It was a November river, brightly arrayed in the reds and yellows and orange of fallen leaves set adrift on the blue-gray water before us. But downstream, there were dapplings of green along the lower end of a wide eddy, the green heads of wild mallards… lots of them. The mallards were what we were after but in this case, my dad said the odds were against us.
I was shaking with excitement, only 11 years old, clutching that new used shotgun and anxious to shoot something that could fly faster than a squirrel could run through the branches. But it wouldn’t be those mallards. They were 200 yards away and between us and them was a rocky shallow shoal that our old wooden johnboat couldn’t float through without wading.
Sometimes it was like that, when it had been dry in the fall and the Piney was lower than usual. But Dad said sometimes a dry fall put more ducks on the river because the shallow marshes dried up and Ozark ponds were low, and froze over easily when it got below freezing for a night or two. Then the only good open water was the river, which seldom froze completely.
The problem we faced that November day was that in a big flock of ducks, there were too many eyes; old ducks with wary eyes, as Dad said on occasion. In our johnboat, with the bow covered with brush, limbs of sycamore and oak and willow, we could sneak up within shotgun range of wild ducks when there were only five or six or so, and we had water deep enough to float through without making any noise. But it was harder when there were 20 or 30. Then you had to really go slow and be sure they couldn’t see anything behind that blind.
A couple of weeks or so before, I had shot my first ducks when Dad slowly paddled our floating blind right up on some wood ducks sitting on a log. At just the perfect range he whispered for me to shoot and I did. I got the one I was shooting at and two others behind him. And in those days, the limit on wood ducks was one apiece.
My ambition was to shoot a duck flying, like Dad and Grandpa did often, but as I said, that memorable day many, many years ago, it seemed that we were looking downriver at ducks we could never get within range of. But then Dad had an idea… he backed the boat up a little and wedged it against a rock near the bank. He told me to just wait there on the front seat right behind the blind while he would sneak over to the bank and downstream through the timber where he could sneak up close to the flock and surprise them.
He’d likely get off a shot or two and the flock would take to flight upriver, right past where I was waiting. I would like to have gone with him, but his legs were long and mine were short and it was always hard for me to keep up. And so as I watched him disappear over the far bank clutching his Model 97 Winchester, I sunk down behind the blind disappointed and impatient, figuring I wouldn’t have much of a chance that morning.
I waited, watching a kingfisher pass by, and counting the leaves that floated past on the slow current of the river. And just as it seemed that I could wait no longer, I heard dad’s shotgun roar twice, well down the river. All at once, my senses were alive, and my heart beat faster as I saw the flash of wings downriver. They were flying upstream right at me. In only a few seconds they came to me, about 20 feet above the river, one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.
There were more than 20 mallards, red legs and green heads mingled among the drab brown hens. I had my hammer cocked on my single shot Iver Johnson 16 gauge and tried to look for just one duck as Dad had told me to. He was a big ol’ green headed drake, and too fast and too close, and though I didn’t completely understand shot patterns, I understood that my drake mallard only lifted a little and bore on upriver in unbroken flight. I had failed to lead that duck at all, and shot behind him.
But behind him, there was a pair of ducks that had to be the unluckiest ducks ever to leave the Canadian prairies. The two folded up at the blast of my little shogun and plunged into the river only about 25 yards away. One was a drake, and he was there fluttering upside down in a circle with his red legs kicking at the sky. The other was a hen, and she was still very alive, with only a broken wing. I quickly kicked out the empty shell and reloaded and when she was about 40 yards away, headed down river. I took careful aim and dispatched of her at the very limit to the little shotguns range.
Dad got back shortly afterward, carrying two mallard drakes, and we retrieved my ducks, then paused on a gravel bar to eat lunch. As we warmed baloney sandwiches on forked sticks over a warm fire, my dad carried on about how big my mallard drake was, how he didn’t reckon he had never seen a bigger one.
I don’t see how a kid could have been more happy, nor as lucky. It was a time and place when simple things were rewards of the highest value. I treasured the life of a boy who had the Piney River and the woods of its watershed for a playground, and a Dad and Grandfather who I longed to emulate.
I always hoped I would have a son who felt the same way and grandson’s who wanted to be just like Grandpa. But the Dablemont name ends with me, and the love of the outdoors will die with me. My descendants will never long for the sight of mallards lifting from leaf flecked eddies of the Big Piney. The river I knew is gone and the little Iver Johnson from long ago memories is gone with them. Last week I sold it to a friend of mine who will put it on the wall of his den with a copy of this article. And if I ever want to see it, I will know where it is.
I killed my last big buck last week; I will never shoot another. Next week’s column will tell the story of that last hunt. As one old Indian Chief put it…”I will fight no more, forever.” I will have much more to say about the chronic wasting disease in deer and elk and whether or not it can kill humans who eat deer meat. In the meantime, I will advise anyone who has been eating venison donated in the “Share Your Harvest” program to not continue to do so. I will tell you why next week.
UNLUCKY DUCK – My first flying mallard dropped dead… the most unlucky duck in the world.