There are lots of species of ducks. When I was only 11 or 12 years old I knew all of them, because I had a little booklet that the Department of Interior had put out for duck hunters. Dad bought me my Missouri guides license that summer and my very first duck stamp. I don’t know which one I was prouder of. He watched while I signed the duck stamp, the way a grade-schooler would, with my tongue stuck out the corner of my mouth. That signature had to be just right.
Dad and Grandpa taught me well how to hunt ducks, and that little booklet, which I still have, taught me what they were. Some of them I have never seen in fifty some years of duck hunting, like tree ducks and old squaws and scoters. But in more than fifty duck stamps accumulated year after year there is a picture of all of them on a stamp somewhere from the past. What a treasure those years of duck stamps are.
Mostly we hunted ducks on the Big Piney River from a wooden johnboat hidden by a blind on the bow. Of course when I went off to college I began hunting over decoys and that is something that gets in your blood. When you use a duck call and decoys to bring big greenhead mallards into range on cupped wings, something happens you never forget, and just cannot live without. When fall leaves are gone and spitting snow drifts down, surely the falling temperatures will bring wild ducks to the Ozarks from the north country. You watch that sight a few times and you get hooked.
But of course there is another way to hunt ducks, and I feel ashamed to admit I do it on occasion. I do not know why, because it is just another way to put ducks in the freezer. Ducks in the freezer is the end that justifies the means. Jump shooting on small lakes and ponds is duck hunting too.
A friend told me where some ducks were recently, and I knew that pond well. Lightnin’ Bolt, my chocolate Labrador was sound asleep in front of the fireplace when I pulled on a pair of hip boots and pulled my old shotgun off the rack. The shotgun is old, a Smith and Wesson twelve-gauge the company gave me when I was only about 25. They hoped I would write about the gun and what a great hunting gun it was for duck hunters. I was writing waterfowl articles for Outdoor Life and Gun Dog magazine back then and they got their wish.
It was pictured in a photo beside a duck blind in the pages of Gun Dog, and it prompted a reader to be skeptical. He said the gun was too good for a duck hunter to use, and he suspected the photo was set up. It wasn’t. That beautiful shotgun dropped many a mallard, plenty of pintails, tons of teal and a wagonful of wood ducks. But it looks pretty sorry now, scarred and scratched by a million days in the marsh and on the river, and those times, climbing up over pond-banks.
They were there all right, a pond-full of gadwalls. Some other time I will have to tell you all about ducks and how each species is different, and yet alike. Gadwalls are much like mallards. Fresh from the grill you can hardly tell the meat apart, but the gadwall is about 20 percent smaller. The drakes are a beautiful duck even though there is less color.
Grandpa Dablemont and his double barrel, and my dad with his ’97 Winchester pump, were two of the best wingshots I ever saw, but I will guarantee you that either of them would have lined up a pair of those ducks on the water for their first shot. The reason for that was meat on the table. You hunted ducks, grandpa told me, so that you could eat ducks, and if you didn’t make the most of your opportunity you might have to eat oatmeal for supper now and then.
Since I hated oatmeal, I’ve shot my share of sitting ducks. But not this day. I am using this type of hunting to teach Bolt. He’s not that old, and he is learning well, but he has a lot more to learn. As I stand up and survey the pond, the flock of maybe twenty gadwalls comes straight up off the water. I select a nice drake and fold him up over the water. Behind him ten yards, another drake is in the shot pattern, and he drops too. The flock turns into the wind, and I hurry my shot and miss. Then I realize my mistake and I pick out a nice big drake and lead him just right. He falls out into the weedy field. Bolt is in seventh heaven. He charges into the pond to retrieve the first drake, which is stone dead. We circle the pond to find the second one and it takes awhile. But my Labrador’s nose is really good, and he finds it. Out into the field we go and I can’t find that last duck. Bolt circles downwind and catches the scent. You can see how excited he is to find that last duck, which is down in the weeds, dead. He charges it; pounces on it like a fox on a mouse.
The sun is now dropping low and I figure there has to be ducks on a bigger pond, a mile away, hidden in a wooded valley. It’s a good walk and when we peer up over the steep bank my jaw drops. Canada Geese, about thirty of them, are standing on the far end of the bank, and they have seen me. It is hopeless. They are easily 100 yards away. I drop down behind the bank cussing our luck.
But our luck couldn’t have been better. The geese began to honk as if something else spooked them and in a crescendo of honking there was a roar of wings across the pond. I looked up to see them sweeping over me at perfect range. I picked out one and he came crashing down in a briar patch as my shot centered his neck and head. I swing to my right and with a second shot I lead a big Canada just not quite enough. He is hit in the body and struggles to stay aflight. My third shot is the right lead and he falls through the timber, dead.
Bolt is in the briar patch trying his best to get that first goose out, and he can only drag it out by the neck, it is so heavy. These are the giant Canada subspecies, one may be the biggest goose the old Smith and Wesson has ever brought down, weighing a few ounces over 13 pounds. It was a great day, and my young retriever did great, just like his father and grandfathers I owned and hunted with years and years ago. It is amazing how close you can get to a dog. Through Bolt I relive memories of old Rambunctious, Brown-eyed Beau and Lad.
It was a job getting those two geese and three ducks back to my pick-up but worth the effort. One of the geese will be smoked in a week or so with a wild turkey from last fall. The other, with the ducks, was skinned, with the breasts cut crosswise into steaks. Those steaks, wrapped in bacon and grilled on a spit with green peppers and onions and Cavender’s Arkansas seasoning, will make several dinners fit for a king. As the sun dropped to the horizon that evening, I felt like one.
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