Hunting ducks might be my favorite outdoor pursuit. I think it's because my father got me started when I was young. I could see he had a passion for it. To this day he remains the best shot I've seen. Sometimes he gets two or three ducks with as many shots from his Wingmaster.
I couldn't have been more than seven when he woke me up early one morning and took me to a small lake a few miles from home. He was animated and deliberate in his preparation, as if he suddenly was released from the cares of the world. His gun, shells, and assorted gear were in the car with Lady, our black Labrador.
We parked in the woods and walked a trail to the lake, where a boat with two gunny sacks of decoys stowed beneath it was waiting on shore. I stayed in the blind with the dog as he paddled out and placed decoys in a specific pattern on the water. After completing the task, he returned to the blind just as the eastern sky was beginning to turn orange.
It wasn't my day with the gun, however. I shot several times but didn't have a duck to show for it. Dad was on as usual. Twice he picked out a big greenhead in a flock and dropped it cleanly as the hens flew away.
"Now we hunt," he said.
Nothing much happened that morning but he never stopped looking for ducks. I laid down on the bench and closed my eyes. When I awoke it was lighter. Father still was looking front and back, searching the skies for ducks.
I shivered and asked how long it would be before the ducks would come. He chuckled and took me to shore.
"Do this," he said, and began to run in place. "It'll warm you up."
I half-heartedly began to jog in place.
"You know," he said, "I'd like to get some ducks before going home. Let's stay a little longer."
I didn't get any warmer but I saw father in a different way that morning. way from the work and worries of life, he was light-hearted. There was a distinct joy and excitement in his voice.
It was the first of many hunts together. Even after I reached adulthood and hunted with children of my own I still relied on him to make the most of our duck hunts.
The day came when I saw life was changing for both of us. Dad and I made a late October hunt on the lake where he hunted as a youngster. It was overcast and cold. Occasional rain drops sometimes turned to snow. We walked the trail through the woods and a meadow we knew so well. Along the way we crossed some ditches that were filled with water. We always had jumped those ditches. I made the jump, turned and saw that Dad didn't quite make it. He stepped back into the knee-deep water. I grabbed his hand and helped him out.
"It was nothing," he said. "Just a little wet." I sensed the dismay in his voice.
There weren't lots of ducks flying that day, but occasionally a flock of big, late-season mallards swept over the high grass meadow. It wasn't my day with the gun, however. I shot several times but didn't have a duck to show for it. Dad was on as usual. Twice he picked out a big greenhead in a flock and dropped it cleanly as the hens flew away.
Finally I hit one, but it set its wings and coasted far off into the meadow. As I ran towards the bird I yelled that I'd be right back. After several minutes of searching I started back. I could see Dad in the meadow, turning his head, searching the skies for ducks. A flock of mallards appeared to be coming our way. Dad crouched low and hid. The flock dipped and twisted as it prepared to land in the lake, then it turned and flew right over him. The old Wingmaster cracked twice and two drakes fell from the flock.
It took me several minutes to reach Dad. I had plenty of time to think of something smart to say about pure luck. But he was in no mood for laughter. The water from the ditch had soaked him pretty well and he was cold. Four beautifullyfeathered mallards lay at his feet as he shifted feet to warm himself.
"I think we better leave," he said.
"You know, I'd like to get a duck before we go home," I said. "You can just run in place like this and warm yourself."
I was just teasing and he knew that, but for a few moments we jogged in place.
Times had changed and they will again, but those days will never change in my mind.
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