We made good time on the freeway and were the first rig at the dock. The drizzle let up as we started to launch but the wind continued to gust ensuring we would have a white-capped trip down the long, winding slough. After we fastened our life vests, secured our gear, and hunkered the dog down by my feet, The Hunting Partner put the boat and gear and we puttered out of the marina. I was in charge of the spotlight - a task that is critical but not a lot of fun. The prospect of racing down the slough at 25 mph with my hand hanging over the side of the boat getting oversprayed with freezing water for 45 minutes is tough gig. But at those speeds in the pitch black, your light is your life-line. The slough is lined with trees and there are a few stumps that encroach into the water that you have to avoid. If not, your boat could be opened like a can of sardines from bow to stern.
The trip to our landing spot was familiar, one that we had done many times. But we would be heading into a completely new hunting area today. The area was one that The Hunting Partner grew up chasing mallards but had not returned to for 20 years.
The trip was as uneventful as it could be and the neoprene gloves worked well to protect my hands from freezing in the mold of the spotlight handle. The trip took a little longer than anticipated as we bucked the wind and fought with the lapping white cap waves. We worked quickly to secure the boat to a tree and off-load all of our gear. Securing everything on our backs, we headed out into the stomach-deep water for the long walk to our hunting spot.
As predicted, even though we were heading into the cold blustery wind, I could feel my core temperature rise and the sweat beginning to form in the familiar places. We hoofed it for another 30 minutes through the eerily-deep and unsettled swamp bottom. The Hunting Partner's memory was like an elephant and we arrived to the old blind that still stood stoic in the small pothole. The willows had grown up around it, but to our relief, the old plywood platform was still stable, which was good enough to get us and the dog up and out of the water.
Dawn was right around the corner so we had to work quickly to set out decoys and get settled in the blind. We used 18 mallard and pintail decoys on the north and south side of the blind, setting them to attract birds coming in on the wing from down wind side.
We climbed into the blind just as the red dawn emerged and as anticipated, it wasn't long before the first small flock of birds came screeching overhead. There is nothing like the sound of ducks on the wing cutting through the strong wind like a razor through paper. I immediately got on the call and caught the flight's attention. A quick glace at my watch affirmed that it was shooting time and I focused the call to lull the birds into the false hope of what lay below.
The birds swung wide down wind, teasing us that they may just keep going. But a commanding lean on the call ensured that they made the hard banking turn right into the wind and headed straight toward the blind. If you have duck hunted for any length of time, you know when the birds are yours; when you've locked them on target and all that will be left to do is seal the deal when they arrive on scene. These birds were set. They had taken their cue from the lead dog and were coming in like they had called ahead for a table for 5.
I look over at The Hunting Partner and he gives me the "I'm ready" look. Now all we do is wait. Bucking the wind, it seems like an eternity before the ducks get into range. Now that they are drawing closer, the early light begins to reveal their species. I pride myself on knowing my ducks inside and out - from long distance silhouettes to up close snap shots. But as I glared at the medium-bodied flight coming ever-so-closer, I became puzzled as to what they may be. I immediately dismiss the usual suspects; mallards-no; pintail-definitely not; gadwall-nope. I shift into B-list birds in my mind. Could they be blue bills? merganser? I whisper to The Hunting Partner, "What are they?" He shoots back a puzzled look and sheepish shrug of his shoulders.
As the birds arrived to our blind, we were fortunate to buy a little more time because the birds unexpectedly swung wide around the outside of the blind and were intent on coming in the side door. We quickly shifted our feet and field of vision just as those screaming jets lowered their landing gear and set their wings. They're on us, we're ready to shoot, but what are they? We both hesitate, squinting hard to make a positive ID before pulling the trigger. AH HA! "Golden Eyes!!" I shout as we both rise from the blind and attempt to single out a bird from the flock that had become wise to our presence and turned on the after-burners going with the wind.
Chaos ensues and a flurry of steel peppers the air with little result. On my third and final shell, I settled my nerves, led a single trailing drake, and reached out with a hope and prayer. We've all been there, and rarely does this strategy actually work. But the waterfowl Gods were with me on this day, and, as I would find out from the taxidermist later on, it was a golden BB to the head that brought down that magnificent bird.
The air drew silent and the dog did what he does best and retrieved the single specimen. When he delivered it to hand, I beamed with pride as I realize that this was the first Golden Eye I had ever harvested. And he was a beautiful species, preserved perfectly because of the lack of shot embedded into his lifeless body.
We take a moment and give each other a high-five despite the fact that the shooting on the flock was less than what we would like to admit to. But to have harvested a rare bird in our bag, and a first-time species for me, that was worthy of a little celebration.
The rest of the morning would prove just as exciting, with 13 mixed birds on the strap as we packed up and headed out. Although it was not a mallard day as anticipated, it was fun and rewarding none-the-less. As we reversed our course back to the boat, I made the decision right then to preserve my Golden Eye as a permanent reminder of this wonderful outing.
Back home, I contacted Skip Miller, owner of Mounted Memories and asked if he would be interested in mounting my bird. As a Master Taxidermist with multiple state award-winning waterfowl mounts, I would only trust Skip to do this special bird. I knew he would not disappoint. Skip was happy to accept the bird and promised to deliver what I wanted.
As the pictures show, Skip certainly did deliver! He posed the bird just as I had described in my emails to him - yes through email! And I couldn't be happier. Check out my mount plus many other of Skip's award winning birds in his website gallery.
Memories are an important part of the legacy in hunting. The stories we pass down to the future generation of our sport are important to building upon the imagination and lore of why we hunt, eat, and live!