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Meet in the Middle, In Waterfowl Heaven

Meet in the Middle, In Waterfowl Heaven

Alright, so maybe it wasn’t a halfway point. I’ll admit it: It wasn’t even close. Kyle did have to drive a lot farther to get there; his 220 to my 61 miles … but that’s his fault. Or his wife’s, I suppose. Blasted woman and her incessant need for … progress?  Either way, it was certainly not my idea to have my duck-slaying compadre move all the way to State College, Pa. Though I, and you the reader for sure, benefit immensely from his move—my butt now resides in his former office.

When I received the invite to join him on Maryland’s Eastern and Western shores for a hunt with Avery Outdoors territory manager Wayne Radcliffe, it really didn’t matter what we would be hunting. I said yes first, then asked questions later. As it turns out, the details got me salivating more than Pavlov’s dog. It was to be a combo hunt, sea ducks and geese. “Whoa there, Kyle. You did say sea ducks, didn’t you? That means big water and …”“Layout boats!”

Though my response is not suitable for the pages of this fine publication, it’s safe to say I was a go for launch. A sea duck hunt, let alone a hunt out of layout boats, was something I had wanted to do for quite some time. Throw some January Canadas in the mix and you’ve just created a duo that rivals beer and bacon. Despite the short notice, I packed the overnight necessities as fast as I could, forgetting of course the essentials like a toothbrush and deodorant, and tossed them in my beat-up F-150. No need to get fancy with Kyle, his wife is much better looking than I am anyway.  The rest of my gear was already in use that season and thus waders, guns and my blind bag were scattered in their semi-permanent home next to the front door. My girlfriend at the time had long become accustomed to the disarray, as I assume any woman who’s settled for a grizzled ducker has had to do. Cleanliness is meant for spring anyway, right?

We met at the hotel, the charming Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa, located on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, right on the water and not 100 yards from the boat ramp where we would meet up with Wayne the next morning. My first impression of the place was that it looked like the quintessential waterfront resort should—classy, while maintaining the historic maritime feel of the area, surrounded by boats of all shapes and sizes, plenty of nets and rope-strewn wooden pylons. Even better, the adjacent BBQ joint was still open in January so mounds of pork and cold brewskies kept our nerves at bay while we spat tales of past hunts, made some foolish bets and pondered what gifts the quack gods would bring us in the morning. Ten p.m. approached while the last of the then-lukewarm suds slipped down our throats so we sauntered off to the hotel, taking a quick detour around back to the dock and patio where we found a group of well-fed mallards roosting on a sandbar. We watched them sleep for a few minutes, a sight I had never witnessed at such close proximity, hoping it was a sign of good fortune to come. Sleep didn’t come easy that night. I’m pretty sure there was a wild boar rooting around Kyle’s side of the room all night, but as it didn’t seem to bother him, I didn’t see the harm in letting it feed. When I was finally able to doze off, I enjoyed a vivid dream of the old days of the market gunners who made their living here only a short hundred years ago. I picture a small sculling boat: A hardened seaman with leather skin silently oars his pock-marked punt gun toward an unsuspecting flock of canvasbacks, their white backs glistening in the moonlight, unaware that the chief of the food chain is homing in on their almost inaudible sounds. Closer he sculls, the short, hand-carved paddle providing just enough momentum to keep him moving toward the raft. At 50 yards, the birds begin to part, but it’s too late. He’s well within range for his field-proven barrage and he rises. And like all my great dreams, I woke at the sound of the shot, only seconds before the gunner’s canvas bag would be filled, providing the namesake of the duck that brought the highest dollar, and a satisfying conclusion to my dream.

We met Wayne and his first mate at the launch. Gear and guns found a home in the rear of the 20-foot vessel, leaving just enough space for Kyle and me to snug up against the gunwales. A boat this size would easily carry twice as many hunters if the bow was not utilized to stow the giant, gray, two-man, saucer-shaped layout boat. The mile or so boat ride, with the red hues of a cold January morning glowing across the black water’s peaks, almost put me right back into my dream. It was still dark as the layout boat was shoved in with a splash that seemed to be instantly absorbed by the dark void before us. Warily, we stepped off the rail, leaving behind the safety of the tender boat for our floating tomb.

Simply stated, it’s unnerving. There we were, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, floating—yes—but for how long was anyone’s guess. The small craft was far from what most would call “seaworthy,” at first glance. Assuming with a fleeting degree of certainty that this was not her maiden voyage, I hunkered down next to Kyle. Handing over my meager life to a river that had certainly claimed a few lives in her day in trade for a duck seemed more and more ridiculous as the waves crested mere inches from the hole from which we protruded out of the little vessel. As blocks were set, my eyelids took it upon themselves to close off the bay, perhaps to wait out the insidious darkness. In those minutes, I thought again of the old market gunner. I pictured him next to me in his waxed canvas coat, the wool beneath it made briny from the spray of salt, his wife’s needlework showing on the sleeves. His cracked and calloused hand ached as it moved from the humpback of his new Remington autoloader, the envy of the peer, to poke and prod through his wiry gray beard as he methodically set his course.

The sun began to rise as the tender boat made its way to a far off vantage point, leaving us alone on the big water. The market gunner’s beard faded with the night to reveal the “aren’t we lucky” grin of my much younger companion, donning Avery gear from head to toe, though the black waters beneath us seemed to resist the change of time. They still held the sounds of distant gunfire lingering from the barrel of the outlaw gunner, his sneak boat slowly making its way home and off to market.

With eyes scanning the horizon hoping to catch a wave of ducks long before they entered the spread, we waited. Over far off waters we watched as small flocks of the black dots disappeared with the rising drink, leaving our hands gripped tight to the cold steel in anticipation. Other than the sound of waves slapping against the fiberglass hull of the layout, the bay offered nothing but silence.

Then it happened. I spotted a target, if only for an instant, as it careened off my right side and behind us. The species was irrelevant in my mind—nothing was off the table. “Duck” is all my brain discerned.

With moves so fast that it would make Neo from “The Matrix” look sluggish, I leaned backward, lifting my right arm over my left shoulder, and fired the Stoeger at the target whizzing behind us. The black and white drake long-tailed duck, or old squaw as it’s commonly called, crumpled as the load of No. 1 steel shot intersected his getaway.

“Whoa, Jon, nice shot. … Amazing shot!”

And that’s why I like hunting with Kyle. I always seem to hear that at least once during a hunt with him. Regardless of the actual difficulty of the shot, Kyle, more than anyone I know, recognizes and appreciates the beauty of waterfowling. He is quick to point out a pretty kill—those that almost happen in slow motion, as your mind takes its time to relish the sight—and never boasts of his own.  Most of my more memorable ducks were taken before a welcome praise from my good friend, which is why I’m pleased to be able to repay the honeyed words here. After a “slow morning,” in Wayne’s words, one that Kyle and I would have reported as some of the most action-packed, fast-paced, in-your-face duck hunting we have ever experienced, Kyle made one of those shots. The tender boat had been coming back periodically—it was never more than 700 yards away—to pick up the dead birds lest the current take them forever. We had already bagged common scoters, surf scoters and a few old squaws when Wayne pulled up beside our craft.

“You guys should have been here last week,” he said. “We would have limited out within 45 minutes.”

Mind you, we had only been there for a little over two hours.

“We’re gonna start picking up the decoys, you boys keep shooting.”

No need to tell us twice. We were ready for one last hoorah. And it came in the form of a single old squaw. I wish I could tell you that I didn’t shoot at all, but I expect Kyle would bust me on that lie pretty quick, so I’ll admit with my head hung low that I didn’t hit the duck. Just as I was cursing my missed chance at glory, wondering why Kyle didn’t shoot as the distance between us grew, everything went into slow motion. It was as if he was Tom Knapp with a twinkle in his eye and a flair for the dramatic and had finally decided to “give us a show.” I watched as my friend rose to shoulder his gun, the stock effortlessly finding its way through his thick coat to a home it had visited many times before. My eyes widened as the graceful hunter swung the barrel through his fleeting target and squeezed the trigger in a single motion. Thinking, 50 yards and climbing, no way in hell, I followed the plastic wad until the falling bird garnered all attention. Cheers went out from the boat where Wayne and the mate had been watching, as I put my arm around Kyle and gave him a well deserved “Ohh my God. Great shot!” The prettiest old squaw I’d ever seen sported a sprig that would have broken 12, no 15 inches, had we put a tape to it.

Day 2: The Goose Shoot Exhibition
After some decent grub at a little Mexican joint that was definitely undersold by the building’s run-down facade, and without fully shaking off the excitement from the morning, our caravan made a short jaunt north and across the 301 bridge to day two’s goose hunting grounds on the Eastern Shore. The hope of a snow goose hunt, which had been floated as a possibility the night before, diminished as we received reports of good  birds, but no permission from landowners. Instead, Wayne had a field pit in mind that had been receiving some good Canada activity and that’s where we made our play.

In the early morning, we swapped waterproof waders for warm bibs while Wayne attached the large decoy trailer to the hitch of his pickup. Though it was only a few hundred yards to the pit, lugging decoys and gear on strained backs, like Kyle and I were used to doing, was out of the question. Wayne had a trailer, and that meant it was full of hundreds of full-body decoys that would have required 10 men and twice as many trips through the muddied field. We had six guys, Wayne’s daughter Nadra and modern automotive technology. But still, setting up that many decoys was going to take some time, or so I thought, and daylight was fast approaching. Everyone had a job to do and set to their perspective tasks without hesitation. Some folks went around with 5-gallon buckets full of stakes, pushing them seemingly without any rhyme or reason into the winter wheat field surrounding the pit. Others followed, hauling large slotted brown bags full of Avery Honkers, topping each stake as they came to it. Kyle and I watched, twiddling our thumbs—not long enough to be berated as lazy by the group but enough for us to realize we needed to get our butts in gear—before we found a place to assist and each of us shouldered two decoy bags. After countless trips to the trailer and back, there lay before us a spread the size of which I had never seen. What I thought was random placement had in fact been tried and tested by the group. Small groups surrounded each low spot in the field that held water and the slight wind created motion that brought the spread to life. As we climbed down the ladder into the pit, I recall thinking two things: I hope they come in low, and I hope they’re not too low because I won’t be able to tell them apart from the decoys.

It was later in the morning than I was used to when the first wave came. As usual, we heard them before we saw them. With Wayne blowing his call, they materialized above the tree line across from our pit and circled once before dropping in. How many times, I thought, have I wished this would happen, only to have birds flare without a second glance? Not today. Eight birds came down to the volley of steel, all eight, and I know for a fact that Kyle shot at least one. Like so many of my hunts with him, the bird I’d been following exploded before I could pull the trigger. My shot was headed toward oblivion as I watched the goose fall in slow motion.

“Incoming!” screamed Kyle as it landed with a thud mere feet from our heads. We turned to face each other and laughed. Our toothy grins relayed the message our voices could not: We were glad to be here—in waterfowl heaven.

Limits for seven hunters fill fast with action like that. We had been watching flocks of birds, Canadas and high-flying snows by the thousands, shooting the few that would make the mistake of coming into Wayne’s spread. Two birds shy of our limit, a confident single made a silent pass over our heads from left to right, the line of hunters seemingly unaware of its stealthy flyby. That’s when yours truly stepped up to the plate. It’s satisfying when you know beyond a shadow of doubt that it was your shot that killed a certain bird. I knew this was mine as it passed over the first three hunters in the pit with only a single, Hail Mary shot that missed its mark. I even contemplated letting it pass my zone before I recalled my desire to replicate Kyle’s shot from the day before and the slow motion kicked in. The goose froze in midair, offering me again “Matrix”-like “bullet time” to shoulder the gun. The shot was instinctual; had I thought it through I surely would have missed.  As the bead passed from butt to beak, I remember thinking “bang” and compressing the trigger.  The goose dropped and, again, Kyle made me feel like the Herb Parsons of the waterfowling world.

After clean up and photos we headed back toward our respective homes with bloated egos, birds in the bed and smoke from congratulatory stogies drifting from our truck windows. We were waterfowling royalty. And while we may not be able to do a trip like this every year, you can bet that Kyle and I will recount tales of its splendor until our significant others get so sick and tired of hearing about it that they pretty much force us to get out of the house. And we’ll make it a point to meet halfway, in waterfowl heaven. At least that’s the plan.

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