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Sporting Life

An Ambitious Plan

And the ducks did their part

By Tom Bryant

The Old Man said you couldn’t set too much store by a fire; that a fire was all that separated man from beast, if you came right down to it. I believe him. I’d rather live in the yard than in a house that didn’t have an open fireplace.   —Robert Ruark from The Old Man and The Boy

The low grey clouds were close enough to almost touch, or they seemed that way as they scudded southeast before a gusty north wind. I was hunkered down in the first blind on the number one impoundment at our Whistling Wings duck club. It was mid-November, almost Thanksgiving, and I was all by my lonesome, escaping the chains of civilization. The plan was to do some writing, hopefully interspersed with some duck shooting.

There are six of us in the duck club, all of us seasoned in a lot of ways but more so in the mysteries of duck hunting. The varied group includes a couple of textile magnates, a lawyer, a judge, a textile broker and an itinerate writer, myself. I was behind on several writing projects, including a past-due novel, thus the reason I was holding forth alone at the club. The other members were planning to show up after Thanksgiving for a group hunt. Successful or not, anytime we got together it was a good time.

My plan was to get a little writing done after an early morning hunt, eat lunch and work a little more before the evening shoot. Then repeat that for three or four days and head home to enjoy Thanksgiving with the family. After that, I’d make it back to the club to meet up with the rest of the boys. An ambitious plan, but I hoped to make it work.

Our lodge is really a small two-bedroom house that sits right on the marsh where the corn impoundments are located. Impoundments are fields of corn that are flooded before duck season, their purpose being to bring in the ducks. The cabin and the impoundments are about a half mile from the Pamlico Sound. As the crow flies, or better yet, as the duck flies, our farthest blind is right on the water, and it is exactly 8 miles across the Pamlico to Ocracoke Island.

The day I arrived the weather promised a good blow out of the northeast. The temperature took a nosedive so things were looking just right to bring in a few early ducks. I hustled unloading all the gear and left most of it lying about in the kitchen so I could make it to the blind before sundown and the end of legal shooting hours.

Low clouds and a squally wind brought dusk on early. I missed a couple of fast-flying teal that came right at me, corn-top high. The gale added to their speed and I shot way behind them. I grinned as I unloaded my shotgun and slung my gunning bag over my shoulder. “Come back tomorrow, you little rascals, and give me another chance.”

I fast-marched back to the lodge, before black night settled in, to unpack and sort through the cooking box. I had bought eating utensils that needed to be stored in the right place. There is a gas fireplace in the living room, and I turned it on. With the northeast wind whistling around the cabin, it added a cozy feeling to offset the early cold of the evening.

I put a pot of venison stew on the stove to heat for supper and laid out items to take to the blind in the morning. It promised to be an interesting day. I was pretty tired, so I opted for an early evening, promising myself to catch up on writing tomorrow.

At 4:30 a.m. I eased the door of the little lodge shut and headed to our number one blind. The early morning wind still held out of the northeast, but the cloud cover was gone. It was clear as a bell, and a nearly full moon was settling in the west. Hopefully, the gusty blow was strong enough to keep ducks moving off the sound.

As I trudged down the dike that led to the blind, loaded with shotgun, gunning bag and a few more decoys to add to the spread I had put out the afternoon before, the thought occurred to me of the many times I had enjoyed this same adventure. Never, in all the many hours spent in a duck blind, have they been the same.

I could hear hundreds of ducks as they got up out of the corn and headed out to the sound. I swear, it’s almost as if they have a timer in their little duck brains that enables them to leave the impoundments just before legal shooting time — a half-hour before sunrise — and arrive back for their evening corn feast an hour after legal shooting time, sundown.

I’ve been fortunate on a few occasions to catch them confused about timing, but that always involved weather. Rain, sleet or snow and a dark sky with the wind blowing hard have sometimes made for a memorable shoot. Not this day, though. It looked to be one of those bluebird mornings.

And it was. By 10 o’clock I had seen a few high-flying snow geese. A couple of mergansers landed right in the middle of the decoys, swam around a bit, then swam on into the corn and disappeared. I figured it was time for breakfast.

After a morning in the field, breakfast is the best meal of the day, and I had come prepared. As I walked back to the lodge, I mentally put together the morning feast. Preparing it is almost as good as eating it. Not so, says my good friend John Vernon, our usual lodge chef. He’s the main cook when the group is together, and it’s a real grin just to watch him prepare one of his culinary masterpieces.

My breakfast on the first day of the hunt didn’t hold a candle to what John could fix. But even he, I think, would have smiled in appreciation. Six extra-large eggs, cooked over medium; a platter of link country sausage; biscuits, a half dozen bought from Biscuitville (I picked up two-dozen before leaving town. I’ve found you can’t have too many biscuits.); and a pot of yellow, stone-ground grits cooked slow and steady over a low heat.

After that feast, I settled in at the kitchen table with my iPad and did a little work on the never-ended novel and surprised myself with the amount I got done.

The rest of the week went by in a flash. The routine I had set worked, and on the last day, the lords of the duck marsh smiled on me. About noon it started raining — hard, so hard it blew sideways. I put on all my wet weather gear and sloshed out to the impoundment. Just as I crawled into the blind and loaded the shotgun, a flurry of teal buzzed the blind so close it seemed as if I could reach up and catch one. I hunkered down, knowing they would be back. Sure enough, they circled and came back, afterburners wide open. I led the group as far as I could, pulled the trigger and three teal splashed down right outside the decoys.

While wading out to pick them up, I looked up just as a pair of widgeons dropped out of the sky, wings folded, yellow feet fixed forward like landing gear. I snapshot at the lead duck and got him but missed his companion twice. I picked up all four ducks and made it snappy back to my hide.

The rest of the day was like that. I already had four ducks and the limit is six. I had to slow down so I just watched and waited. Ducks were everywhere. Just before shooting time was over, I shot my last one, a magnificent pintail almost the size of a snow goose.

Later, after I got back to the lodge and put on some dry duds and relaxed in front of my fireplace, gas logs blazing, wet hunting gear hanging everywhere, I celebrated with two fingers of good Scotch. I remembered Robert Ruark’s quote about loving an open fire and thought even he would put up with our little gas effort after the end of this wonderful duck hunt.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.