Friday, December 6, 2013

Refried Mallard: Irony and Frostbite

I was scrolling back through the ancient blog archives last night, looking for stuff to cull when I came across this blog from January 2010. Truthfully, it's not a particularly good blog, but in looking at the date I realized that it was the last duck hunt I ever made with Lewey, my ultra-goofy, ultra-beloved and ultra-talented young male chessie, who died unexpectedly a few weeks later.

Ironically, the reason Lewey stayed home the last two weeks of the season following this hunt was because I  wanted to give Tess, my aging female, a few more hunts. She was getting old, you see, and who knows how much longer she'd be able to hunt? Well, Tess is still here and kicking, albeit slowly, and all that remains of Lewey are memories and a name scratched into a weathered hunk of gypsum that sits atop a grave on a bluff overlooking a pond.

Funny how things work out.

It's seven degrees outside, with a north wind at 15 gusting to 25. At least that's what the computer told me before I left the house. But the frozen snot on the end of my nose tells me the question of whether it's warmed up any since then is, semantically speaking, moot.

 We're making our way down the riverbank, Lewey and I, crunching through the frozen grass, when it happens. Ranging out thirty or so yards ahead of me he suddenly shifts out of his normal I'm-just-a-happy-go-lucky-goofball lope into "what's this smell" mode. Moments later the covey bursts out of the grass and flies across the river.

I don't shoot, because I'm standing here in a pair of waders, with a decoy bag over one shoulder, camera and gear bag over the other, and a trio of three-inch #2s in the 870.

And the reason I'm standing here in waders, holding a decoy bag and a shotgun full of steel is because several days earlier I had been standing along this same riverbank in brush pants and a vest, holding a 20 gauge full of #8s, and all I saw were ducks. Piles of them, all up and down the river.

Today, however, all I find is quail. Lewey flushes another small covey huddled along the ribbon of cottonwoods, eastern redcedars, tamarisks and sandsage that flank the river. I find no ducks, anywhere. All I find is an inch of ice covering the river and silence. I've long since dumped the decoy bag and resigned myself to sneaking along the ice, hoping there might be a mallard or two we can jump.

Finally, when Lewey flushes the third covey, I can stand it no longer. Screw it. Full choke and duck loads be damned. I pick out a bird, shoot and - predictably -  pulverize a completely innocent bystanding tamarisk branch.

The quail flies on. And predictably, my shot flushes a group of mallards loafing on the ice just around the next bend. Unpredictably, they decide to fly right over my head as they make their escape. Survival-wise, this is generally a pretty sound tactic when I'm shooting. This time, however, I manage to knock down a drake. Thinking double, I rush the third shot and hit only atmosphere.

Lewey tiptoes onto the ice. Halfway across it gives way with a loud crack and Lewey plunges into the icy water below. All six inches of it. Gotta love prairie rivers. He jumps out of the icy water, grabs the duck and gives that area a wide berth coming back.  As he gingerly crosses the ice and drops the duck in my hand I realize this is by far the best quail hunting day he's ever had...


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