They come on whistling wings. In the pre-dawn darkness you hear them overhead long before you see them. Then there’s an elongated splash somewhere out in the decoys. The dog whines, convulsing with anticipation. Mist rises from the inky water, bringing with it a sulfurous organic smell. Morning in the duck blind is about to begin.
Watches are checked and rechecked until legal shooting time arrives. The first birds over the spread appear as mere silhouettes. Blacks? Mallards? They cup their wings, then put on the brakes and lower the landing gear, hanging momentarily just above the water. Guns blaze, the muzzle flashes popping like flash bulbs against the slate-gray dawn sky. Two birds escape but one falters, then falls as you suck in a deep breath of burned powder.
On command the dog launches from the blind, somehow discriminating the lifeless fowl from its numerous faux friends. Two short blasts of the whistle and he’s back with a mouthful of mallard. There will be time for admiring later. Right now your attention goes back to the birds.
It happens subtly enough that you don’t notice, but by the time the next flight arrives it’s light enough to distinguish blacks from mallards, drakes from hens. You wait for just the right moment, pick out a fat greenhead and fire a volley. Your partner does likewise and two drakes drop.
Next up is a squadron of teal. They whoosh over the decoys, twisting and turning, and you struggle to pick out a bird, establish a proper lead and make the shot. Just as you do they zig instead of zag, kick in the afterburners and are out of range before a second shot.
No time to complain. More ducks. This time it’s blacks, and in characteristic fashion they circle high overhead rather than committing hastily to the decoys. A few feeding chuckles on the cocobolo turns them and they disappear behind the trees momentarily. The next pass brings them tantalizingly close.
Decision time. You could bust ’em now but it’s a low percentage shot, still at full speed and right at the edge of shotgun range. Or you could wait and hope they’ll make another pass, and possibly commit to the decoys. You hope for one more chance. They bank and for a moment cup their wings. Then, just as it seems they’ve committed, shots ring out in the distance, just close enough to dissuade the decoying ducks.
The action is fleeting, fading fast with the rising sun. By the time it tops the trees and the decoy spread is fully illuminated, the flurry is over. The wings whistle much higher overhead now as birds head off for their secluded daytime hides. There will be a few strays but it’s time to break out the thermos and admire the morning’s bag.
In full sunlight the green head of a drake mallard is resplendent. The muted browns and beige of the black duck are less pretty but more handsome, and the deep purple of its wing speculum is no less spectacular than the blue of the mallard’s or the green of the teal.
The sun is up, the mist is gone and the sky is filled with blue. A flock of bluebirds circles, rises, then turns as one, issuing mournful notes as they begin their southward sojourn.
Great blue herons emit a primitive squawk as they labor over the marsh.
The distant din of traffic rises and as most folks begin their morning, the duck hunter’s draws to a close.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: