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?



2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Jason Thompson said,

    What an awesome hunt we had that final weekend of the season, great memories. If you recall we also had a cool bird visit the decoys on that Saturday. I was in the stake out blind and a mallard x pintail hybrid lit between us. You had no shot at the bird because of my location, but it was really cool…I’m looking forward to another trip to visit, hopefully sooner than later!

    I need to check on that dead month from Shane…I can’t wait to add it to the library. Best of luck opening weekend! JT

  2. 2

    Mike Sottilare said,

    Your opening statement is all too true. My focus is not on how many birds I take, but the time I spend with the people I care about. On a side note, I am also from Alabama, but my destination every fall/winter is Missouri. I make the “pilgrimage” to visit my uncle (and aunt) every Thanksgiving, and when I can spare time during Christmas holidays. We hunt as much as possible during those times, and personally, the birds are never first priority. All I really care about is enjoying spending time with my uncle and the close friends we share. I can remember a few days of great shooting here and there, but to be honest, that’s just a bonus to the overall experience. Most of the better days I’ve had out in the blind have resulted in almost nothing in terms of birds harvested. Nothing beats just sitting in the blind, getting rained/snowed/sleeted on, almost freezing to death and having the time of your life joking around, talking to, and ragging on one another for missing the easiest shots in the world. While the end-of-season birds ARE a gift (I agree with you 100% there), they pale in comparison to the time I get to spend with people I care about. I’m glad that everything worked out for y’all in the end, and with any luck you and Jason will have many more memorable hunts well into the future. I just hope I’ll be fortunate enough to have the same opportunities.

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