It’s two days before Christmas. My deadline for submitting a story to the Conservation Federation of Missouri magazine is January 2, 2024. A story to be read in March and April. But I have a problem. Springtime themes like turkey season and morels all mean nothing to me right now. I can barely utter the word fishing. I’m nowhere near ready to describe the blooms of dogwoods or red buds, or to talk about the spring migration of songbirds. You see, my head is still stuck in the 2023 duck season, and it ain’t budging.
The north zone where I hunt waterfowl, sadly, is about to close. For a couple weeks now the hunting has been tough. The push of late season mallards and geese, birds we usually are seeing this time of year, never really happened. Gadwall, widgeon, and shovelers are still hanging around, and they are wary and wise. Still, I wait, hope, and hunt with the eternal optimism we duck hunters all share. You see, winter has yet to arrive in the northern states least of all Missouri. The temperature forecast for Christmas Eve Day is 60 degrees with rain! What’s a poor boy to do? I feel like the six ibis that were still flying around my Linn County marsh three days ago – should I stay, or should I go? And for some added irony, a winter storm, much like what arrived at the start of the season is now hitting the eastern plains on day 59, right before closure, just as I jokingly predicted to my hunting partners a month ago.
Usually by this time of the year I can feel transition. My mind is turning the page. But this year is different. Even after spending the better part of the season in the marsh, in a duck boat or blind, intermittently eating duck gumbo, playing pitch, drying waders and scraping mud off my boots, I’m not ready for it to end. Like the grass in my yard that’s still trying to grow in December, it seems my brain needs a hard freeze before I can move on. But move on is what I must do, nonetheless, even if it’s a forced march.
Yesterday, wearing a t-shirt in December, I unloaded decoys and my layout boats from the trailer. As I removed the lid from each boat, the smell of the marsh lingered momentarily in the humid air. In the bottom of the boat lay the cordgrass camo, a few spent shotgun shells, duck feathers and blood splatters, and a little patch of mud not yet dry. If I were an old hunting dog, my impulse would be to dive in and roll around on top of it all, but instead, I stared and contemplated. What would it take to follow the season south to grab a few more hunts? A chance to shoot at a couple more ducks. I know people. Surely I could crack my voice and quiver my lip adequately to make someone feel sorry enough to invite me to their precious swampland for one more hunt.
I shook my head to re-focus. Get a grip, I thought. It’s over. Move along. I dismissed the idea and meticulously began removing everything from the boats, inspecting and cleaning, and making mental notes about what I’ll need to do to get ready for next year, and I wondered, is it too early to get started? Three hundred days can go by pretty quickly, you know.
As I’m stacking the boats I hear a flock of Canada geese squawking on the neighbor’s pond, and my mind drifts again. Will the northern giants eventually arrive? I left waders, decoys, and a couple boxes of shells at duck camp just in case. I still need to return to gather one more boat, and maybe get in a goose hunt or two. We’ll see, I guess. My wife likes goose pastrami and I’d hate to let her down.
As early evening settled in I had a feeling of accomplishment, much like the end of the day after a good duck shoot. Most of my gear had been appropriately tended and stashed. I scrounged around for something to eat, poured a glass of red wine, and pulled out a book of MacQuarrie stories. Stories about the Old Duck Hunters Association, Inc. Waterfowl hunting in the 1930s. Sitting on the couch, I looked at the weather app one more time to see what I’d be missing if I had stayed through the rain. High of 37 degrees, south wind 7-15 mph with gusts up to 25. The last day could be a good. I sighed.
By the time you read this we’ll know if winter ever did arrive, along with the big red legged mallards, hardy giant geese of the north, and the apricity I still await. I’ll stretch things out for as long as I can – clean and inspect the decoys, fix rigging, clean the shotguns, maybe start work on the boats. This will sustain me a little, insufficiently though, as I work through the impending January drudgery of taxes and end of year clean-up and clean-out.
But until I smell spring weather on some random day in February, I’ll try not to eat too much, lay around too much, or otherwise get bored. I’ll scroll through 2023 pictures and memories and read the old stories in the old books once again, living vicariously for a moment or two. I’ll blow the duck call one more time before I lay it to rest with the others in the box, and maybe I’ll glance at my fly rods. Pick-up a box of flies to see if I need anything. Check my supply of tippet. Look for my fishing waders. And I’ll finally turn the page. You see, spring is coming, and I’ll smile when I think, duck season is just around the corner.