Duck hunting closed yesterday in Maryland, and as usual I was hard at it for most of the 30-day season. It was not a great year for ducks or even a good one, as unusually warm weather plagued us all but a few days.
It takes nasty, bitter wind to get ducks to fly with any predictability, and a hard freeze to bring down the big flocks from up north, neither of which we've had. Still, we enjoyed a few fine shoots, and I can look back on two or three crisp mornings when I had my three-bird limit and was out of the blind by 7:30, happy as a hedgehog.
Yet when I reflect on the season, I can say with certainty that the best day I had was one from which I came home empty-handed.
Why? Because it was a wild, adventurous foray into a place where the ducks rule. We saw them and heard them in their own, beautiful bailiwick where man rarely goes; we listened to them wake and plan their little duck days, and when they left the night roost at daybreak in a noisy rush of wings, not to be seen again, they never even knew they'd been spied upon.
Manuel Munoz-Carrasco, my longtime duck hunting guru, was architect of this effort. He'd found a big patch of flooded timber in southern Maryland on one of his preseason explorations of the deep woods where he hunts deer. Ducks were in there aplenty -- woodies, mallards, blacks and teal, peeping and quacking away.
He'd gone back later and carved a serpentine canoe trail through the marsh grass and deadfalls, then marked it so he could find his way by flashlight in the dead of night. At the end of the trail, far out in the pungent muck, he'd built a small duck blind and covered it with brush.
Munoz invited me to join him there one day early in the season, but I was busy, so he went alone. He came back with a wonderful tale.
Like many diehard waterfowlers, he always sleeps fitfully the night before and was up at 2:30, raring to go. So he'd dressed and drove down early, dragged his canoe through the woods and put onto the tangled pond long before the first hint of light.
"I was worried when I paddled out because I didn't hear anything," Munoz said. "I thought, 'The ducks have all gone.' "
When he found the blind, he still had over an hour to wait before daylight, so Munoz sat down and soon fell asleep.
"The ducks woke me," he said. "They were all around me, making a racket talking to each other. I watched them swimming and having a ball. They were so close, I didn't want to shoot. I didn't want to bother them."
As dawn gave way to day, the ducks began departing in little packs, heading out for the big river. Munoz picked out three fat ones on the wing and filled his limit without a problem.
He left a cryptic message on my telephone answering machine that afternoon. "This is Manolo," it said. "You should have been there. . . . "
It was to duplicate that experience that he and I and a fellow called Big Jim set out a couple of weeks later. Of course, it gets more complicated the more people you have and we didn't get going as early as he had.
But even after getting lost once on the way, we were in the woods hauling our little boats well before dawn, and the only hint of light when we put onto the water was from the starry sky above.
"Shhh!" said Munoz as we headed into the inky abyss. "We don't want to spook the ducks."
But I found it hard going. The others had canoes, which cut smartly through the tangled thicket. My kayak was a pain, mostly because the longer, double-blade paddle kept tangling in branches overhead. "Are you all right?" hissed Big Jim. "You're groaning like a dying man."
My groaning spooked a couple of pairs of mallards into flight before we located the blind. Jim and Manuel set up inside. I paddled another 30 yards to a musky-smelling beaver mound, climbed out and set up shop atop it. I was sweating. I looked at my watch. It was 6:05. Forty-five minutes till legal shooting time.
So quiet. A breeze whispered in the trees; I could hear Manuel and Jim shuffling around, hiding their boats. Then utter silence.
At 6:20, a barred owl hooted from the woods. "Who-who, who-whooo! Who-who, who-whoooahhh!" A finch lit in a scrubby tree next to me and flitted about in the branches.
At 6:30, the first wood duck peeped. "Peee-eeep! Peee-eep!" Good. The woodies were still here.
At 6:35, the mallards and blacks started up. "Waaak! Waak! Wak-wak-wak-wak-wak," said the hen mallards. "Ticka-ticka-ticka-ticka," said the blacks, chuckling contentedly as they fed. Marvelous!
The songs soon became a chorus and then a cacophony as every duck in hearing range chimed in. They had slept well, from the sound of it, and were eager to begin the day.
There was but one disquieting note in the riot of duck noise -- it all seemed to be coming from one direction, downstream from us, closer to the big river. What if these ducks all got up when the sun did and flew straight away? We wouldn't get a shot.
Ah, well, let's just relax and see what happens. Dawn was breaking now, and we'd know soon enough.
If you shook a stick as vigorously as you could in a barrel of water, you'd approximate the sound a pack of ducks makes when they get up off a pond. That's the sound we heard next. "Whooosha- whoosha-whoosha-whoosha!"
From my perch low in the pond, I could see only the occasional departure. Most I only heard. "Waak-waak-waak-waak-waak," said the mallards, convening their group. Then "whoosha- whoosha-whoosha-whoosha," as they took off downstream.
Sure enough, almost all the ducks were below us and headed away. Manolo fired once without effect at a wood duck that zinged by at warp speed. A pair of woodies sped by me and I took a fruitless shot, too late and too long.
And so it went until it was broad daylight and the morning flight was done. We'd done no damage to the duck population; they'd done no damage to us.
It was a draw. A rich, satisfying draw.