There's nothing halfway about a duck and there's nothing halfway about a good duck hunter.
When a duck travels, it flies as if possessed, bent on arrival at some baffling destination exactly 10 minutes before it could conceivably get there. A duck bridges no compromise.
The best duck hunter I have seen is a dark-eyed, intense Spaniard named Manuel Munoz-Carrasco. He pursues ducks on their territory on their terms. mIf that means slogging through waist-deep marsh muck at 5 a.m. on a freezing winter night, so be it.
Munoz has standards. "I do not pay anyone to take me hunting. If you pay it is . . . poof." His hands looked for a way to express a word that means worse than nothing.
That standard alone sets Munoz apart from 99.9 percent of the hunters who made their way to Maryland's Eastern Shore on Friday, opening day for goose hunting as well as a two-day early duck season. He was on his own, sleeping under the stars in the marsh on the coldest night of the year.
Indeed they weren't. Nor was practically anyone else. In one day of scouting and two days of duck hunting in a public marsh on the lower Eastern Shore, Munoz saw perhaps a half-dozen other hunters while he covered scores of miles via motorboat, canoe, kayak and hip boots.
"This is dirty hunting, eh?" he asked as he sat on a tump of marsh grass during the middle of the day, when the ducks don't fly. I looked at his boots, caked in inch-thick mud; at his hair, tousled and uncombed after three days; at his grizzled growth of beard stubble, at the mud and grass that stuck to his gun stock and his jacket and his tattered ski trousers.
"But it's free," he said, "For everybody."
Munoz plans to hunt at least half the days of the duck season this year. His job as a free-lance translator in Washington gives him that latitude. He will hunt almost always on public land and he will bring home ducks.
"Only one day last year I came home empty-handed," he said.
Call his game whitewater ducking without the whitewater. Munoz loves whitewater kayaking and canoeing. He has run the mighty Youghlogheny River in a Grumman several times. He can make a kayak stand on end in a whirlpool.
Last week he had his whitewater boats on the front lawn, painting them drab green for the duck season.
These shallow-draft vessels give him access to sloughs and coves in the marsh otherwise only accessible by foot. Few people have the stuffing to walk in, knowing they may sink to their necks in the soft mud.
The ducks are aware of that and during hunting season they stay away from the open waters of the marsh where hunters are likely to lurk.
But Munoz can load five dozen decoys into his canoe and hit the tucked-away spots, as he did last week with success. And if that fails he can load seven decoys into the tiny kayak and explore even more remote duck hidding places. He always hunts alone. "Today I made an exception," he said. The Whaler is his bed. "It's a pretty small hotel. You will find it's all right when we get organized," he said with a laugh, waving a hand at the chaos in the cockpit.
But sleep would come later.First there was the hunt.
He left the Whaler in a creek. The canoe was there to carry him deeper into the marsh.
Munoz had set up the day before, placing 50 floating decoys in a tiny cove. Only a trickle of water led to the cove. He had to pole the canoe across the mud flat.
As he rounded the final bend he looked over the decoys. There were too many. Suddenly eight flapped to life -- black ducks that had flown in while he was away picking me up.
"Ahhh," said the hunter. "You see what I have missed?"
No matter, because that afternoon a bank of storm clouds moved in, scudding along behind cold 20-knot north-west winds. That is ducking weather, when the birds always fly. And fly they did.
Occasionally two or three would peel off a flock, responding to the quacks and honks and gabbles of Munoz's duck call.Sometimes they flew by, wind whistling over their wings, and surveyed us without stopping.
And once or twice they stopped. They came tumbling out of the sky, bent on joining our decoys, and Munoz and I leaped up and fired.
But the best came late in the day, when a massive flock of wild mallards spotted our stand from a mile distant and came to the decoys as though they were being tugged along on a string.
At first it was a great disorganized ball of black speeding shapes in the distance. Then it was two flocks and then three, broken up and circling our little makeshift blinds.
Then eight sat down, as if on cue, and we rose and watched them leap to the air again. Shots rang out and three beautiful greenhead drakes fell.
That night we cleaned our ducks by flashlight. The darkness dropped in what seemed like seconds and the wind turned cold. We spread the sleeping bags on the littered floor of the Whaler and watched the stars come out.
We slept the deep sleep of weary men. Next day we were up again at 5 but the weather had turned fair. We stayed and we searched but no ducks flew. We never fired a shot.
Which is how it goes sometimes.