You Never Forget Your First Duck — or Four

You Never Forget Your First Duck — or Four

The boy watched in frustration as the hen mallard shot skyward in a tizzy of quacks and frantic flapping. He was waiting, praying, that she’d suddenly tumble from the sky in an incredible case of delayed reaction. But she continued her ascent, and then leveled off toward the north end of the slough before cupping down to join a raft of ducks loafing in the midday sun.

Killing his first duck was going to be more difficult than the boy had thought.

Defeated, he was still staring out at the choppy North Dakota water when he heard the noise. It sounded like a far-off gust of wind that was intensifying into a hurricane. He snapped his head back to see if a fighter jet from the nearby airbase was coming in for a strafing run.

A cloud of ducks 1,000 strong was bearing down on him like a stampede of plains buffalo. They were upon him in a second, 10 yards over his head. But by the time he’d fumbled, reloaded and mounted his father’s prized Wingmaster, the mob was out of range.

Was this a joke? How many chances was he going to need?

For his small 13-year-old frame, the pump 12-gauge was more than a little unwieldy. He’d been adamant about taking it, though, convinced that his 20-gauge youth 870 would be undergunned for his baptism into waterfowling. The boy hadn’t considered that the length of pull on his father’s pump was designed for someone a good foot taller than he was, or that the 32-inch barrel made following through on a shot feel like swinging a barbell one-handed.

With a heavy sigh, the boy tossed the scattergun over his shoulder and moped along the shoreline toward a point of short grass and scrub brush. The slough was the shape of a giant kidney bean, and the outcrop was the pinch-point between the two halves. His uncle had instructed him to head there and get ready for him to jump the large flock of ducks they’d spotted from the road. Well, the boy had botched that attempt in glorious fashion. Uncle was a relentless ribber, and the boy knew he was going to get an earful on the ride home.

A warm, heavy southerly wind stirred whitecaps on the shallow water, and trains of cottony clouds chugged across a bluebird sky. Although it was warm for hunting season, the smell of harvested grain was thick in the September air — a sure sign of the cool fall just around the corner.

The boy reached the point and sat. He’d worn a pair of his dad’s olive-green rubber hip waders, but the sweat pooling around his feet made him regret the decision. His uncle’s army coat was two sizes too big, but the boy didn’t own any camouflage. It would have to do.

Almost absentmindedly, he reloaded his Howitzer and waited for Uncle to come. The boy had seen him working up from the road, but he was still a ways off.

Just then, he caught peripheral movement from the north. Ducks were coming. He didn’t know what kind, but he didn’t care. Even with the wind, they were flying fast — five, no, six small, brown birds buzzing straight down the edge. Without thinking, the Wingmaster’s polished walnut stock was at his shoulder. His cheek down tight, the boy could just see an ivory white bead at the end of the vent-ribbed barrel. He breathed deeply, the scent of gun oil filling his lungs, and put a lead on first bird in the flock.

The gun swung, following the trajectory of the fleet-winged ducks.


Splash… splash, splash, splash!

The boy sat stunned. Did he just see what he thought he saw?

“Holy cow! I can’t believe it,” his uncle screamed. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life!”

Uncle came running up, and his springer spaniel was in the water almost immediately. The happy girl had her work cut out for her, for the boy hadn’t just downed his first duck — he’d dropped his first four.

One by one, the quad of blue-winged teal was plucked from the water to the boy’s delight. After all the fumbling and self-doubt, he’d made a one-in-a-million shot on his very first birds. He and his uncle remained on the point for a couple hours, taking passing shots at returning ducks as they flew the gauntlet past the point. They went home with a heavy strap of bluebills, teal and gadwall, and memories neither would ever forget.

I know I won’t.