Having come late to the outdoors, I love nothing better than to pontificate to someone who knows even less than I do about canoeing and camping and birdwatching and hunting.
My latest victim was John Henry, a Chicago-bred fellow of mature years who hadn't touched a gun since he got out of the army. He's as streetwise as any man I know, having served his apprenticeship in journalism as a newspaper legman in some tough towns, but his knowledge of the world grows sketchy toward the edge of the pavement. He once called me up to ask if the bold, gray-brown, black-masked, ring-tailed creatures that were tearing up his garbage cans and his Scottie were really raccoons.
After some years of listening to me extol the richness and satisfaction of days afield, John Henry allowed he'd like to go gunning sometime, "to see if it's actually like that or if you're just making it all up."
I jumped at the chance. John Henrywas the guy who tried to teach me how to interlock paragraphs so seamlessly that there was no place for the most bloodthirsty copy editor to insert his pencil, and what to say to a young mother when sent to borrow for the paper a photograph of her son who fell under the train that morning. John Henry also knows about cars and real estate and taxes and all the other urban complications, so it was my first opportunity to teach him something.
The procedure was was carefully thought out. I lent him Bob Brister's Shotgunning, the most nearly perfect text I have read on any sport. I lent him my pumpgun to practice shouldering and dry-firing. I took him to Clark Brothers in Warrenton to be fitted out with a gun of his own by Scott Carter, who was kind enough to take me birdhunting for the first time.
Then we went out with a carton of clay targets and several hundred shells to practice. John Henry had never fired a shotgun, and his army experience with rifles and machine guns was mostly a handicap, because shotguns must be pointed rather than aimed. I was prepared for a long afternoon, or several of them, of telling him not to worry about the misses, it would all come together in time.
When the first target flew his finger slipped off the safety as he mounted the gun and the little disk was gone by the time he could fire.
"Not to worry," I said. "There's a rhythm to it, and it takes a while to get the sequence smoothed out."
He blew the second target into a puff of dust before it had gone 20 yards. I said something silly, because all my prepared one-liners were designed to follow misses. The third target he missed. "You were a tad behind that one," I said. "Shuck it and shoot again when that happens, and try to miss ahead." The next clay pigeon broke on his first shot and then he powdered one of the falling fragments.
It went like that all afternoon, my "pupil" breaking more than two out of three targets. By the end of the first box of shells he was shouldering and swinging the weapon like an old dove shooter.
"Gee," John Henry said. "It looked hard when I watched other people doing it."
The plan had been to turn him over to a skeet instructor for the fall, in hopes that he would develop into enough of a shooter to try a winter day in a Chincoteague goose blind with guide Cork McGee, who oversaw my painfully slow rise from a hapless waterfowler to a marginal one. The only way to learn to shoot birds is to shoot at birds, and McGee is a master at bringing them low and slow and often.
But since John Henry had turned out to be a natural shotgunner, he was invited along for the early wood duck season on the Blue Ridge rivers last week. It would do no harm, I thought, for him to get a taste of whitewater canoeing and to see how ducks fly. The party included Dave, whose long shots are awesome, and Randy, who spends half the year gunning in the salt marsh. Among us I was sure we could being down enough birds to send John Henry home with a brace. He was not expected to do much more than blow holes in the sky, since bringing down the small and flighty woodie is postgraduate shotgunning, especially when it's done from a canoe. Trying to shoot a duck and a rapid at the same time produces a lot more fun than food.
In a normal fall the upland rivers usually are little more than creeks, but the endless rain had them all raging red out of their banks. A friendly native directed us to the swift-running backwater above a dam, where I spent the morning of opening day showing John Henry how to fail to sneak up on ducks resting along the water's edge and the afternoon showing him how to pick the wrong places along the flooded river to stand in hopes of getting passing shots at flights of wood ducks out foraging for acorns. The others contributed their share to the lessons in futility, and the only thing that fell that day was night.
"I read in the paper the part about how duck hunters get tired and cold and muddy," John Henry said. "I see now that it was all true. When are we going to get to the part about how they come by and you shoot them and they come down and you take them home and eat them?" $ the following dawn, with the river still in flood, we returned to the backwater. While I was creeping knee-deep in the muck hoping to surprise a late-sleeping woodie, a flight came over treetop high. As I swung at the leading drake my feet slipped, whipping the barrel so fast I was unable to shoot behind him, as is my normal technique, and he was good enough to fall down. The bird fell only 50 feet away but in chin-deep water, and as I made my way back to the van to get the canoe several more flights came over; feet firmly planted, I missed them all.
"Tell you what, John Henry," I said, "why don't you wade out here where I am, and I'll drift downriver in the canoe and see if I can stir anything up. They seem to like to fly over these trees here." It's devilish tricky trying to shoot through branches, but I figured he might at least get some practice at swinging on the birds.
In the following hour I managed to miss three of the easiest shots I have ever been presented. Flock after flock of ducks flushed as I approached and wheeled upriver and over the trees where John Henry was standing. Although, I couldn't see what was happening, I could hear him taking single shots from time to time, followed by barrages from the sharpshooting Dave and marshman Randy, who had taken station a little farther upriver.
My arms were giving out by the time I made it back against a rising headwind, but it was a comfort to think of John Henry and his wife sitting down to eat the ducks I was confident that Dave and Randy had bagged.
John Henry still was standing under the trees. As I opened my mouth to say something fraternal and rueful about hunter's luck he sang out: "Before you bring the boat in, could you pick up my pair of ducks?" $ while we were admiring the fabulously feathered drakes, Dave and Randy slunk in with their grand total of another drake. Three veteran hunters had just managed to equal the performance of the tyro.
Somebody once said a student can do his teacher no greater honor than to surpass him. But I think I'll let somebody else teach John Henry about quail.