Years ago, when ducks were a good deal more plentiful than they are today, I was invited to join some fellows from Prince George's County for a day's hunt on the Patuxent River. They had a wonderful blind and two retrievers that were so competent, they nearly got us all arrested.
It was one of those perfect duck-hunting days, bleak and overcast at dawn with the promise of a howling cold front rolling through sometime in the morning. Because it was so still, with almost no breeze, few birds moved early but we expected good shooting once the front passed and brought some wind.
The fellow who'd invited me, had said it was an elegant setup, but I was still taken aback when we settled in the blind and he turned to a corner, opened a little cupboard and pulled out a propane stove and bagful of groceries. "Breakfast time," he said, and commenced cooking eggs, sausages and fresh coffee.
By the time we'd eaten, the sky was light and the clouds were starting to break up. Patches of blue appeared to the west, and by 9:30 the wind was barrelling in with the virile, gusty style of a winter northwester.
Still, no birds were working, and as the breeze built we grew increasingly edgy, wondering aloud if the front had somehow driven them south and we weren't going to get the day we'd hoped for.
"Shhhhh!" said my host as we carried on this pointless hypothesizing. "Hear that?"
From overhead came the distinctive whistle of wind over wings that signals a flock of ducks aloft. We glanced up warily and saw them pass -- a huge pack of mallards and black ducks that swung out over the river, banked and swung back toward us.
This is the moment every duck hunter dreams of, when the birds are making up their minds and no false move below goes unnoticed. But none of us was used to seeing flocks this big -- dozens of birds.
We hunkered shoulder to shoulder in the concealment of the blind, and no one uttered a sound as the flock passed over, lower this time, swung around again behind us, fluttered back out over the windswept water and banked for a final approach.
When they were five feet off the water, bunched in a pack at the outside edge of the decoys, someone shouted, "Now!" and all five gunners jumped up, blazing away. I'm a bit ashamed to describe it now, what with duck populations struggling and most duck hunters, including me, taking steps to voluntarily limit their take. But these were other times and other standards, and these were very good shooters.
About half the ducks fell from that flock and the other half took off. It was loud and exciting and over quickly, and then we stood there counting, stunned by all the ducks we'd knocked down.
The two black Labradors by then were on the job, leaping from the blind to begin the retrieval, and a wonderful job they did. Plunging fearlessly into the cold water, they went for the nearest birds first. They brought back ducks and immediately went for more, their owners prodding them on, until everything we could see was cleaned up.
But the dogs kept going, heading up the river and down and back into the little creek that ran behind the blind, disappearing around twists and turns in the waterway. Each time they went away, they brought back more ducks they had somehow marked on the fall.
We all began to worry. Had we taken too many? We started splitting up the ducks into individual limits. In those days you could take up to four per person, with totals tallied under a complex points formula that required no more than two hen mallards per person, one black duck, etc.
We already had over a dozen ducks, and unfortunately, as we worked to designate whose were which to be sure no one wound up with more than a limit, the dogs kept blasting off and coming back with more ducks in their mouths. Just about that time I looked up to see a motorboat round the bend and head upstream, straight toward us -- a green boat bearing a guy in a green suit. The warden!
We had no idea how many ducks still lay out there. Would the dogs stop before they incriminated us and sent us off to jail?
As the dogs rattled around, the warden checked our guns and licenses. He said he'd heard the volley and wondered if a war had started. Meantime, more ducks were piling up on the ground, which we added to the little piles representing each gunner's take.
At last the dogs stopped, evidently satisfied they'd found them all, and we breathed a sigh when the total came to 18, all of which could be safely divided into five limits. We were actually one duck shy of one limit.
The warden tipped his cap to our success and headed off. Since I was the guest, my hosts gave me the honor of taking the last duck when and if any more came in, and shortly after a small flock of mallards circled the blind, pitched and settled gracefully into the headwind for a landing. I picked out a fat drake and brought it down with one shot. Our day was complete.
In 15 years of avid duck hunting, I have not seen anything to match that remarkable flock, nor anything to match the retrieving show those Labradors put on. They were not dog-trial winners or champions with fancy pedigrees, but they had hunted often, knew the waters and seemed to have emblazoned in their minds a map showing where every duck struck, and were tireless in pursuit.
It stands as a reminder of the value of a good retriever, which keeps game from being unnecessarily wasted afield. Hunters often say the best conservation tool is a proper retriever, and having seen them at work, I agree. But I have to admit for a few moments there, with the warden breathing down our necks, I was wishing for dogs a wee bit less competent.
Early duck seasons in Maryland and Virginia are complete. Maryland's two-day October season ended Saturday and Virginia's four-day early season closed last weekend, meaning ducks now are safe until Nov. 22, when the season reopens in both states.