All seems eerily still as you pull up to the ramp, douse the headlights and step out into the inky darkness. The air is calm and muggy. Crickets chirp and stars twinkle overhead. You pause momentarily to take it in, then set to work.

Shoes are swapped for chest waders, you don a camo parka, a lanyard of mouth calls and silver leg bands that jingle in the morning stillness. You untie the canoe, slide it off the tailgate and drag it down to the water’s edge. Boots stir up the organic mud producing a strong, sulfurous odor. Gear is transferred from truck bed to boat: decoys, blind bag, shotgun case, paddles, personal flotation device and a wad of mesh material you’ll eventually fashion into a makeshift blind.

Paddling by the dim light of your headlamp you hear the distant splash and squeal of wood ducks prematurely taking flight at your approach. Hopefully, there are others doing likewise on other waters, and the local departures will be replaced with new arrivals. You see lights ahead, hear voices and the pop and splash of decoys landing on the water as a spread is set. You paddle on.

Around the next bend your light catches a tiny reflection from the illuminated thumbtack you placed a week before. The place is vacant so you turn toward shore and run the canoe’s bow up on a mat of floating sphagnum and ericaceous shrubs, carefully make your way across the pile of gear and disembark onto the unsteady footing. The mat of floating vegetation moves in undulations with each cautious step.

Decoys are deployed with a heave, and a hope they land upright, untangled and in a strategic location in the darkness. The goal is to leave a small gap in front of where you will build your blind in hopes the incoming ducks will choose the vacant space but decoys have a way of filling those spaces unexpectedly, and you won’t really know until you can see.

Darkness slowly, gradually fades and you hear the whistle of wings overhead. The time is close at hand. With a few minutes to spare before legal shooting arrives you remove an aged green Stanley vacuum bottle from your blind back, pour yourself a cup of lukewarm coffee and take a sip as you settle back against the base of a big swamp maple. A great blue heron passes by in its slow, ponderous flight, protesting your presence with a squawk that sounds like someone pulling a rusty nail.

The first birds come early, too early to shoot or even properly identify, with a whoosh of air beneath their wings and a sliding splash as they touch down just outside the decoy spread. An eerie, high-pitched peal reveals their identity: male woodies. Hopefully they are harbingers of the flights to come, but you temper your enthusiasm.

It’s a bluebird day, clear skies, warm temperatures and nary a breeze, not the best for waterfowling but it’s opening day and save for youth day, the birds have been unmolested. Soon they’ll be leaving their evening roosts on feeding forays that you hope will bring them your way.

The sky becomes busy as more birds fly overhead and soon you hear the distant popping of shotguns followed by a prolonged roar as shots echo down the pond. The whine of wood ducks, the whistle of wings and the chuckle of mallards fills the air overhead. Pulling an aged wooden tube from inside your parka you put it to your lips and belt out your best rendition of a lonely mallard hen seeking the company of others.

A brace of birds banks, wheels and turns toward you, winging overhead just out of range. “One more pass,” you tell yourself. A quick feeding chuckle convinces them to turn again. Rapidly beating wings slow, then cup as the birds glide in and stall, momentarily suspended over your spread. You leap to your feet, place your bead on a hovering greenhead and fire. As the bird falls you quickly shift to another and fire two more shots at a fleeing mallard, both of which miss their mark.

The action is fast and furious at first but quickly fades as the sun creeps toward the treetops. More shots ring out and what few birds you see now fly faster and higher. It’s been a good morning just the same. A fat mallard drake and a pair of wood ducks will make for a delectable dinner, perhaps served with wild rice and some leftover garden vegetables. Opening day is always special. It marks the start of another season, and hopefully many more days of duck hunting to come. Get out there and enjoy because it won’t be long before the ponds freeze over and the ducks depart for warmer climes.

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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