamp. “Felt like I carried a truck load.” He thought as he waded gathered his gear and waded over to the Y tree. “Papaw,” he said to the lightening eastern sky. “Was it that you didn’t need em, or you just didn’t want to tote em?” Laughing he leaned against his hide and set the shellbox down on a crude shelf long ago nailed to the tree for just such use. The rusty zipper of the tattered leather case scratched open and he slid the side by side out with a near reverent motion. The case he hooked on a bent nail that he would swear had gotten higher up the tree every year, and likely it had.

He cradled the double gun, breech open in his right arm and flipped open the shellbox. Shining the headlamp down into it he saw the waxed green paper shells. True, they were “modern” nontoxic loads, made for the notion of being “eco-friendly”, a term Papaw would have puzzled over in his day, but the feel was there, and from a far distant childhood memory he could recall the smell of burnt powder from a singed paper hull.

“Close as I could get, Papaw.” And he drew out two shells and slid them into the tubes.

The eerie, lonesome whine of a wood duck snapped his mind back to the present. He put out the light of the headlamp and hung the contraption on the nail with the guncase. Feathers cut the air somewhere in the blackness before him, wings beat hard to slow the decent, water splashed and clipped “WHEEP” the first arrival called out from the opening to others of his kind that buzzed low over the tree tops going to and fro as shooting light finally came.

Like PawPaw (Chapter 2)

As he rowed up to the giant cypress he swung the boat down wind and eased up to the weathered gangplank leading from the nest of cypress knees to the far shore. The walkway had been built right into the tree, over the years the dead timbers slowly consumed by the living trunk and knees. With the boat tied off securely he unloaded his gun, shell box and decoys onto the thick planks then fought his way into an uncooperative pair of thick canvas waders, buttoned the suspenders and cinched the waist with a doubled length of rope.

The weight of the decoys in the musty canvas sack slung over his shoulder made him a bit uneasy as he “walked the plank” the short distance to the dry ground of the far shore. Setting the decoys down he returned to the boat for his gun and shell box. Half out of breath and sweating under the heavy coat and wool shirt he paused at the foot of the walkway and sized up the labor that lay ahead.

From here the oak woods lay a quarter-mile across the low ridge that divided the cypress lake from the river bottoms. The path was usually simple, and he was more than a little temped to cheat just a bit and fire up on of the four-wheelers that rested under the leaning roof that was the remains of the old cook’s quarters.

Long before his name was entered into the camp ledger, an old farm family had lived on this piece of ground. Mrs. Lurlean and he husband Duke had “come with the property the old members had joked. Truth was, when the men of the camp had bought the land from an old farmer, who had tired of loosing crop after crop to the annual flooding, Lurlean and Duke had been prepared to move on. But though there wasn’t going to be much in the way of farm work for them the couple to do, the men of the camp asked them to stay on, keep an eye on the property and in the bargain the camp would build them a new house, let Duke hunt and fish as he pleased and hire Lurlean to take care of the meals and keeping the camp house in order. It was a match made in heaven.

Lurlean and Duke had no living relatives; they had planted the last of their children in the high ridge by the road when scarlet fever had swept through the county. Together they knew more about the woods and waters around the camp than the farmer and all his kin ever had. They had dreaded the thought of leaving.

Papaw and the other members of the club built “L” and Dukes house first. Sparing no expense and signing over to them a note on the house and five acres, “For so long as your good souls should stay on this earth.” the paper read. “L” and Duke became and lived til their last days as the adoptive parents of the men of the camp and the generation that came after. But their shadows had ceased to move about the lake and woods long ago. Lurlean had gone first, and was buried by the men of the camp in the plot with her children. Duke followed within a week, and was laid to rest beside his wife. The men of the camp bought fine stone markers for the whole family, and more than a few grown men cried like children as the covered the last of these fine folks with the rich soil of the river bottoms.