Up The River

The opposite of camo

The opposite of camo

Up the river. Not always a great place to be going; a Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now kind of place. Or your trip to New York’s infamous old prison – Sing Sing – via the Hudson. But sometimes it can be a good thing. Like my last hunt of the season, on a river south of my house.

This season was short on waterfowl hunts. A couple of letters for Gray Lodge became paper airplanes. Another for Sac should’ve been skipped but wasn’t and produced nothing but an aching back and a muddy cart. Then came the #1 draw for Little Dry Creek, which delivered limits, plus geese, and a helluva good time for three guys. Refuge hunting at its finest.

And then I discovered there’s something beyond the refuge, beyond the clubs. There’s the river.

Ever since I started waterfowling, I’ve heard guys say they hunt “the river,” different rivers of course, depending on who was talking. Down south, the rivers were rumored to be stinking sewers, or maybe hunters just said that to keep others away. Up north, the only river I’ve been on is the American. I’ve seen ducks on it, dealing with rapids a lot more effortlessly than me in my kayak. But pulling out a shotgun there – with tourists and the weeds ‘n seeds bunch paddling beside me – probably not a good idea.  But I’ve always been curious about river hunting, picturing that lone gunman drifting stealthily around a bend to ambush loafing ducks. Or those crews in bigger boats with swivel seats and grass walls, decoys all around. Just never got the opportunity.

Until Dan, from that day at LDC, invited me along on a river hunt.

We met at the boat ramp, me there early and excited for this new adventure. Happy, too, to be free of the cart, the bag of decoys, cover material. I even had extra shells in my bag, well, because I could. The fog was low and thick when we shoved off, and motoring up the river I was grateful that Dan knew the waterway, turning before I even saw the river bend, slowing down before I even saw the overhanging tree that could’ve taken off our heads. Used to hitting the rutted mud paths out to a blind, it was a strange way, for me anyway, to get to a spot. Mysterious, dark, headlights bouncing off the shroud of fog that surrounded us. Add a foreboding soundtrack and the smell of death, I would’ve thought we were heading up the Nung River in Cambodia.

That morning, making our way through the eerie fog and dark, seemed like a search for Col. Kurtz. The afternoon was more of a pleasure cruise.

That morning, making our way through the eerie fog and dark, seemed like a search for Col. Kurtz. The afternoon was more of a pleasure cruise.

After awhile Dan turned off into a little notched out part of the river. Minutes later, decoys were out, spinner up, and we were sitting back on the brushy shore awaiting shoot time. And when it came, our only notice was the time on our iPhones, not shots going off around us. Bliss.

Dawn came without the sun; the fog lifting off our shoulders but never clearing. We could hear ducks and geese, but most flew overhead unseen in the early hours. Later, small groups would circle our little bay, curious but not committed. We saw and heard flocks of wood ducks – something I’ve never had on my strap. None came within range but it was good just to know they were there. I claimed a nice drake mallard a little later, which confounded the dog by falling in a tree just out of his reach. Two more mallards drifted by right in front of us and – six rapid fire shots later – they flew on without a feather out of place. One of those easy shots that make you shake your head in amazement when you miss. Seconds later I doubled on a pair of speeding teal, which was gratifying and both soothed the earlier miss and made it all the more of a head scratcher.

Hours of watching ducks circle and then depart followed, until two mallards swooped in behind us and Dan knocked down both in a tough straight up overhead shot. The low overcast seemed to swallow up most of our potential targets, but I was happy to have a mallard and two teal for the fridge. They were icing on a cake made of beautiful scenery, the natural peacefulness of the river, and a hunting buddy that shares the notion that hunting should get you away from it all not in the middle of it: the neighboring shots that mess up working birds, the 3am crowd at the check station, guys yelling at their dogs or whooping it up every time they kill a duck.

"Blue" takes in the scenery on the way back.

“Baloo” takes in the scenery on the way back.

That night I put the mallard breasts in a good brine, and two days later – coated in flour, egg and Panko breadcrumbs – smiled at the sizzle as they slipped into the skillet. They reminded me of a good morning on the river, a new place, a first time hunt, the kind of relaxing and soul-refreshing day that duck hunting ought to be. But they did raise a question: I wonder if anyone’s got a duck boat for sale?

Ducks on a log will beat ducks on a tailgate every time.

Ducks on a log will beat ducks on a tailgate every time.

~ by SpeakingZenaphorically on January 27, 2015.

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