Duck Hunting was a Weekend Pursuit When I Was a Boy
#hunting #duck hunting #pheasants #shotgun
Hunting ducks always comes to mind as the autumn season deepens. My dad was an avid hunter. He could not wait until my brother and I became old enough to accompany him on his weekend excursions into the South Dakota countryside to hunt ducks and pheasants. I remember going with him when I was too young to be trusted with a shotgun.
South Dakota farm country was dotted with stock ponds, small impoundments that farmers put on their land to secure a year round water supply for their livestock. The memory if the dust bowl days of the 1930’s was still fresh in mind, and creation of the stock ponds was one major conservation step toward warding off another extended drought and a return of the dust storm devastation that drove many from the land.
The ponds provided a stopover for the ducks and geese migrating down the central flyway of the continent. On a clear night in the middle of the fall with a moon above, I could see geese headed southward by the hundreds. They flew in perfect “V” formations several thousand feet over head. On a quiet night, I could hear their honking – Greater Canadians, snows, grays, all bound for warmer climes.
If mild weather prevailed for several days, the migrating fowl would rest up for several days on the ponds and rivers and feed in the surrounding fields. Corn had been harvested weeks earlier, but ears that the pickers missed could be found in abundance on the ground. Geese would take flight in the morning, head out to the fields, feed all day and then return to the water at dusk.
Ducks –mallard, teal, canvasback, redheads, pintails, buffelheads — also took to the air to feed and flew from one pond to the next in search of food. The ponds were usually rimmed by scrub undergrowth – wild plum, willow, and box elder. Hunters used the foliage as cover or to create a blind.
“Don’t move!” my dad would command. “Ducks see you move and it scares them off.”
“Can’t they hear us talking?” I asked.
“No. Ducks don’t hear very well.”
We hunkered down under the brush waiting for a distant flock to come into the decoys that my father had set out earlier in an open space on the water.
“Wait!” Dad would order in response to an eagerness of my part to stand up and shoot. “They’re too far. They’re out of range.” The effective range of a shotgun was probably 40 yards. Beyond that, the pattern of shot disperses so widely that only luck would bring down a bird in flight. The Remington 20 gauge that I carried across to our blind had the same range as my dad’s 12 gauge, but the cartridges were smaller and contained fewer pellets, or bee-bees.
If we were perfectly still, a flight of ducks would come into our decoys, and we would rise up, take aim, and shoot. We always took a position that put the wind at our backs. In that way, the ducks would come in against the wind which would slow their flight. As they glided toward decoys, they would flare their wings and extend the feet in preparation for landing. That was the precise moment for us to rise up and begin firing. Realistically, a good hunter might be able to get only two shots off before the flock dispersed, turned into the wind, and sped out of range.
Losing Balance . . .
If we had a dog with us, it would be dispatched to go out into the freezing water and retrieve the birds that had fallen. Without a dog, one of us needed to put on hip waders* and forge a way carefully through the reeds and other water plants to the open water and pickup our game. Losing balance while wading, of course, meant the hunting was over for the day.
If a wader sunk into a hole with a forward step, the wader needed to recover quickly. If one foot got hung up on a sunken object or in entangled in underwater growth, care had to be taken to maintain his balance and extricate the entangle foot. If the hunter lost balance and the tops of his waders dipped below the water line, icy water rushed over the waistband and flooded the boots to the belt..
If a hunter fell, he needed to get out of the cold morning air and dry off as quickly as possible. I fell just once. My father and I were hunting out of a boat on Lake Whitewood in north central South Dakota. It was a bright clear Saturday morning, but I lost my footing and flooded my hip waders. The water in the waders, of course, added to my weight as I struggled to get back into our boat.
“Just leave them on until we get back to shore,” Dad snapped, pulling on the starter cord to our Johnson Seahorse outboard motor. I was afraid that Dad would be disappointed, perhaps even angry with me. “We get you on shore and dry you off,” he said in comforting tones. “You’ll be good as new.” Then turning to the two hunters in the other boat that was with us, he yelled, “We’re going into shore. John fell and his waders are flooded.”
“How’d that happen,” one man asked – Jim Schaeffer, a college buddy of Dad’s who was a frequent companion on hunting and fishing trips.
“I stepped in a hole,” I responded.
Holes at the Bottom of the Lake . . .
“I didn’t think that there were any holes in the bottom of this lake,” Schaeffer shouted back. He had hunted on the lake many times. His statement was an implied indictment of my dexterity, of course, but the question led me to consider what had happened. Had I stepped in a hole? How did I lose my balance? No. There had been no hole. I surrendered to an impulse. I wanted to see what it would be like to fill my waders. l simply allowed myself to sit back as if I had lost my balance and feel how a real accident in the water would be.
Dad didn’t question me. It almost seemed as if he was enjoying caring for me. Slowly, my body heat warmed the water in the hip waders. It was not long before I felt quite comfortable.
“We don’t need to go in, Dad,” I said, “I feel fine. The water is warm now.”
“Right,” he replied, “for a little while that will be so. Then the air will get at the water. It will start to cool and the next thing you will experience is hypothermia. You will feel tired and want to rest. I know a man who decided to sit around in his water-logged waders for the very same reason you just said. They found him dead the following morning.”
We went back to our station wagon. I dumped the water out of the boots. Just as he had said, the water had begun to cool during the 15 minutes it took us to reach the car. I changed into dry underwear and blue jeans and we went back out to finish our day.
Sitting down in the icy waters of Lake Whitewood was not the last time that I would surrender to an impulse, abandon all good judgment, and as the saying goes, “just go with it.” Most of the times in my life when I allowed that to happen, I ended up deeply embarrassed, in the grips of regret and wishing that I had a chance to go back, and redeem myself in my own eyes. Alas, time affords few such opportunities, and my missteps and ill advised antics to this day take over my thoughts in the middle of the night. I roll from side to side trying to find some escape from my regrets. I welcome the day when it arrives. I don’t ever want to be a fool again, although wisdom tells me that I probably will be. Foolishness may give rise to wisdom, but it is the most painful course to follow. The wisest of men did not become so by being the greatest among fools. Just a dash of spontaneity now and then is enough the prompt a man to be more thoughtful.
* Researching this article, I could not find the waders that were in common use during the years that I was a boy. The waders we used then were held in place by suspenders attached to the boots that came up over the trousers like overalls but stopped at the waist line. They were closer to what are called chest waders currently, but they did not rise up as high on the torso.
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