It wasn’t one of those limits-in-30-minutes days, but we were getting steady pulses of birds in a location that wasn’t known for great hunting. By 9 a.m., I think each of us – Hank, his friend Ian and I – had four or five birds on our straps.
And I was hungry for more. A month earlier, I’d had major surgery that cost me three weeks of prime duck hunting. Now on the mend, I was going to hunt the hell out of the rest of the season.
Or so I imagined.
There we were, in the middle of one of those slow spells, when I did one of those stupid things I always regret instantly: I looked up, saw two unfamiliar ducks flying maybe 40-50 yards straight overhead, and instead of raising my gun, I simply stared at them and asked Hank, “What’s that?”
I suck at overhead shots anyway, so it was really no loss to pass on the shot.
Hank, on the other hand, doesn’t suffer from congenital failure to act.
“I don’t know,” he said, raising his gun.
That was enough to jar me from my own inaction. Not to be outdone, I raised my gun too. We both shot twice. Nothing dropped.
But I watched the bird I’d aimed at, and sure enough it locked wings and began a slow descent against the wind, gliding a good 100 yards before a splash signaled it had given up the ghost at the edge of some tules.
Well, well! Looks like I’d see what kind of duck it was after all.
I pulled myself out of the tank blind, avoiding strain that might jeopardize my surgeon’s handiwork, and set out against that wind.
A 100-yard hike through the water is always a chore. Set that walk against a 30 mph north wind and it’s twice as bad. Then add recent surgery and good lord, this is taking a long time.
For most of the walk I stared hard at the spot where I’d seen the splash, straining to detect any movement. I couldn’t even see the body in the shadows. Had it tucked into the tules where I might never find it? I really wasn’t up for a protracted search.
But as I drew closer, I saw the unmistakable form of a dead duck. I relaxed and eased my pace.
Closer still, I saw a lot of white. Had I gotten something crazy? Not too far from here, hunters had recently gotten some long-tailed ducks that had blown way south of their normal winter habitat during some major storms. That would be a mounter for sure!
Closer still, I saw it had a dark head.
Almost there, I saw it was big. Really big.
There! I reached down for its head and
I’d encountered only the smaller hooded mergansers before, and this one was a common merganser, but I knew them all to be the most foul-smelling birds in the duck world. I’m pretty sure Hank and Ian heard my howls even over the shriek of the wind.
Now, truth be told, long-tailed ducks are also fish eaters, but getting a long-tailed duck would be cool, whereas getting a merganser just means you screwed up.
I hit the replay button in my head: Big white body. Big green head. That’s all I saw. Don’t remember seeing any bill, much less … this. Well, I’d never forget that sight picture.
But as I examined my prize, I realized he was actually really beautiful, like most divers, a study in black, white and gray, with some incredibly delicate details on his wing and rump feathers. I hadn’t taken more than a few steps back toward the blind before I’d decided to have him mounted.
It’d sure beat eating him.
Happy with the outcome, I was grinning by the time I got back to the blind. When the hunt was over, Hank and I drove straight to the taxidermist.
Later, I would ponder the turn of events. What had I learned?
That if I’d just act instead of staring, I’d kill more ducks.
And if I’d just go ahead and stare and leave the gun in my lap, that wouldn’t be so bad either.
Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com