Saturday, December 20, 2008

Aubrey Shepherd's focal point for display of Labrador retrievers, natural-resource conservation, English language word use, outdoor sports, recreational sports and athletics

First printed in
The Morning News
of Northwest Arkansas

Aubrey's Notebook:
Old Duck Hunts Still Best
Shivering so hard his teeth chattered, the sub-teen boy kept his face down, his cold hands on the barrel of the shotgun that was almost as tall as he was and hoped his father's persistent calling would bring the small group of mallards down in front of the willow-covered blind. He and his father never had top-quality hunting clothes in those days.

In fact, the state of the art in hunting clothes wasn't especially high at the time. So being cold was an accepted part of duck hunting. His father always kept a small charcoal fire going in a big metal bucket inside the blind, but it was good only when one of the hunters took a break from watching for ducks to appear above the ring of cypress trees that hid the horizon on the northwest Louisiana lake.

Inside, the blind was cozy. Made of wood with a tar-paper roof and a canvas curtain between the sitting area and the shooting porch on the front, the blind was built high above the water, allowing part of the boat the hunters used to reach the blind to slide underneath. A brush-covered tin roof sloped back from the blind to hide the boat and limit the amount of rain that entered it while the hunters were in the blind.

The boat, the blind, the clothing, the 100 or so decoys anchored in 4 feet of water in front of the blind, the guns and the shells ‹ all of theequipment was the best the man could provide, given the fact that his wife wasn't interested in hunting, didn't like to cook or eat ducks and questioned every expenditure the man made for outdoor sports.

All of it was good. All of it would be acceptable to most duck hunters today, except the paper-bodied shells. Ammunition for shotguns had to be protected from moisture or shells would swell and hang up the guns after the first shot. That happened often enough that smart hunters kept their shells in metal containers that were easy to seal. Later, they used coffee cans with handy plastic replacement tops or sealed their extra shells in plastic freezer bags and put them in their coat pockets. But, in the 1940s, such cheap, convenient items weren't available. Shells got wet. Serious hunters also kept a stick trimmed off to the right size to ram down the barrel of a gun and force a lodged shell out of a gun's chamber. Usually, of course, the malfunction occurred when ducks were still in range.

That's why learning to make the first shot count was extremely important. There seldom were as many ducks on the lake as there were duck hunters. In fact, there were more blinds than ducks most days. Blinds were required by law to be 500 feet apart. A person who figured out a good spot to locate a blind and had success there quickly was surrounded. Others would build blinds 500 feet away, roughly in a circle around the prime spot.

This was the pattern all over the big lake, created a couple of decades earlier as a water supply for Shreveport. Less attractive blind sites might not be crowded by other blinds, but the only truly isolated blinds were the few placed far out in the open lake, where deep water had long before drowned all the timber. Such locations seldom attracted mallards, regardless of the number of decoys around them, the thoroughness of the brushing done on them or the quality of the calling from inside. They were "blackjack" blinds, where diving ducks such as ringnecks and scaup were the main targets.

When the hundred or more blinds in the shallow, cypress-studded parts of the lake were full of hunters on weekends, the open-water blinds could be the most productive places on the lake. Ducks that quickly became cautious when a barrage of calling sounded through the woods were likely to decoy readily to a big spread in open water, especially on nearly windless days, when decoys in the woods floated like the wooden chunks they were and open-water decoys seemed lively in even the lightest of breezes. Wind, however, was the factor that kept most hunters from bothering to build open-water blinds, even though sites on the lake could be claimed for a $10, one-time fee. The small, flat-bottom boats used in those days had low sides. Most were 12 feet long with a pointed bow and no decking to keep out heavy seas.

The boy and his father used such a boat until 1953, when they got a 14-foot Skeeter boat. No, not the popular bass boats bearing that name today. The original Skeeter was so named because it was a lean, low, light plywood boat with sides in the kayak style, capable of skimming over still water at high speeds with a 5-, 10- or 16-horsepower engine. Few outboard engines were larger in those days. Such boats could handle fairly large waves safely. But those at-the-time prestigious fishing boats weren't made to handle the storms that could arise on such a lake in winter. And life jackets were rare. Most hunters had a Kapok-filled cushion or two and could have survived the capsizing of their boats only if rescued quickly. The boy shook more when ducks were near. He shook the same way when ducks approached even when he was 20 and 30 years old. Somewhere along the line, after he had mastered the sport and taken enough limits to know he was an accomplished duck hunter, the shaking stopped. His clothes were better. He learned to wear insulated leather boots even when hunting ducks from a boat. Finally, he learned to wear wool sweaters under his cotton or nylon coats. In the 1970s, he got his first pair of neoprene waders and camouflaged stocking caps with openings for his face. He could take the cold without shaking and he could watch ducks approaching without fear that he might fail to call them close enough for a shot. His shells were plastic-bodied and less susceptible to water damage and almost never swelled in a gun, although they could hang up!

He didn't shake any more, but he still loved to hunt ducks. He knew many ways to hunt successfully, had hunted ducks in so many different types of habitat that he not only had a plan in mind as soon as he saw a field or stream or lake or flooded forest but also could tell a credible story of past success in some similar spot. He knew the lack of shivering meant he had lost something he had enjoyed about those early hunts with his father. But he couldn't say he missed the shivering itself. Besides, as he grew older, he was likely to shiver in his living room, unless he turned up the heat or put on some of his hunting clothes. The main thing he missed were the days in the blind with his father, and the smell of dried willow leaves, charcoal burning in a bucket and strong dark-roast coffee from a thermos.

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Aubrey James Shepherd
Fayetteville, AR © 2003, 2004, 2005

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