It was on the last Friday in September 2006 that I rolled into the camp for the first time. I had heard the legends and was flush with anticipation. Anticipation of a party that night, and anticipation of the opening of duck and goose season the next morning.
I had heard about how rowdy it could get, and I was a dumb kid of 26 just looking for some fun. For weeks in advance of that night I had been getting emails confirming my presence, asking if I was going to need a bunk, and generally hyping up my expectations for the craziness that was near-guaranteed to ensue.
I was not to be disappointed. Upon arrival I was tossed a commemorative hat.
I thought “Hmmmm. They have hats. Can never have too many hats I guess.”
Then I was thrown a beer.
I thought “Hmmmm. They have beer. Can never have too many beers I guess.”
Then we proceeded to get silly in a way that a bunch of guys in their mid-20’s when left alone with each other typically do. We told dirty jokes and traded verbal jabs at each other. We feasted on chips and wild-game pepperoni sticks. We laughed with a hysteria and abandon I hadn’t felt before. We drank beer, then some whiskey, then some more beer. We blew our best goose and duck calling contest routines at volumes that probably could have been heard a concession over. Someone took a deer mount off the wall and tried to poke someone else with it. We told grossly overblown lies that passed for hunting stories. We became instant friends. We stayed up way too late, and we slept way too little before the alarm clocks blared out their warning that we were going to have to get up and set up the decoys.
So, laden-down with gear and decoys, we marched through corn stubble and proceeded to hunt geese and ducks. Some heads were heavy, some stomachs were wobbly, there was as much sleeping in the ditch as there was shooting, and the pictures about summed up our success.
Was it sensible? No.
Was it safe? To be frank, that thought wasn’t really front of mind because we were too young to be anything other than impervious to criticism and invincible in the face of poor decision-making. I’m not an apologist for how we acted; it was just something that happened and everyone turned out okay.
Was it fun? You’re goddamn right it was.
Every year for a decade, the same core of men (and once or twice, a woman) has invariably joined together for this ritual. I missed a year after one of my sons was born, other guys have missed a year here and there for family or work commitments, and there have been a couple of new recruits over the years, but the nucleus of hunters has remained the same. We’ve hunted in rain and wind, we’ve hunted on bluebird days when nothing flew. We’ve hunted on days so hot our faces got sunburnt and we nearly melted packing gear in and out. We’ve sat ditches, hidden inside rows of standing corn, crouched in ill-concealed marsh boats, gone over our boots and waders on occasion, snuck through mazes of hay bales to jump birds, and flopped down layout blinds in windrows of straw. I’ve been sprayed by the shaking of a wet dog, and I’ve seen long shots and even longer retrieves executed with consistent success. I tried my hand at flocking the heads on my own decoys, and one of our more entrepreneurial friends built his own ‘motion decoy’ from an old shell decoy, some spray-painted ovals of corrugated plastic, and a chain saw crank operated from a distance by a pull cord of baler twine.
It was a deadly decoy that day, by the way.
We’ve eaten like kings on bacon and goose roll-ups, slow-cooker pulled goose sandwiches, heaps of coleslaw, jalapeno & cream cheese stuffed goose nuggets wrapped in bacon, pan seared duck breasts, and all sorts of sketchy, dirty snack food. Post-hunt breakfasts are well-known in the little town we frequent and as a group we’ve filled entire local restaurants, recapping stories from hunts that happened short hours previously, guzzling coffee, and tipping the wait staff generously.
On top of all that, we somehow find time to get the birds to put feet and flaps down and shoot a mess of geese and a slew of ducks.
Writing this just now, I’ve noticed that I’m grinning uncontrollably, and I hope that any friends I have reading this are doing the same. If we aren’t friends yet, and you’re reading this, I hope this echoes what you and all the other waterfowlers out there are about to embark upon as the early season descends on us, and I hope you’re smiling too.
This is a time of year that means a lot to me. Summer is over. Mornings will get cooler and I’ll be able to see my breath again. We’ll wave our flags and run the calls and the birds will turn wide into the wind before they glide down into the hole in our decoys. Someone will yell “Take ‘em!” and we’ll peel a few down. Later we’ll make a pile and take our photos and it will all seem to have gone by too quickly. The end of that opening weekend hunt is bittersweet, but we’re not there yet, not by a long shot.
Enjoy it friends, because the most wonderful time of the year is upon us.