It’s one minute before the alarm goes off and I awaken suddenly. The LED light glows 3:59am. If I move quickly I can short-circuit the radio and leave my wife’s side without her awakening. Success! I roll out of bed and feel the cool Northwest breeze through my window, the curtain gently blowing in the breeze. The temperature has dropped 20 degrees during the night. It must be just above freezing. Thoughts of early migrating greenheads are quickly painted on the back of my brain. The pine floor boards creak as I sneak down the steps to the warmth of the Vermont Castings Vigilant woodstove, still emanating heat from last night’s fire. I smell the French roast coffee and shuffle toward the life-affirming liquid. I fill my quart thermos and set up a new pot for the Missus to go off when she wakes two hours later. My little black lab, Boo, thumps his tail against the bottom step and wiggles his haunches inquisitively wanting to know if we’re going out to play. I tell him “not today, little man. We’ll play fetch-it-up when I get back. Today is Remi’s turn.” My heart aches for him.
I slide into my shadow grass wader jacket and grab my favorite camo baseball hat and headlamp and open the door into the night air. I hear a small but tell-tale crunch of hoar frost under my boots as I walk to the truck. The boat was loaded the night before and is already attached to the hitch as it sits sheltered in the garage. Some people believe that garages are for cars, but here in Vermont, we know better. Garages are for decoys and boats. The truck fires quickly and I turn the driving lights on. I look in the rear view mirror and smile at the amber colored guide lights on the 3’ high trailer guides. Something about the yellow tinted lights on the top of the posts give me comfort. It’s an affirmation that the trailer is still attached to the truck (which if you’ve ever experienced the opposite scenario is a nightmare). I pull out of the garage with mere inches to spare on either side of the trailer.
We all have little rituals that bring us happiness. On clear starlit nights I tune my AM radio to 1170 and listen for one of the strongest signals in the country, WWVA from Weirton, West Virginia. My father used to listen to that station when I was much younger on all night drives to his birthplace in Grampian, PA, where he would take us deer hunting. I recapture some of the youthful exuberance for the hunt when I hear the crackling of real country music over the airwaves. Listening mostly to static, I drive to the access to meet my friend and duck hunting partner, John. I can trust that John will have stopped for the all important donuts that will sit in his boat on his special “left handed donut rack” affixed to the side of the cockpit of his Barnegat-style sneakboat. Good partners are hard to find. Ones that you can depend on to almost read your mind and anticipate what needs to be done in any situation. Ones that respect rituals as a form of adding depth and texture to the tapestry of experience. Ones who never forget the donuts.
Arriving at the access, John is already prepping his boat for the launch. His yellow lab, Remi, waddles toward me and wags his entire rear end as if to say “Hello, old friend! What a grand day today. Glad to see you’ll be joining us.” The wind is bowing the tops of the trees in the access area and John comments “Looks like we might have a few new birds come down on this stream.” “I hope so” I reply. Everything proceeds like a Swiss clock. Bow lines are attached, trailer lights are unplugged, transom plugs are double checked, decoys are loaded on the bow of the two boats and blind bags and provisions are stored in the cockpits. The waters around the launch are calm as the bay empties out to the South and the tree line shelters us from the blow.
Once on the water, the wind makes its presence known, as ripples quickly turn to whitecaps blowing frosty fingers off the stern. Staying just ahead of the troughs we angle toward the nearest silhouette of a land mass to the Southeast. Spotlights cut through the night. The old Honda four stroke whines in a mellifluous melody as she propels us toward the far shore. John’s boat is running alongside mine in an even tempo, bucking the front of the waves with the bow smacking down on the backside of the troughs.
Turning East at the mouth of the small confluence of streams we navigate past the singular mooring that stays in the channel year round. We head up the center of the channel. The water is low this year. It’s about 1’ lower than normal and the wild rice towers over the mudded shoreline of the creek. We bear left at the first fork and head through the first pool, flushing a flock of Canadas roosted on the protected oxbow. Loud “her-onks” surround us and dark wings beat powerful pinions just a few feet over our heads. I feel badly that we have disturbed them from their utopian slumber. At the next bend we cut our motors and begin to push-pole our way around the final bend to “our” pool. It’s not really “ours”, but we have installed our aqua-tecture in that location every year for the last eight years. It is a conglomeration of salvaged lumber and cedar posts, surrounded by cut cattails, with a bench, dog ramp, platform and shell rack.
Thirty yards out into the dark pool we set our spread of deceivers, blacks to the left and mallards to the right, woodies in front of the blind and greenwings off in their own little slack water. It’s all thought out beforehand. Decoy placement is paramount to our belief that birds will funnel to their own if given the chance. The standard “crescent moon” shape is employed to pull the low-strafing marauders toward the blind where the quiver magnets add motion in front of the blind. The spinning wings – if they are used at all – are set at the outskirts of the spread and are actually used to flare the birds toward us. These rituals are built on years of shared experiences and every piece of the puzzle has a reason for its being placed where it is serving a higher purpose.
We stash the camo’ed boats behind the blind and climb up the ladder into our hide. Covers are placed over the top to create shooting ports. Remi is sent to “his place” and takes a stand on the platform, head whirling from side to side as birds are passing in the dark in a parade of wings. There is still twenty minutes before legal. We sit down on the big bench made of a 2” slab of maple with bark still on the sides and pour ourselves another cup of coffee with maple syrup to sweeten it – the New England way. Slowly the last few minutes tick away and we are finishing our leisurely cup of joe. At 6:30 we stand for the last two minutes before legal shooting and as I stand up, I am smacked in the side of the face with something that takes my baseball cap right off of my head. “What the Heck!?” A squadron of low-flying teal has passed directly over the blind one of them tipping his rudder a bit too low and his port wing buffeted me in the cheek. “Holy cow! Did you see that John?! That little jet pilot just put the smack down on me!” John replies “This is war! Let’s see if we can shoot our way out of this mess!”
The next soiree’ of jet fighters comes in low and from the right, sweeping over our spread at Mach 2. Without time to speak, we both raise our guns and quickly swing through the flock leading our birds by several feet. The guns bark simultaneously and two birds fall in the blocks, one belly up and kicking wildly, the other stone dead. Remi leaps off of the ramp and hits the water at a full gallop. He marks both birds and retrieves them with a methodical style representative of his wisdom gained through the last eight years of hunting. Both birds are delivered to hand and he is offered a sugar coated warm cider donut as a reward. Remi looks at the offering, quickly consumes it and goes back to his stand as if to say “thanks, but this is my job.”
As we congratulate each other on a good shot, John smiles at the dog work. It is a known fact that when birds see humans congratulating each other that they are not paying attention to their surroundings and they know that they can safely, slowly fly overhead and let out a belly-rolling “QWAAAAK!” and be in no danger. And so it goes with this chapter. John and I are snapped back into the present by the derision leveled on our egos from the big greenhead. We reach for our guns and laugh, realizing that the wily old greenhead has bested us again.
We settle in to non-stop duck-seeking mode. Our eyes scan the horizons in a full panorama of possibilities. After five minutes of this intense focus on making birds appear, John breaks the silence with a gradually growing grin. I ask “What?” He looks down at the two greenwings on the bench. One is banded. He speaks with his best sarcastic tone “Well, I’ll be! My bird’s got a band.” I know I’m being baited. As I’m trying to think of a smart reply, I see movement behind his head.
Coming through the trees is a lone drake woodie. Before I can speak a word I shoulder my gun, lead the handsomely crowned drake from right to left over the spread and drop him as if I’d done this shot every day for the last year. The beautifully plumed bird drops into the decoys and goes belly up. I immediately notice the silver band on his leg and reply to John, “Well there’s no question who shot that one.” I grin from ear to ear. “You’re up” I calmly retort. John chuckles “well done Carleton!”
A strong breeze whips over the golden arches of swamp maples and blows a fresh cover of wafting leaves into the pool. At the far end of the swamp, a gun is fired and a flock of big birds lifts from the tree line. They are bee-lining their way down the distant stream and then, in a group decision, execute a sharp right hand turn into our channel. They are low and fleeing from the danger. Right at us. Dead on incoming. We hunch down behind the front wall of our fortress of cattails. Without speaking, we both rise at the same moment. Our guns trace the rising mallards. John shoots twice as do I. Three birds drop into the high grass behind us and one, a drake, helicopters hopelessly toward us. Before I can speak, I gently nudge John toward the far side of the blind. He is busy marking his birds and turns to me and looks at me like I’m being rude, when suddenly the mallard drops to the floor right where he had been standing. “Sorry about that. I hope you understand why I pushed you aside.” I pick up the bird and place it on the bench. John is busy giving hand signals to Remi to his furthest bird. Remi takes the directions as if he was being given GPS coordinates and locates the downed mallard at the exact spot that his boss told him to seek it out. He retrieves the drake to hand, delivering it stylishly and with a proud half grin on his canine mug.
Over the next hour, we manage to squeak out a limit apiece of blacks, mallards and teal, and one stunning late-migrating drake bluewing taken on a straight up shot, similar to the one we practice on at the club known as the “springing teal.” He had been peeping in the tall grass behind the blind all morning but never got up when we shot, apparently too busy feeding to recognize that the loud guns of autumn were just past his immediate scope of vision. John shot him at a moment when I was trying to “look some ducks in” from the bay’s narrow mouth at the end of the swamp.
For those of you who are not aware of the “looking in some ducks” technique you may want to experiment with it. It’s really quite simple. I stole it from my favorite author, Gordon McQuarrie, who explains that it is the art of staring a hole on the horizon until birds occupy that space and then luring them in through sheer will power. At least that’s the ritual we use when all else fails.
We pick up the decoys, noticing the slight stinging sensation of cold water on our ungloved hands. It’s something like mild sado-masochism that emphasizes the disparity between the comforts of a civilized lifestyle and the ruggedness of the true outdoors.
We bag the decoys by species, saving a special “early season bag” for the woodies and teal. Mallards in their own bag and blacks in the custom floating bag. Spinners in their allotted spot under the gunwhales of the boats and loaded bags on the bow, strapped down with bungee cords scavenged from roadsides around the county. I’ve been known to slam on my brakes without any warning and skid into the shoulder of any road to pick up an errant bungee cord sprung loose from some unwitting traveler.
Riding across the bay, side by side in our sneakboats, the sun glinting off of the rippling water and throwing sparkling white spray out from beneath the hulls, I feel a deep sense of belonging to this fraternity of watermen. My deepest inner Paleolithic energy is engaged. I am the earth, the water, the sky. I am the hunter I was meant to be. I light a pipe, sheltering the fire from my lighter by turning my back from the breeze stinging my face. It’s a ritual, much like many of the things I prize in life.
Bradley Carleton is the founder of and Executive Director of www.sacredhunter.org , a non-profit organization devoted to exploring the spiritual connection of man to nature through hunting, fishing and foraging. Sacred Hunter is also the fund-raising arm of Traditions Outdoor Mentoring.org, www.traditionsoutdoormetnoring.org, which teaches at-risk youth respect and empathy through bi-monthly hunting and fishing expeditions.