Thursday, November 10, 2011

Duck Noob

I can string a few sentences together, but I'm probably never going to be on any Pulitzer watch list.  I know my way around a kitchen, but I'll never earn a Michelin star in Paris.  I'm an upland hunter of some ease now, after years of flailing and stumbling.  My fly casting no longer resembles spastic flailing either, but Flip Pallot and I won't be rubbing elbows anytime soon.  I do love to tie flies, but don't see them being featured in any of the trendy mags on the shelves these days.  I earned a badge and won a handful of ribbons and trophies for my marksmanship shooting open sight .22's as a kid.  Then I missed an entire deer with my rifle... more than once.

Jack of all trades, master of none.

I'd say that phrase fits me fairly well.  If I look inside honestly, I can say I'm pretty comfortable with it too.  Maybe "Jack of many trades" would be more fitting.  The minutia of the internal combustion engine remain a complete and utter mystery to me, and always will.

There are a multitude of outdoor pursuits I've yet to learn.  I've never hunted bear or elk.  I've never called in a bobcat, but I have been putting in for a permit, and am very much looking forward to trying.  I've never fished the salt or grabbed a catfish.  For everything I have tried, there is plenty yet to do. So it is was with some lighthearted, almost child-like glee and an open mind that I sidled up to duck hunting a few years ago.

As with many of these things, it's all Brian's fault.  He's an upland guy, through and through, who hunts ducks only casually when the doodles have headed south for the year.  He and I were called out as "dyed-in-the-wool woodcock men" by other pheasant hunters while stowing our gear and sharing war stories in a gravel turnout a couple weekends ago.  It felt good.  From our guns and dress to the muddy boots and bloody hands, we'd earned our title and position in the eyes of men who know.  Not that it put any more birds in our vests that day.

I was surprised then, when a few seasons ago, he suggested we try our hand at some wood ducks on a little creek we had permission to hunt.  It was early in the woodcock season, the leaves were still up, it was stiflingly hot, and the hunting had been particularly tough.  Not the fine and pleasant misery Pat Mcmanus so brilliantly introduced us to, mind you, the sweaty, chaffing, want to shower and sell my gun misery.

So we did it.  We stalked up on a beaver pond, scared up some ducks, and shot them.  Easy as falling in a stream.  What follows is a snippet of the post I made the following Monday on a close-knit outdoor forum I frequent.

We walked another hundred yards, then crouch walked/belly crawled as near to the bank as we dared.  He looked over at me from his belly, and whispered, "If it flies, it dies," and grinned.  We popped up and started banging away...I couldn't stop smiling.  

Sunday, there were no ducks when we arrived at the dam so we hunkered down in the grass and waited.  It didn't take more than a half hour to limit as they circled in singly and as doubles... I can't believe I'd never tried this until now.  What a true blast!  

I was plainly thrilled with our success, and flush with excitement over my new-found and seemingly simple brand of hunting.  Oh, the blatant naivety. 

My first woodie drake

And the beaver pond that began my new obsession

Since that fateful trip down the creek I have been humbled.  I have learned it is not always that easy.  Sure, ducks coming up off the water are a million times easier to hit than a woodcock whizzing through the thick stuff... if you can find them.  Not to mention long passing shots and ducks streaking in from behind you.  Yes, it is much easier to sit on a stool or in a kayak than it is to push through brambles until your legs seem to belong to to someone else.  It's also a much bigger test of patience.

I've modified Selma Kayak for both jump shooting and calling ducks from a blind since then -- built the blind out of PVC and camouflage burlap.  I've foregone the kayak paddle for a single bladed canoe paddle while hunting as it lowers my visibility.  I've left the seat in the truck to kneel in the footwells for easier shooting.  I've purchase calls and decoys, mimicked more experienced callers on Youtube.  I've pestered my buddy Adam, a much more experience duck hunter, with novice questions via text at all hours, and he has been more than generous in helping me.  I've shot some ducks, and missed many more, or failed to get near them in the first place.  All of which is to say, I still suck at this.

While that is sometimes frustrating and humbling, it's also refreshing.  It feels good to be challenged with something new.  It's not always in my nature to ask questions and lean on friends for support, but it is good to know they are there and willing to help.  Even if it is with something as mundane as, "what in the hell am I doing wrong now?"

And there's a sense of wonderment.  Maybe wonderment is too strong a word here.  They're ducks, not mermaids.  But the learning curve, the vaguely new sights and smells of it all, sitting in the cattails instead of tromping over them chasing a pheasant, the excitement of getting up well before you have to in order to chase grouse... all of it leads to a sense of renewed pleasure.  Of course I'd seen ducks flying around everywhere in the fall, but I'd never stopped to look at ducks before.  When I'd driven over streams and rivers in the past, I'd study the brush to see if it looked "birdy," that undefined feeling that woodcock might be hiding in there.  Now I look for ducks too, and often this time of year, they are there.  They were probably there the entire time.  I just wasn't looking for them.

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