A Boy’s Smile: Waterfowling Made Even Better
A passion for duck hunting is rekindled when the author takes his son jump-shooting for late-season ducks
I ALMOST QUIT duck hunting last season. It was a gradual slide that began with storing my decoys in a buddy’s barn while we were between houses. That fall, I bought my duck stamp and filled out my HIP survey with all the usual intentions. But then I skipped the Thanksgiving opener and most of December. Meanwhile, my decoys sat in that barn, in the rafters above a horse stall, gathering dust. And I’ll tell you, horses are dusty animals.
Ten years ago, if you’d told me this was coming, I’d have said you were crazy, because duck hunting is one of my favorites, just behind chasing spring gobblers and bowhunting whitetails. I’ve hunted ducks and geese in every flyway of the United States, three Canadian provinces, and twice in Argentina. Used to be if I hunted fewer than 30 days of our 60-day season, I thought I was half-assing it.
But 10 years ago, our boy, Anse, wasn’t around. He has the same compulsion to be in the woods that I do. He shot his first deer when he was 6 and his first gobbler the following spring. So, when it comes to waterfowl hunting, it’s a struggle for me to walk out the door to hunt by myself when he’s begging to go with me.
Why not take him duck hunting? Because I have no interest in sitting in a blind with a propane heater. Where I want to be is in my boat on a big river, waiting for snot to freeze while I look for ducks and scheme on places to hide. My wife, Michelle, who’s spent years in the boat hunting with me, knows the realities of hunting big water in the winter. For now, we’ve both agreed that he’s too young for that. I guess that’s why I hit the pause button on duck hunting, and I told myself I didn’t even really miss it.
Better Than Disney
On the day after Christmas last year, we drove to our hunting lease in central Texas. It’s become our annual winter vacation—cheaper than Disney and more sensible, too, since we’re not really a family fit for the Magic Kingdom. We’ve been on the lease for a few years, and most of the hunting done there, as you’d expect, is for deer and hogs out of shooting houses.
But this year, I decided to take a shotgun and waders, too. There are miles of wild country between the deer stands, including dozens of stock ponds, most of which are about an acre in size, with an earthen dam on one end and a shallow, muddy flat on the other. Locals call them tanks, and they’re built for watering livestock, but many of them are gin clear and full of milfoil, flooded cockleburs, and all sorts of tiny, slithering critters. It’s surprisingly ducky water in the middle of otherwise arid cattle country.
Where the ducks come from is a mystery. Unlike in the Dakotas or the Mississippi River drainage or the Canadian prairie, you rarely look at the central Texas sky and see migrating waterfowl trading back and forth. But in the winter, especially after a heavy rain, the birds simply show up—mallards, gadwalls, greenwings, pintails, and wigeon, loafing and preening their full plumage on virtually any depression deep enough to collect water. Most tanks will have at least a couple ducks sitting on them.
So after dropping Michelle off at a deer stand before daybreak, Anse and I took a walk. I carried my M2 20-gauge and two pockets full of HEVI-Metal Xtreme shotgun shells. We snuck around the low side of the first tank, below the dam to stay out of sight, and then we belly-crawled to the edge of it, where cattle had beaten a path to fine dirt.
“Peak over the top and see if you see any ducks,” I whispered to Anse. He stood slowly and then crouched back immediately, as if he were expecting enemy fire.
“Deeds, there are three greenhead mallards sitting right there!” he whispered.
“Well, then, stand up and scare the shit out of them for me, will you?”
Anse is pretty good at being quiet if he thinks it’s required for shooting something, but he would much rather cause a ruckus, especially with my blessing. He stood and yelled, “Get outta here, birds!” and a dozen mallards boiled off the tank at our feet. I shouldered the gun and dropped a greenhead with the first shot, missed the second, and then killed another drake with the final shell.
Both ducks were laying on the shallow flat, where the sound and smell of the muck could’ve been from Canada or the Dakotas, or a riverbank back home. “Look at how big they are,” Anse said, and I was struck by the colors, as I always am. Common as they are, not much in nature looks better than a big drake mallard.
We bagged a pair of gadwalls from the next tank, and two more from a puddle after that. Anse shot at a shoveler, but my shotgun was too long for him and kicked too much, he said, and besides, he was having a hell of a time crawling across cow pastures just to flush them. We stopped at my limit and called it a good morning, but before cleaning birds, we decided to scout a couple more tanks to hunt the next morning. One of them had 30 or 40 ducks sitting on it, just 20 yards from a giant cluster of willow bushes. We looked them over, and then quietly snuck back out of sight.
“You’re going to see something special in the morning,” I told Anse.
We dropped Michelle off at her deer stand early to give Anse and me enough time to toss out a couple old decoys I’d found in one of the landowner’s sheds and to cut out a place to hide in the willows. I sipped coffee as the sky lightened and wings whistled above us. Gadwalls and teal splashed at our feet where they chirped and quacked and whistled. “Look at all of them,” Anse whispered, knowing it was a time to be quiet.
“You just keep handing me shells, once the shooting starts,” I said.
I’d set an alarm on my phone to buzz in my pocket at legal light, anticipating this very situation. The ducks erupted into glorious chaos, circled the tank, and dropped back on top of us. I didn’t need my duck call but I used it, then let it fall around my neck at the last second to shoulder on cupped birds over decoys, the jingle of old bands cut off by shotgun blasts and the slap of birds hitting the water.
Duck hunting was just as I remembered it, except for the boy’s smile—a new thing that made it even better still.
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