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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Duck Hunting

Duck Hunting 
(March, 1998)

FOREWORD: This story first appeared in my short story collection "Stories From the 20's" in 2001. The story is very closely based on my first experience with actual duck hunting in the winter of 1997. It is a personal favorite because of its significance in my own life, realizing for the first time that I had waited nearly 25 years to find that me and my dad weren't from different planets after all. 


The alarm clock sounded very early. It was 2:30 am, according to the

digital readout, and I had been asleep perhaps two hours and a half when

the relentless beep beep beep of the alarm woke me from a deep alpha sleep.

It was the kind of sleep that’s hard to come out of with a clear head.

“Gotta get movin’,” said the voice from outside the bedroom door.

My father had been awake for a while now and was already dressed

out in all of his gear. It was opening day of duck season and we had quite

a way to travel to meet up with the others in our blind. The shooting

would begin about twenty minutes prior to sunrise.

“Let’s get goin’,” he said.

I crawled slowly out of bed and made it to the bathroom to take a

shower, hoping the warm water would wake me up and heat up my body

temperature on this unusually cool morning.

“Did somebody turn the heat down?” I asked. “It’s freezing in


“Don’t reckon,” he said. “Feels all right to me.”

Scratching my head I stumbled across the dark hall and turned on

the light in the bathroom. The light hurt my eyes. It was like staring into

the sun as it set across the lake on a clear evening. It causes spots in your

sight that never seem to go away until you stop thinking about them.

This was going to be my first trip out to the blind. An unusual fact

since all of the men in my family had been duck hunters since they were

far younger then me. I was 22 and trying it for the first time. My father

was glad I had finally come around.

I threw my shorts into the dirty clothesbasket and slid the door open

on the shower and turned the hot water knob all the way around, letting

the steam drift into my face. The waves of heat felt great. Almost as good

as sleeping.

I equalized the water to a temperature I could tolerate and climbed

into the stream shooting from the head. Instantly I felt a little more alive

and leaned against the wall of the shower and relaxed myself into total


My nose had clogged since falling asleep and that alone had made

me feel worse than the lack of sleep. The steam began loosening the

blockage until I was able to use my bare hand as a handkerchief. I

pressed my thumb against one nostril and blew a large green glob into

my right palm. After having a good long look at it and squishing it

between my fingers I let the shower spray my hand clean. I rinsed and

repeated on my other nostril. Now I felt fine. I was ready to kill


Fifteen minutes later I got out of the shower only to hear my dad

talking to my mother in the kitchen. Even though Mom had never quite

understood my father’s desire to get up at this hour just to go hunting,

she always seemed to rise at about the same time to cook a hot meal

before heading out into the cold winter morning.

I got my gear on while they chatted. I was unprepared for the cold,

since I tended to stay indoors most of the time in the winter months -

like civilized people. I only had some old army fatigues and with a tee

shirt under the light jacket, some designer “so called” insulated boots and

two pairs of socks. I had borrowed a black toboggan from my nephew to

keep my head warm. After I got all of it on I felt toasty warm and

comfortable. Of course, I was still in the house, which had central heat. I

didn’t even know how cold it was.

I walked into the kitchen and sat at the table to eat some fried eggs,

biscuits and honey. My mother poured me a glass of chocolate milk.

“You still think this will be fun?” Mom asked.

“I’ll be all right. Just not used to waking at this hour,” I said.

“You are usually still up at this hour,” she said laughing.

“I know,” I said.

“Damn cold outside, I know that,” Dad said. “Feels about right for

ducks though. It ought to be a tear down today.”

“Supposed to be cold for ducks, right?” I asked.

“Colder the better,” he said. “A snow flurry makes it optimum.

Channel four said it was a possibility.”

Dad dug into his eggs grinning. He was excited. For the first time in

many years they had been drawn to a decent blind. At least a good

opening day blind. Now it appeared that the conditions had turned out to

be potentially perfect.

“Gonna kill some ducks,” he said with a mouthful of biscuit. “No

doubt of that.”

“Good,” I said and finished my breakfast.

Within a half-hour my father and I stepped outside and both lit a

cigarette. The reality of what perfect duck weather indeed was hit me

right in the face.

“Damn,” I said. “It’s cold all right.”

“Pretty chilly,” he said. “Hope you got on enough clothes.”

“I feel pretty good right now.”

“You just got out here,” he said.

We finished smoking while we packed the shotguns into the truck

and gathered all of the extra goodies we had picked up the day before in

town. We had a ton of 12 gauge steel shot, some hand warmers, two

thermoses full of coffee and hot chocolate, some beef jerky, and a small

cooler with a six pack of chilled Sun Drop soft drinks. We were ready to


“We gotta get going,” dad said. “We gotta meet the Dan and Lenny

in Waverly in an hour. We’re gonna be late unless we haul ass.”

“Let’s do it then,” I said, and got into the truck.

The drive was quick and quiet and we only spoke about hunting and

a little about my progress at the college. We stopped once to get a couple

of drinks, and continued along the way. Dan and Lenny, my uncles, were

waiting along with about five other familiar faces at a store ten minutes

from the put in spot.

“Wondered if you was comin’,” Lenny said. “We need to be in the

blind in thirty minutes.”

“Let me run in here and pee and we’ll follow you on down,” dad

said. “You need to go, Jimmy?”

“Nope,” I said. “I’m good.”

He walked quickly into the store and headed to the back. My dad’s

best friend, who everyone called Big Slick, approached me with Dan.

“Hey, Big Slick,” I said. “Dan.”

“I reckon you finally decided to give it a try, huh?” Slick said.

“What’s that you’re wearin’? Looks like your goin’ to war.”

“All I got.”

As we stood there I heard more guys from a group across the

parking lot whooping and hollering about something. It only took about

five seconds to see why. Scattered snowflakes drifted down and melted as

they hit the parking lot.

“Hot damn,” Dan said. “Gonna kill the shit out of some ducks


He directed his attention toward me.

“Jimmy, you picked a good day to start, man,” he said. “I better go

and make sure the boat’s ready to go.”

I nodded.

“Probably still won’t shoot a bird,” Slick said, still sanding there.

“Always the optimist, Big’n” I said and laughed.

“Just wait and see,” he said grinning.

“You planning on riding with us?” I asked.

“Yeah, rode in with Lenny from Sylvia.” Slick said looking toward

the store. “Damn, old sumbitch must’ve had to piss somethin’ fierce.”

Moments later, my dad came running outside zipping up his

waterproof neoprene suit.

“Let’s do it boys,” he yelled.

Everyone piled into various vehicles and convoyed behind Dan’s

Suburban, which was pulling the boat.

We drove a few miles before crossing the Tennessee River and

Camden bottoms. Camden is the premiere state hunting area in

Tennessee for ducks of all kinds, and occasionally a few geese as well.

For the thirtieth year in a row my dad, his two brothers, Big Slick

and the others were here for opening day. It had become much like a

pilgrimage, a habit, and most of all a tradition among them that they

absolutely love. I have since realized exactly what it is that draws them

back each year, but I don’t think I’m talented enough to put it into

words. It is a story for another day. Regardless, I hope they continue

their tradition for many years to come, even if I am unable to tag along.

When we reached the ramp and parked the truck up the road, I

realized what a following the sport of duck hunting draws. There were

literally hundreds of people waiting their turn to put their boats in and go

to their blinds which were scattered all over the bottoms. Hundreds

more, it seemed, were already out there.

I could see spotlights lighting up treetops in every direction and the

low sounds of boat drivers and passengers shouting at one another in the


What impressed me most of all was the sound of the boat motors

and the confidence of many of the drivers. With their bass boats filled to

capacity, they held nothing back streaking through the bottoms at

unbelievably high speeds. Forty to sixty miles per hour. Rooster tails

trailing behind the boats, and only slightly more room to steer the boat

between trees and sunken logs that the boat itself occupied. It looked like

a wild ride.

What I knew was that I was about to get into Dan’s boat to head out

to the blind. What I didn’t know was that Dan was known around the

bottoms as one of the biggest daredevil boat drivers around. At the

moment, however, I was excited and happy. I began to wonder if I had

become hooked already, without firing a shot.


We all stood there in the dark talking about this and that. Nothing

of importance seemed to surface in any of the conversations. All anyone

really had on their mind was getting to the blind.

Finally Dan shouted up at us from the Suburban.

“Let’s load the stuff into the boat,” he said. “No sense in dragging it

through the water.”

We all took our gear and piled it into the fiberglass vessel, leaving

hardly a spot which anyone could sit in. We would be taking six out in

our boat. Dan, my dad, Eddie, Frank, Big Slick and me. It was going to

be a crowded ride. Dan assured me it was a fairly short ride out to our

blind and we should be there in a couple of minutes.

Lenny and the others would ride out in his boat behind us.

We climbed into the boat and I took a seat on top of our shell case

and wedged myself against the front panel of the boat facing the driver’s

seat and the steering column. The Suburban started up and Dan quickly

backed the boat into the water with a thick slosh of water. The spray

from the bottoms splashed up and hit me across the back of my bare

neck. The mere speed of the vehicle backing up caused enough wind to

chill me in the December air and I quickly reached in my cargo pockets

for my cotton gloves. They were not waterproof as many of the guys had,

but they would help I was sure.

Within three minutes Dan had waded out to the boat in his hip

waders and climbed in. We were set to go.

The Mercury engine took a moment to start in the cold, but

eventually it did. The engine roared and Dan idled it back down and

shifted into gear, slowly turning the nose of the boat out toward the

narrow channel ahead.

“Hang onto your butt!” he yelled. “Here we go!”

Suddenly I felt my entire weight shift toward the rear of the boat

and the front end raised like a horse rearing at something that had scared

it. I grabbed onto the side of the front panel and hung on tight.

The Mercury grew louder and louder as the boat gained speed and

planed out in the channel. After getting used to the speed I turned my

head and looked forward over the front of the boat. My father held a

spotlight out over the water, helping his brother to guide us through the

tight passage. A foot either way and we would have been killed for sure

as the boat had reached speeds upwards of 70 miles per hour. I was a bit

scared this being my first time out, but no one else seemed to mind. My

next thought was about the speed itself. I wondered how many knots

that 70 miles per hour would equal. I had no idea how to do the math.

Water welled up in my eyes from the sharp wind that blew into my

face. I constantly wiped away the tears with my cotton gloves, making

them wet and cold with each additional wipe. I had underdressed. I knew

that already, but the sun would be up soon and hopefully that would

warm me up.

That’s when I remembered the snow, which had temporarily


There will be no sun. It will undoubtedly be overcast, I thought.

I was going to be a bit uncomfortable, but I would survive. This was

going to be fun.

“Goddammit!” Big Slick shouted.

“What?” Dan asked.

“Got hit in the face by a bug or somethin’,” he said. “What kind of

fuckin’ bug is out in this weather?”

My dad just laughed, holding the light over to the side as his

attention was drawn from his job at the point.

“Whoa!” Dan yelled. “Lights, Pig. Up front. Can’t see.”

My dad and his brothers always called one another Pig. I never did

understand that.

Dad redirected the light forward and we took a sharp turn to the

left, never slowing for a moment. The fact was, Dan knew these bottoms

like the back of his hand and could have probably made the quick trip

with no lights at all, but in the water nothing was permanent and you

could make no guarantees that a log hadn’t drifted out into the channel.

The snow started up again, heavier. We slowed the boat as we came

into open water. Three large bunches of what appeared to be brush piles

protruded from the water. Out in front of them sat dozens of decoy

ducks, which floated and bobbed with the wake from the speeding boats.

In the dark they looked very realistic.

“When you put these out, Dan,” my father asked. “They look


“Aw, hell, Pig,” he said, thinking. “I guess it was Thursday. I bought

a bunch of new ones at the draw. Put them out.”

“Stupid ducks,” Slick interrupted. “They don’t even look real.”

Everybody just chuckled.

“Is there anything you don’t bitch about, Slick.” I said.

The chuckling got even louder.

“There’s probably somethin’,” dad said. “But he’ll think of it

directly, won’t he, Pig?”

“Probably,” Dan said.

Eddie stirred from his position on the back of the boat. He was

dressed in expensive gear and was surely warmer than I was.

“This it here?” he said.

“The one on the left,” Dan said, pointing.

“Oh,” Eddie said. “We hunted this one over on the right last year.

Wasn’t very good though.”

“This one won’t be either,” Slick said.

Dan cut an eye at Slick.

“Weather’s right,” Dan said. “And it’s amazing what a difference

fifty yards makes.”

We cruised up to the edge of the blind and pulled the boat into the

slip underneath it. It was a good blind. Dan, Lenny, my dad and some of

the others built it a month or more before. Lenny’s boat circled to the

other side and pulled into the opposite side.

“Ease ‘er in here, Pig.” Dan said.

“Grab that line, Donny” Lenny said to my dad.

He reached over to his brother’s boat and tied it onto the main

frame of the blind.

“Shit, man I done got hungry,” Lenny said. “ I could eat some of

that sausage.”

“Yeah, I could too,” Slick said. “Old lady sure as hell can’t cook.

Sausage and biscuit this morning could have passed for Alpo.”

I climbed up the wooden ladder and into the main sitting area of the

blind. It was twenty feet long and had a low ceiling that I had to stand in

bent over at the waist. It was nothing fancy for sure, but I was highly

impressed by the lengths they had all gone to prepare for the season.

I helped haul all of the guns, shells, food and cooking equipment

into the blind. They would hand it up the ladder to me and I sat it on and

under the benches. Finally, they started climbing up as well, and soon the

blind was full of camouflaged duck hunters. It was forty minutes before

sunrise and twenty minutes until we could all legally shoot.

“Might as well load up ad get ready,” Dan said. “We’ll want to be

ready for the first shooting. Ought to be good.”

The sound was new to me, but very recognizable. The sound of a

dozen men loading various types of shells into their shotguns. A

masculine sound is the only way I could think to describe what I heard. I

smiled and loaded up my own gun with the steel 12 gauge shot. Click-

Shuck, Click-Shuck, Click-Shuck. I loaded three shells, the legal limit.

I checked the safety and ducked under the tarp, which blocked out

the wind from the shooting deck and took a look out in front. The

decoys sat bobbing in the small waves and the view was not much to see.

It was still very dark and only the luminous reflections from the white

snow and the shifting water provided any visibility at all.

I was the first out front and I stood there in silence wondering what

this was all going to be like. I had shot doves before, but this was

different. They were supposedly slower, but much larger and colorful and

beautiful. I wondered if I would be sad to kill a duck once I had done it.

After a moment I decided it wouldn’t be. Killing them would be much

more fun than sad. This was a certainty.

My dad walked outside next.

“Let’s go down on the end,” he said. “Prop your gun up down here.

You can hunt next to me.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You want some coffee or anything?” he asked, lighting a cigarette.

“No,” I said. “But I do think I’ll have a smoke. That’s the only thing

that sounds good right now.”

I lit up a smoke and stood there in the dark with my dad. It was

already the longest amount of time we had spent together in several

years. I figure he probably thought of that too. Much of the time we did

see one another was for short periods of time in front of a television.

The ultimate conversation killer.

We stood and talked for a few minutes about various things such as

the snow and the old days when they first started coming out here, long

before I was born, and about the good breakfast we would have once the

first wave of birds flew over and things quieted down a bit.

The smell of fresh coffee drifted out from the inner blind and Dad

returned inside momentarily to grab a cup full. He was saving the

thermos for later when there was no fresh coffee.

Big Slick came out behind him with a cup full as well.

“Bout that time,” Slick said. “What do you reckon?”

“Don’t know it,” I said. “Just hope we see some ducks.”

“Oh we’ll see ‘em all right,” Slick said. “Right over there just out of

range. We’ll watch number seven kill ‘em all day.”

“I think we’ll do okay here,” Dad said. “This is a good blind.”

“I hope so,” I said. “I don’t know one from another.”

“There’s a difference,” Slick said. “But, yeah, we’ll probably do all

right being opening day and all.”

“Yeah,” I said.

In five minutes the shooting deck was full of hunters standing

shoulder to shoulder. My dad and I on one end, Big Slick beside me to

the left, then Eddie, then some guys I didn’t know very well and all the

way on the other end Dan and Lenny.

The calls began.

Lenny held his duck call into the air and blew softly on it making a

chuckling sound that was supposed to let the birds know that food was

around or something. I never understood that aspect either, but

apparently they did.

“Two minutes before it’s legal,” someone said in the middle. “Two


Just then shots rang out in unison across the water.

“Damn fools,” Slick said. “Somebody’s pushin’ it a little on the


The sun was not up yet, but we could see color in the sky enough to

contrast ducks from blackbirds, coots and such.

“Kinda early,” Dan said. “But if they’re shootin', we will. Keep an

eye out.”

Dan had no more than said the words than my dad followed up with

his, the most exciting statement of the day.

“Here’s they come,” he said as quietly as possible.

I heard clicking all along the front of the blind as safeties were

switched off and guns were raised slightly above the cane that was

stacked in front of us for cover.

I must have been the last to see them, but I finally did just before

the first shots fired from our blind.

“Holy shit!” Lenny said, excited.

The huge flock of ducks, which rose out of the trees from our left,

blackened the sky. The initial shots had scared up every duck in the

bottoms it seemed and they were headed our way.

“Wait on ‘em,” Dan said.

My dad fired first and I saw a duck fold up and fall from the sky as

he shucked out his shell and loaded in his second. Nearly everyone had

emptied all three shots before I got off one shot, but finally I started

firing and saw one duck fall on my third shot. It was a different kind of

rush than I had ever experienced before, but a rush nonetheless.

It sounded like a war when the rounds began firing. The hard thump

of the ten and twelve gauges shook the blind on its plywood foundation

and my ears went deaf instantly. It was an incredible thing to see. Sparks

and smoke filled the air in front of me and all at once - it was silent.

Splash, Splash

The last couple of birds hit the water as the sound of nature

returned to its normal state. Finally someone spoke.

“We might have limited out early today, fellas.”

We had not, of course, but it appeared that way at first. Some of the

guys had reloaded and emptied a second load before all of the ducks

were out of range. These were veteran hunters, good shots and lightning

quick loaders. I had been happy just to hit one out of three.

Once all of the chatter about the unbelievable beginning of the day

died down, light had filled the sky and the time of day set in on me. So

did the temperature.

Slick lit the portable stove and began cooking up pancakes and

smoked sausage. It smoked up the blind and smelled marvelous. Lenny

and my dad went out and collected the downed birds in the boat and

returned fifteen minutes later with the report.

“Looks like two Suzies, about four woodies, and a green head,” Dad

said. “We fucked up one bird too bad to tell what it was. I guess we’ll let

it be turtle food or something.”

Everyone sat and told dirty jokes, ate breakfast - again, and talked

more about the first kills of the day. We had apparently been in the right

place at the right time.

“The boys across the water didn’t even have a shot at any of those

ducks,” Lenny said. “Not one.”

“Yeah,” Slick said. “But they got the better blind. You wait and see

if they don’t kill ‘em all day. We’ll be standin’ here with our peckers in

our hand.”

“Can’t please you can we?” Lenny said with a grin.

“I am pleased,” he answered. “I hit one I think. That’s more than I

expected. I’m just here for the grub as usual. It’s always good. Ducks are


The conversations continued and everyone took turns getting

freshly cooked sausage of the griddle and eating them wrapped up in

pancakes. More coffee was brewed and it began taking the toll on

everyone who climbed down into the boats one after another taking a

leak into the water below.

Me and Dad sat there drinking Sun Drop and talking about how

well I liked this duck hunting business. I told him that I was glad I came.

The only problem I had with it was a lack of proper clothing.

My feet had become numb and they hurt. Being numb and feeling

pain is a strange sensation that I do not recommend to anyone. I don’t

know how the ducks take it. How could they prefer it this way?

We hunted until noon and saw very few ducks flying within range of

our steel. Some of the hunters complained that they wish they could still

legally use lead. It shoots much farther and could make the difference in

a bad day out and a bag limit day.

Myself, I spent most of the morning taking my trendy boots on and

off and sticking my socked feet nearly into the fire beneath the gas heater

to keep them thawed. I had become miserable, but would not say a word.

I knew Dad was having fun, and that made it fun for me too.

Soon after 12:00 the guys got tired of watching number seven shoot

all of the ducks and everyone began packing up their things and loading

them into the boats.

We headed back to the ramp at the same break neck speed we had

come out in and the snow had stopped for good. I did not remember

ever being so tired as I was when we got back to the parking lot at

Camden Bottoms. I was prepared to sleep all the way home and for

another two days after that.

“Same time tomorrow?” I heard Dan say. “Pig, you gonna meet us

at Waverly again?”

Dan looked at my dad.

“Four o’clock,” he replied. “We’ll be there.”

I couldn’t believe that they wanted to do all of this again. Apparently

I was destined to join them.

I thought about it on the way home and hated the fact that I had

come in the first place and wanted desperately to tell Dad that I wasn’t

going, but I knew he wanted me to go again. I said nothing.

Later on that afternoon when we got home my mother saw how

tired I was and laughed.

“Didn’t know what you were getting into, did ya?” she said.

“It wasn’t so bad, just a little cold,” I said.

“Going back tomorrow? How’d ya’ll do?”

All in a sudden I found myself explaining every detail to my mother

and telling her all about what a fun experience it had been. After a half-

hour of talking about that morning’s events, I could not wait to head out

the next day.

That duck hunting just grabs you somehow. It’s like you’re asking

for punishment, but the fun of the whole thing - the stories you tell later.

It makes it all worthwhile.


The alarm went off at the exact same time the next morning. The

digital clock read 2:30 am.

“Gotta get goin’,” I heard my dad say.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. 

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