A rainbow arched over a distant bluff illuminated by the same morning rays that created the rainbow. Dark storm clouds massed behind the blufftop to the west. The low eastern light intensified October tree colors below the rainbow, and crows etched their silhouettes like exclamation points across this extraordinary tableau.
Surrounded by all this beauty, I was sitting on a camouflaged bucket at the edge of a five-acre wetland. I was thinking that maybe some waterfowl would be moving in ahead of this Bierstadt landscape. It was, I believed, a good day to be on a bucket.
Twenty-four decoys-18 faux mallards and six Canada geese-bobbed in a slight chop on the greasy water. You never know what will come by the Honey Hole. All of central Missouri is a haven for giant Canada geese. They breed faster than hunters can shoot them, and they invade gardens, golf courses and farm ponds like they owned them. I am but one against the tide of geese, but I'm doing what I can.
The Honey Hole is mine. I figure that every year when I buy a Missouri hunt/fish permit, a few pennies of the cost go into this pond. The pond was created on Conservation Department land by an inspired bulldozer operator. Because it is open to the public, and I am public, it is unarguably mine.
Hemingway slobbered over Kilimanjaro and the Green Hills of Africa, but those hills were no more noble than the ones that massaged my own well-traveled eyes on this lustrous, mid-Missouri dawn. The sight moved me to declaim a thought for the ages: "Oh, wow!"
The rainbow intensified, and a secondary arc formed outside the main one. A double rainbow inspired thoughts of pots of gold and Dorothy and the Tin Man, with whom I identify because I've been accused of not having a brain, either. It was, I reflected, a perfectly reasonable accusation. Anyone with a brain would be sacked out at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, but I was sitting on a bucket in a duck marsh, dreaming of rainbows and waiting for ducks to arrive.
I heard a rush of air above me. Because there was no wind, I realized that a flock of ducks was passing overhead. They inspect my decoys with the inherent suspicion of creatures that have flown a thousand-mile gauntlet lined with shotguns. They look for unseemly movement, the glitter of watchbands and spent hulls, the flash of a face or a decoy half-sunk in an otherwise convincing set.
By the time they get to Missouri, migrating ducks have been hailed at, chuckled at and, most likely, shot at. Veterans as they are, they are unlikely to respond to amateurish invitations. I fumbled for the pair of duck calls tucked in my shirt pocket. One is a Faulk call, reedy and tenor, but wonderful to mutter a feeding chuckle. The other is a basso hail call that requires the breath control of Pavarotti, but will salute ducks a mile away.
I saluted, but the ducks, if anything, added a bit of coal to the afterburners before vanishing over the river.
Honey holes can be anywhere there is water. Missouri has thousands of acres of wetlands, some almost inaccessible. Some areas are be accessible only by boat or by a wearisome slog overland.
After the 1993 flood, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began buying thousands of acres of Missouri River bottom land from farmers who decided to move to higher ground. When it's complete, the refuge will include 60,000-acres of wetlands that will stretch nearly from Kansas City to St. Louis.
The Conservation Department also increased its river bottom land holdings following the 1993 flood.
In addition, the Department has scooped out shallow wetlands on some of its upland areas. Most are far from parking lots, so anyone with a strong back and a desire to hike in the pit of night over rough terrain for a mile or so can find a honey hole that contains the promise of duck shooting.
"Promise" is the operative word. If I wanted sure shooting, I'd go to a public waterfowl area that holds transient ducks. There, I'd be sure of seeing birds and pretty sure of getting some shots.
Or, I could explore several new multi-thousand-acre wetlands owned by the Conservation Department along the Missouri River. Plowboy Bend is directly across the river from the Department's Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area which, in mid-November, has held nearly 50,000 ducks. Some must surely fly across the river, but I don't know that place well enough to risk gambling away a morning like this. My Honey Hole is like the back of my hand. I don't even need a flashlight anymore to hike to it.
My Honey Hole offers hunting in its purest form. There are no guarantees, and it involves hard work and depends entirely on my efforts. No one builds a public blind for me, and no one provides decoys or a boat and motor. There's only me and my sack of decoys, and a bucket to sit on behind a thin screen of willows.
For all its uncertainty, it still is duck hunting, and that is reason enough to be here. I have spent 50 years and hundreds of mornings gawking across marshes with gritty eyes, wondering what black magic jerked me from peaceful sleep at an hour when even Mother Nature is napping.
Waterfowl hunters have to be masochistic. It embodies the old joke: "Why are you hitting yourself on the head with a hammer?
"Because it feels so good when I stop."
For a waterfowl hunter, every morning is pretty much the same. It starts with the awful withdrawal from cozy comfort in a warm bed, donning enough clothes to sink the Titanic, the jouncing drive through the night to some roadside where the comforting heat and radio jazz of the truck gives way to cold, black night.
The darkness is desolate and the air is harsh. I hoist an unwieldy, heavy sack of decoys, bucket seat, gun and flashlight and stumble through clinging, wet vegetation for a couple hundred yards to a dank hide alongside a muddy marsh.
The decoys invariably are tangled in the bag, their pointy tails caught in the mesh, their carefully stowed anchor cords unaccountably unwound and tangled. I fumble with them in the water and feel the chilly tickle of a wader leak against my leg. One decoy nestled against me, and when I sloshed back to shore it followed like an obedient dog, its anchor cord wrapped around my foot. Two other decoys drift together and bang heads, the sound loud in the still night.
I sigh and wade back to set them straight. Then, I plunk down on my bucket seat and wait for shooting time.
Finally the minute hand creeps to that half-hour before sunrise when it is legal to shoot at migrating ducks and geese. At that moment, Ms. Nature awakes and decorates the morning with rainbows for me.
On such a morning, half a century of prelude doesn't seem nearly enough.
Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer