(Editor’s Note: With the current duck season ending this weekend, here’s a look back at a fictitious column that Herald Democrat outdoors writer Lynn Burkhead penned a few years ago. He says it’s one of his favorites, bringing together a lifetime of waterfowling memories collected during the closing days of duck season.)
On a moonlit night, the kind where clouds race in and out on a southerly breeze, the boat ramp parking lot is all but empty as you turn into it.
Except for that one young fellow’s truck, the tall, lanky lad that reminds you of…well, you, back when you were younger and had not a care in the world.
Once again, as he has done all season long, this 20-something go-getter has beaten you to the punch, parked his truck and launched his boat long before you’ve gotten there.
And you’re an early-bird type, not a late riser like some hunters in town are.
With a wry smile, you step into the cool morning breeze, close the door to your truck behind you, hit the electronic lock button and nod in his direction.
“Good luck young man,” you whisper to no one in particular. “I hope they fly well for you this morning and that you get a limit…but only after I do!”
Making your way down to the water’s edge, the big 18-foot War Eagle flat bottom boat sits rocking in the slight swell, scraping against the shoreline gravel as the gentle waves roll in.
Reaching the camouflaged rig, Maggie Sue, your middle-aged black Labrador retriever is waiting, albeit with a slight whimper and an impatient tail-thump, eager to embrace the coming day.
And to unleash the ancient DNA coursing through her veins as she plunges into the lake’s chilly waters again to do what generations of her canine species have done before, and that’s to fetch ducks to hand.
After hitting the boat motor’s electric start, the engine comes to life and you throttle away into the darkness, racing the coming dawn as you push down the lake’s main channel.
Despite knowing the way by heart, you cast the sweeping beam of the big spotlight onto the shoreline to help you navigate into a secluded backwater area you call Rozey’s Slough, named after a long ago hunting partner that moved away.
With the blush of dawn smudging the eastern horizon, three dozen decoys are hurriedly tossed onto the water, their Texas-rigged weights quickly grabbing the bottom, which allows the fake mallards, pintails and green-winged teal blocks to bob realistically in the breeze.
Wading ashore to the make-shift blind sandwiched between a pair of shoreline willows, Maggie Sue takes her spot next to your seat on a fallen log as the ancient waiting game begins.
Given the late date of the season, there really isn’t much reason to expect a limit. Temperatures have been mild for weeks, the southerly breeze is pushing birds north with every passing day and the hunting reports are mixed at best.
Still, you hope for the best as you nurse a cup of coffee out of your YETI thermos bottle, a Christmas gift a few weeks ago from your wife. It’s fancy and expensive for sure, but you have to admit that it keeps the coffee steaming hot, which is all that you can ask for on a late January day.
At some point, as first light gives way to legal shooting light under the broken deck of clouds rolling by to the north, you hear a familiar sound, that faint whistle of wings that stops you in mid-sip and causes the Lab to whimper and look to the sky.
Under the brim of your hat you see them, a small group of greenheads. There’s three in fact, two drakes and a hen, and they bank hard at the highball that tumbles out of your worn Yentzen double-reed duck call.
It’s a call that you’ve had for years, one fashioned from walnut a couple of decades ago by Cowboy Fernandez and the boys down at the Sure-Shot Game Calls factory in Groves, Texas. As the mallards work overhead, the call works its magic now just as it did the first day that you bought it.
A moment later, the trio of birds is dropping into the decoy spread as your worn Remington 870 is shouldered, barks once and unleashes its string of non-toxic shot into the wind. A drake crumples a bit on the first shell’s report and you use the second shot to bring him down for good, electing not to fire a third shell at the rapidly departing drake and hen.
Almost as soon as the retriever wades ashore with the drake, a small group of five birds suddenly appears over the top of the natural blind, somehow not seeing what is going on below.
A quick five-note greeting call turns the birds and you’re soon dispatching Maggie Sue to retrieve the two greenheaded drakes bobbing at the edge of the decoy spread.
“Not bad,” you muse. “Less than 30 minutes into the last day of the season and I’ve got three mallard drakes lying on this log next to me. Pretty good hunt indeed.”
But that’s when things get tough as the skies partially clear, the wind picks up and the waves keep building to a steady chop on the water in front of you.
A half-hour of empty skies goes by. Then another half-hour. And then another and suddenly, you’re wondering if that’s it for the season as you realize that it’s mid-morning and nothing has flown by in a long while.
Such thoughts are suddenly interrupted by the whistling music of waterfowl wings and you look up to see a dozen gadwalls flying over. You had hoped for a limit of greenheads, but beggars can’t be choosers, especially so late in the season.
So when the gray ducks respond to the call and circle their way down to the spread below, you’re all too happy to knock a couple down and find yourself a bird shy of a last day limit.
Two hours later, with mid-day approaching and your stomach growling for lunch back at the roadside cafe a few miles down the road, you’re about ready to call it good for another year.
But as you reach over to scratch Maggie Sue’s head for a final time today, a single duck suddenly flies over from behind.
“A pintail drake!” your mind silently screams as you fumble for the little Rascal whistle on your duck call lanyard, something that lets you tumble out a few musical notes to try and lure in one of the Central Flyway’s top trophy birds, especially at the end of the season.
A few minutes and a dozen circling turns later, the bull sprig is finally convinced and lowers his landing gear to backpedal down into the decoy spread. The shot of #2 Remington HyperSonic steel pellets is almost anti-climatic as the bird folds cleanly in mid-air and crashes into the decoy spread below, an easy retrieve for your duck dog if there ever was one.
After some reflection on the season that is now done, you finish off the last of the coffee, wade out into knee-deep water to pick up the spread, bag the decoys up one last time and then toss them into the boat where Maggie Sue is waiting along with six puddle ducks that she flawlessly retrieved.
You climb aboard, fire the boat motor up, turn to take one last look at the slough and then start motoring for the ramp.
A short while later, you round the final bend and see an empty parking lot awaiting your triumphant return.
And with that observation, a smile crosses your stubbled face.
“I wonder how that young fellow did today?” you ask out loud to the dog, almost as if you expect her to answer. “I sure hope he had a hunt as good as ours. Because this was certainly a last day to remember.”
As the Lab looks back at you, you could almost swear that you saw her smile.
And maybe even think in the recesses of her canine mind “Indeed boss, it most certainly was.”