I don’t know what it is about this year, but maybe there is something to this whole global warming thing. You’ll recall we experienced similarly warm weather while waterfowling in Canada last month. Now this? Go figure.
The poor report didn’t completely matter however because, as it turns out I had to work on opening weekend. Damn strategic planning meetings anyway. I hated the thought of my buddies out in the marsh taking spectacular shots at ducks on the wing and finishing with limits of fowl in two hours during a glorious morning. All the while I am listening to a “facilitator” drone on about being a 21st century company. Ugggg. My sweet revenge was that the opener stunk. Neeener neeener.
By Wednesday I was chomping at the bit to get out and sit my butt in some swamp water in an attempt to harvest the first birds of the season. Luckily I had sent in reservation applications for both myself and The Boy at several of the California public refuges and had drawn a reservation for Wednesday morning.
The California refuge reservation system is a fairly competitive process wherein hunters from around the state pay $1.25 per application entry, per hunt day, for each refuge that they want to hunt. Thousands upon thousands of applications are turned in each year for a coveted refuge reservation card to show up in the mail. The odds at some of the best refuges can be upwards of a 60:1 chance of getting drawn. Other less productive refuges range from 10 to 20:1 odds.
I was excited to receive a reservation card for Wednesday in that it would only be the third shoot day of the season (refuges only shoot on Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday) so there would be a good chance that many of those local birds that didn’t move around and get shot over the weekend would be susceptible on Wednesday morning.
The more pressing reason for my excitement was that I planned to take The Boy for his first-ever duck hunt. To me this was the culmination of all the hunting that I had imprinted on him as a youngster. It was his very own opportunity to harvest his first meal.
Our reservation was for the Yolo Wildlife Area, a relatively new refuge that is literally 15 minutes from downtown Sacramento. The refuge manager has been working hard over the last 10 years to improve the habitat and provide a quality hunting program. Part of these enhancements included the installation of island blinds several years ago.
With reservation #6 I knew that The Boy and I would have a chance at a good blind. Having done my research and talked to a few people who hunt the area often, I knew which blinds generally produce better and which produce worse.
The alarm clock sounded at a much-too-early 3am and after getting to my feet, I padded my way down to The Boys room where he woke without much resistance. We pulled our things together and made the one hour drive to the wildlife area check station where we waited for the check station staff to begin calling the reservation numbers.
When our number was called we selected the best blind available then made the one mile journey on foot to the small posted sign that signified where we were to enter the pond. After transferring all of our gear from the decoy cart to our backs, we slogged our way across a 200 yard section of pond to the island that housed our concrete pit blind.
As the boy fixated on stomping out the 500 crickets that had found comfort in our blind overnight, I went to work on setting out the decoys in a string that would position any decoying ducks right in front of The Boy’s side of the blind. Today was all about him.
Unlike opening weekend, a mid-week cold front had swept in from the north and a wonderful 15mph wind blew constantly across our cheeks. The temperature was a brisk 43 degrees without considering the wind chill. Not exactly frigid, but certainly cold enough to keep the birds moving around.
As shooting time drew near, I took extra care to pause and enjoy every minute that The Boy and I shared together in that blind. As a father, I knew that there is only one ‘first’ and I wanted to make sure that I made the most of it for both of us. It wasn’t about how many birds we would shoot or whether we got our limits, it was all about being in the moment. One of those keystone events that is etched into both of your memories for a lifetime. I wanted to get this just right. You only get this opportunity once, so I wanted to make the most of it.
With five minutes remaining until the opening bell, I shook my son’s hand, we wished each other luck, and loaded our shotguns.
Boom, boom went the first report of the morning several fields across the way. “Game on”, I thought.
For the next several minutes we witnessed flocks of birds moving head-strong into the wind; a bunch of teal here, a half dozen mallards there, and a flight of specklebelly geese fighting to make horizontal progress. Several more guns reported in the early morning air, but I could tell that the birds were not looking like they were in a decoying mood. Although it was cold and windy, the sky was crystal clear so most of the flocks we saw were ‘on a mission to somewhere’, as we like to say. Meaning that they lift off from where they were roosting and immediately head up to about 100+ yards and head out of the refuge, ignoring calls and decoy spreads all around.
It was exciting to see all of the birds flitting about. I pointed out the different groups to The Boy and did my very best to try and call lower groups into our blocks; but nothing wanted to work into the decoys.
Finally, after 20 minutes I notice a pair of teal low on the water heading squarely our direction at roughly 150 yards. I whispered to The Boy that there were two coming in, and after pointing out their direction, he indicated that he had the visual on them as well.
This was it, these birds were coming in and I knew The Boy was going to have his first chance. The birds were continuing to come straight toward us when I noticed that the lead bird started to slip to our left, which was a good sign since The Boy was on the left side of the blind. If I’ve seen it once I’ve seen it a thousand times, I knew that this pair was going to slide out to the left and bank around the blind. Ducks don’t like to fly over land masses so they were either going right or left. The lead birds’ twitch to the left had me whispering under my breath, “This is going to happen.”
With the aerodynamics in the bird’s favor, these ducks were coming in fast. So at 30 yards I told The Boy to stand up and get his gun ready. By the time he was set, they had closed the gap to 15 yards and, as predicted, were skirting the left edge of the blind. I hollered, “shoot ‘em”, and in what seemed like an eternity later, I finally heard POW.
I saw the lead teal crumble and splash to the water below. We both squealed like a couple of school girls and my first reaction was to state what was now clearly obvious, “You got it son, you stoned that duck!” Woo hoo!
He and I leapt out of the blind and I gave him a great big bear hug. I grabbed his hand and we walked out into the pond where I picked up the lifeless bird and handed it to him.
He paused for a minute admiring his harvest, then muttered, “I did it, I got one.” You sure did son, you certainly did.
With ducks still filling the air we gathered our senses and made our way back into the blind. Unfortunately no other ducks wanted to work, which was fine because it gave us time to talk about the events that had unfolded earlier; embellishing on the spectacular nature of it over and over again.
After two hours of little activity we agreed that we would pick up and head back to the truck in 30 minutes. Just as I finished uttering those words, a duck flew in from the north but landed far outside the decoys, about 80 yards from our location. I told The Boy to keep an eye on that bird just in case it got up and came our way.
Sure enough, ten minutes later hunters in one of the other blinds blasted away at a duck and the noise rousted the duck near us from her loafing spot. Because she was to the north I knew there was a chance that she would get up and make a turn to begin heading south with the wind. Almost on cue she did just that and as she gained altitude she banked left and was heading right toward us!
I told The Boy to get ready, but this duck was beginning to catch some serious tail wind. She was also swinging to the right side of our setup meaning that she would cross on my side of the blind. I told The Boy that after she crossed over the top and got out in front that I wanted him to shoot her while I stayed seated.
Just as I instructed, the bird cleared over the top of us and as I sat facing him, he rose from his seat and took aim. I was less confident about him hitting this duck because of the difficult shot. She was gaining both altitude and speed as she bank around our position. A difficult shot for even the most seasoned waterfowler.
I watched the boy take aim and heard the gun report. I immediately looked over my right shoulder just in time to see this duck crumble and fall like a stone into the pond below. Holy cow, he did it again!
This time it was his turn to state the obvious and after checking his safety, he set down his gun and we both jumped from the blind once again. We waded out to see the lifeless bird floating just beyond some tule reeds. This time I stopped a few steps short and encouraged him to go and pick up his quarry, which he did with a youthful exuberance.
To say I was proud of my boy is an understatement. I was not only happy for his success, but also for how he had carried himself the entire day; from getting up at 3am, to making the one mile walk, to sitting in a blind without any action for two hours. All without even the hint of a 9-year old complaint or gripe.
We decided to end the day on that high note and began packing up our things. As we picked up the decoys we recounted all of the days’ events as if they were tales from long ago. After walking the mile back to our truck, we checked in his birds with the check station staff and began the drive home.
As The Boy settled into his seat and I steered the truck onto the freeway, the late morning sun filled his passenger window. The warmth of the sun was a nice break from the constant morning wind, and before long, The Boy nestled down for a much-deserved nap. As his eyes grew heavy he turned his head and caught my attention with that youthful innocence that I love so much. I glanced his way and he simply said, “Thank you dad. I love you.”
This is why I live to hunt.