“God damn it, shut up and stop looking at the sky!”
Obviously Craig takes his duck hunting seriously. After a few years of hunting together, Craig had convinced me to give duck hunting a try. “It’s fun. You shoot a lot and you always bring home birds” he said. I had been around duck hunters quite a bit over the years, but it never struck my fancy. Sitting in one spot waiting for birds to fly over just did not seem like my type of hunting. But once pheasant season ends in mid-December, there’s little to do aside from chasing pigs. And let’s face it, I haven’t been all that successful hunting pigs on public land in California. Few are.
Taking a chance, I decided to go out on a hunt with Craig and his son, Drew. It was a December morning, but not as cold as many of the December mornings, even for California. Because I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy duck hunt I had not invested in all the typical duck hunting gear. I was wearing my hunting jacket and a pair of fishing waders. I must have looked like a newbie to the rest of the hardcore crowd at the refuge check station.
Wait and Hurry Up
We arrive at the refuge check station at 3 AM, to wait to see if we would get in. In California all the duck refuges are on a lottery system. If you don’t make the lottery drawings you have to go to the Department of Fish and Wildlife office the night before to put in for another random drawing. This gives you a number. Lower numbers get in first. Only a certain number of people are allowed in at a time. As those people leave, new people are let in, in order of the number you drew. We are #116. Would we get in for shoot time at 6 AM? Finally, our number is drawn at 4:30.
We quickly scrambled to our trucks. I follow Craig for a couple of miles, in the darkness, through the refuge’s dirt roads. Craig has been duck hunting this refuge for 20 years. He knows exactly where he is going. As we get out of our trucks, Craig says “Get dressed and geared up as fast as you can. We’re hoofing it 2 miles.”. Because I am new to duck hunting I have nothing to carry except my gun. “Drew, get your shit together. Do you have your gun? Your ammo? Your license? What’s taking you so long? You’ve been doing this since you were three, for Christ’s sake!”. I can tell Craig means business. I’m also pretty sure that Catholics have a rule that allows them to take the Lord’s name in vain when duck hunting.
We load up the mud sled with the decoys, some blind materials (fake tules, camo burlap), our seats, decoys and guns. The sled now weighs about 50 pounds.
“We need to get out to the pond before anyone else does, so keep up.”
Craig says to me. “I’m ready, let’s go.”, I say with some trepidation. Next, Craig takes off at a brisk walk, nearly a jog. Drew follows behind him, dragging the sled. It’s still pitch black and there’s slippery mud everywhere. Within 200 yards my calves are burning. I silently question if I can keep up while wondering what the hell I got myself into. Craig tells Drew to run ahead of us to get to the spot so nobody else can take it. He then takes the sled and charges ahead. I can see their headlamps getting further away from me. A little panicky voice in my head keeps telling me to go faster or lose them in the dark, in the maze of refuge roads and trails I have never traveled before today.
I take a couple of short breaks to keep my legs from cramping up. My shins are burning now; these fishing waders were not intended for brisk hikes in slippery mud. After about 45 minutes, I see lights flashing in the middle of a pond. I am nearly there. But I have to cross this pond to get to them.
“How deep is this?”
I think to myself. I step into the water and immediately feel the chill of the water. These waders are not insulated. Fortunately I am hot enough from the fast hike to find it a bit soothing, especially on my burning calves and shins. I am also slightly relieved to find the water is only up to my waist. But each step is challenging. The field had been disced before it flooded, making deep trenches every few feet. It’s soft as well, causing me to sink 6″ with every step. I am carrying my gun and ammo, and not dressed to be wet. The last thing I want to do is fall into the water and ruin my hunt.
“Take these decoys and set them up over there.”
Craig says as I approach the island. He tosses two strings of a half a dozen decoys, landing in the water near me. It’s still pitch black and I can’t really see where he’s pointing. Craig shines the light in the general direction, and I head off that way, silently anticipating being able to finally sit down and wait for ducks. I need a break. And some coffee.
We scramble around for the next 15 minutes, setting up the decoys and the blind. Craig gives various orders to both Drew and I on how and where to set things up.
The glow of the sun is starting to peek above the horizon. It’s getting colder. By the time we finish setting up, we realize we only have about 15 minutes until shoot time. As we settle in to our seats we can already hear the sound of duck wings beating over our heads. The morning flight is just beginning, and we’re ready just in time.
First Light, First Flight
As the sky begins to glow, the anticipation sets in. Drew and I are bantering back and forth. Drew is 16 (at the time of the hunt), and one of the few people I know who laughs hysterically at my jokes. I like him. My eyes are scanning the sky for ducks.
“God damn it, shut up and stop looking at the sky”. Immediately I realize Craig is serious, but I have no idea why I need to stop looking at the sky. As a result, I ask him why and he and Drew explain that the ducks can see your face from a considerable distance and will turn away from the blind.
“It’s shoot time!” Drew exclaims.
Almost on queue, Craig tells us to get ready. Keeping my head as level with the horizon as I can, I look up to see ducks flying to our south. Craig and Drew blow their calls. “They are turning!” Drew whispers loudly. Suddenly, I see the ducks circle around us and start to drop from the sky. I slightly lift my gun, unsure of when to shoot. “GO!” asserts Craig, in a loud whisper. He and Drew stand and begin firing. Following their lead, I attempt to pick a duck from the flock. The birds are scattering. I fire. I fire again. Two birds fall. Did I hit anything?
Drew exclaims. “I got one too.” Craig says. I had not hit a bird. How could I miss? They were so close, and so many of them! Humbled, and a bit embarrassed, I head out into the water with Drew to fetch the two downed birds. Upon retrieving them, Craig explains that both ducks are widgeon, a tasty and fair-sized duck. “How can you tell what kind of bird you are shooting at?” I ask. Craig tells me it comes with experience. “Don’t shoot it if you don’t know what it is” he says. It makes a lot of sense to me, but it makes me wonder how many days I’ll be sitting by myself in a duck blind not shooting anything because I can’t identify the species while they are flying.
Over the next couple of hours, Craig and Drew each shoot 5 ducks. I have gone through nearly a full box of shells trying to hit a bird. My confidence, unlike the ducks I am targeting, is shot. “How far are you leading them?” Craig asks me. I tell him I am leading them by a bird’s length or so. He tells me to try shooting right in front of the duck’s bill, which seems short to me.
Craig soon lets us know to get ready once again. A large flock of widgeon are approaching, and they are flying fast and low. There’s no calling needed with these birds; they are flying directly in front of our blind. Out of the corner of my eye I see Drew and Craig stand, so I do so as well. I pick a duck near the front and take aim, paying more attention to my lead. We all fire and four birds drop. Two of them are mine!
Drew shouts. I had taken my first ducks. Shooting a double made me feel redeemed. Maybe I could do this duck hunting thing after all!
Finally, we ended the hunt with Craig and Drew each having a limit of 7 ducks and me having my pair. It was a long day, but fun, as Craig had promised. The roller coaster of emotions and energy throughout the day kept it interesting and made for a unique experience. Plus I had wild duck for the freezer!
As a reward for a long day of duck hunting, I was able to take turns dragging the sled back to the truck. Dragging 60lbs (now loaded with ducks) through the mud doesn’t seem difficult. For the first 100 yards.
Still Duck Hunting
That first duck hunt was nearly three seasons ago. Consequently, I have taken up duck hunting as a regular winter activity, and we almost always have duck in the freezer. I’m still new; I still have to work hard to get ducks. However, my skills are improving each season. I am getting better at duck identification and shooting ducks. Additionally, I have learned some basic ducks calls. I have also acquired pretty much all the gear I need to hunt ducks comfortably and on my own. It’s an excellent social activity; Craig and I hunt together frequently. However, I also enjoy those days solo in the blind, watching the sun rise and listening to the birds wake up.
In short, there’s nothing easy about duck hunting. From waking up at awful hours of the morning, sometimes sitting in extreme cold weather, hauling heavy gear for long distances. It’s work. Of course, the end result is getting to see many beautiful birds and even putting them in the freezer.
Soon I will discuss how to get ready and geared up for duck season. It’s just around the corner for many of us. Check your state regulations on duck hunting and get prepared. In the next related article I will give you some tips from some expert duck hunters to get started and to improve your skills!