"I see you boys got some decoys in your boat. Better not let the warden see you with them."
The speaker sat with three other young men in a tin boat alongside a marsh in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. The driver hung a leg over the transom and held the skiff against the ripping tide. He was scruffy, as were the others, in brown and tan canvas clothes, scraggly blond beards and hip waders.
"It's season," Randy Hollins told him. "They have an early duck season here in Virginia. It starts tomorrow. We're legal."
The young man looked puzzled, then shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, "Damn fools from the city," which may have been an accurate assessment. Then he waved goodbye, hauled his leg back over the side and pulled the cord on the 35-horsepower Johnson. Off they went, the three young men in the middle seat leaning backward in unison to weigh down the stern and help the boat onto plane.
First, last and only human intrusion.
For two fall days and nights Hollins, Manuel Munoz-Carrasco and I hunted the marsh between Smith and Tangier Islands, slept on the beach and fished the waters nearby. Each day a shallow-draft crab scraper puttered along within sight of our camp for a half hour or so, but no one came close enough to hail.
"It is wild here," said Munoz, to whom wildness is plainly and simply the measure of quality.
Our first morning, after the dawn flight of ducks, we took an 11-foot canoe back into the mosquito-infested marsh-grass beds to see if we could scare up some secretive black ducks. A few flew, but well out of range. Why would they come here?
"Look," said Munoz, scraping at the bottom with the paddle. Brown tendrils clung to the blade. I reached down and grabbed a handful.
They were not brown at all, but green. Eel grass, which once abounded in every back creek and cranny of the Chesapeake, but has now fallen prey in settled areas to farm herbicides, runoff, siltation and people pollution.
The ducks feed on eel grass. Crabs and fish take shelter in it. It is food and cover and a signal that the water is clean and full of life.
Here is something that happened in this marsh. One of our party was walking back to camp from one of the portable blinds we brought in to hunt from. He stopped for a moment for no reason at all.
He heard a fluttering over his head and looked up. He saw a marsh hawk plummeting toward the ground. He looked down and saw a tiny bird -- he didn't know what kind -- hop into a bush, seeking cover.
The hawk smashed into the bush five feet from where the man stood and nailed the small bird with its talons. As the man stood and watched, the hawk began pecking at the helpless bird. This went on for two minutes, until the man moved and the hawk flapped its wings and took off with the little bird still in its claws.
Here is something else that happened. On our second morning, Munoz and I were hunting when the wind died and nothing flew and nary a shot was fired. We heard from the marsh behind our back a sloshing and stirring of the waters.
I looked back and saw a pair of grebes, diving ducks. Munoz looked back and saw a muskrat swimming through the water. Neither of these was making the noise.
Directly behind us, within 10 feet of the blind, something was raising a ruckus. A lot of somethings, actually, because the reedy marsh grass was rustling for about 50 feet.
We climbed out of the blinds for a look. Whatever it was kept rustling and sloshing and slurping. We got closer. We strode in in our hip waders. There was a great flurry, then everything stopped and it was silent again.
Sometimes wilderness stories have endings. Sometimes they don't.
At night to the south you could see the twinkling lights of Tangier Island and to the north the lights of Smith Island. We did not stay up long to watch. Our hours were dawn to dusk, and from dusk to dawn we slept.
The first day's hunt was a good one, but not until after some tribulations. We'd selected a cove to hunt in and to get there fired up the Boston Whaler long before dawn. There were decoys to set and blinds to erect.
But first the big motor on the Whaler failed and then the little emergency spare motor failed and we were drifting in the Chesapeake in a northeaster in the pitch dark, trying to stem the tide with a paddle.
It took a harried while, but eventually the big motor started up and we were all right. It was a reminder that in the wild marsh there are three things to rely on and any one can be a friend or an enemy: the wind, the tide and yourself.
The most beautiful birds in the marsh this time of year are pure white snowy egrets. The most exciting to watch are the shorebirds -- killdeer and railbirds and other longlegged sandprancers that fly in flocks in sweeping unison.
The weirdest are the great blue and smaller green herons, which croak when they fly. The most fearless are the cormorants -- black, fish-eating geese that act as if they would knock your hat off if you didn't hang onto it.
For us the deep pleasure was in calling the ducks, which were in predictably short supply this time of year. The early duck season was established primarily to give Virginians (and Marylanders, whose early season is next week) a chance to hunt wood ducks and teal. These ducks favor more upland environments and generally migrate south before the regular duck season begins. e
But Munoz had discovered this place and had seen some black ducks here. He liked the opportunity to investigate early; the area would be too dangerous to visit in dead winter, when ducks would be plentiful.
As luck would have it, the northeaster blew in and gave us some shooting the first day, during which we took a small mixed bag of black ducks, wigeon and pintails. It wasn't a lot of shooting but it was classic duck hunting and worth the voyage.
Next day dawned hot and clear and the mosquitoes turned savage. We escaped before noon, stopping outside Crisfield on the way in, where we caught 30 bluefish, some seabass and some spot.
Not bad for damn fools from the city.