Last day of the duck season in the middle zone… 22 degrees at 10 in the morning, and it stayed right there at 22 degrees all day. It was so cold the shifting cables on my boat had frozen. Nothing ever goes right for me. I was born under a black sky, like Joe Btfsplk in the Li’l Abner comics. I suppose you don’t remember him, but if he had been a duck hunter he would have never killed a duck. He was the poor guy who had a little black cloud following him, constantly having problems, a lot like me. Thousands of ducks out there and my boat is froze up. Just call me Joe.
I told Rich Abdoler I didn’t think we’d need the doggone boat. There was a cornfield not far away where hundreds upon hundreds of ducks were feeding, and we could just walk in, watch them all fly away and then hope they would come back. And so we did. We watched dark clouds of mallards take to flight out of that harvested cornfield, covered with an inch or so of snow. Rich headed to one spot, and I took off to find a place where I could hide and call ducks. We thought they had all left the long wide field, but they hadn’t.
I headed up a low draw with hedge and willow trees growing around it, and as I neared a little corner where some standing corn had been left for wildlife, I saw mallards setting their wings and dropping out of the sky. I moved in close due to the low ground, then walked slowly up to the spreading trunk of a big hedge tree. Before me were a couple of hundred mallards, walking through the corn stalks, trying to find loose grains of corn. They were no more than 25 or 30 yards away. In the sky were circling small groups, coming down the way wild ducks do. If you have seen it, you will never forget it. They cup their wings, they side-slip and twist in the air, they fall like leaves out of a wind. Beautiful, majestic, magical… it is one of the most awesome sights in all of nature, mallards dropping into a sea of green heads on the ground or on the water. I have seen it often, but never enough.
I could easily pick out a drake, falling into the corn before me, but I wanted to watch for a while. The duck call wasn’t needed here, nor were decoys. For about 15 minutes I watched, kicking myself for leaving my camera in the pick-up. I never noticed the cold as I stood there in the snow. I had forgotten for a while that I was Joe Btfsplk!
Finally, it came to me that if I wanted to eat wild mallards some cold winter evening in place of venison chili or fried fish I would have to shoot one. A beautiful drake was falling from the sky before me, about 30 yards away, and so I lifted my old Smith and Wesson and put the barrel on his beak. The old automatic is about 40 years old, made back when Li’l Abner comics were found in the newspaper. Joe Btfsplk owned one like it, I think. Sometimes, out of the blue when you never would expect it, the old 12-gauge misses what I aim at. You have no idea how often I have watched dead ducks fly away before me. And that day in the snow at the edge of the cornfield, beneath a gray sky and circling flocks of mallards, it missed again.
Maybe when it is 22 degrees a man gets a little stiff and his eyes aren’t focusing properly, but it was plain when the shotgun roared and that greenhead fought for altitude rather than folding and falling, that the unexpected had happened, regardless of the reason. And then I witnessed one of the most amazing things a duck hunter can see, maybe 300 or 400 mallards springing to flight in a roar of wings, fighting to gain altitude in the wake of wavering corn stalks, snow falling from their feet like a fog of white beneath them.
I saw a nice greenhead before me, and when he was about eight feet above the ground, I folded him neatly, proving that every now and then, the old shotgun does what it was made for. I saw another duck come down behind him, as I aimed at another one coming over me that I lost in the branches of the Osage orange tree some folks refer to as a hedge tree. I am glad I didn’t shoot again, because out in the snow and stalks before me lay four beautiful greenhead mallards, in a row about four or five feet apart, all dead as a hammer. I should have known I couldn’t pick out one duck in that orange-legged, yellow-billed horde without hitting others. And although I am a grizzled old outdoorsman with duck-hunting days behind me in a half-dozen states and two provinces of Canada, a man who has plucked enough mallards to fill a railroad car with feathers, I have never ever killed my entire limit of mallards with just one shot. But then, the limit used to be higher. Now it is four, and there they were in the snow before me, left behind by an ascending, retreating giant flock of mallards. And as I looked upon those greenheads lying in the snow, I realized that my day of hunting was over.
Rich came over and joined me. I told him I had killed my limit with one shot and he said he thought he had heard two shots. I convinced him it was an echo. I had to watch him shoot ducks, one at a time the way you are suppose to do it. When you can’t shoot, duck-hunting isn’t nearly as exciting, and 22 degrees is about as cold as it can get. But when I ate those mallards a day or so later, using my secret recipe, I didn’t feel a bit like Joe Btfsplk. I probably ought to be thankful. If I had shot ducks one at a time, the way I missed that first one, I may not have had enough shells to kill a limit.
We are still planning some day-long winter trips into the outdoors with a fish-fry at mid-day. We just have to get some nice warm weekends to take them. I have fixed up a detailed page telling the particulars of these interpretive trips, and if you would like to learn all about them, write or e-mail me with your address and I will send it.
Join me on Sunday morning for my outdoorsman’s radio program, when I will be talking about brown trout fishing on the White with guide Frank Saksa. It runs from 8:06 to 9 a.m. on KWTO radio, 560 AM.
My address is Box 22, Bolivar, Mo 65613, the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The website is www.larrydablemontoutdoors.blogspot.com.
JUST DUCKY – The idea of duck hunting is to shoot one duck with one shell. Beautifully colored mallard drakes are the most desired quarry of the Midwest duck hunter and good to eat if you know how to cook them.