I thought it would be tough to wake up at 2:15 AM. I really did. However, anticipation is a wonderful drug, and I had accumulated quite a bit of it since our first duck hunt two years ago to the day. I had been looking forward to this morning since. To my surprise, I was up at 2, anxiously awaiting the digital chime to start my day. My wife Steph’s very first words that morning were “This is the last year I do this TJ…Never again.” I chose to ignore her rather than incite a healthy discussion with my usual snarky responses. I chose wisely - as I seem to be doing more and more with every wedding anniversary that passes.
Our things were packed already. The only to-do was run the Keurig five times for our five 20-ounce coffee mugs we laid out the night before. The streets of Baton Rouge were quiet. The calm before the storm known as Black Friday. We picked up Steph’s dad Steve who quickly dubbed the day “Quack Friday”, a joke he had to have been saving for quite some time. Then Louis – our guide for the day and my step-grandfather. A Louisiana bred, born, and raised walking almanac of stories, wisdom, and a southern drawl that leaves you wanting to hear more.
The two-hour drive went by fast and we arrived near Jennings, LA around 5AM. Once in town we made the obligatory stop at the corner store where you can buy whiskey, shotgun shells, biscuits, camo, and cracklins – all before sunrise. The shop clerk working had on an Alabama shirt. Being UGA grads deep in LSU territory, we politely hassled her. Like Saban she was unwavering and stoic.
We loaded back up and drove 15 minutes further into the darkness where we arrived at the hunt camp. No lights – no humans – nothing within miles. Only us, thousands of ducks migrating south, and moonlit flooded rice fields as far as the darkness went.
We loaded up the ATV and drove deeper into the rice fields. After parking, we began the journey to the blind. Let’s make one point clear. Blinds are not called “blinds” because they are easy to find. Not the least bit. The team began trudging through the sometimes knee deep water and mud. It was complete darkness, and no one had a headlamp, so my brothers phone light led us further into the muck, wandering here and there looking for our hole in the ground. Finally, like a (slightly bigger) needle in a haystack, we uncovered the bundles of straw and the damp steel pit below. We lowered in and sat quietly – waiting shoulder to shoulder.
Generally, from my extensive one whole day of experience, a duck hunting party includes a Labrador retriever, a spotter/caller (who scans the sky and calls in the ducks), and the remaining hunters tucked down in the blind. Once the targets are in range, the spotter yells where the ducks are, and the remaining hunters pop up. Our little crew was a bit different. If it were not for Louis, we probably held the record for the least experience-to-hunter ratio ever to inhabit one of these blinds.
We were all perked up at nearly all times, probably resembling a family of camo’d out meerkats. Kyle, my brother, and I took it upon ourselves to help spot ducks and call them in.
We had zero experience in each. Kyle would have been fine quacking in a band if one existed so naturally he was the quacker and I the spotter. Some calls sounded lifelike, most far from it. As he continued experimenting, I spotted a threesome of Spoonbills coming in, most likely deaf, or maybe just appreciative of the progressive and experimental sounds echoing off the metal sides of the blind. They came too quick for everyone else to know, but I slung my brand new 12 gauge to the sky and fired all three rounds. Somehow, I managed to hit one as it fell into the flooded out farmland.
Fist bumps round all around, quick recaps of what just happened for future reference and now an even more anxious and perky group.
Kyle kept at the duck calls as persistently as a mosquito in the bayou. Louis abruptly asked for them back after one very poor quack. He punctuated the request and subsequent handoff with a “Finally…some relief” emphasizing “finally” and “relief”. Steve didn’t get the hint and immediately offered his call to Kyle who happily went at it again without hesitation. Louis stuffed his ear plugs in deeper, maybe a bit too deep as Steph had to fish them out at the end of the day given she had the smallest fingers.
Kyle incurred a boost of confidence with the previous assist and a new set of calls round his neck. By the stroke of the Bass Pro gods, a flock of ducks (teals to be exact) came surging in from behind us at the sound of Kyles whimsical whistle. Being the amateurs we were, we all turned as quickly and conspicuously as possible. They swooped in close and quick but made an abrupt 180 turn just as quickly after seeing 5 sets of eyes pop up out of the straw. Kyle wasn’t deterred and his calls persisted. The ducks seemed to agree they should give our decoys a closer look. Coming in for round two, we were already facing the correct direction. We all shot, all of our rounds, and nearly all missed. Steve, the best shot in the group, picked off two, even though I tried to claim one.
Now, one thing I haven’t mentioned yet, is the Labrador retriever, a duck hunters’ best friend and well, our complete lack of one for the day. We now had three birds in our surrounding landscape, but no retriever. The group took a democratic vote and I was unanimously chosen to be the tribute.
So, I climbed out of the blind into the morning light and mud. I had waist waders and boots which were probably 2 sizes to big, and made me feel like a cartoon character because of the crotch sag. The birds were in the ponds surrounding us and I gingerly waded out into uneven quick sand of knee-deep mud, water, and swamp and “retrieved” the kills.
The rest of the day was slow with no more birds falling victim to Kyle’s calling so around 10, we called it and trekked back to the ATV and loaded up. When we got back to Louis’s he taught us how to clean and process the birds – a lesson you would rather not learn on YouTube.
Nearly every fishing and hunting trip I go on, I seem to be able to remember every moment with beyond vivid detail, something I appreciate more and more as days and weeks pass by in life where I cannot recall much at all. Every one of the five senses is heightened as I place myself in the natural world both as a spectator and a participant of the food chain. I share these experiences with friends and family while creating a more direct connection with food sources – something I think everyone can value a bit more these days.
I hope our experience-to-hunter ratio improves before the next hunt and I hope I can join my brother in pied piping ducks from miles away. Maybe we will even have a proper retriever next go around. But even if none of this is true next time, I can guarantee I will have a story to tell.