The south wind blows and the ridge pole of the rustic one room camp creaks above our heads. We are on the shores of mid-Lake Champlain. With the window slightly cracked we can hear the waves lapping against the rocky shoreline. Beyond the polished stones lies the bay, the outline of the islands with the Adirondacks looming in the dark background. Inside the cabin, a Vermont Castings Vigilant woodstove burns the last of the spirits of the beech that had fallen outside the west window last winter. Blue-green and orange flames tongue the remaining log, digesting its pulp in a flurry of whistling air. I am sitting in the old Kennedy rocking chair sipping my lapsang souchong tea that reminds me of a childhood spent longing for moments like these. We are winding down after a dinner of roast duck, acorn squash and late-picked green beans from the garden. An empty bottle of hearty merlot stands on the table in the center of the dining area, a testament to a stroke of culinary genius. We revel in the silence of the crackling fire and the wind whistling around the old green door with a crack winnowing down the center. Tomorrow is the Opening Day of the second half of Duck Season on the lake.
The dishes are done and I am showered and ready for the rack. In the corner of the room is my bunk, made of crude 2x4’s and plywood, with a mattress and an old Hudson’s Bay six pelt blanket, doubled over and neatly tucked into the slats beside the weathered hemlock paneling. The small oil lamp glows yellow in the corner over the dining room table, casting an arc of warm light on the ceiling. “I’m gonna’ hit the sack. Three AM comes early ya’ know” I declare. Within minutes I am in the astral channel of unconsciousness and bliss.
The old Big Ben alarm clock rings loudly, interrupting my dreams of mallards flying perilously close to my blind. It is rude, but effective. There is no drifting back to sleep after the ear-shattering ring of Big Ben. I roll over, groaning, as my feet hit the cold plywood floor. I shuffle quickly over to the woodstove and throw another log on the searing embers. It quickly catches and within minutes the cast iron stove is radiating new warmth to the cabin.
Breakfast is underway and the smell of cob-smoked bacon permeates the room. Steel cut oatmeal is bubbling away on the back burner of the old gas stove. French roast coffee is popping in the tin percolator. We fill our bellies with the best breakfast of the year and pull on our camo gear.
We’re going light this year. The water is at an all-time low and the swamps won’t allow for full-size boats. So we opt for the canoe. The walk is a short one – maybe 100 yards. The south wind has switched around to the north and the sky has cleared into a starlit pre-dawn.
In the shadow of a waning crescent moon we pull the antique cedar planked Mansfield canoe up into the weeds of the swamp. The wild rice stalks rise seven feet above us as we step into the primordial ooze. The vapors of decaying vegetation assault our noses with their putrid fragrance. Only a duck hunter can love these smells. We set out the hand carved cork deceivers in the middle of the channel that is choked with smartweed and sago. The decoys bob gently in the breeze, spinning from side to side as if they were real birds searching for seeds. We trudge back to the canoe and drape the tall sedge grasses over the gunwhales. Then we retreat into the pucker brush and saplings of the shoreline 20 yards away. Behind us, to the east the sky begins to brighten in dark purple and greens and the moon shadows fade over the slough in front of us.
Whistling wings can be heard constantly. Finally a loud “qwaaaack!”breaks the silence of the dawn and the south end of the swamp erupts in a flurry of beating wings. The swamp comes alive and we are surrounded by the sounds of air being flushed over the powerful pinions of duck wings.
Greenwing teal buzz the decoy spread. Big winged mallards vocalize their intent with raspy guttural calls. The whining “wooo-eeek” of wood ducks whistles throughout the riparian haven. I check my watch. 6:48 am. Two more minutes until legal shooting.
Birds are dive-bombing into the decoy spread and swimming around trying to determine why all these other ducks are not talking to them. Seconds later, they realize that they have been duped by the handsome cork imposters and depart with a loud squeal of disdain. The last two minutes feel like an hour. Finally a distant shot from far to the south alerts us that it is time.
We stand up behind our wall of grass and look down both sides of the channel. I whisper excitedly, “Incoming triple at 2:00” as three birds approach the spread. I give one raspy grunt on my drake whistle and the early migrators suddenly lock their wings and drop their feet, swinging from side to side as if they were small fighter jets looking for a landing on an aircraft carrier. At the same time we whisper to one another “mallards.” The two drakes and a hen begin to backpeddle, beating their strong wings in a forward motion and slowing them down directly over the center of the decoy spread. As their feet reach out to touch the water’s surface, I call the shot.
We rise in unison and our guns bark out their deep percussive tone. Two large drake mallards lay belly up in the water. Simultaneously, we notice that on the legs of both birds there are affixed two shiny aluminum bracelets. These are trophy birds. Ones that have been caught and banded by biologists. Ones that will have a history of where they were born, where they have migrated and where they have come to meet their final destiny.
We retrieve them with alacrity and once back in the blind, we admire the extraordinary iridescent sheen on their green heads, the perfectly symmetrical herringbone pattern of their flanks and their magnificent auburn breast peppered with white stars. The wing speculum is as if an artist had painted the perfect shade of deep blue on a bar and then outlined it in white. These are spirit birds. We drink in their beauty and praise their grace. These birds will be served to our families on the coldest, darkest nights of the winter, where we will regale our guests with the story of how they came to our prayers. As we revel in their beauty, we become aware that more birds are looking over the spread.
This time it’s a swarm of greenwing teal, late on their migration. Before either of us can speak, our guns are shouldered and we are swinging quickly through the flock from left to right. Our shotguns speak and 3 birds are down at the edge of the channel. I volunteer to take the short walk over to retrieve the birds and offer to you the lookout over the set-up. As I bend over to pick up the first of the teal, a handsome full plumage drake, I hear your gun bark yet again. Then your shout “Heads up!” I look skyward and helicoptering down from the heavens is a drake wood duck. It lands with a thud at my feet. “Holy Cow! Next time just tell me to hold out my hand so I don’t have to bend over again, OK?” I laughingly shout back.
I now have 4 birds in my hand and my Benelli is cradled in my right arm as I begin to cut my way back through the sedges.
Suddenly, one foot drops into a morass of mud. Water splashes up into my face. I drop the ducks and slowly tip forward swinging my gun in front of me so that the barrel is crossways to my quickly declining torso. I land on the gun, which distributes the weight of my considerable frame and keeps me from sinking deeper. I have found the only beaver hole in the entire north end of the marsh and managed to plunge into it up to my waist. I issue an appropriately placed expletive, as you hold your stomach and fold over, laughing at my predicament. I want to pound you but begin to laugh instead. Soon we are both guffawing and gasping for our next breath. I extricate myself from the blessed hole and pull myself to my feet, groaning, struggling and laughing at the same time.
When I arrive back at the blind, you are pointing at my face, near my chin, where I have detected a strange feeling, akin to one of those small suction cups used on children’s arrows when they are learning to shoot a bow. I set the birds down, lean my gun against my bag and reach for my chin, where I feel a strange, slimy, wriggling entity clinging for its life to my jowls. I pinch it and pull. With a popping sound I pull a leech off of my face and let loose another well deserved expletive. Again, you are laughing like a hyena, so I toss the creature at you. More expletives. Then more laughter. These are the shenanigans that bond duck hunters. We are re-living our youth in the eternal marsh of our dreams.
It takes several minutes to recover our senses and gradually let loose of the grinning idiocy of our unabashed childishness. We are young again, when suddenly we are jerked back into our intention by the low grunting of more mallards. This time a black duck is following a pack of greenheads and susies. They flare hard at the two fools laughing in the blind and clamor for altitude. I swing up and over the black duck as he rises and miss with my first shot. I quickly add more lead and drop him on the follow up shot. You have, once again, showed restraint, and chosen to pass on a hen. We high-five one another and, and once again, I am off retrieving at your command “Back!” “It’s non-stop comedy out here today!” I reply.
While I am picking up the black, you begin calling furiously. I crunch up into a ball in the weeds and turn my head over my shoulder to watch as you level your gun on two decoying mallards. Both birds drop just shy of the head of the spread, perfect clean kill shots. You shout to me “As long as you’re out there, would you mind?” and give me an “over” hand signal. If you weren’t my friend, I’d be sure to direct you right into that beaver hole on the way out. I retrieve your ducks and climb wearily back into the blind. “I am beat!” I proclaim. “Let’s head back for some lunch and we can finish the bag later this afternoon.”
You agree and we pack up the tools of our trade in the backwards order that we will set them out later. I offer to carry the decoy bag back across the boggy surface to shore, being careful of the placement of my feet. A subtle side step goes unnoticed. I hear the splash behind me and grin. “Watch out for that hole” I say calmly, turning around and offering a hand up. A final expletive is ushered from my friend’s lips. Such is the life of duck hunters, ever the pranksters, ever the child who refuses to grow up, ever the bon vivant.