The woods will make a child of you.
We're paddling down one of Virginia's feeder streams to the Potomac Luther Carter, a hunting partner of some long standing, is in the bow. His shotgun barrel rests on the thwart. He has a pair of binoculars trained on the dappled water ahead. He's peering into the brush along the edge, looking for ducks.
My job is to keep the canoe running straight, so we will look like an old pile of flotsam instead of what we are. The metal canoe is painted a dull green. Cuttings from Luther's stand of bamboo trees are draped across the bow, rustling in the breeze.
It's a little past dawn. It's be better if it were earlier, because already the sun is sparkling through the yellow of the sycamores along the river edge. It picks us out in midstream, taking the sneak out of our sneak attack.
We've been a mile already and we haven't seen duck one. My mind is beginning to wander back to real life.
We see them at the same time. A flock of seven wood ducks is by the bank, dabbling around among some fallen branches. They are 100 yards off. One drake is standing sentry, and the curve of its head is silhouetted against the morning sun. The sentry sees us.
The ducks don't move and we don't move. My paddle is in the water, and with a sculling motion I try to keep just enough headway to give the boat direction.
My heart is pounding. I've seen ducks all my life. I grew up next to a duck pond. But every time a duck is nearly in range I feel this childish slug of adrenaline.
I've got the bow right on the flock. Luther is staying stock still, peeking through the bamboo shoots.
The ducks start to move, tentatively at first. They swin out into the open water and paddle slowly downstream. My goal is to keep the nose on them, and by deft paddling to gain on them until they are only 30 yards away. Or less.
Then I'll bang the paddle or shut and the ducks will jump into the sky, and Luther will shoot them.
But first we have to get there. We get help. A shock of wind hits us from behind. Whoosh. We're roaring downriver. I've stopped paddling. I'm holding the paddle astern like a rudder, hearing down on it to keep us straight. We're doing everything right.
And then, when we're 50 yards away and everything's still tickety boo, the ducks get up. Just like that they're airborne. All seven.
They fly downstream 100 yards, then turn in a great soaring arc and sweep overhead into the wind. They're too high to shoot. Their white underbellies, fat from a summer of happy feeding, pass by in a rushing line.
We never fire a shot.
This is poor man's duck hunting, getting around the private land hassle by using public waters.
It's not the most productive hunting in the world, but this is a sport not governed by wins and losses or body counts.
By late in the day Luther and I have covered seven miles of water. We've watched screeching ospreys racing upriver with silvery fish in their talons; we've started stately blue herons from their roosts. We've passed fishermen with stringers loaded down with fresh bass; we've watched kingfishers blast out of the trees and dive into the water after minnows.
We've heard a few random gunshots in the distance but never pulled a trigger ourselves. We've seen squirrels gathering acorns on the banks. They are in season, but we've held off. We aren't hunting squirrels.
And we've flushed ducks. Maybe four dozin in all, all of them wood ducks, which will be departing soon for warmer climes.
As we neared our takeout point we shipped the shotguns and took to fishing, pounding the shoreline with bass plugs.
We approached a bend. "You know," said Luther, "we oughtn't to be doing this. There might be ducks just around the corner. This is good territory."
The words were still hanging in the air when another sentry duck came into view. It was watching over a whole brood of woodies.
This story should end with some thunder. We should sweep up on the ducks and bring down our limits with six quick shots.
But it doesn't. The ducks were smarter. Before Luther's paddle hit the water they were up and gone, a dozen ducks flapping downstream in fightened frenzy.
And that's it. The early wood duck season is over. Saturday was the last day.
Ten hours on the stream. No ducks, not even a shot. And no chance to even the score. A total loss?
Luther's judgment: "I like this place. Let's try it again."