The third hunter in our party, Monique, had gotten the first duck of the day – her first duck ever.
It was a spoonie hen that had made the mistake of dropping into our modest decoy spread at the edge of some grass in a slack-water slough.
She was a little fattie too. The duck, not Monique. Monique is thin.
So many duck hunters spurn the Northern Shoveler, but Monique didn’t suffer from the prejudices of the old-school and the more experienced. She started hunting in large part because she loves cooking, and this duck marked the beginning of new adventures in her kitchen.
She beamed when Charlie handed the duck to her, and Charlie and I grinned at each other. “First duck of the day, and the right person got it,” he said.
That was hours earlier, when you could still see steam rising off the slough as the moisture met the chill October air.
Since then, we’d had precisely two ducks come in range.
The first was a mallard that flew straight over our heads, about 60 yards up.
Charlie was shooting Remington Hypersonic, and he knew he could’ve brought that bird down. I was shooting Winchester Blind Side, which is way slower than Hypersonic, but I’d gotten a chance to test it in the field last year, and wow, it brought ducks down hard. Chances were good that I could’ve dropped the bird into my lap.
Neither of us shot, though. We both knew that if the bird didn’t drop straight down, we were going to send it into the trees and dense growth behind us. Hunting, as we were, without a dog meant retrieval would be dicey.
We looked at each other afterward, and agreed we might regret that decision.
One more duck came by that morning.
It was another mallard, probably not more than 30 yards out, but he was flying over the edge of the deep main channel of the slough. If we dropped him and he banked away, rather than banking toward us (and can I say not nearly enough ducks bank toward us?), someone would have to go swimming. I thought it was still a bit nippy for that, so I never raised my gun.
Charlie said he would’ve been up for a swim, but my head was in the way of his shot. Oh well.
By 10:30 a.m., we knew we were done, and we were neither surprised nor disappointed. The Northern California national wildlife refuge where we usually hunt hadn’t opened yet, so we’d gone to a, shall we say, less premium location. Charlie had warned me.
And like Charlie had said earlier, the right person had gotten the only duck of the day.
That’s magic, right there. Monique will never forget the first and only shot she took on her first duck hunt ever. First shots matter.
I took my first shots five years ago, and I remember them vividly. My first kill was a pheasant. My boyfriend Hank and I were walking through a field in a line with other hunters, with me on the end. It was drizzling.
I saw a rooster duck into some grass, so I raised my gun to my shoulder and crept toward it, stalking like Elmer Fudd.
“What are you doing?” Hank yelled with absolutely no concern for his volume.
I pointed at the grass and whispered loudly, “I saw a pheasant in here.”
“Well, go kick it up!”
I did. I walked that way, the bird flushed, I shot once, and down he went.
What a goofball I’d been, stalking that bird! I tell that story to new hunters all the time to put them at ease about the awkwardness I know they’re feeling. I don’t care that I looked like a dufus. It was my first bird. It’s my story.
Five years have gone by, but some moments still hold that magic for me, like the first shot of the season.
Would I have liked to come home with some ducks on this year’s opener? Absolutely.
But what if I had taken one of those shots and the worst had happened: Wounding the bird, and losing it?
That’s not the way I want to start my season, so I’m OK with my decision. There’ll be plenty of time for my first shot of the season next weekend.