Opening day of duck season has always held a certain charm for me. It’s the end of all that preseason anticipation, the culmination of all our scouting efforts. And then, there’s the mystery.

The predawn darkness seems amplified by a thick mist that hangs over the pond. Cool air has chilled the surface water, causing it to sink and be replaced by now warmer water below in a process known as fall turnover. Even our headlamps cannot penetrate the dense gloom more than a few feet.

Withdrawing a boot from the muck fills the air with the rank, musky odor of detritus, a familiar odor that elicits memories of many past pursuits on the marsh. It is this rich, black organic soil that nourishes the submerged and emergent aquatic plants that draw the ducks. Wild rice, duck potato and pickerel weed poke through the surface waters, which are covered with a layer of tiny duckweed leaves.

A great horned owl booms out in the distance as we paddle out onto the pond. Then all is quiet until we’re suddenly startled by the raspy squawk of a great blue heron as it launches begrudgingly from a limb and disappears into the dimness on its slow, undulating flight. Wings whistle overhead as the first ducks take to wing, well ahead of the impending dawn. More protest to our intrusion comes from a beaver, slapping its tail on the water’s surface as a warning to all other beavers that something foreign has entered the environment.

Arriving at our intended destination, we pause for a moment, surveying the surrounding area. The first decoy hits the water with a pop and a splash. We place them to the right and to the left, leaving an enticing opening in front of what will soon become our makeshift blind, made of mesh netting haphazardly propped up between two fortuitously positioned alder bushes. Then we settle onto milk crate stools and open Thermoses for a quick cup of coffee before the action begins.

It’s false dawn now and the air is increasingly filled with whistling wings, the high-pitched cries of wood ducks and the raspy scolding of a hen mallard. We hear it before we see it, a rush of air through feathers followed by the sound of something sliding along the surface as the first visitor drops into our decoy spread. It’s still too early to shoot or make out more than a silhouette, but the hollow yeeb-yeeb betrays the identity of a greenhead, a drake mallard, his motion sending ripples through the blocks. The nervous bird launches back into flight and leaves before the hour arrives, but we take it as a good omen just the same.

You never know how things might turn out, especially on a bluebird day when the sun will soon light up a cloudless, windless sky. The first half hour or so should offer a flurry of activity as naive waterfowl feverishly feed before heading off to some secluded spot to spend the day preening and loafing. After that, we can only hope there will be enough other hunters out there to keep the birds moving.

A quick time check shows we are now legal and we barely have time to load shotguns before a brace of woodies wings overhead, banks and glides into the spread. A volley of shots rings out, echoing off the opposite shoreline as the birds plop onto the water. After retrieval, we marvel at the resplendent colors of the drake. He and his partner will make fine table fare, and his flank feathers will eventually become hackle for a dry fly used to lure a rising trout.

Muted pops in the distance announce other hunters experiencing action as a pair of black ducks flies feverishly overhead, gaining altitude with each wing beat. More guns boom, near and far, and for a short while we enjoy some fast action. But it seems to end almost as quickly as it began.

Before the sun breaks over the treetops, the skies have already emptied. We wait for an hour, hoping for a few strays, and are rewarded by a couple green-winged teal and later, a few wood ducks. The next hour passes with little more than another blue heron, or maybe the same one returning to his favorite haunt, and a pied-billed grebe that mysteriously appears among the decoys. Then it’s time to pack up and head back to the launch as another opening day draws to a close.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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