Hope for the Hopeless

Most of the hunts we remember from one season to the next involve hot-barrel shooting and heavy game straps. Memories of these special days carry us through the dragging heat of summer. They remind us that as improbable as it may seem when the thermometer is stuck in the 90s, cold fronts will again sweep down from the north, bringing with them hungry birds and new hunting adventures. But as memorable as quick-limit hunts might be, every season also brings days that stick with us for reasons that have little to do with the number of greenheads on the game strap.

Such was the case with one of my hunts last season. Although my Arkansas rice field had been frozen for several days, my friend and former hunting partner Jason Thompson decided to drive up from Alabama to hunt with me over the last weekend of the duck season. A warming trend offered a sliver of hope, but even if the hunt was a complete bust, I knew we would enjoy catching up on each other’s lives.

The persistent ice claimed Saturday’s hunt. About 500 pintails and a smattering of mallards, wigeon, and teal flushed off the ice when we arrived at noon, but there was no open water to hunt. And even though we hurriedly stomped out a hole, the returning pintails began landing on the ice in the middle of the field. A couple of nice flocks strafed Jason in the mummy blind but ultimately landed with the others.

Watching from the levee road, I decided our best hope was to stomp out a much bigger hole for the next morning’s hunt. I created an opening 25 yards wide by 15 yards deep right beside the levee road, where we could hide in some tall reeds between the road and an irrigation canal. Given the birds’ fondness for landing on the ice in the middle of the field, I held out little hope that Jason would fire a shot the next morning, but at least we’d be able to sit together and visit.

The next morning, conditions seemed even worse. Warmer overnight temperatures had created dense fog over the frozen fields. We jammed a couple of dozen pintail decoys in one end of the open hole and scattered a few mallards along the far edge. The chances of a duck even seeing the decoys seemed remote, and I expected to close the season with a disappointing goose egg.

The air was completely still, and we could hear birds circling the middle of the field and landing on the ice. Game over, I thought. But then a flash of movement above the decoys caught my eye, and I watched an elegant late-season sprig materialize out of the dense fog and hang suspended for an instant just 10 yards over the open hole. Jason dropped the bird at the edge of the hole, and a few moments later, another pintail drake ghosted out of the heavy fog and presented me with a similar but even closer shot.

As the morning wore on, the fog persisted, but a few birds continued to spot our decoys. By noon, Jason had doubled on a flock of greenwings and had added a greenhead and a handsome full-plumage shoveler to his game strap. And I ended the season with a sprig, a greenhead, a wigeon drake, two greenwings, and a blue goose—a nice mixed bag, but not the limit of greenheads most hunters hope for on the season’s last day.

So why does this foggy morning stand out in my mind? In part, because we had so little hope for success going into the hunt, each bird that found our decoy spread seemed an unexpected, season-ending gift. But the hunt was equally remarkable because of the surreal image of those graceful pintails materializing from the fog just a few yards away—a sight I won’t soon forget. Nor will Jason, I suspect, as he has sent his pintail drake, the two greenwing drakes, the shoveler, and the greenhead off to the taxidermist for a dead mount to commemorate the hunt. One of the great things about waterfowling is that sometimes when we convince ourselves the odds are overwhelmingly against us, the birds will prove us wrong.

So, here’s wishing that the birds bring you and your hunting partners much hope on hopeless days, and that this coming season will offer many memorable hunts. In the meantime, I’d like to hear about your favorite hunt from last season. Which one stands out, and what makes it memorable for you?

–Tom

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Smile When You Call

For most duck and goose hunters, calling is at the heart of the waterfowling experience. In skilled hands, a call adds a powerful dimension to a hunter’s setup—sound. The right sounds at the right time can erase the birds’ innate suspicion and truly convince them that a decoy spread is nature rather than an artful imitation.

Duck and goose calls, by Bill BuckleyFrom the human perspective, consider the difference between watching an old silent movie and a modern film. Dialogue and sound pull the viewer into the story and help make the experience seem real. By contrast, a silent movie appears one-dimensional—a shadow of reality, decoys without calling.

Few moments in waterfowling are as rewarding as when a perfectly timed comeback call “flips” a greenhead on the downwind edge of the decoys, compelling him to cup his wings, utterly convinced, and plummet toward the spread. The sight alone is sure to bring a smile to a caller’s face long before anyone clicks off a safety and rises to shoot.

My own calling career—actually, it’s been more of a journey of noisy mediocrity—began with such a smile. My father, cut from the same cloth as scores of other Americans now referred to as the Greatest Generation, returned from Europe with two purple hearts, a bronze star, and wounds that would not allow him to enjoy a game of catch with his sons. But, thankfully, he found that he could still swing a shotgun, and he resumed his passion for wingshooting and eventually shared it with his boys.

One sunny November afternoon when I was nine or maybe 10, we took our boat blind up the winding tidal creek behind our house. Dad put out seven black duck decoys, raised the grassed panels of the blind, and settled in to enjoy the afternoon. He took out his duck call—a wooden metal-reed from Herter’s—and blew a few five-note calls on the pretense of prospecting for any birds that might be sitting up the creek. Mostly, I sensed, he was hoping that I would develop a greater curiosity about calling, as unlike baseball or football, duck hunting was something we could share as father and son.

It was a quiet, calm afternoon, and soon after Dad lowered his call, we could faintly hear a drake calling. The bird was on the water but around several bends in the creek. Dad called again—a lonesome hen series and then a little chuckle. The drake responded. Its calling was slightly clearer now, and louder still following a few more lonesome hen calls. After 15 minutes of this, a black duck drake swam around the corner and pulled up, cautiously eyeing our decoys. Dad called softly, and the black duck steamed ahead again. As the drake swam into shooting range, a huge smile spread across my father’s face, and I could tell that what he had just done—calling a swimming black duck into the decoys—was something he considered an accomplishment, a true test of waterfowling skills and one that he had passed while his son looked on in wide-eyed amazement. Before I even jumped the black duck and shot it, I was committed to learning how to blow a duck call. More than anything, I wanted to know the unconstrained feeling of achievement that I could read on my father’s face.

Since that November afternoon so long ago, I’ve smiled a few times while calling ducks, and I’ve had the greater pleasure of seeing my son do the same. Along the way, I have bought, tuned, and tossed aside many more duck and goose calls than I could carry on a dozen lanyards. As technology has improved the range and realism of waterfowl calls over the years, I’ve tried to grow as a caller. As a result, I probably switch out calls on my lanyard more often than I should. But here on the verge of my 44th year of waterfowl hunting, these are the calls I’ll carry on my lanyard this season: a Haydel’s VTM 90 double reed tuned loud and raspy for marsh hunting, or for rice fields on blustery days; an Echo polycarbonate Timber double reed, a new addition that suits my calling style well and seems quite versatile; a Zink PH-2 double reed that’s smooth as honey; and another Zink PH-2 that’s tuned a little raspier. The other two loops on my lanyard are reserved for goose calls: an acrylic Sean Mann whitefront call and a new Zink Power Spec when I’m hunting the Arkansas rice fields. I’ll switch one of these out with my Zink Paralyzer SR-1 when I’m hunting Canada geese in Virginia.

How about you? Which calls have earned their way onto your lanyard?

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It’s in the Bag

A blind bag can tell you a lot about a duck hunter. A giant bag stuffed with food, clothes, extra calls, a foot-long Maglite, a weather radio, and other assorted devices likely resides in a permanent blind, a boat, or one of those basement-size pit blinds. By contrast, a blind bag that seems hardly big enough to hold a handful of shotshells and a couple of cheese crackers probably belongs to a hunter who slogs deep into the flooded timber or hides within the cocoon-like confines of a laydown blind. No matter how much fun it is to accumulate the stuff you need to handle all the “what ifs” of waterfowling, circumstances usually dictate how much of it you can actually take with you on a duck hunt.

When I first moved to Memphis and started hunting out of rice field pits, I carried a full-size, bursting-at-the-seams blind bag that housed the following:

  • neoprene gloves—for making my hands feel colder while picking up decoys
  • a facemask—dutifully worn and despised; I’ve always been a hat guy
  • a box of duck loads—which translated to 12 shells, since half of every box ended up in the wriggling primordial ooze in the bottom of the pit
  • a box of never-opened goose loads—you never know when you might be overtaken by the white tornado
  • a game strap—for me, the ultimate symbol of hope
  • half a box of raspberry breakfast bars—the filet mignon of duck blind foods
  • a 3-cell aluminum flashlight—to ward off pit mates who attempted to steal my breakfast bars
  • a dozen or so backup duck calls—each tuned for hunting slightly different weather conditions
  • sunglasses—never used due to the goofiness of wearing shades with a camo facemask
  • a small first-aid kit—to mend gushing wounds resulting from full-on wars with the pit’s flip-top
  • a knife—to extricate my clothing whenever I was defeated by the flip-top
  • a camera—a useful magnet for dust and other debris that found its way inside the blind bag
  • a weather radio—for listening to the ravages of winter weather in faraway places and inducing delusions of snowstorms and full limits
  • two or three choke tubes—in case the birds and I differed in our interpretation of “over the decoys”
  • a few chemical handwarmers and a pair of Arctic-weight insulated gloves—you never know when a polar front might unexpectedly descend on you

After a season or two of hauling all this stuff around, I downsized to an Avery Guide bag, a midsize man purse capable of holding, surprisingly, most of the items on the list above. I had to toss out the camera and the weather radio, but all the rest could be wheedled and cajoled into the Guide bag—even though the fit was so tight that retrieving any one item meant emptying all the contents onto the pit’s foot-wide bench seat.

Eventually, my things fell off the bench and into the ooze for the last time, and I vowed to lay off hunting ducks from a pit blind for a while. Now I hunt rice fields from the supine comfort of a mummy blind—a Drake Stake-Out blind to be exact. If you’ve never tried this type of hunting, it may be difficult to imagine how exciting it can be, or how confining. Very little room remains after you have slithered into the blind. Clearly, the Guide bag was a luxury I could no longer afford. To remove an item from the bag, I had to release the blind’s tops, sit up, put the bag on top of the coffin blind, get what I needed, and then find a way to squeeze the bag back inside with me. Simply getting my hands on a breakfast bar burned more calories than the beloved snack offered.

Obviously, I needed a smaller bag, so now I’ve switched to an Avery Power Hunter bag, a miniscule satchel designed for ground blind hunters. Here’s what’s inside:

  • a box of duck loads (I keep six goose loads in the bag’s shell loops)
  • neoprene decoy gloves
  • midweight insulated gloves (only when it’s cold)
  • © Avery Photos
    Click image to enlarge
    Avery's Power Hunter Bag

  • a cap light
  • a laminated sunrise/sunset chart
  • my hunting wallet with my licenses

It’s amazing what you can do without when circumstances demand it. I abandoned the hateful facemask and now paint up instead. I switched to a cap light for setting up, so I leave my big flashlight/food protector in the pickup. Ever the optimist, I still carry my game strap, but now I clip it to a D-ring on my tiny blind bag. I stick with the four duck and two speck calls on my lanyard and make do without the bagful of backups. And the modified choke tube in my Benelli gets the job done just fine, so I rarely carry an extra tube. Everything else that once resided in my blind bag now stays in the truck or at the house. I don’t know if a simplified approach is truly better, but simpler sure is easier to haul around.

How about you? What kind of blind bag do you carry into the field and what things will you put inside it this duck season?

–Tom

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