More to the hunt than the kill: ceremonial ritual plays out on a duck pond
“In art can be redemption but no more than in nature.”
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
If I had a schedule I’d have been running behind. But I did not. I had no firm timeline, only a comfortably vague mission: Get to the lake to hunt ducks around the time the season opened. The season opened at a very specific time, I simply did not care if I was there at that minute.
So I took my time, made coffee, loaded the truck, checked the house, then drove out under the early morning city lights. The dark cab of the truck was lit by the soft glow of the dashboard lights. Radio played; I did not pay it much attention. I sipped the coffee and drove.
It had been one of those weeks and I was tired. My old boy Thor has not been sleeping well. Fifteen-and-a-half years old and he’s showing the decline of an old dog. He wakes frequently now; sometimes midnight, other times at one o’clock or two o’clock or three in the morning. I get up and let him out each time. He’s had a bad week. I felt it. I was dog tired.
I feel anticipation but not the electric hot-wire excitement I did when I was younger. I hunt the opening because of the sense of ceremony that comes with such things. I will hunt without urgency, I will hunt with respect for what I am doing, I will hunt because it is a fall day and the season is about to open and I would not choose to do anything else.
The sky is mottled with cloud as I park the truck and get out. There is no hint of light to the east; dawn will come without fanfare. I carry gear to the lake; load the duck skiff with decoys, eight of them, push the boat out and for a moment I drift free.
There is enough light to make out the shoreline and the trees and to see the gauze of cloud above. From the west comes a kaarump, kaarump sound that on another morning would be thunder of distant storm. Today it’s the muffled bump of shotgun fire; the season has opened, another lake has ducks, another hunter has shots.
Hurrying now at the sound of the shots, I toss the decoys to water, turn the boat to shore and pull it up into the backwater that has flooded the swamp. I have never seen water as high as it is now on this lake. The swamp held spruce and the tamarack for as long as I have known it but the trees drowned in the high water and the trunks stand stark and defeated and will never again bear green.
I wade into knee-deep water, shotgun in hand, gear bag over shoulder. I settle in to a primitive blind, load the shotgun, lay it across my knees and finally sit in the grayness that is slowly giving way to a wan light of a dreary day.
Less than 10 minutes in, a wood duck banks sharply and lands twenty feet from where I am sitting. I never see it coming; the wooded shoreline is dark and shadowy and the bird came from there. There is simply a blur of winged motion and then a splash as the bird lands. It sits on the water. The water is the color of the sky, the color of pewter.
The bird is alert; does it know that it has made a terrible mistake? We share the moment that all hunters know, the moment of decision for an act that cannot be taken back: hunting is about finality, about actions that cannot be undone. There is only the shot or the decision not to take the shot.
Watching the bird across the short span, I consider shooting then say to myself, “There is no sport in this,” and I do not raise the shotgun. In another moment the bird takes wing in a panic and a flurry and it is lost into dark smudge of the distant trees. I do not second guess myself.
I hunt for two hours on the morning of the opening. I see ducks on the wing over distant trees and some come close to the decoys and I kill one of them, a wood duck, and I have other opportunities that do not lead to a shot and I accept that for that is all part of the hunt. There are no certainties in the hunt, there are no guarantees. One takes what one is given, makes the best of that.
The woods and the water and the sky; I sit that morning and take it all in. Fall color is coming on and across the lake I see splashes of orange and yellow, colors crisp and well-defined. But I find my gaze drifting to the water where the colors are reflected but in the reflection they become blurred and shifting. The reflections devolve from the sharp shapes on the trees to smudges of color on the water and I am reminded of the art of Claude Monet, an odd departure on a morning on a northern Wisconsin duck pond.
In art can be redemption but no more than in nature.
There were times in my life when the quality of the hunt was measured by numbers in the game bag at day’s end. No more. On a limit of 6 ducks I take one on that day, a pair the following morning and am good with that. I have enough for a meal. That is enough.
But there is more to the hunt than the kill and on the heavy gray morning of late September the act of the hunt is enough and the weighted game bag is less important than the weight of fatigue and wear that is lifted from me on the day gray sky and wild birds on wing and an opening chapter of another hunt season.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.