Jack Spaulding

As a boy, my thoughts were constantly filled with the stories of famous hunters on fabulous hunts. I read and reread my hand-me-down copies of Outdoor Life, Field & Stream and Sports Afield. I was constantly daydreaming of someday experiencing the thrill of exotic hunting like my magazine page idols.

Realizing I was living in farm country, I decided hunting waterfowl rather than big game was more realistic. I dreamed of crouching in a camouflaged blind with my trusty Labrador retriever by my side, skillfully tooting my duck call, and bringing in the flocks of ducks filling the sky.

Rush County’s skies were not filled with ducks. There was maybe an occasional mallard. Although fairly common now, I remember the once rare sight of the migratory flights of the great Canada Geese flocks. With southern Rush County far from the major flyways in those days, a glimpse of the high-flying V’s in the late fall skies brought awe-inspired and almost reverent gazes as the birds passed far overhead, so high you would swear they were in the stratosphere. They never stopped, and one could barely hear their honks from high overhead. The news of the passing flocks always brought a clamor of stern weather predictions from the “liar’s bench” at the country store.

Hunting the great migratory flocks of duck and geese became my youthful passion. Fueled by the inspiration found in the worn pages of an old copy of Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy, I determined Thanksgiving Day would see the addition of wild duck to the Spaulding household menu.

My only short comings were I didn’t have a retriever, a camouflaged duck blind, or a duck call. You might say, I was long on imagination and short on hunting essentials. However, I did have a hunting hat and jacket, an ancient pair of leaky hip waders and a J. C. Higgins, bolt-action, 16-gauge shotgun. The old gun cost me the grand sum of $15 dollars, and it was battered with a beat-up stock, worn bluing, and pretty much a junker by anyone’s standards. The barrel was missing the front sight and it had been replaced with an aluminum screw, but the gun handled well, and I knew it would kill a duck! Money for hunting expenses was tight, and I only had three shotgun shells. They were good ones though… high-brass #6 shot! I knew if my aim was true and I was close enough, I’d only need one shell.

Rationalizing should the need to call a duck become necessary, I would just quack. I’d heard my share of ducks on my grandparent’s farm. With practice, I think I could fool one.

I began to hone my skills at vocalizing like common waterfowl. Some of the folks in town looked at me a little strange as I quacked on my way down the street to the general store. All the people in town knew me, and probably expected at least a little odd behavior from me.

With the lofty goal of becoming a successful waterfowl hunter, I set out. Scouting Big Flatrock River didn’t reveal any waterfowl hotspots, but I remembered seeing an occasional duck in the vicinity of the old quarry hole.

Checking out the old quarry hole, I found a large group of willows alongside a pool of water about a half-acre in size. The water was just a little over 2 ½ feet deep with a hard, flat limestone bottom and would just be manageable for my old hip boots. The willow thicket looked like it would make a good “natural” blind so there was no need going to the trouble of erecting a hideout structure. I’d just hunker down in the willows. With my brown jacket, brown hat and greenish-brown hip waders, I would blend right in with the willows. I’d found the perfect place! I was good to go, and the hunt was on!

Hunting each evening proved to be a race against time. With the school bus arriving in town less than an hour and a half before sunset, precious minutes of shooting light were lost to the mandatory change from school clothes to my ragged hunting gear.

Yanking on my hunting jacket over a still unbuttoned shirt, I would hit the road at a forced march before rolling the tops of my hip boots and jumping on my bicycle. Wobbling down the street with an ancient 16-gauge bolt-action under one arm while trying to tuck in the straps of the hipboots, I must have presented quite a comical sight.

Night after night I made the half-mile journey to my willow limb blind to watch the sun slowly set and patiently wait for the impending arrival of huge flocks of ducks. And night after night nary a duck graced the skies over the steel gray water of the small pond.

The only arrival every evening was a lone coot. It would land and swim around a bit. Lacking decoys, I refrained from shooting the coot in hopes its presence would help attract that one great flock of mallards. When the coot would come close, I practiced my quacking. Every time I quacked, the coot swam a little farther away. I guessed it didn’t speak my kind of duck language.

For those unschooled of waterfowl, the coot is a very small black colored duck and the bane of waterfowl hunters. The coot was truly considered to be the trash duck of the sky. The coot is to waterfowl hunters as a carp is to bass fishermen. The bird has the culinary reputation of being under-sized, nasty tasting and tough. My ancient mentors of the liar’s bench swore only a starving man would sit down to a meal consisting of coot.

Rain or shine, warm or cold, I spent evening after evening watching the sun slowly set in a blaze of color. Evening after evening the same scenario repeated itself. No ducks, just the lone coot, and I was running out of time for something to put on the Thanksgiving table.

With the clock closing on Thanksgiving, I knew I had to make some tough (and I do mean tough) decisions. I made up my mind that I would be returning from the pond with game in tow. If a decent duck didn’t show up this evening, the coot was going to take one for the team, I mean for the table. Coot or not, I was determined to put waterfowl on the table. It would just have to do. Reassured by the family’s historical abstinence of my occasional wild game fare, I figured I could eat coot and, if nothing else, pretend to like it.

That evening, even the coot seemed to avoid the pond like the plague. As the precious minutes of shooting light slipped away, I was ready to resign myself to the fate of common turkey.

With the last passing rays of light, I glimpsed the approach of a lone bird coming in from far right. I knew it was now or never. Slipping off the safety of the scarred, old bolt-action, I swung to lead the bird with the metal screw that had replaced the original bead sight and squeezed the trigger. BOOOMMM! As the evening still was broken by the resounding roar of the old gun echoing across the pond, the coot folded in a cloud of feathers and splashed down in the middle of the pond.

Carefully unloading the shotgun and leaning it against the fork of a large willow, I waded in and began the icy trip to retrieve the coot.

Hurrying with the rapidly waning light, I made my way to the center of the pond. Scant inches separated the top of the boots from the water as the icy feel from the many pinholes in the cracked rubber heralded the need for new boots. All of the walking and running I did in the old hip boots had really increased the size of the pin holes. They’d become flat out leaks! I could feel the icy water hitting my legs and running down and soaking my sock feet.

Rushing against the flow of icy water into my boots, I picked up the coot and turned to make a shuffling dash back to the bank. Sloshing through the quarry pond, I failed to hear the noise in the distance. Slowly the sound became more distinct… Honk, Hoonkkk, Hoooonk! Glancing toward the horizon, I stopped dead in my tracks as I saw the dark silhouettes outlined against the fading blue sky.

Unbelievable! Rapidly dropping from the sky was one of the largest flocks of Canada Geese I had ever seen. The flock began to clamor as their weary wings sought the night’s rest on the pond.

I quickly stuffed the coot in my hunting jacket. Knowing the slightest move would send the flock careening back to the open sky, I glanced across the pond at the willow tree cradling my shotgun. Not sure of what to do, I decided to bend over, look down at the water, and try to look like a stump. Ducking my head down, I held as still as possible as the great flock readied to land. The seconds seemed like hours as the ever-increasing icy streams of water filled my boots.

The ruse worked. I froze in place stump-like, and the flock continued to descend! It suddenly dawned on me… what exactly is the plan once the geese land? My gun was 60 feet away, empty, leaning against a willow tree and I have no way of getting to it. If I move, I would blow my cover as stumps don’t suddenly start moving. And, then they were on me, and I do mean… THEY WERE ON ME!

The sound of the wind passing through the feathers of the huge flock became a muffled roar like an approaching whirlwind. Cupping and flapping their wings, the geese began to hit the water around me. I could feel the wind off of their wings and their feathers almost brushed my hunkered over torso.

I couldn’t stand the commotion any longer. Although some were within arm’s reach and grabbing distance, I opted for a mad dash for the bank. I would load my shotgun as fast as an Old West gunslinger, and I would wheel around and bring down a goose for the Thanksgiving table.

As soon as I straightened up, the remaining airborne geese saw my white face peering through the dim light. Realizing great danger upon seeing my pale face turned toward the sky, the flock leader called the warning to the descending birds. I heard the thrashing of hundreds of powerful wings fighting to reverse their descent and take the flock back to the safety of the open sky. I’d never heard such a racket in all my life! Geese were going everywhere… up… down… sideways… landing… taking off!

Ducking my head while stumbling backwards, I felt the great wings beat within inches of my head and shoulders as goose after goose passed over this very unexpected intruder.

Racing for the bank and splashing the icy water over the tops of the old hip boots, I made a mad dash for the willow blind and my trusty shotgun. Quickly I grabbed the 16-gauge, slapped the two remaining shells back in the magazine, and cycled the bolt.

Whipping around, flipping off the safety and looking across the pond, all I saw were the tiny ripples where once there had been a hundred geese. Faintly, I could hear the flock honking as they winged to safety somewhere far away in Decatur County.

‘till next time,

Jack

Readers can contact the author by writing to this publication, or e-mail to jackspaulding@hughes.net.

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