The river where we hunt ducks in the early season is older than the mountains it runs through, yet new each year and different every day.
There are always lots of ducks along the 20-mile stretch we float, which is flanked by gnarled half-hollow oaks that provide nest holes in spring and acorns in autumn. We see the woodies standing guard in April and May and sheparding their young in June and July. From August to September we marvel as the newcomers learn to fly and mark the many that have been snapped up by turtles.
Come October's eary duck season we set out in our canoes, thinking we know where the woodies are and how to hunt them. Sometimes we are right, but often the only reason we come back with any ducks at all is that we blunder into them. One after another, the secret places we have scouted will prove vacant, and then, usually while the gunner is pouring coffee, they'll spring up from open and apparently empty water.
Even a reasonably straightforward shot is complicated by the restricted swing and the boat's balance, speed and direction. All in all it's not a very efficient way to hunt, but to be on the river in autumn is enough. On most days most of us get fair chances at the limit of four ducks, which is as much as any hunter should ask.
Last year the river was so high and swift we had to slog along the flooded banks; this year it was so low we carried the canoes as much as they carried us. Dawn of opening day, usually the most productive hour, brought fog so thick we could barely find our way downriver. From time to time ducks flew by, low and slow, but their ventriloquist peeping served only to tantalize, leaving us peering here as they ghosted by over there. One flock sat on the water as the three canoes passed within yards, then came boiling up behind as a startled beaver slapped his tail.
The plan of the first day's hunt went awry as usual because the lead boat as usual went too fast, making so much commotion the birds flushed out of range, and with the trailing boats so far behind that the ducks were too high when they passed upriver. Thy rhythm of the hunt was broken and we never really got back on the beat, even after the empty-handed hard-chargers pulled out.
Toward the end of the day, with barely one limit among us, we laggards went ashore to stalk a hidden slough that never fails to hold a dozen or a hundred ducks. They were there, heard vaguely and seen dimly through the heavy brush, but too much had changed. Floods had built barriers of fallen trees along the bordering swale by which one must approach, and acres of brittle branches had been scattered by a series of winter storms. In a "normal" year the ground stays water-logged and the twigs rot. It was like crawling through potato chips, and each time the stalker wormed to within 80 yards the birds would murmur nervously and paddly farther up the slough. At the head of it they took off, leaving the stalker filthy and frustrated.
At supper we speculated over the unnusually low numbers of ducks. It had been a good spring for nesting and the season ws still much too warm for the local wood ducks to have set off for their winter quarters in Louisiana. We had had what should have been sufficient chances, but usually get far more, enough to make up for our shooting.
The answer lay on the ground all around us and in the crops of the birds we had taken, but we didn't catch on until after the three-day hunt was over. The acorn supply was very thin along the river, perhaps because of the drought or because the unusually large number of squirrels was preempting it, or both. Many of the ducks may have migrated early -- we saw one flock of about 200 that had come from farther north -- and those that were left were feeding in cornfields. None of us had ever found anything but acorns in a wood duck's crop before, and we did not look. There are always lots of ducks along the river because we learn slow and they react fast.
Since we had not shot over the slough we decided to set out decoys there next day. The stalker, having watched them for so long, felt he could predict the spots where the birds would most likely to pitch in. Two hours later, wondering over the lack of action, he discovered the ducks had fooled him again: a flock was dabbling in the water and sunning on a sun-bleached snag just beyond gunshot around a bend. Between lay a stretch of open ground in full view of the birds; the only way to get below them was go over the steep ridge spur that formed the bend. Having picked the wrong spot, he was elected.
For an hour he struggled over the slippery pine needles and crumbling shale, descending too near the flock the first time so that the climb was doubled. Then he crawled and squirmed for a furlong along the bank until, 50 yards from the birds and blocked by high weeds, he was defeated. Every time he tried to advance the weeds trembled and the ducks went on alert. In the end he retreated until he was well below the flock and stood slowly, hoping they would fly in pairs rather than flushing wildly and at once, and that the other hunters had not meanwhile gone to sleep.
Two shots sounded, two ducks fell. The gunners each had taken one of the single pair that flew lowest, and had thrown no useless, crippling charges after the others. These would be other ducks for them through the day and none for the stalker, but his was the day and none for the stalker, but his was the better hunt.