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Duck, Duck, Goose, Goose
I've always considered myself to be an outdoorsy-kind of a guy. Even growing up
in the Bronx, I had visions of sitting on the porch of my secluded cabin tucked
gracefully in the lush green mountains of Vermont. I imagined the sun slowly
setting in all of its orange majesty, the last few remnants of lingering clouds in a
pockmarked sky. I'd dream of my dog Mike, a golden retriever, lying alongside
my chair sharing this wonder of nature - sunset.
So it was no surprise to my family when I permitted my friend Dennis to
convince me to take up duck hunting. Dennis' arguments were hard to refute -
being in the thick of nature, man against beast (well, a duck anyway), working
only with our wits and our raw courage and yet to-be-tested hunting skills. We
would be pitting our hunter's mettle and cunning against nature's beasts
("Remember this, Bob - you may be fighting for his flavor, but the duck's fighting
for his life.") Truer words were never spoken.
But let me tell you a little bit about wild game. There's a reason they call it "game." Ever wonder why it tastes so bad?
Some of you may remember that saying that popped up during the self-awareness
movement of the 1960's: "You are what you eat." Remember that? Well, in case
you may not know this, I'll tell you what wild ducks eat. They eat anything they
can find. They eat worms. They eat grubs, they eat roots, and most important of
all, they eat anything you wouldn't consider standing next to, much less put into
your own mouth. Now stack that up to a pen-reared duck that's brought up on
corn, wheat, barley, shrimp, steak pizziaola, and champagne. Big difference let me
tell you. And the next time someone tells you he always eats what he kills, tell him
he should eat dirt. It's easier to find and you don't have to get up too early in the
morning to harvest it. It'll wait for you.
Regardless, I was ready to go out and kill something. But before I could do that, I
drove over to the local sporting goods store and purchased a pair of Ball
chest-waders ($139). In case you may not know it, chest-waders are large,
waterproof boots that go all the way up to your chest (hence the name
"chest-waders"). I also purchased a Gore-Tex fleece lined waterproof winter coat
($289), a hunting vest ($59), a duck call ($19), a lanyard to carry the ducks that I
shoot ($14), a special waterproof hunting carry-all ($39), a pair of waterproof
heavy-duty shooting gloves ($49) and a hunting license ($45). Oh yes, I almost
forgot, I also purchased a Smith & Wesson 12-gauge semi-automatic shotgun
($599). I'm pretty sure I also bought rights to a bridge somewhere in Nevada. Not
to beat a dead duck, you should refer to the previous paragraph where the guy
says he eats what he kills. Trust me, I think duck is about $1.85 per pound.
According to my calculations I would have to shoot (and kill) 9,372 ducks in
order to break even on my investment. That notwithstanding, I was ready.
Dennis picked me up at my house at 3:00 AM on a fairly cool and damp Saturday
morning in November; I asked Dennis where we were going. He said, "Black
River. It's the best place on the East Coast for duck hunting." I was pumped up,
adrenaline flowing freely, in full anticipation of bagging my limit in the first hour.
We arrived at the parking lot at about 4:15 AM and began to unload the pickup
truck. Dennis brought his dog, Hershey, a beautiful chocolate Labrador Retriever
(retriever conjures up thoughts of a dog that might bring back something - I
believe that's where they get the name - retriever. As it turns out, Dennis would
have been lucky if Hershey would have been able to retrieve his dignity and at
least get it to the right zip code, much less at his feet). Hershey was about a
year old and all sorts of frisky and happy to be outside and close to all those trees.
Dennis told me he had been working with Hershey for months, training him to
retrieve ducks. This was Hershey's debut as a bird-dog, so I thought this was
going to be really interesting to watch. All these new things to experience - wow!
Looking like pack-mules, we shuffled off in the direction of the thick, dark
woods. Dennis told me we had to walk approximately a quarter of a mile to the
edge of the swamp where we would set out the decoys and be ready for dawn
(you can't start hunting until dawn. Good thing too, I'm sure I'd have gotten shot a
couple of times by some clown with a gun who might mistake me for a duck!).
About 30 minutes into the walk it dawned on me (pardon the pun) that we might
just be lost. So I asked Dennis about this. Of course Dennis being the
consummate man's man (thus would never admit to being lost - and there were no
gas stations in the woods anyway) just said we were close. After another ten
minutes sneaked by, I muttered something about Boy Scout training and how if
you ever get lost in the woods, and it begins to get dark, you should stop and plan
on spending the night. That way, you won't get hurt rooting around in the dark. I
added that perhaps our logic may have been somewhat flawed - the proof being
that we entered the woods in the dark to begin with!
About 5:30 we found the swamp. Or what was left of it. There had been a severe
drought that summer and most of the water had evaporated or run off. We
removed our packs and set them on the slightly damp ground. Dennis looked at
me and advised me to leave the decoys in the carry satchel. There wasn't enough
water for them to float. I suggested we put them out anyway since I carried them
for the last six miles and the carry harness caused some serious chafing on my
part. He said they'd look stupid lying on their sides in the wet grass. I'm sure we
posed a more serious sight.
Dawn came at about 6:45 AM. No ducks. Just some gray sky - and rain. Dennis
said, "This is good. There's a lot of cloud cover today. That will keep the ducks
down." Dennis always had a positive view on things when it came to hunting.
We'd have a beautiful cloudless dawn and he'd say, "This is good. There are no
clouds today. That will give us a clear shot at any duck that flies by." If it were
partly cloudy Dennis would say, "This is good. Since there are some clouds today,
it will keep the ducks down and we'll have a clear shot at any duck that flies by."
Go figure. At 11:00 AM, we called it a day. No ducks. No geese. No birds. No
airplanes. No nothing. Just Hershey pawing the decoy bag and occasionally
freeing one and then prancing around with it in his mouth as if he'd done his job.
We made our way back to the parking lot in ten minutes. The whole time Dennis
was trying to convince me that this is not what duck hunting is all about. He went
on about nature and how serene and peaceful it was, but by that time, the chafing
had taken over. I wasn't listening at all. I was too busy being chafed. No ducks -
Two weeks went by and Dennis called me and asked if I wanted to go goose
hunting with him. I asked if we were going to Black River, and he said, "No.
We're going to a place called Pine Orchard. It's the best place on the East Coast
for goose hunting." I was beginning to see a pattern here. I asked Dennis if it
involved decoys or the carrying of such things. He said, "No."
I asked him if it involved walking thirty miles into the woods. He said, "No."
I said, "Okay." By this time, it was late November, and the weather was turning
chilly. I wore my heavy Gore-Tex coat and chest-waders. We walked about a
half-mile to the edge of the lake in Pine Orchard. The smell of fresh pine was
everywhere. As the sky began to transform from dark night into the gray light of
day, my adrenaline was once again flowing. Dennis and I sat in the shallow water,
in the teeming rain, with Hershey poised between us - just waiting for that first
goose to come down. Dennis passed a remark about the low clouds keeping the
geese low. And all of a sudden, there they were. A flock of unsuspecting geese on
their way to Key West flew right above us. I snapped off the safety, took careful
aim, being sure to lead the goose with the shot and then I slapped the trigger. The
loud boom shattered the early morning silence. My shoulder jerked back with the
force of the shotgun blast, and Hershey went running for cover, scared half to
death. I looked up and saw what I had expected to see. The goose at which I had
aimed began falling freely from the sky. His momentum carried him over my head
and into the woods. He landed in between the pine trees with a soft thud on the
damp ground. I was ecstatic! My first kill!
Not waiting for Hershey, I slipped the safety back on my gun and headed into the
woods. My prize goose was there before me. Hah! The master hunter had
prevailed after all! I reached down to retrieve my prize when to my shock the
goose jumped up and began to run away! I started to give chase, as I knew I could not
leave the wounded fellow alone in the woods. I finally began to draw near to the
goose and just as I reached out to snatch him by the neck, he reached the edge of
the lake. He spread his majestic wings and lo, he took off! Yes, gentle reader, he
got away. I looked back at Dennis, who by this time was trying to get Hershey out
of a low-lying Scotch Pine. Stupid dog.
Dennis pulled Hershey down by his collar and came running over to me. He was
sweating profusely and quite out of breath. In between gasps he managed to blurt
out, "Too bad. You just stunned him. We better get out of here, before old Mrs.
Swanson calls the police."
"What?" I shot back (figuratively).
"Yeah, she's the old lady that owns this property. She hates hunters."
"Okay, lemme get this straight. You brought me onto private property, we don't
have permission to hunt here, and the lady has probably called the cops by now?"
About two weeks went by and Dennis called and asked if I wanted to go to New
York State to go duck hunting one more time before the end of the season. He
said we were going to the Bashakill. He also said the Bashakill was the best place
on the East Coast for duck hunting. I asked him if anybody actually owned the
land. He said it was state property. I asked him all the other preparatory questions
that I had accumulated through my hard-earned experience. I checked off each
answer as we went down the list. "No, no, no…." Okay, all no's, let's give it
It was not raining this time when Dennis picked me up. We arrived at the swamp
at about 4:30 AM and using a small boat called a sneak box, we put out all of the
decoys (yes, this time there was enough water for them to actually float). By now
we were well into December and although it wasn't raining, it began to snow.
Dawn began to sneak up on us and as I looked down from my position in the
swamp (up to my hips in water), I could see tiny chunks of ice flowing in front of
me. Dennis was off to my left and I heard him whisper, "Today is going to be a
good day. The clouds are low so…" Yeah, I know, blah, blah, blah.
Dawn came and went. The snow began to swirl around my head and the ice
chunks in the water were getting larger. Hershey sat quietly in the sneak box,
waiting for his chance (Dennis told me he had been working with Hershey since
his last outing and that he had made remarkable progress with the dog. The dog
still looked stupid to me).
My feet turned numb somewhere around seven A.M. My fingers had long since
given up complaining that they were cold. And the snow came down even harder.
And the ice chunks got bigger. And the dog began to snore.
Without warning, a lone mallard tore across the morning sky. I leveled my
shotgun and took the shot. This time, it was a clean kill. Hershey jumped up out
of the sneak box and at Dennis' command dove right into the water. No sooner
had he hit the ice-cold water when every muscle, every tendon in his body told
Hershey this hunting thing was not what it was cracked up to be. I never saw a
dog try to walk on water. As God is my witness, I swear to this day, Hershey
walked on the water - until he fell in. Dennis began shouting commands at the dog
in a language I'd never heard before. Whatever he was saying, Hershey obeyed
and headed out to where the duck had fallen. About five minutes later, Hershey
came back with a decoy in his mouth. Dennis had some pretty nasty things to say
to Hershey about that, but got him on the right track and sent him out again. Five
minutes passed before Hershey appeared with - you guessed it - another decoy. I
told Dennis, it was okay, and I'd get the bird myself. But he wanted nothing more
than to impress me with Hershey's retrieving skills.
After Hershey brought in the last decoy, we decided we'd pick up the dead duck
as we headed for shore. The ride home was filled with silence. By the time we
reached my house, I had made a monumental decision in my life. I told Dennis
that I was retiring from duck hunting. He asked why.
I got out of his truck and stood there, shaking, racked with shivers, parts of my
body no doubt suffering from exposure and frostbite, and I said, "This is no fun.
I can't possibly enjoy this feeling as crummy as I do."
And of course, Dennis replied, "What are you, some kind of sissy? I thought you
were a man! You're not going to let a little cold weather get to you, are you?
C'mon, be a man, will ya?"
I took a long pull of cold air into my lungs and let out a heavy sigh. "Dennis," I
began, "If you want to judge my manhood based on standing in a swamp in ten
degree weather, watching chunks of ice the size of softballs float by me, then you
may call me Mary. Better yet, I've got a great idea. Call me when you can hunt
ducks in a parking lot in 70 degree weather." And with that, I turned and walked
away, never to hunt duck again.
I looked back over my shoulder, one last glance as Dennis pulled away. There
was Hershey, sitting upright in the bed of the truck. I'm not quite sure if I saw it
or imagined it - but I think I saw a grin on the dog's face as he held a decoy in his
mouth and kept trying to pass it to Dennis through the rear windshield. I shook
my head. Stupid dog.
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