Veterans Day. Many old timers still call it by its original name, Armistice Day. A moniker remembered by waterfowlers in part because of the 1940 storm which occurred on this day. A storm that brought plunging temperatures, gale force winds, and snow drifts. By some estimates, as many as 200 people died, including 85 duck hunters. An oft re-printed story, as reported by journalist and outdoor writer Gordon MacQuarrie gives the horrific details. But in this year of 2023, we worried not about winter storms. It was sunny, the temperature was 60 degrees, wind was ESE at six mph. And there would be no Armistice Day push of birds south this year. We would hunt the birds we have.
Sitting in an adjoining, well-camouflaged layout boat was Nancie. A big man with an offset center of gravity, wearing a knee brace, snugly gathered within his XXL waders. We had hunted this spot together successfully many times before, tucked into the cordgrass, sun and wind at our back, shallow open water and duck food to our front. But today, expectations were low, and perseverance would be the key.
An early opportunity presented itself and I watched as the man from Brobdingnag dropped the first bird of the day and prepared to rise from his layout boat. Grunting and groaning, he pushed himself up on all fours, and finally to a full standing position. Stepping out carefully, he bravely waded the knee-deep water, 10 yards out, minus his hand-made cedar wading stick. Summer drawdown had firmed the bottom nicely, giving courage to even the most cautious, and within a few minutes, the first duck of the day had been retrieved.
Late morning another bird dropped, the hunter grunted and groaned, and the duck boat ballet began once again. The hunter stood and yowled, “Cramp, cramp,” pausing briefly before stepping out. Carefully, again, he waded to the duck, the bird drifting slowly in the breeze and slight chop. Cutting off the floater, the hunter teetered momentarily as he leaned to grab the duck’s upright feet.
A well-articulated string of wickedly profane words erupted from among the decoys. As the sound echoed across the marsh, the air turned blue, eagles flared, muskrats dove for cover, beavers stirred inside their lodges, geese rose from the refuge to observe the flailing disturbance. The hunter had fallen. And I lifted my gun and watched the sky. Ducks like commotion in the decoys and I was certain a flock of greenheads would most certainly arrive any second.
“Bring me my stick,” the hunter called, propped on all fours in the chilly water. “I can’t get up.”
The “stick” is an effective brace, best used while walking. His wife would later remind him of this valuable point during his after-action review and post-event confession.
“Did you have your wading stick?” she asked.
“No, I left it in the boat,” he sheepishly replied.
She completed her supportive assessment with the helpful, obvious observation. “Dumbass. That’s what it’s made for.”
I walked out to Nancie to evaluate the situation and survey for injury other than pride. The stick would clearly not be enough to raise him.
“I’d help you, but you’d take me down. I’ll get your boat,” I replied.
I pushed the boat to my companion, and as he leaned forward, it provided the leverage needed to help him rise up from the murky depth of 24 inches of water. Sleeves dripping, he walked his boat back to shore where he regained composure and gathered his gear. His day was done. Order restored, the hunter with partially filled waders stepped up and into his boat. Towering and wobbling a bit he grabbed his push-pole and shoved off, listing a bit to the left as he headed north back to camp and a hot shower.
As I watched him disappear down the boat channel without further disaster or splash, the sky remained quiet, and I waited for the flock of greenheads I was certain would soon arrive. After all, it was Armistice Day.