Black Ducks at the End of the Earthby The Backcountry Journal on Feb 11, 2013 • 12:01 pm 2 Comments
If you hunt or fish the same places enough times, over the course of enough years, a script evolves. You go HERE. You do THIS. The animals do THAT. There’s nothing wrong with this script, and our knowledge of it gives us some success in the field. But our confidence can betray us – to be consistently successful outdoors, we have to learn. Yet, we resist.
I have an impossible duck hunting spot – the water’s too shallow for most boats, and usually too high for ATVs or trucks. It’s too high, I’ve learned, when saltwater steam puffs up from the battery terminals. If it sounds like too much trouble, it is, which is why no one hunts there. Including me. Until now.
I arrived after lunch, keeping pace with the tide prediction. It was wrong, and I knew it as soon as the salt spray hit me at the top of the cliff. I continued downhill, where I was greeted by a shoreline of rolling waves from 15-25kt wind that the marine forecast had missed. And so I waited. The wind died a half hour later and a dry swath of beach quickly appeared. Driving an ATV two miles down a sandbar to an island is not typical protocol, but it’s too far to walk with decoys. Too far to kayak, solo, in the January night.
As I eagerly set out my decoys – burlapped black ducks and buffleheads I’d chosen just for this hunt – I was flooded with forgotten feelings. Of new ideas, now old. No time to think. Decoy to line. Line to anchor. Current’s flowing east. Throw the anchor west. Splash. Upside down. Upright. Grab the next one. No time to think, but feelings of newness and challenge would not be denied. They were intoxicating and nerve wracking and wonderful, and I just somehow lost sight of them about five years ago. This is how I learned to hunt, and how I no longer hunt, because lazy repetition is easy. Innovation gets lost. And once I was lost and still somewhat successful, I just went with it, as we all tend to do.
Finally, around 4pm, hundreds of geese started coming out of the fields and piling into the creek. The ruckus infuriated the ducks on the open water, and they decided to move. I assumed they were headed south and upstream, to farms and farm ponds. Oh well. But they headed north instead – right towards my island. Black ducks. I couldn’t believe it. Three flocks split the island, ignoring my setup on the island’s widest point, and hugging the east and west shoreline, right off the water. After the third flock, I abandoned my well-engineered decoy spread, and pushed toward the ducks’ flight path instead. Daylight drew low.
I waited for several long minutes, conscious that the end of legal hunting time was twenty minutes away. Then ten. Then three. Suddenly, five black ducks rounded the point and put on the brakes to look at my decoys, now out of my range. They weren’t convinced, and followed the previous flocks over the eastern shoreline, where I now stood waiting in the reeds. I could feel my pulse rise in my neck as the ducks flew right at me – still looking at the decoys but not slowing their trip east. My breathing grew heavy and I shouldered the gun slowly and deliberately, taking one duck at about five yards. The bird’s wings went limp with my shot, and it fell on the shoreline beside me. With my legal limit of black ducks (one) filled, I frantically searched the sky and water for other ducks in the waning moments of legal shooting time. None came.
I collected my decoys and single black duck in the dark, overwhelmed by amazing, secret thoughts and images from my hunting past. Memories of hunts in snowy Appalachian rivers, New Jersey ice floes, and Virginia oyster beds in 70 degree weather. The smells and sounds of learning, of being alive. There’s something special about going as far as you can go and getting it done. There’s something special about trying on long odds and figuring out how they fit before you run out of daylight, duck seasons, and days on earth.
Author - Kirk Mantay has managed the outdoor blog River Mudfor five years. An avid outdoorsman who began fishing at 6, surfing at 13, and duck hunting at 17, Kirk works as a habitat restoration manager for a small nonprofit organization in Annapolis, Maryland. He currently spends most of his free time teaching his son Hank about the outdoors, and his perfect day would involve small wave surfing, big flounder fishing, and more than a few beachside margaritas with his wife, Amy.