By Bradley Carleton | Contributor
The end of my favorite season is upon us. As the last few frigid days of duck season tick away, many of the big redlegged migrators have yet to arrive. I sit in my little homemade, Barnegat-style duckboat, huddled against the propane heater on the edge of the ice shelf in the bay. It was a long cold ride across in the dark this morning, bucking a northwest wind, spray crashing over the bow and whipping my face like frozen needles in the dark.
The cranberry pools and bays are icing over from Missisquoi Bay all the way down to the Shelburne access. The last of the hardy mallards and black ducks should be winging along the shorelines looking for any source of food they can scavenge. And here I sit in a boat that looks like a large muskrat hut, fully camouflaged and bobbing gently in the weed bed on the outside of the icy swamp.
The smell of wood smoke drifts across the corner of the bay.
I imagine someone comfortably sitting in front of their woodstove in an old Kennedy rocker, mohair blanket wrapped around their feet, dog snoring on the wooden floor in front of them. I imagine an older fellow sipping lapsang souchong tea from his favorite mug, listening to an old weather radio crackling in the living room. I can almost feel the warmth, the comfort, the ease of being well cared for against the frigid outdoors.
Then I realize that that guy in the rocker is me. Or perhaps, me wishing I was there.
But no, I have made my decision to suffer the bitter cold fingers, to listen to my teeth chatter and to pursue the wild waterfowl of the late season.
And as I am fortifying myself with these lofty thoughts, I hear it.
The sound of whistling wings high above me. Arctic air passing through the powerful pinions of northern mallards winging their way over the edge of the swamp.
I squelch my instinct to look up and force my neck further down into the fleece balaclava around my head. I know better than to look up when I hear those wings, for that means they are directly overhead and looking down on me.
As the whistling dies, I turn my head to the side and peer out from under the brim of my hat using my peripheral vision. They are out over the bay and circling.
I lift my favorite call to my lips and project my most powerful diaphragm breath through the barrel as I scream out a comeback call that echoes throughout the swamp behind me.
They turn toward me, and as if I had invited them to a meal that they cannot refuse, they stop beating their wings. The lead bird in the flock cranes his head to one side to spot my plastic deceivers bobbing in the water. His wings cup, forming a perfect arc from tip to tip.
The flock follows suit and they begin their descent from on high.
At 100 yards out, red legs drop from their white bellies, stretching out to greet the ice cold water.
The lead drake lets out a raspy whirring sound, the command to drop and join the flock on the water.
Fifty yards and still coming.
My gloved finger finds the safety on the side of the trigger guard and gently, quietly, clicks it to one side.
I roll over to find my wadered feet asleep. I will have to shoot from my knees.
Raising my shotgun over the side of the canvas blind, I pick out the drake with the big yellow bill and begin my lead. Butt, body, bill, boom.
I am still swinging my barrel as the big bird drops to the water. I see the splash in the corner of my eye, but my other eye is already swinging toward the next closest bird, a hen.
I pull my barrel through the bird’s silhouette and fire as I follow through.
She drops to the water’s surface with a loud splash, the sunlight reflecting in the water droplets around her.
I have just done something that is pretty rare in my experience. I have managed a double.
“Christmas dinner,” I say to myself.
And after that marvelous meal with blackberry chili pepper sauce, wild rice with a foraged chicken of the woods, and a fine bottle of the best merlot I can afford, I will sit in that Kennedy rocker in front of the woodstove and thank the Great Spirit for another wonderful season.
Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter.org, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature and raises funds for Traditions Outdoor Mentoring.org, which mentors at-risk young men in outdoor pursuits.