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Duck Hunting: The Born Again

Huge congratulations to GFS contributor Michael R. Shea, whose essay “Duck Hunting: The Born Again” was chosen as a finalist for Creative Nonfiction’s Spring 2011 Food Issue. Enjoy Mike’s essay and give him a pat on the back in the comments.

Nearly all hunters are raised hunters. Fathers generally pass it on to sons and daughters. There is such a thing as the camo-clad gun-toting mother, especially in the South, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

My father passed on many things to me—Yankees fandom, lactose intolerance—but not hunting. My mother wouldn’t even allow toy guns in the house. But my dad took me fishing, and every April we’d uncover the 14-foot aluminum bass boat and float the Thames in Norwich, Connecticut. The big ocean schools of striped bass worked upriver to spawn and we worked down with rubber worms and bucktail jigs.

After sounding the water for an hour, sometimes two, sometimes three, we’d hit fish and holler like prospectors on gold. Cast after cast we’d haul in little strippers. Ten, fifteen, twenty fish were not uncommon. It was almost like hatchery fishing—those big deep-water schools penned in by the rocky river edge.

If my sister was along, we’d eat Dunkin’ Donuts. We’d lean over the side of the boat, cleaning off fish hands in the cold river water, then push chocolate-filled powder bombs into our grubby mouths, washing them down with a thermos of Mom’s hot chocolate. In my family, fishing stands as one of our happiest memories. To this day a photograph of my sister hangs on my parents’ refrigerator—blond hair tousled, nose red from the spring wind. She’s holding a little striped bass, making a kissy face, and the fish is kissing back.

The Question of Hunting

Twenty years later, I found myself writing occasional fishing stories for a little newspaper in California. On one trip out of Bodega Bay the salmon were sparse, but we managed to put some rockfish on ice. It was an assorted cast of characters on that 34-foot King Cat—a charter trip organized by my barber. On the slow ride back to the dock, one of the guys got talking about hunting. Bob had been a little hostile the whole trip, firing jabs at me about the liberal media and the like. A self-described redneck, he mourned the good old days when the sports page ran deer reports and pictures of the locals’ elk hunts in Colorado.

“Why doesn’t The Bee write about hunting anymore?” he finally came right out and asked. I didn’t know what to say. Something about blood sport? Something about cruelty? That would be ironic, sitting on a cooler of thirty dead fish. “Why don’t you take me hunting and I’ll write about it?” I shot back. At that point in time I had fired a gun exactly once in my entire life. He paused. I don’t know for sure, but when I think back on it, I see his tongue working over the black space in his smile where a tooth once was. “Okay,” he said. “I’m a hunter education instructor.”

I was 27 years old.

Every hunter I have ever met has started at 16 or earlier. I’m sure there are other late-bloomers out there, but I haven’t met them. Bob walked me and thirty other students through a week’s worth of gun safety, conservation and wilderness ethics in the back of a Modesto sporting goods store. He loaned me waders and an old camo jacket. He took me to his sportsmen’s club and showed me how to work the pump on his rusty Remington 870. When the waterfowl season opened that second Saturday in October, he sat me down next to him in his duck blind on a flooded cattle field not far from Los Banos, California. When the green-wing teal bombed into our little piece of marsh, we waited, waited, waited, then burst out of cover, guns blazing, muzzle flash breaking the dark morning air. The ducks kept on flying.

I learned quickly—and keep on learning—that killing wild animals is hard. People who haven’t tried it don’t believe it, but it’s true. They think the deck is stacked: shotgun, camouflage, decoys, dog. Magazines print information on flight patterns and some guys scout areas with GPS, trail-mounted cameras and other photo reconnaissance tools. But there’s no guarantee the birds will do today what they did yesterday. When the prey is wild the prey is hard to guess.

A Successful Duck Hunt

A successful duck hunt requires mountains of gear, good decoys and better land. The weather should be miserable. The colder the better. The darker the better. Light rain or snow is best, but I never got any snow on those early California hunts. Only when conditions are perfect, and by perfect I mean crappy, does the camo or the blind, the accuracy of your gun, or the stillness of the dog matter. The art is in the deception. And deception is hard to learn. Rarely does it all come together.

That first year I started hunting, I was in a blind in Gustine, California, at a high-dollar duck club, working on a newspaper story. A city councilman, his father and his son—three generations—crouched next to me in that blind. The air between us was thick with the kind of family sentiment that makes small-town newspaper editors salivate. We talked a lot about the days before developers discovered the Central Valley, the days when farms could be farms and nothing more. The boy, maybe 10 years old, shot his first duck that morning. Sentimental or not, the look on his face could warm a house.

We were all chatting about nothing in particular a few hours later when on my left in the far peripheral vision a duck showed up, moving fast and away. As soon as I saw it I was on my feet and as soon as I was on my feet the gun was on my shoulder and the gun went off. The bird waded up and splashed in the water, stone dead. “Nice shot!” the councilman yelled. The dog brought in a canvasback, a diving duck, with that distinct angular beak and a dark crimson head. It was the only can shot out of that blind all year—a trophy duck, fat and pretty. The kill was clean. Quick. I could hardly believe I did it. Everything had come together, without thought or meditation, and I was hooked.

It wasn’t the first duck I shot, nor the last, but it’s the one I remember best. I’m not religious—I’m not even “spiritual” in the New Age-y believe-your-own-thing-sense—but out there on the water, after hours of searching and finally cranking up those striped bass, or after hours of sitting still and finally seeing those wild birds appear…. Well, for me, it’s a kind of transcendence, a feeling of connectedness, that others might take away from a sunset or, perhaps, their first great love affair.

Nowadays, living in New York City, when my trips to the woods are few and far between—races to the woods really, for the early goose season, for the duck opener—I seek the outdoors. Even if no fish are caught, or no birds shot, it fills me up to just sit in the silence of a 5 a.m. sunrise, a gun on my knee, the dog watching the sky, waiting….

Read Part II of Mike’s story, where he translates his love of fishing and hunting into a quest to figure out the best way to cook 30 pounds of duck meat.

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  1. I grew up in the South. My daddy didn’t hunt, but my mother’s dad and all her brothers did and do. When you hunt, there is no denying the death to meat on the table reality. A good thing.

  2. I like the idea of hunting. Which may be strange since I was a vegetarian for 20 years and I only eat a little meat. But it just makes sense to hunt what you are going to eat. Hunting just for sport though makes me very sad.

  3. Great story Mike. Connection with nature is what its all about, for me at least. This is a side of hunting that a lot of people don’t see or understand. Thanks for sharing that experience.

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