American Field

Duck Hunting — Twice

By Gerry MacKenzie | Sep 11, 2017

After many years of submitting articles to this outlet pertaining to bird dogs, field trials, and people and places related  to the bird dog field trial game, I am forced to search the archives of my brain for literary fodder appropriate for this journal.

I recall that back in the day it was well known as the Sportsman’s Newspaper, with articles  covering a wide variety of outdoor pursuits, one of them having been waterfowl hunting.

As a young boy I grew up in the tiny village of Ladd, Illinois, located just three miles north of Spring Valley, and no distance at all from the Illinois River. While I attended grade school in Ladd, we did not have a gymnasium, and thus practiced basketball on an outdoor court — a gravel-surfaced one at that.

Being outdoors in late October and throughout November and December one could not help but notice that the sky would be covered with wave after wave of ducks, flying back and forth from the river to the endless corn fields so prevalent in that locale. The area was a Mecca for waterfowlers.

The small village of Bureau Junction, located about ten miles downriver from Spring Valley, was the home of a motel and restaurant known as the Ranch House. Their guest register boasted many celebrities who came to the area to enjoy the fabulous duck hunting. One name that jumped out at me, an avid baseball fan, was Wade Boggs, the Hall of Fame third baseman of the Red Sox and Yankees.

One of my closest friends’ dad was a serious duck hunter, and I marveled at the birds he brought home, especially enthralled by the majestic green-headed mallards. He would often give me his spent shell casings, which I would treasure, apparently getting a vicarious taste of the hunt by inhaling the pungent, lingering odor of burnt powder.

My Dad was not a hunter, although he enjoyed the out-of-doors in many other ways, such as fishing, mushroom hunting, gathering those nasty black walnuts in the autumn, and prowling across rain soaked lawns in search of night crawlers. I accompanied him on many such outings, but my only exposure to hunting came from reading about it in his outdoor magazines.

I eventually satisfied my craving to hunt by becoming involved with bird dogs which led to a career as a professional bird dog trainer and field trial handler — a vocation in which I remain involved at the ripe old age of 77.

I moved to Oregon when I was 26, and enjoyed fantastic bird hunting while I was there, and first hung out my professional trainer’s shingle while a resident of the Beaver State at the age of 30. Still, I had never once been duck hunting, and by then my yen to do so had faded to a distant memory. That is, until I met Mike.

I was employed as a route salesman by an industrial laundry and linen supply company known at the time (late 1960s) as Northwest Industrial Laundry. One of my accounts was Don Rasmussen’s Mercedes dealership. Mike (I can’t recall his last name) was the lube man in the repair shop. Every Tuesday I visited his station and exchanged clean shop towels for soiled ones, and spent a few moments chatting with him.

He learned that I was a bird hunter and owned a bird dog. He asked if I’d ever done any duck hunting. I replied in the negative, but allowed as to how it had been one of my boyhood fantasies. “Oh, well then you’ll have to go with me some time, as I usually duck hunt every Sunday,” he offered. This became a regular part of our conversations — “You’ll have to go with me some time.”

Finally tiring of what seemed to be a hollow invitation, I blurted, “OK, dammit, when are you going to take me?” “Well, how about this Sunday? Seasons ’bout over, so be at my house at 4:00 a. m. I’ll fix breakfast for us and we’ll go.”

With that he wrote down directions to his home, handed them to me, and said, “See you Sunday morning.”

Seems as though we tend to romanticize things we did or wished we had done in the past. That was certainly the case as I anticipated this long overdue duck hunt.

First of all I fantasized about the pre-hunt breakfast, envisioning steaming biscuits, crisp bacon, eggs done to taste, and piping hot coffee.

I arrived at Mike’s home at the prescribed 4:00 a. m. only to find the place pitch dark. Incessant pounding on both the front and back doors finally resulted in his opening one of them while standing there in his pajama bottoms bleary eyed and relatively incoherent. I reminded him of the duck hunt and breakfast he had offered, whereupon he mumbled, “Oh yeah, c’mon in”. Breakfast turned out to be a couple of pop tarts and some not so hot instant coffee.

Well, not to fret, I thought, we still have a fantastic duck hunt to look forward to. Once again my imagination ran rampant, as I envisioned a cozy blind nestled among reeds and cat tails at the edge of a sheltered cove where hundreds of ducks would come sailing in to escape the elements, and try to land among well placed decoys, only to meet their waterloo amidst accurate volleys from our fowling pieces.

This was not necessarily the way our hunt materialized.

After finishing our “hearty” breakfast Mike opened a door in the kitchen that led to an enclosed garage, where a Ford Pinto station wagon was parked. [If you recall, such vehicles circa late 1960s were very tiny.]

In the rear compartment of said wagon was an inflated rubber raft, and if your memory of the size of the vehicle is accurate, you can correctly assume that the raft wasn’t very big either. Further, it was loaded with a large assortment of duck decoys piled at least three feet high and filling the raft from stem to stern.

“Get in,” Mike ordered, and before he sped away I had to remind him to stop and let me get my shotgun out of my car.

We left the city and drove east along the Columbia River, finally pulling off and driving to a parking lot on the river’s shore. It was still pitch dark, and I had no idea where we were.

I wondered what purpose the tiny raft would serve, and thought I knew the answer when Mike pulled it out of the wagon’s rear hatch, and began dragging it down the sandy beach with a rope handle attached to one end of it.

Per his instructions we had placed our guns and shells in among the decoys. Aaah, I thought, I see what the raft is for: to haul our equipment to our picturesque duck blind somewhere down this beach. I was only partially right. After traveling about 100 yards, once again to a destination that meant nothing to me because of the darkness, Mike shoved the raft into the river and said “OK, get in.” “WHAT? Get in what?” I sputtered. “The boat, get in the damned boat, we ain’t got all day.”

Boat? Boat? Folks, I have a two-man pontoon bass boat here on my three-acre lake that looks like the Queen Mary upside of that glorified inner tube filled with decoys. And we are going out into the Columbia River in that thing. The Columbia and its tributaries rush down out of the mountains on its way to the Pacific, and is wide, fast, and cold.

Well, I didn’t have much choice, as it was evident that I either got in that thing or be left there while good ol’ Mike went duck hunting. So, after shoving forward a pile of decoys to make room for myself I clambered into the craft while Mike began furiously paddling toward an island in the middle of the angry river. Fortunately, it was still so dark that I couldn’t make out enough of the terrifying details to be afraid, so I just sat there and silently prayed. I was certain that my pleadings would be heard more readily by The Almighty than by my host, and more readily heeded by HIM as well.

Amazingly, we made it to the island, whereupon Mike grabbed the rope handle attached to the boat and began dragging it across the sand to the western tip of what seemed to be no more than a sand bar in the middle of the river. It was then that I got my first look at our “blind”. It was U shaped, with the open end facing east and the western end right at the water’s edge.

It was made of scraggly brush piled about shoulder high. Mike drug the craft to the western end and began slinging decoys into the shallow water. So much for “carefully placed”. He then shoved the boat under some brush to conceal it from wary eyes and instructed me to sit down and make myself comfortable. I saw that my “seat” was a five gallon plastic bucket turned upside down. Sat, yes. Comfortable? Not so much.

The wind during Oregon’s winter is usually from the west, and coming off of the ocean is warm and moist. If the wind is from the east, it is sharp as a razor and cold as ice. This day found it to be from the east, and blowing into the open end of the blind like it was a wind tunnel. In no time I was shivering like a dog passing barbed wire.

Mike informed that the wind coming out of the east was a boon to our success, as ducks like to land while flying into the wind. That would have made much more sense had there been any ducks flying, but daylight revealed clear blue skies with nary a cloud in sight. I did know enough about duck hunting from all of the reading I’d done that blue bird days were not good for water fowling. Some form of activity would have been helpful in alleviating the bitter cold, but Mike insisted I sit very still, so as to not spook any arriving ducks. Once again, there appeared to be a major paucity of arriving webbed feet.

Finally, after what seemed to be an interminable length of time, and feeling as though my body was slipping into hypothermia, Mike hissed, “Get down,” in a voice scarcely above a whisper.

Sitting on a five gallon bucket I didn’t see how I could lower myself any further, especially as stiff as I was from the bitter cold. He motioned toward a group of hunters about 300 yards down river, and seeing puffs of smoke from their scatter guns and then hearing the reports, it was obvious they were shooting at ducks. Mike suggested that some stragglers might head in our direction; for once he was right. About half a dozen came sailing toward our blind, and espying our decoys veered toward us. At that point  Mike resorted to using his duck call. The sounds that it emitted did not seem to be enticing, as I have heard a feisty dog being beaten sound more inviting to a group of ducks than Mike’s plaintive squawks. Nevertheless, the racket did not deter them as they continued to head for our decoys.

Goes to show you, you don’t have to be good if you’re lucky.

Mike shouted, “Take ’em,” and raised up from his bucket. He was armed with a twelve gauge automatic, and unless he was a lightning fast reloader, had as much regard for water fowl regulations as he did for marine safety laws. His barrage resulted in two ducks plummeting into our set of decoys. I was armed with my trusty Ithica featherlight twenty gauge pump, choked improved cylinder, and managed to down one duck with two shots.

This action, albeit creating just enough activity to ward off frostbite, turned out to be a liability as it encouraged my host to stay put for at least another hour. During that time several small flights of ducks could be seen to our west, but only got as far as the aforementioned blind 300 yards down river.

We were treated to a rather entertaining spectacle as a Labrador retriever working for the group in that blind swam the entire distance between our two positions in pursuit of a crippled duck that obviously suffered no harm to its swimming apparatus. The courageous dog had a lengthy swim against the swift current before finally capturing its prize, and then dutifully swimming back to its own blind holding the raucously quacking bird tenderly in its jaws. It was a thrill to behold.

It must have been about ten a. m. when Mike mercifully decided to call it quits. It brought me a great sense of relief to know that the ordeal was finally over. My sense of relief was short-lived, however, when broad daylight allowed me to see clearly the horror of the trip across the river. Once again we piled into the tiny raft overflowing with decoys and miscellaneous equipment. I was grateful that we harvested only three ducks, as but a few more would have sunk the craft. As it was, water was lapping over the rear gunwale and trying to run down the back of my jeans — and it was very cold water. When we safely reached the shore it was evident to me that THE ALMIGHTY had heard my silent prayers. I could see no other reason for our safe passage in either direction.

We loaded our equipment back into the tiny station wagon and headed back to Mike’s house. He allowed as to most days were better than this one. I had no reservations about believing that. He pulled up behind my car, and as I was placing my gun therein, unceremoniously tossed me my duck, muttered something about “having enjoyed it” and quickly ran his wagon back into his garage. I drove home as fast as I could, dressed my prize duck, and spent at least an hour in the shower trying to thaw out. As the title of this piece indicates, I duck hunted twice — for the first and last time. At that time I had been considering pursuing a career as a bird dog trainer — at least on a part time basis. The duck hunt did nothing to dissuade me from following that dream.

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