Empty skies test the meaning of both futility and hope. But if I see a duck, there’s hope and if there’s hope, I’m hunting. Today, hopelessness toyed with our heads. Hunting was slow. Very slow. A few groups of ducks here and there, travelling north to a refuge. Flying on an invisible trail over and past our decoys. Occasionally teasing us with a quack and the same disinterested look I give a billboard along the highway.
I was sharing the blind with an old friend Ken (aka Pawpaw), and his grandson Dalton, and great-grandson Mac. Three generations in a duck blind together, and me, an accepted interloper.
I’ve been granted the privilege to hunt with these boys a few times over the past years, to listen to stories old and new, and to observe how the elixir of waterfowl hunting works to impress, define, and mold personalities. And how the unambiguous constant of time reminds us of earlier days, and the uncertainty of what lies ahead amidst the collective catharsis discovered in the act of hunting ducks.
I watch young Mac sitting in the blind, wearing his new waders. Patiently fiddling, staring, thinking, rummaging for snacks. Even though his participation as a shooter is controlled and limited by dad – this is the first year he will be allowed to shoot – he is present in the moment, not anxious, not bored, but happy yet pensive.
I recognize and remember that singular, private solitude but I want to know what’s in his head and so I ask, “What ‘cha thinking about?”
“Nothing,” replies Mac softly, tilting his head to look my way briefly through dark tinted glasses.
“You’re thinking about something,” I said.
Mac shrugged his shoulders, looked back up at me and smiled. I dropped the topic; the smile was the only answer necessary. I smiled back and stood from my seat to watch the sky for birds.
The first time I met Mac he was eight years old. When he arrived at our pre-season pork steak cookout, he walked through duck camp with the confidence of a manager, saying hello and asking questions as if wanting to be sure we all knew our assignments and responsibilities. Later during the season, on a chilly day after Christmas, I would hunt with Mac for the first time. Drowning in his over-sized waders and hunting coat, he sat patiently. Watching us, watching the sky, watching his dad’s dog, Paige, do the hard work. Listening to the banter of his companions. Occasionally poaching Pawpaw’s lunch bag for snacks.
It was a good outing, eleven birds would fall, including 5 Canada geese. At the end of the long day, we returned to camp and laid our birds on a tailgate for a picture. Mac helped stage the birds, position the dog, and then proudly posed for his photo op. Never firing a shot or retrieving a bird, he was every bit part of the hunt like the rest of us, and he knew it. He felt it. And we talked about that day as we sat together again three years later.
A mallard drake circled twice and finally gave signs of skeptical commitment. Days like this require a tactical adjustment. Waiting for web-footed landing gear above the decoys is replaced with “don’t wait, take ‘em if you have a shot.” Dalton pushed away the front of the blind, lifted his gun and fired. The bird flared as a few feathers puffed out. The bird quartered away slightly as a second shot of number 2s permanently altered his course. The duck sailed, landing with a splash at the edge of smartweed 250 yards away. As we all marked the bird and watched for signs of movement, our memories did a play back to prior times when each of us looked for, chased, or lost a duck on the exact same weedy edge.
Ken’s dog, Hank, launched from his hut. I love Hank. A few years ago, he made a nice retrieve for me, beating a resident bald eagle in the race, and later in the season I knocked down his first Canada goose retrieve. At this stage in his life, he still has the undeterred heart of a retriever but like both Ken and me, he may also be feeling his own limitations from time to time; older, stiffer, maybe a little less confident.
As Hank splashed through the decoys heading for the bird, Mac asked, “Who’s going with the dog?”
“No one. He knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t need any help,” said Pawpaw.
“What about for emotional support?” Mac replied.
From the mouths of babes comes truth and wisdom. We smiled and laughed. We could all use a little more emotional support these days, which is probably exactly the reason we all stand together in a pit blind in the middle of a wetland, staring at the sky blowing strange sounds through wooden tubes to disinterested waterfowl.
The initial retrieve was unsuccessful. Upon his return, I couldn’t tell if Hank was emotionally devastated at his failure, but the bird would be found and cornered later in the day, so pride would be restored.
On day two, we hunted again, adjusting our location to conditions. Another very slow day kept fresh by looking at a different horizon supporting the same empty sky. I headed home the following morning while the boys would stay behind to give it one more attempt on the quickly fading season of 2023. On day three, the hunting would improve substantially and later in the afternoon I’d receive a text photo from Ken – a smiling Mac delicately holding his first mallard drake by its bill.
I was sorry I wasn’t there to share the moment, but happy for Mac’s accomplishment witnessed by Pawpaw, dad, and Paige on that small wetland in north Missouri. For those involved, a lifelong memory was created. For Mac, as he will eventually learn, the value of that memory will increase exponentially with the inevitable passing of time, people, and dogs. A memory achieved through patience, deep thoughts, snacks, and lots of emotional support. I look forward to hearing his version of the story when I ask, and if he’ll tell me.