One more from Cap’n Vic’s life pile
Hopefully I’m covered by the statutes of limitations, so I guess I can share this story. Several ‘best-ofs’ occurred this morning in 1983.
First off. As a professional waterfowler, (How many guys can say that?) I rarely break any game laws and I certainly do not condone the practice. Just bad for business on so many levels. As you’ll see however, this day is different. Kind of like I just won and immunity challenge.
Christmas morning. A Sunday. Barely light out when my Chesapeake Bay retriever, Yoda wakes me. In Carolina we’re not only in the bible belt, we’re pretty much the proverbial belt’s buckle. As such there is no fun allowed on Sunday. And you certainly cannot hunt. Period!
I try explaining this to the dog, but she’s not hearing any of it. I tell her to buzz off and go back to sleep. She whines back that in her mind we’re already getting a late start. A tossed pillow buys me five more minutes, then she’s at it again.
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” she whines.
Not positive I won’t find some sort of discharged bodily function festering somewhere in the house if I ignore her, I grudgingly and grumpily crawl out from under the covers.
Whoa! It’s cold! No. I mean real cold ! I glance out the little bit of clear glass of the window that isn’t frosted over and note, with surprise that the thermometer tacked to the side of the live oak outside reads 6 degrees. Wow. The weather dude on the TV last night wasn’t kidding. I slide on my leather soled Norwegian slippers and head for the front door to let the dog out.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” she whines as she dances and hops around on the front deck frost. Breathing clouds like smoke in the A.M. frigidness.
I look out and am amazed that the entire sound is frozen from my shoreline all the 12 miles across to Manteo’s shoreline. Looking out over the sound makes one think that this is what tundra must look like. All vast and wild-white with an explosively clear and sharp blue sky extending upward to forever. A flock of fifty or so waterfowl wing their way through my line of sight. Hmmm.
Maybe Yoda’s right. It couldn’t hurt to check out the point or the boathouse cove. Those two areas almost never freeze. I duck back inside and reemerge in less than a minute in warmer togs. Yoda know where I’m going and leads the way, nose aquiver, sniffing adventure in the air.
Allow me to digress for a moment and explain the circumstances. First of all, this is the only time in my life that I’ve ever not had any family around for Christmas. My sister is enrolled at VA Tech in Blacksburg, VA and my Mom and younger brother have gone to visit her. My older brother lives in the Soho area of NY city and my Dad went to share the bright lights with him. Hence, I’m home alone.
I won’t say I’m crippled by loneliness, but as I went to bed last night, poignancy and ennui were duking it out for control of my mood.
And then there’s where I’m living. A mile and a half down a dirt road. My only neighbors along said rutted dirt road being the residents of several old family grave plots which seem as natural as the live oaks they are nestled amongst.
Drive past the little cemeteries and finally you come to my compound on the last 18 acres of the tip of the peninsula at the end of said rutted dirt road.
Hmmm. Certainly no one can get at me from across the sound. Heck. At 6 degrees on Christmas morning nobody’ll be outside anyway. Hmmm.
Yoda and I arrive at a place where we can see the peninsula’s south facing tip. Sure enough, there is a nice air hole. Maybe a hundred yards from end to end, but surprisingly void of fowl.
We quick hike to the boat house on the peninsula’s eastern side and sneak a peek northward up the shoreline toward the cove. Hmmm. Open water. There they are. A couple dozen redheads two hundred yards up the shoreline, just past the point that begins the cove.
Just then another dozen or so widgeon pitch into the back of the cove and out of my sight. Hmmm. I wonder how many more birds are amassed in the back of that cove. Hmmm. My ‘bad self’ starts to scheming as Yoda and I slide back from the shoreline so as to not spook the redheads and whatever else may be in the back of that cove. Hmmm.
My ‘good self’ reminds me on our way back to the house that it is Christmas after all and a Sunday to boot. Give the birds the day off my ‘good self’ urges. My ‘bad self’ very nearly chokes.
“Excuse me!,” he roars in response. “Didn’t you see that one really big bull redhead, not to mention the other twenty three?! And those widgeon! What were they pitching to? Sweet honey mustard!” My ‘bad self’ is really warming up now. “How do you think God will feel?! Here He goes out of His way to provide you with this wonderful and rare ice hole hunt on a day when nobody would possibly care-or even hear- whatever it is you might be inclined to do. And on His birthday, for Pete’s sake! On the one and only Christmas that your whole family is gone.” My ‘bad self’ is very nearly hysterical.
“Get in the truck,” my ‘bad self’ demands. “In. In. In the truck. Start her up. Now. Now! Okay, in gear, good. Now drive. Drive! Perfect.” My ‘bad self’ won’t let up. “Half way to the hard road. A little farther. See those 2 trees together on either side of the road? Hit the brakes. Now! Harder! Whip the wheel. Skid. Skid. Heh, heh, heh. Perfect!”
I look around at what I’ve just done. Hmmmm. Wedged that big old Chevy truck right between those two trees. Nobody could drive around if they had to. Hmmm. “My bad’ leaves one parting retort as he and the ‘good me’ fade away. Something about a tree falling in the woods and nobody hearing it and if it isn’t one of those two trees nobody’ll see it either.
By the time Yoda and I trot the mile back to the house, evil intent has morphed into a simple plan. First off. More clothes. Second. Boots. Third. My trusty old Winchester, Model 12, 16 guage pump gun. Fourth. The eighteen shells I have on hand to fit that gun. Fifth. My six foot drag boat and a handful (15) of decoys. My dog and I head for the cove.
What ensues could have been very, very ugly if not for a good deal of breeding, training and restraint on my part. Other than the initial flush (more later), I limit myself to decoying fowl and drakes only. One shot per bunch of birds, period. Heaven only knows how many fowl I could have logged had I been meat hunting and gunned all day.
As it turns out, I’m back at the house and Yoda and I are thawing in front of the heater in less that four hours. The tally. Thirteen ducks in the fridge and 4 16 guage shells, unfired, in my pocket. (The unaccounted for shell was thrown at a drake pintail in frustration during an in-field repair of my frozen shotgun.) Oh yeah, and a best ever memory.
When Yoda and I first step into the water to head for the cove, the redheads opt for denial and instead of winging away, they swim out of sight behind the point and into the cove. My dog and I sneak down the shoreline. As we finally step around the point, the whole world seems to stop for a moment, the erupts. Being that there is a power line strung across the back third of the cove and tall trees in the back, all the birds have no choice other than to fly right past me.
The three hundred or so fowl that are accumulated in the back of the cove are all in thunderous motion. All kinds of ducks. Divers and puddlers combined. At least 14 or 15 species.
Most anybody else would have emptied out into the thickest of the wad of birds and easily would have knocked down 20 or so. Somehow, I remain calm.
The first bird I focus in on is that big bull redhead. Just as I am about to squeeze off my first shot I notice a drake ruddy catching up to the redhead. I wait the extra milli-moment. They line up. BLAM! They both go down. Then I’m drawn to a beautifully luminescent green head. BLAM! The bird just to the left crumples. (Not quite on purpose, but I’ll take it) Shuck my last shell into the chamber. Eyes unfocused but seeing all. I’m drawn to a big Canadian red-legged black that is just clearing the power line. Wait. Wait. The black momentarily crosses paths with another fluttering shape. BLAM! Both fold.
Dag! Did I just do that?! I don’t have to even say anything to Yoda as, at that moment, she is closing in on the far bird. Five retrieves later and I’m still in awe. Five beautiful fowl at my feet. A drake redhead, ruddy, black and widgeon and a hen mallard. In one volley. Pretty much on purpose too. Woo-hoo!…
‘Good me’ takes this moment to interrupt my reverie and opine that, as I’m already over-limit I might as well not even set out the decoys or to wait and see what might want to return to that beautiful little ice free cove.
‘Bad me,’ Yoda and I laugh our collective butts off as I joyously begin flinging decoys into the cove.
Merry Christmas to me.
Oh yeah. One of the best moments of the hunt occurs about an hour in. I’ts so cold that the firing pin has frozen and the 16 won’t shoot. I have the gun dismantled and am holding a lit Bic to the firing pin as a beautiful drake pintail lands mere feet from the bush I’m hiding behind.
Long story short. That’s when the unaccounted for shotgun shell got chucked.
LIFE PILE by Vic Berg
“Man, I’ve waited forever to do that.” He was admiring my dog who was standing at my side with the man’s first ever mature bull pintail in her mouth.
“Perfectly decoying birds. Perfect shot. Perfect retrieve. Perfect day. Beautifully scenic spot. Definitely one for the life-pile.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“What do you mean? One for the life-pile?” I’ll always remember his explanation.
“You know. Usually when a guy starts hunting or fishing he’s a blood-thirsty savage. He’s not happy unless he’s got a huge heaping pile of fish or game. Over the years though, the blood lust wanes and you enter the next phase of hunting and gathering. Don’t get me wrong, you still enjoy a healthy pile of game, but you’re more interested in trophy game; a twelve point buck, ten pound speck, a hundred pound cobia, stuff like that.” He took the bird I handed him and after admiring it for a few moments he continued.
“Then you get to a point where the physical pile doesn’t really matter anymore. Instead you continue hunting or fishing for the unique moment. The billfish jumping under a rainbow on a misty morning, getting a one shot double by waiting for two birds to cross before you fire, seeing your puppy retrieve her first duck.” He pondered quietly for a few moments and went on. “Actually, a dog’s first duck, while a prideful moment, is usually half accident and poor form. The real event is that moment when the light snaps on in your dog’s head. That instant (he snapped his fingers) when a dog gets it. When he or she all of a sudden realizes what all the training has been for. ‘ I’m a RETRIEVER! This is my JOB!’ From that moment on the two of you are a hunting team.”
I had to allow that the man was right. I’d seen it in every dog I ever owned. One moment you have a reluctant and head-strong half puppy, half dog galloomping around in your rig, carrying decoys to shore and acting an idiot. Then an event transpires and your dog freezes for an instant, head half cocked. Invariably, they’ll look back at you half amazed and right then, right there, you can see it. The switch is flipped in your dog’s head, and of an instant they get it. Then they charge off with purpose and understanding and in that instant you get yourself a gunning dog. When the man spoke next it half startled me out of my reflection.
“Yeah. I can tell you’ve seen it too and that’s my point. A life pile isn’t a pile of horns or mounts. It’s a pile of memories. Special moments. Unique moments. Gems of time and memory that stay with you forever.” He turned the pintail over in his hands and pointed at the bird’s leg.
“You know, out of that flock of thirty birds, I saw the sun sparkle off that band there.” He paused a few beats with a faraway cast to his eyes, taking in the scenery and the day.
“Definitely one for the life-pile.”