Saturday, May 28, 2011

Life Stages of a Waterfowler

Have you ever stopped dreaming of waterfowl hunting long enough to ask yourself “what provides me with the greatest satisfaction from this sport?” This autumn I will celebrate my 30th year of waterfowl hunting. If someone were to ask me that same question, I would have to condense my long-winded pedantic answer to several “stages” of my career. I stumbled upon my passion relatively late, at the age of 22. I had no one to lead me, mentor me, or guide me in the dark mornings of my post-adolescence. I was exploring who I was when I found an image of a duck hunter on flooded tidewater, wandering the phragmites in his traditional duckboat with his loyal Chessie. It was a painting by Chet Reneson titled “Northern Birds.” I think it may have been in a Ducks Unlimited magazine that I picked up in a dentist’s office. I was captivated by the solitude of the sport. The romantic notion of a man who knew how to work with nature to take what he needed to survive and to revel in the true meaning of life supporting life.

Something about that image grabbed my soul at its depths and pulled out of my core, the roots of a duck hunter. For the first year, I wandered the swamps around coastal Connecticut and upland New York in search of something that quacked. I had no idea what I was doing. This was the discovery phase of my addiction. I was satisfied with even seeing or hearing a duck. I just wanted to know that I was in the right place. I had no waders, no boats, no decoys, not even a dog that knew what we were looking for. I reveled in the mastery of jumping from one clump of cattails to the next without going in over my rubber boots. I hunted places that no duck hunter in his right mind would venture. Ditches. Streams that flowed past community ballfields. Even small drainage ponds behind manufacturing plants. I’d lay in cornfields so small you could throw a rock across them. I would cover myself up in burlap bags and use lawn ornaments for decoys. All for the hope that some silly goose flying overhead might break all migratory tradition and pick that field to land in. I watched sunrises over developments and restaurant roofs, longing to experience “real” wild places, where vast expanses of water defined thousands of acres of wetlands. Nonetheless, satisfaction came at the end of the day, exhausted and soaking wet, lying in front of the fireplace and smelling my wet springer spaniel sleeping beside me.

The following year, my boarding school drop-out buddy and I purchased a homemade 12’ flat bottom boat, a used trailer, a Sears Gamefisher motor and a dozen L.L. Bean cork decoys. This was the beginning of the next stage; the Equipment Accumulation Stage (EAS). 

By the way, this stage becomes its own addiction and is a continuous aggregation of gadgets that eventually consume entire rooms of the house and garage. When it comes time to move or change households, the first requirement becomes storage space. Vehicles have no place in a garage. Lawns are arranged in a manner as to accommodate several boats, canoes, kayaks and various floating conveyances. The equipment stage actually brings to bear its own sense of satisfaction with the arrival of the UPS truck on a regular basis. Every year brings mountains of new tools. Back then it was Flambeau decoys, then G&H swivel-heads, then jerk cords, quiver magnets, flags, and then the predecessor to Mojos called “Miracle Decoys” with belt-driven spinning wings. Then come the calls. Calls of various tones, colors and shapes, (some purchased for the sheer attraction to marketing verbiage like “bourbon and water colored acrylic”) flutes, short reeds and finally, custom ground calls by Alec Sparks of Dead Creek Calls.

After the EAS, and running concurrent to its rabid development, comes the “I Shot A Duck! stage (ISAD). This acronym, if you are a decent person, is appropriately named because the first time you actually kill one of these beautiful creatures you will likely feel some remorse along with the elation that you were finally successful. This first duck does not have to be a full plumage rare Eurasian Wigeon. It could be just a common hen merganser. It is seen as a trophy and is hoisted high above the proud hunters’ head and he/she is now a card-carrying member of the fraternity. This is generally celebrated with a war whoop and a dance of questionable origins. The elated hunter brings home the trophy with the M.O. of “you eat what you kill.”

This leads to the next stage; the belief that we are now providing sustenance for our families, and thus they are now subject to this new tradition of honoring the animal that sacrificed its life for our nurturance. This stage is known as the Sustenance Hunter Introduces the Tradition (SHIT) of serving wild game to his family, the first meal being roast merganser in a crock pot. To a 23 year old, the meal is pure epicurean delight. It must be because it is served on newly acquired Abercrombie & Fitch placemats with flying duck scenes and water glasses with engraved scenes of the hunt. The meal is paired with a fine wine chosen by the fledgling sommelier, a bottle of Beaujolais, because if it’s French it must be haute cuisine, right? This stage rarely advances beyond its baseline of SHIT.

Occasionally, if the hunter can render his ego to those who truly know how to cook, he can learn to produce remarkable dishes like char-broiled breast of duck with cherry ginger compote in a merlot reduction and presented with a slice of genuine foie gras with Belgian truffles on semolina toast points. But that’s much later. For the next 20 years his family will grudgingly eat the SHIT he puts on the table with such pride.

The next stage is the one where too many hunters get stuck. It is measuring the satisfaction of the hunt by how many birds one kills. It’s unfortunate, but almost everyone hits this stage. This phase is known as the If It Flies It Dies (IIFID). During this phase a good day is defined by limits all around, hens are shot indiscriminately and after a full bag of mixed mallards, the obligatory black and a woodie or pintail, this hunter will shoot a few “extra mergansers” if the state does not count them as a part of the daily limit. This is the stage where game wardens, who in the past have been respected authorities, suddenly become the adversaries. Their interpretations of the law are suspect and the hunter begins to “push the limits,” “legal” out of season baiting, leaving blinds up beyond their regulated dates, and crossing state or international boundaries to shoot another limit in another area. When you meet one of these folks, it’s best to walk away or hunt with someone else who isn’t in this stage. I’m not saying it’s wrong to shoot a limit, but I have to ask myself what will satisfy their idea of the hunt.

After graduating from the IIFID stage we seek to humiliate ourselves in other ways; like learning to shoot expertly. We become obsessed with fancy guns and high scores on sporting clays or skeet courses. Some people actually lose their desire to hunt at this point and subjugate their bloodlust for the fragrance of gunpowder and the recognition of going 100 straight. During this stage you may encounter peers who will shoot a pair of $15,000 custom engraved over and unders at a rate of 300 rounds a day, 4 days a week. They will travel 4 hours to attend a shoot where they receive a small red and blue patch that they can then sew on their leather vest with padded shoulders that reads “100 straight.” When one of these fellows steps up beside you on the sporting clay stand, prepare to be humbled. Don’t fret my friend. Know that many of these shooters don’t hunt. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with this phase…except that it detracts from the actual purpose of hunting. That and I can’t afford the guns. Someday, when I sell my first book, I will buy a Parker side by side.

Another sometimes common affliction of a maturing waterfowler is the dog training tangent. This stage is commonly known as Canine Obedience Means Everything or “COME!” This acronym is frequently employed at trials after a retriever has taken a line to the concession stand rather than the distant mark of a downed avian-fragrance enhanced bumper. What dog in his right mind would turn down the smell of fresh grilled frankfurters? But seriously, these folks spend an inordinate amount of time mastering the intricacies of commands that can spin a dog around to the left or to the right at 400 yards away and “cast” him in the opposing direction by a variance of 2 degrees South/South West to catch a cross current of scent that is rising off of water that is calculated to be cooler than the air surrounding it, such that it will travel between the shoreline and a distant twig bent at a 45 degree angle. And that’s where the bird lies. These people amaze me! 

I have trained with a few of them and am so awed by their talents that I can only console myself by making sure that no one hears me scream “You Moron!” at the top of my lungs when my boy heads for the nearest blind that is cooking bacon on a propane stove. I have even had the privilege of taking one of their dogs hunting and watching them identify ducks that we want to shoot and looking disdainfully at us when we raise our guns on a less desired species. At any rate, the dog training crowd are a force to be reckoned with… and admired.

The next stage is the DIY stage or Do It Yourself. This stage begins the maturing of the waterfowler. He now seeks to add meaning to the hunt by loading his own shells, building his own boat, carving his own decoys and training his own dog. At this point everything takes on greater meaning. Until you have shot a reward banded greenhead over your own cork and pine decoys, out of your own Barnegat sneakboat with a reloaded shell and had it retrieved by your own well-heeled lab that delivers it to hand, I submit that you have not known true magic outdoors. The DIY’er is easily recognized by their quiet demeanor in the blind. They are busy trying to calculate how to engineer a decoy with mechanized tongs to retrieve the bird you just shot. They will look at your custom built boat and take it one step further by adding a “left handed donut shelf” that will not interfere with the camouflaged side rails of the gunwhales. I hunt with one of these guys and let me tell you, there is no one more entertaining than a DIY’er. He’s made dog blinds out of thrown away suitcases and boat trailer guides out of PVC pipe complete with reflective tape. He is the McGyver of the Wetlands. The problem with this stage, if there is one, is that the DIY’er cannot be satisfied. The need for constant improvement will not allow for this. Occasionally, the DIY’ers extravagant inventions allow him to recognize that, at the base of all that is waterfowl, we are all DIY’ers.

The next stage of the aging waterfowler is the Meteorologist & Weather Prognosticator, alias the Logistical and Intuitive Atmospheric Researcher (LIAR). At some point in every waterfowlers career he becomes obsessed with gaining the upper hand on what the next low pressure system is going to bring, which direction it is coming from and what barometric pressure changes may do to the hormonal balances of the migrating flocks in his region. He will sit for hours reviewing every possible chart of the jet stream and the recent history of weather patterns (as if they really had any pattern to them.) They will stare for hours at satellite pictures in Doppler, Mosaic loops, Wind conversion charts and infrared satellite diagrams of pressure fronts as they work their way toward the watched area. A true waterfowler will get on the phone with the local meteorologist and debate him/her after they deliver their evening forecast on the local news channel. The hardcore waterfowler knows what acronyms like GOES, NOAA, NWS and CONUS actually mean. The problem with this group of LIARS (see above) is that they actually sound like they understand more than those around them and convince them that the pothole on the windward side of the river will prove to be the hot spot when that Southwest winds shifts to Northeast at about 8:47am according to the sunrise tables that he has discovered are directly linked to the tidal currents based on solar spot activity following the tail of the last comet to pass through that longitude. It’s scary, because when they are right, we turn our backs on all common sense and from that point on willingly hoist the sails for the long run downwind to “the spot”, bucking 4’ rollers as the sun rises and the ducks head inland for calmer ponds.

When the waterfowler has finally reached the stage of mastery, he is well into his mid-life crisis and is now driven by the desire to re-kindle the spectacle and wonderment he experienced as a neophyte. There is only one stage left that can possibly bring any sense of blind enthusiasm like he felt as a beginner.

The final stage of a well-developed hunter is PIO, or Pass It On. If you have a child, or like me, have to “borrow” someone else’s, and mentor the little bugger, you will see how these stages come full circle. When you see your young protégé’ slog through knee-deep mud with a grin on his/her face, and that banded drake woodie in their hand, you re-discover the meaning of the hunt. It’s not about how much equipment you accumulate, it’s not about how many birds you kill or running your dog like a robot to his mark. It’s all about being there. The smell of the swamp, the bouquet of gunpowder and wet dog, the crafted lines of the hand-made boat, the perfection of a solidly built blind, the calls and bands jingling around your neck, and the eternal beauty of the sunrise over the swamp. This, my friends, is the definition of satisfaction.

1 comment:

  1. After that long slog with you through the muck to recover a beautiful trophy-caliber drake woodie, I felt like the young protege described in your last paragraph. Thanks. Jim M