The hunting season is long behind us and the start of another glorious fall is months away. So, what do hunters do in between seasons? Some of us fish, some of us grow a big vegetable garden, and those of us that live by the sea start lobstering and clamming. I try to enjoy all of it here on the Massachusetts coast. But to be honest, I spend many evenings re-reading all the great hunting stories in my favorite books and magazines.
I will tell you something else that I do, as long as you promise to keep it a secret. On the bay where I live, there is a little patch of beach plum and beach rose – and it holds a few rabbits! The beach society frowns on hunters and all the stuff we love (“guns,” baying hounds, staunch pointers locked up on poor little birds, etc.). But, when it’s raining, blowing hard, or too cold for beach goers, the miles of beach by my home becomes a deserted ghost town. That’s when I take Pup-Pup, my tri-colored beagle, for a little walk…!
Miss Daisy-Mae howls her head off as soon as she smells the salt air. She stands with her front paws on the dash and her rear paws on the good seats, smudging the clean windows with her nose. She knows where we are going even before we leave the house. One mention of the word “bunny” and she is doing the beagle dance and running for her leash, knowing the beach bunnies are waiting...!
I use to open the kitchen door and let her out when we left the house and she would run straight for the truck. But these days, we have so many bunnies around our little farm that she forgets all about the beach rabbits and takes the nearest scent trail she can find – usually in my vegetable garden. So, now, I leash her and we walk to the truck together. It more closely resembles a man being dragged by a dog, but we will ignore that fact in the spirit of the hunt.
All the beach bunnies hear us coming, long before we arrive:
“Bugsy…Here comes that stupid beagle again! Same plan as last time…?”
“Yeah, let’s keep crisscrossing, circling, and running through the thick stuff. Run down the dunes like you do and I’ll hang back. When you get bored, give me the signal and I’ll do that sprint right across her nose that drives her mad. Then, let’s work her back this way through as much poison ivy as possible, and hole up…”
I no longer open the driver’s side door to let the beagle out when we get there. Pup-Pup is so excited she just leaps out the window and hits the ground running. I just sort of lean back and try to get out of her way. It usually takes all of ten seconds before she opens up on a bunny and the chase is on.
I’ll sit in the truck with my coffee and some good country music playing, or turn on Rush Limbaugh, while the beagle works herself into a frenzy. When she gets tired, she comes by for a quick drink on the fly and keeps right on going. But after a while, I’ll wade into the poison ivy up to my neck and catch her. Like all beagles, she will hunt until she drops and you have to know when it’s time to leash her up and call it a day.
We bounce back down the dirt road that leads to home, both of us are covered head to toe in poison ivy dust. The beagle whines and howls and watches out the rear window as our secret rabbit patch disappears into the distance. She can’t believe we are leaving. But then she settles down on the salt and sand-covered leather seats, and takes a short nap.
We pull into the driveway and I open the truck door to let her out. She stands and stretches and does a big yawn. She sniffs the breeze, like the hunter she is, enjoying the fresh air. I don’t rush her. I know she is taking in a good whiff of the vegetable garden bunny before heading into the house. We both walk up to the steps, ignoring the outdoor kennel, and head for the kitchen. She waits patiently for her treat, then gets a gentle pat on the head before retiring to the living room.
As I tidy up the house, I glance over at her all stretched out on the good furniture littered with her toys. I know she is pretending to be asleep while keeping an eye on me. We’re both dreaming of bunnies and autumn and the smell of rabbit stew simmering on the stove, and a nice fire in the fireplace. I give her another little pat as I walk past and she thumps her tail without opening her eyes. It may be summertime, but we never stop thinking about fall.
I’ve gotten into the habit of carrying a gun to work with me every day. Heck, I’ve always taken a gun with me everywhere I’ve gone for the past thirty years, just out of common sense. Good medicine in case I run into the sick.
But I’ve been taking another gun to the office with me lately, a BB gun…! That’s right, a BB gun. A little lever action Daisy that I got from my father when I was six years old. It measures 30” inches muzzle to butt. Dad bought it for me to teach me marksmanship, discipline, and safety in handling firearms. Best thing he ever did and I would recommend it highly, to all parents of sound mind and judgment.
I was the top fly shooter in my neighborhood, maybe even in the whole town. I was also the top bee shooter, but Dad discouraged bee shooting. Bees were beneficial, flies were not.
Dad started me out shooting flies on the side of an old, falling down building along the edge of our land. We’d sit on the little hill overlooking the building and gun flies for hours on sunny days as they landed on the shingles. Dad would shoot for a while, then I’d shoot. It might have been just a little competition in marksmanship between a young boy and his father, but it was a lot of fun!
Whenever a hornet came into view, my finger began to twitch and I wanted to smack it bad. I’d been stung many times in my six years, in the raspberry patch while picking berries. But Dad always whispered quietly when he saw me getting edgy, “Now, don’t shoot the hornet. Hornets are beneficial...” Dad liked hornets. I hated them. I did not like bumblebees, either, after getting stung on the arm while sitting innocently on the school bus one day. Man, did that hurt!
Well, time moved on and I moved up the ladder and got into hunting full-bore. I got into rabbit hunting, squirrel hunting, upland birds, deer, waterfowl, you name it. If it was huntable, I hunted it and ate it.
Years later, when my own kids starting getting into shooting, I still had the little Daisy BB gun Dad bought for me when I was six years old. Naturally, I used it to teach my own children about marksmanship, discipline, and safety in handling firearms. My son has become quite the fly shooter, and I’m guessing, he’s probably a pretty good bee shooter, too, but I wouldn’t know about that. Bees are beneficial – UNLESS they are in your office!
I was sitting at my desk the other day, minding my own business, when the biggest , meanest, loudest bumblebee I have ever seen in my life, barged through the door and threatened to harm me.
Always on the alert, I did not sit there and wait to see what was going to happen. I took the threat seriously and went into instant defense mode. STOP THE THREAT!!! I lunged at him, taking a swing with one hand while reaching for my gun with the other. The Daisy came up and snugged into my shoulder in lightning fast auto mode, as if it were a part of me. I worked the lever action in one smooth, quick stroke and had the offender in my sights in a split second. I gave commands loud and clear for all to hear: “STOP! DON’T MOVE! DON’T MAKE ME SHOOT YOU!” The offender ignored my commands and came right at me – THWAK!!! He tumbled out of the air and fell to the floor. I cocked the gun and again shouted: “STOP! DON’T MOVE! DON’T MAKE ME SHOOT YOU!” But once again, the offender rose up and came at me with fire in his eyes – THWAK!!! He tumbled to the floor again, and I opened the door and flicked him outside. The threat was stopped, peace had been restored, and I returned to my desk. OOPS – did I just hear a fly???
call (781) 934-2838. You can also write him at P.O. Box 366 Duxbury, MA 02331.
The first time I went crow hunting I stepped in dog mess. I was young, somewhere around five of six. The new super highway, Route 3, had just gone through, connecting Boston to Cape Cod. It cut right through the middle our little seaside town in Duxbury, Massachusetts.
The new speedway was one big, long, pile of crap that began the destruction of rural life in our area of coastal New England. One could now make the trip from the city to the Cape in about an hour, instead of taking the back roads used by horse and buggy not too long ago. With the super highway came the one thing my Yankee family despised: Lots of people. “Wash-a-shores” is what we called them. Still do. They blow into town with their money and fancy cars, snatch up some real estate, and then, just like that, figured now that they lived here they could tell us locals what to do and how to do it. And what they didn’t like about our rural way of life.
My father put the owl decoy up on the pole by the bog like he always did. Only difference was, instead of quiet, country ways, we sat there and listened to cars buzz by behind us at fifty miles an hour. Right where we use to paddle the canoe amongst the lily pads and large mouth bass. Almost over the top of our crow hunting spot. Well, we were not about to let the highway push us Yankees out of our crow hunting spot. Yankees don’t move too well when pushed (you may recall some of that in your history books).
Well, Dad began blowing on the crow call and soon enough, a couple of crows came flying in and then a massive flock of about fifty, all crowing and cawing at the top of their lungs. Every now and then, one of the bolder ones would dive-bomb the owl decoy and smack its head with crow feet. Owl didn’t move. Made them all even madder. It was all so exciting laying there in the pine needles under a clump of white pines with crows all around us going absolutely crazy!
That’s when we smelled it for the first time. It reeked to high heavens. Dad got a stick and showed me how to flick it out of the bottom of my shoe. It smelled like the city.
On our way out, we saw a wash-a-shore walking her dog along the bog road, her fancy car pulled over to the side. She looked at the gun and the owl decoy and thought we had shot an owl and made a disparaging comment that didn’t seem too friendly. I noticed Dad walked a little brisker to get back into the woods on the trail that led to home, and I hurried behind him. He mumbled something to the lady as we walked past, but at six years old, I didn’t understand what it was. But I did learn where a lot of dog mess comes from.
Well, here we are on the cusp of March. Another rabbit hunt or two, maybe one more try at bass and perch through the ice, and then it’s on to Spring turkey season – while dreaming of summertime stripers, blues and football tuna!
Every year I say I am going to go load up on Spring flounder in the bay while watching the waterfowl migrate north, and every year something else comes up – like brush burning season. Now there is something a man can really enjoy while mulling over the past and thinking about the future!
Burning brush with my father, an old Yankee of 92 years, is when he has given me some of his most sage advice. On dating: “There are a lot of fish in the sea.” On trusting in God: “Your body dies, but your soul lives on forever.” On the past: “I’m the last one living from my graduating class – the others are all dead. Sometimes, I wonder why I’m still here…” On the work ethic: “Always stay busy, even when you’re not.” And: “Whatever you do, big or small, it’s got to be done a hundred percent.” Dad, I hope you can join me burning brush again this season, and tell me some more of the old-time stories of growing up on a rural, Duxbury, Massachusetts farm…
A few other joys in March include seeing the woodcock return to the swamps and fields to perform their mating dance in the skies at dusk. I know this may sound a little silly, but this is one of the events of Spring that makes my heart soar (other than burning brush with Dad). There’s another: hearing the Spring peepers starting up their chorus in the swamps. Throw in the first bats to start flying and now you really got something. The greatest of the greatest? Sitting out and seeing and hearing all three on the same night while watching the coals burn down after a day of burning brush with Dad.
There’s so much more to March. The howling of the coyotes, the barking of the fox. The crows flying overhead carrying special sticks to special trees, to build a nest to start a new family. The redwing blackbirds arrive in huge numbers in March and it is such a pleasure to see their bright, red-wing patches and hear them singing in the tops of the trees. The mute swans will be nesting, the first great white egrets will arrive, and the woodchucks will be looking over my garden and doing a little dreaming of their own. The herring will start to come in from the ocean and run up the rivers to spawn and the sweet, damp smell of spring will fill our senses with overwhelming delight.
March may be just another month to some, but to me its winter’s dying grip and Spring’s gentle kiss on my cheek. Farewell winter, we’ll see you next year.
Another time, I was duck hunting with a good friend on the Massachusetts coast and taking a few pictures at sunrise. It was very cold and I tucked my very expensive camera into my gunning coat. Suddenly, a banded Red Leg came over the decoys and I leaped up and dropped him into the blocks with a single shot. In my zest, my camera flew out of my gunning coat and landed in a tidal pool that was several feet deep. We figured that northern red leg duck cost about $1,800 dollars to bring down, not counting guns and ammunition.
I once shot and killed a hen mallard and drake stone dead with a single round from my 12-gauge Browning Gold. The pair landed belly up on the other side of a small river. I walked up river looking for a place to cross, and fell through an iced-over ditch up to my neck. It was January 17th and I nearly drowned. A do-gooder, watching through his telescope from his trophy home, called the police – not to report a man through the ice, but to complain about a hunter in the marsh that he could see from his property!
Ever get caught in a forty-knot blow while sea duck hunting three miles offshore – in an open skiff – with the anchor lines and decoy lines wrapped around each other and then firmly wrapped around the prop – with your stern to the wind and sea in January with sub-freezing temperatures? I have. The water was over my knees and going over the gunwales. It scared me enough to re-think my idea about "hardcore gunning" for sea ducks. I still go, but I go differently than I did.
On a more pleasant note, when I was ten years old Dad took me rabbit hunting on the Island with my new shotgun I got for Christmas. I looked over a cliff, saw some ducks, and crept back and asked if I could try for them. He said, "Go ahead." I went back and shot my very first duck, an eider drake. Mum took my picture in the kitchen when I got home and Dad had the eider mounted. Thirty-eight years later I still have the mount, Mum's photo and my first shotgun. Thanks Mom and Dad. You have no idea how much that meant to me.
Growing up on the North Hill Marsh in Duxbury, Massachusetts was an outdoor kid's dream. Fishing, hunting, trapping, camping, living off the land – this is how I spent much of my childhood.
I remember waking on a cold, frosty dawn, crawling from my tent pitched high on a hill. Ducks and geese were noisily feeding on the pond below. A smoky mist whisked over the water's surface. As I stood up and stretched, I nearly had a heart attack when two ruffed grouse exploded into the air no more than ten feet behind my camouflaged tent. I've studied and hunted grouse all my life, and I still jumped a foot off the ground when they launch themselves into the air like rockets – at 45 miles per hour! If you haven't experienced the shear exhilaration of a surprised ruffed grouse flush, you're missing out on one of the most spectacular rushes nature provides (see your doctor first).
One day, I was hunting a hillside where I had seen and flushed (and missed) a ruffed grouse on three different occasions. Grouse are the hardest game bird to hunt because they are literally as fast as lightning. One flash and they are gone. On this particular evening though, I was confident I would come home with supper.
As I side-winded around the hill, I came to a beautiful pine grove that smelled with the sweet perfume of fall. As I stood there deeply breathing in nature's bouquet, a ruffed grouse came roaring into the grove at full throttle. He spotted me just as he put on the brakes and dropped his landing gear. If ever a grouse was surprised, this bird sure was. I swear his eyes were as big as saucers as he touched down no more than five feet in front of me. (Ruffed grouse are never supposed to come towards you. In fact, they are heard and rarely seen as they pour on the afterburners and disappear through the woods like a super sonic jet at an air show – now you see me now you don't!)
He immediately started making a nervous, red-squirrel-like whistling. He strutted, contemplating, not quite sure what to do. I stood there in utter surprise myself. When I realized supper was at hand, I tried to raise my gun. Only one thing stood between me and the tender, white meat: tall and medium-sized pine trees. Actually there were three and I was standing port of arms right up against them. When I had first come upon the "cathedral in the pines," I leaned against these trees and poked my head into the grove. Sort of like when you crack open a door and stick your head into a room to look around. Now I was so close to the pines, I couldn't snap my gun to my shoulder for the shot.
Suddenly, the ruffed grouse got his wits about him and exploded into the air. I nearly had a heart attack. In the blink of an eye he was gone without a trace. I stood there, heart pounding in my chest, and laughed out loud. Somehow, this bird had skunked me again. As I walked home re-playing the scene in my mind, I wondered – if I were a fox, would he of gotten away?
Writer Michael McIntosh once said, "Collectors and shooters see guns from different angles..." To that I say, Amen! I happen to be both a collector and a shooter, which creates a whole new set of angles that I won't get into right now. But what I thought I would do in this month’s column is share a couple of my staunch opinions about shotguns. For space reasons, I will limit my comments to hunting shotguns. So, for better or worse, here they are... Don't feel too embarrassed if you disagree with me on one or two.
The most stupid thing ever put on a good double gun is a Selective trigger. Double triggers are a love, and a single trigger is fine by me. But a lever that lets you switch back and forth from one barrel to the other? Please... This is one novelty that I hope goes away.
The best American-made over under for the money is the Ruger Red Label. The best pointing auto-loader ever made is the Remington 1100. And as long as we are at it, the best waterfowl gun is the 3 1/2" chambered Benelli Super Black Eagle II and the Browning Gold Hunter auto loaders. The best waterfowl load? The 3-inch Heavy Shot. It is amazing...! But who wants to pay $3.00 every time you pull the trigger?
The best barrel length for a doublegun is 28 inches. You won't swing it too fast and you won't slow it down or stop the gun too soon. For a young shooter just starting out, I will give the nod to 26-inch barrels to lighten the gun – as long as they can be upgraded to 28-inch barrels as soon as they can handle them. The best gauge for a young shooter? It’s 28 gauge. Not a bad upland gun for any shooter, young or old, except maybe for pheasants. The best load for the 28 gauge is a 2¾-inch shell with ¾ ounce of #7½ shot. Trust me on this! The best chokes for this load in a 28 gauge? Skeet and skeet. It is a dandy quail gun/load combo.
The best fixed chokes for any double gun? If I had to pick two it will come as no surprise that I would choose improved cylinder and modified. If you are shooting steel shot at waterfowl over decoys the best choke is improved cylinder. Steel patterns are very tight. Last year I shot a black duck with an improved cylinder choke at 87 paces with a 3-inch Kent Fasteel cartridge loaded with #2 shot. A great cartridge if you don't mind watching the brass rust while you hold it in your hand.
Pistol grip or straight stock? This falls into the “whatever your preference is” category. You will shoot either equally well if you practice with them. In the end, it just doesn't matter, as long as you can live with it. I shoot both and switch back and forth regularly. I kind of like the lines of the straight stock, but I'm a loyal Yankee and will never let go of the fact that I come from a nation of riflemen.
Now you will hate me, especially if you love the game of skeet. I think American skeet shooting ought to be done with a low gun. No pre-mounting. Further, I think the shooter should not be able to call "pull" when he is ready for the target. This job belongs to the one pulling and he should be able to pull at will. I would really like to see a "new" skeet game start at clubs all across America that I call "walk-up skeet." The shooter moves around the field freely and the puller pulls at random. In the end, 25 birds total have been launched and the shooter never knows from what direction or exactly when. This in my mind, puts back some of the spontaneous excitement back into skeet shooting that most closely resembles flushing birds during upland hunting. Which is the whole reason skeet shooting was invented for in the first place.
Just one more. Is the worst gun law (one of many) in the State of Massachusetts? It’s the trigger lock law. I was guiding some gentlemen from Texas not too long ago and told them we have to have our guns cased and trigger locked while transporting them in our vehicles, and locked up while in our homes. And if they ever get stolen, the police and the DA prosecute the gun owner. Their jaws dropped, their eyes got big, and then they spoke in the manner that makes Texas the great state that it is: "That’s the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. What if you got to get to your gun?" Amen brothers. Don't ever give up your freedoms in Texas like we have here in Massachusetts.
There are many sounds that I dislike in this world, one of them being the noisy dishwasher in my kitchen. My wife raising her voice, especially if my name is involved, is another. A blaring radio or television is not a very nice sound. You can add screeching brakes, a noisy muffler, air traffic, and jackhammers to that list, among other things.
Sounds that I DO enjoy, and this may surprise you, include chainsaws! Chainsaws are man’s work and he is creating something to be used later in a quieter way. A fire in the fire place for instance, to help contemplate some of life’s most difficult decisions. A chainsaw also gets you outside to enjoy the fresh, clean air and there are few sweeter smells in this life than fresh cut wood – especially if it’s fir, apple, or cedar! Then again, a pretty, young lady (my wife) handling an 18-inch blade, pausing to wipe her brow while sending a lovely smile my way is a pleasant thought... But I digress.
I also like the sounds of guns in autumn. Especially while sitting on a deer stand. Hearing a rifle crack in the valleys and mountains in the distance builds an excitement in the hunter’s heart like no other. I always offer up a “Praise God” when I hear a rifle crack, knowing that somewhere, some place, a lucky deer hunter has just filled his freezer with the finest, tastiest meat on earth. I’d like to sit around that hunter’s fire some evening and listen to the story of how he got his buck.
I’d give an awful lot, and do, to hear the call of the quail again in the cool of the evening air. “Bob-white…Bob-white…” Last fall I stocked fifty quail on my property just to hear their tranquilizing song. It worked for a while, but now I hear none and see the tracks of the fox and coyote. The “BOOM” of my shotgun would be a pleasant sound when I see the makers of those tracks. Will I stock again in the spring? Yes. Two-hundred this time… History proves Yankees don’t give up that easily, especially in love and war.
I wish I could bring back the call of the whip-poor-will that serenaded me to sleep each night in the summers of my youth in Duxbury. Sometimes several would be calling all at once. What a beautiful sound! The Lord God knows I miss them. Where they have gone, I do not know. The housing development on top of the cow pasture and the filling in of the little brook may have something to do with it…
One of the sweetest sounds in this life is my children giggling. They are a happy and contented lot, very smart and talented, if you don’t mind me saying. The sounds of quail and whippoorwill, and rifle shots in the mountains, and geese honking at dawn are all very, very close to my heart. But when I’m old and gray, and close my eyes, the one sound that I will remember and carry with me into Heaven, will be the laughing and giggling of my children.
Today is a rainy day and I can’t quite decide on what to do. Like you, I’ve hunted ducks and geese, fished for stripers and blues, and dug quahogs and clams all in the rain. And just once, all three in the same day!
But today is different. I’m thinking of excuses for not going. It’s cozy here by the fire. I can clean and oil the guns, wax the rods, or take an old toothbrush to some of the green gunk on my reels. Or I could start a new book, or finish an old one I’ve read a hundred times… It’s a rainy day, a great day, and anything is possible.
When I was a young boy, I had very little in the way of foul weather gear. But I did have an old, heavy, canvas gunning coat left behind by a wealthy Duxbury gunner. It was much too big for me to wear when I got it, but dad had quietly given it to me just the same, in his simple, New England Yankee way. My father was the gardener of a man’s estate, and when the owner passed on, the wife had given the gunning coat to dad because she knew he enjoyed hunting, too. The old, canvas gunning coat had long been bleached the color of butternut from years of hard use. But it was in excellent condition, comfortably broken in, rugged and tough like the men that wore them.
I use to stare at that hunting coat hanging on a nail in the cellar, and dream of the old gunner that must have owned it. He was a “well-to-do” as my father was fond of saying, and had a gunning stand way up in the marshes of the Back River of Duxbury, Massachusetts. The “blind” was an elaborate affair, complete with fieldstone fireplace, bunk rooms, a decoy room, a Great Room in the middle, with table and chairs for meals and playing cards – especially the night before opening day! There was a piano and a couple of old, leather chairs with plenty of character, sitting around the fire. A small kitchen and a wet bar gave the final touches. Apple wood smoke and steaming wet dogs filled the air with that sweet smell of autumn that all hunters love…
Outside, surrounding the camp, were the shallow “ponds,” large and small tidal pools that had been dug into the marsh to hold a bunch of hand-carved decoys – and lots of ducks. On one side of the ponds were the breastworks - long, chest-high fences of boards and brush behind which the gunners would wait for the morning and evening flights of ducks.
As the hunters waited in their heavy, bleached, canvas gunning coats, sipping coffee in the cold dawn, dogs at their sides, they spoke in quiet tones and talked of the beauty and wonder of it all. The sandpipers and great blue herons, the hawks and endless lines of starlings migrating South; the golden glow of marsh grass waving in the breeze, the clams squirting up little, spouts of water. The false-dawn of the eastern sky that looked finer than any Monet… and more than once, the ghostly glimpse of a mighty buck sneaking along the marshs edge. Then… the whistling of wings and the last seconds of silence… as the birds cupped their wings and turned into the decoys…
When the men sat around the fire that night after opening day, enjoying steamed clams, roasted black duck, perhaps a refreshment or two, they thought much and spoke little of how they felt - humbled, bittersweet, and young again… The years had passed quickly as the “old men” always said they would. The children had all grown and moved away and life was pretty simple again. One of them was thinking back to a little boy he remembered very well. A little boy staring up at an old canvas gunning coat, dreaming of the day when he would be old enough to go along, too.
I have a friend who is a contractor, who likes to hunt black ducks. He handles his downed birds with as much grace as a piece of scrap lumber. Not that he doesn’t appreciate his birds, he does, and he is a simple, but effective cook. But as much as I enjoy gunning with him, he and I are two different animals, if you will.
I hold my birds in utter awe - no, I don’t mean that - I watch in utter awe, when any bird I have shot at falls from the sky. After making a retrieve that would fill most dogs with envy, I sit in my blind holding the duck like a rare jewel, stroking its feathers, and turning it over and over in my hands. I have taken something from the skies of New England; a duck that has flown thousands of miles and will now be stuffed with sauerkraut, wrapped in bacon and roasted in my oven at 350 for 1 hr, 45 minutes. It is a miraculous moment and I bow and give thanks to the Maker.
I use to think black ducks never came into my spread because they did not like the way my decoys looked. Now, years later, I know better. I have watched pair after pair of wary black ducks fly over a flock of six-hundred real black ducks swimming, feeding, preening and quacking their heads off, only to land two-hundred yards away in a ditch. I can sympathize with the giant flock because I know just how they feel. Hurt, rejected, and frustrated for starters. You can throw in confusion and utter despair but keep that to yourself. Duck hunters don’t have to share everything...
The season long over, I have but one black duck left in my freezer along with lots of “road-kill” venison. That’s another story that I can’t get into now. Right now, I am dreaming of a black duck that pulled away from a big flock flying across the marsh. He has seen my three LL Bean cork decoys bobbing in the breeze and my hand-carved African zebra-wood call is to my lips. I utter the hail call, feeding chatter and then three quiet hen quacks… He swings down wind and then turns into the breeze, fighting his way to my decoys with all the speed of a sparrow in a tremendous gale. Suddenly, he is there – hovering at twenty yards over my blocks! I rise, mount, and fire my gun three times. My duck wheels, climbs into orbit, and disappears over the horizon, passing a flock of migrating starlings on his way, at warp speed. But like I said to the eight-point buck that walked past my stand unscathed this season, just wait until next year, my friend. Just wait until next year…
I have always said that if God wanted me to shoot an over under, He would have made my eyes that way. Actually, it might have been my Dad who said that first. He was a straight-shooting Yankee and I assure you, both his eyes were side by side his whole life. Dad hunted with one double-gun for his ninety-two years. It was a second-hand, 12 Ga. Tobin that he bought from a market gunner named Lincoln, in Accord, Massachusetts, back in the 1930’s. I still have that old fowling piece, and even gunned ducks with it myself in my early teens. Some day, I am going to have it restored just like new.
Me? I grew up with a 20 Ga. double in my hands. It was my own gun and I got it for Christmas when I was ten years old, back in 1972. I hunted with it until 2009, when I pulled up on a pair of incoming woodies and it failed to fire - for the first time in thirty-seven years. My Dad paid $80 for my little double at F.W. Woolworth’s when I was nearing my tenth birthday. He wrapped it up and put it under the Christmas tree and I had to wait until Christmas morning to open it. The first thing I shot and killed with it was an empty milk carton out behind the house. I started my writing career that day, and have recorded every game bird and animal I have ever taken with that gun. I remember well my first grouse, woodcock, pheasant, quail, black duck, mallard, eider, rabbit and a whole mess of other game I have hunted with that wonderful, little double because I have written it all down through the years.
My side by side fit me like a glove when I was a kid, and it grew into an extension of my body. 28” inch barrels, 14” LOP, and say what you want about a cheap double imported from Brazil, but it closed up tight as a drum. It still does. I was so comfortable with my double that it gave me a lot of confidence growing up. I remember going 21 for 21 on clays thrown from a hand trap in the sand pit, using only the rear barrel. And that meant a lot to a young boy coming of age, especially with all of his friends watching wide-eyed, and then talking it up at school. Word got around that I was a shooter and hunter and that I was a pretty good shot. I walked a little taller in the hallways between classes and kids looked at me a little differently from that day forward.
My double has seen a lot of hard use and is scratched, pitted and worn almost beyond recognition now. But if it could talk, it would tell you about all the places it’s been, including duck blinds on the Massachusetts coast, pheasants in Ohio, grouse, woodcock and snowshoe hare in Maine and New Hampshire, cottontails and beagles in Indiana, deer in New York, and a whole bunch of other places I’ve had the pleasure of carrying it.
I know you will think I am crazy, but I’m going to find a gunsmith that won’t laugh at me when I bring it by. I know it’s a cheap gun, not worth anything to anyone, but I’m going to ask him to rebuild it for me from the ground up. But one thing I am not going to have him change. I want him to leave the scratches and the worn, smooth spots just as they are. And I hope he will understand.
One day last season, another hunter and myself put up a flock of seven-hundred black duck as we cut across the bay. That’s one continuous flock, all at once, of seven-hundred birds. Earlier, that morning, we put up another flock of two-hundred black duck. This has been the norm for many years where we gun on the Massachusetts coast.
According to the USFW, DU, and DW, the black duck is in decline. But from what I have seen in the past five years, you would never know it. The biologists tell us this is because the black ducks have shifted their range and we’re just seeing more ducks because they’re more concentrated. I remain skeptical. From my observations, I would say the black duck is thriving on the Massachusetts coast.
It bothers me to no end that our Canadian brothers can shoot four black ducks per day, but as soon as those same ducks enter the United States, we can only shoot one black duck per day. Why not get together with our Canadian brothers and level the playing field? Two black ducks per day, no matter where you gun. Of course, if you’re a Canadian, that would mean your daily bag limit of black duck would be reduced by fifty percent. Turn the tables and see how Americans would react if another country imposed such a restriction on us. What would Americans say then?
Eider duck numbers, everyone agrees, are way down. Maine to Massachusetts, we have all seen a huge reduction in birds in the past three years. Prior to 2003, we were seeing 2,000-5,000 flight birds per morning on the Massachusetts coast. Didn’t matter where you were gunning, the birds were thicker than flies. Three years later, we count ourselves lucky indeed, if we see 200-300 birds per morning!
The USFW and Tufts University are two organizations trying to figure it all out. I’m sure others are involved as well, but they need to toot their horn a little more and let us know what they are doing. I’d love to read full-length articles in magazines such as Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, Outdoor Life, Massachusetts Wildlife, among many others, telling us about the problem and what biologists are finding out. On Cape Cod, thousands of eiders were found washed up on the shores in the summer and fall of 2007. Why? What can Sportsmen do to help?
Whatever happened to the media frenzy about Avian bird flu? “It’s definitely coming,” “get ready,” “huge death toll in American population possible,” were just a few of the threats. Warnings to waterfowlers were posted in all the hunting magazines. “Wear rubber gloves,” “wear surgical masks.” Cook your duck meat to a charred crisp!!! Forgive me, but I have to rank the Avian Bird Flu epidemic in America right up there with Global Warming and Darwinism. You don’t still believe in the big bang theory and that the human race came from monkeys, do you?