“On! Your! Feet!”
Gabe’s eyelids snapped open to find the bushy-bearded face of his grandfather smiling over him. Papa was once in the Army. Bellowing like a drill sergeant was his favorite way to wake people up. It certainly worked. Gabe slid from under the cozy blankets and padded downstairs to the toobright kitchen. The clock above the stove read 4 a.m. Papa stood at the sink, pouring hot chocolate into a thermos. “It’s a great day for a duck hunt,” he said.
A good duck hunter keeps a close eye on the weather forecast. Cold fronts usually cause ducks to migrate south. Birds get tired of flying all night and start looking for a place to rest and grab a bite to eat. That’s when the hunting gets hot.
Duck hunting isn’t an easy hobby to jump into. There’s lots to know and lots of gear. But if you want to give it a try, the best advice is to find an oldtimer who will take you out and show you the ropes.
Gabe found his sister, Maya, in the mudroom, wrestling on a pair of chest waders. They looked like rubber boots, except they went all the way up to Maya’s chest.
Rip, Papa’s pony-sized Labrador retriever, wasn’t helping. Whenever Maya took her eyes off a glove or spare sock, Rip snatched it up and pranced off with it.
“You’re worthless,” Papa told Rip affectionately as he wrenched a drool drenched sock from the dog’s jaws and tossed
it back to Maya. Unlike Maya, Papa didn’t seem to mind the slobber. Gabe dressed quickly then shuffled out into the cold night to join his sister in Papa’s pickup truck.
“You’ve got to be crazy to be a duck hunter,” Papa said as he shifted the truck into gear. “Why else would you get up at oh-dark-thirty to spend hours out in the freezing cold just to watch a bunch of birds fly around a marsh?” In the back seat, Maya and Gabe were wondering the same thing.
Duck hunting is cold — except when it’s not. Dress in layers that are easy to take off and put back on. When you’re poling a boat, wading through the muck, or throwing out decoys, you get hot. So peel off a layer. The last thing you want to do is sweat. Because when you stop moving, sweat will make you cold.
Darkness swallowed them when Papa clicked off the headlights. From the bank, the marsh looked mysterious and spooky. Maya heard the clink and clunk of her dad loading gear into the boats. Something splashed somewhere out in the water, and coyotes yipped and yowled in the distance.
“Watch your step,” her dad said as he helped her into a wide wooden boat and directed her to sit on a rolled-up mat of grasses. Maya wondered what the grasses were for, but before she could ask, her dad hopped in after her and used a long wooden pole to push the boat out into the inky water.
A galaxy of stars shimmered overhead. The water was as smooth as glass, and Maya had a hard time making out where the sky ended and the marsh began. It felt as though they were gliding through the Milky Way, not beneath it.
Maya felt a wave gently rock their boat. Then she saw Papa emerge from the darkness, poling another boat toward them. Rip was perched on the bow like a pirate’s parrot. Gabe sat behind him near an enormous sack of duck decoys. It looked like the boat might sink at any moment, but Papa guided it expertly through the marsh, teasing Maya about how slow her dad was going. In a few moments, he had disappeared ahead of them into the gloom.
“Decoys,” Papa explained, “are fake plastic ducks. You use them to fool real ducks into thinking your corner of the marsh is a good place to land.” Each decoy had a weight tied to it with a long cord. The weights kept the decoys from floating away, but the cords had become hopelessly tangled. While Papa worked to untie them, Gabe waded around in the cold, waist-deep water.
Walking in waders felt … weird. Water pressed against the waders, making if feel like they were squeezing his legs. The sticky marsh mud felt like pudding under his feet. It sucked at his boots and wouldn’t let go, threatening to trip him with every step.
“Think fast!” Papa said and tossed a decoy in Gabe’s direction. The fake duck splashed down a few feet away. Gabe watched it bob and turn in the wind. If I were a duck, he thought, that decoy would sure fool me.
Ask three duck hunters how to set out decoys, and you’ll get four different answers. I like to leave a hole of open water in the middle of my decoys so that ducks have a place to land. Keep your decoys looking nice, too. Ducks have good eyes and won’t be fooled by muddy decoys or ones with faded paint.
So that’s what the grass mats are for, Maya thought.
They had beached the boats side-by-side on a reed-covered mound in the middle of the marsh. Dad and Papa were using the mats for camouflage. When they were done, the boats looked like a patch of cattails. Gabe and Papa hunkered down inside one of the boats. Maya hid with her dad in the other.
The sun had just peeked over the horizon when Maya heard a strange whistling noise. “Get ready,” Dad whispered.
Maya scanned the sky but couldn’t see anything. Papa began blowing on his duck call: Waaank, waank, waank, waank. Ticka, ticka, ticka, ticka. And then Maya saw them: a dense flock of green-headed ducks whizzing by just beyond the decoys. Their wings made the quavering whistle she had heard earlier. They flew impossibly fast.
When Rip saw them, he went berserk. He began shaking uncontrollably and trumpeting out ear-piercing whimpers that made Maya imagine Chewbacca from Stars Wars getting tickled ruthlessly. The ducks swung far out into the marsh, and disappeared behind some trees. “Well that was exciting,” Papa said.
“The hunting is excellent, but the shooting is poor.”
Gabe figured that was Papa’s way of saying there weren’t many ducks around today. In fact, they’d seen only a couple other flocks since Rip scared away the first one. It didn’t matter to Gabe. It was fun just being out in the marsh.
To pass the time, Papa told funny stories. He told about melting the soles of his boots while trying to warm his feet by a campfire, and stories about the ornery things that Dad did when he was a boy, and about the bald eagle that swooped down to steal a duck that Papa had just shot. The funniest stories always started with Papa saying, “Now don’t tell grandma I told you this … .”
When Gabe got cold, Papa moved everyone into a duck blind that was well-hidden behind the boats. He lit a propane heater and passed out cups of steamy hot chocolate, slices of spicy summer sausage, and LCDs — Little Chocolate Doughnuts. Gabe felt toasty in no time.
“You know,” Papa said, “this is one of the best hunts I’ve ever been on.”
“But you haven’t fired a shot,” Gabe said. “Hunting isn’t just about shooting ducks.
It’s about slipping quietly through dark water in a good boat, watching the sun rise in a wild place, and spending time with people you love. And it seems to me,” Papa said, “that we did all those things.”
Angie Daly Morfeld
Nichole LeClair Terrill