Early autumn ritual provides solitude, beauty and sometimes, ducks
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
The geese came in at sundown. A distant ker-honking; then closer, louder, imminent, as if an approaching storm on rising wind. Then geese in the sky, dark silhouettes moving purposefully. Everywhere the sound of their calls.
The sky showed rose at the horizon and the geese flew toward the sunset then banked, set wings as if an origami sculpture and gave up flight to gravity. As they lowered we lost sight of them; dark birds against the ink-black tree line. All that remained was goose call and dusky sky.
Then we could hear the sound of them as they landed on the water in the darkness.
More flocks came in; dozens at a time and then more and I said, “There must be over a hundred on the lake.”
Then the color bleached from the sky to the west and it was dark and it was quiet except for the sound of goose chatter.
We cooked burgers over charcoal and ate them with a side of heirloom tomatoes sliced thin, topped with mozzarella cheese and drizzled with oil and balsamic vinegar. Lingering heat from an 80-degree-plus day gave way grudgingly and we had the windows to the hunt shack open full. We ate dinner with a balmy breeze and the sound of geese in the night.
Sally left for home; I stayed for the night.
Out on the deck I listened to the geese that warm September night. There was the occasional sound, distant, of cars on highway. Other than that, silence, save for the geese. Silence and darkness and stars overhead.
I sat in the dusty old arm chair and read stories of long-ago hunts. The air in the shack was musty as if an attic or a basement. Air as that has substance as if weighted with memories and age and times now past.
After reading for an hour, I stood and walked to the deck. It was very dark and very still. Then in the blackness across the lake a crazy, wild sound rose as if a spirit: coyotes yipping and yelping and howling in the night. The geese went silent. The coyotes carried on, loud and spirited and alive with wildness. Then quiet. In the dark and silence I went back inside and turned off the lights.
It was warm the next morning in the dark hour before the dawn. I pushed the duck skiff out, paddled down the lake, tossed a dozen decoys, then paddled back to the blind. I sat in the calm of dawning, loaded the shotgun and waited. Most of hunting is waiting. You’d better be good with it.
The geese flew from the lake after sunrise; there had to be near 200. I hunted an hour and a half. I saw a couple dozen mallards, half that many wood ducks. I killed one duck, missed another. Then I packed up drove back to town and went to work.
Two nights later I was back again in the dark of night under a cloudy sky and steady wind. The temperature had dropped in late afternoon. There was the sound of wind in the tall trees, of leaves on leaves, branches on branches and sounds that had no discernible source and served to add mystery in the night. There was an occasional sound of goose, nervous ker-honks as if there was uneasiness in the birds. The coyotes did not sing that night.
The shack was still warm; I did not need a fire in the stove. I’d taken the blankets home and washed them and hung them to dry two days earlier and now I pulled them over me and smelled the freshness of air-dried laundry. Then I fell asleep and did not wake up until 5:30 a.m.
The wind was gusty. I made coffee and dressed. I set decoys in a different place, where I did not have a blind and so I knelt in the wet bog behind a screen of brush. I waited.
I killed a mallard at first light and at the sound of the shot the geese rose in startled flight and the sound of their wings and their calls carried across the lake. They lifted up, off the lake and above the trees and turned to ride the wind away from the lake. There were about 50 this morning. I wondered of the others, the ones from two days ago. Had they left the area and moved south?
There were fewer ducks on this day. I was okay with that. Sometimes I feel that there is too much keeping of score in our world today, of tallying up, in the field, birds seen and birds bagged. Years ago, maybe that was important to me. No more. Now I’d rather sit and take what I can and if that is an empty game bag at the end of the hunt, it is not a measure of failure.
I watched geese in flight that day, high over the trees, skeins of them, all high and all heading south. The season was changing. The geese were moving. I killed one more duck and then called it a day. It was 9 a.m. in late September. I had had a very good morning.
I lay the ducks on the sidewalk at home and the dogs came to inspect them, breathing in the rich scent. Riika picked one up and turned to me, life sparking in her aging eyes. I told her that some day we would hunt again.
The dogs, they don’t care if I get one duck or a dozen or none at all. For them all that matters is the hunt. It is part of their heart and soul. It quickens their heart. Perhaps that is what we, the dogs and I, share as much as anything.
I hung the ducks. Then the dogs and I went inside. We would hunt together another day.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.