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Pleasant Surprises

Closing Time

By E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.

The shooting was slow by customary San Antonio Bay standards, and we had nothing to show midmorning but a few teal. The lack of shooting hadn't translated into boredom, though. In addition to the usual riot of neotropical water birds, the marsh was awash in snow geese, and they were on the move.

Most of the snows were traveling at high altitude, though some smaller flocks were flying closer to the ground. Several had passed directly overhead at ranges close enough to make me squirm into shooting position with my thumb on the safety. But none had paid any attention to the four goose floaters we'd added to the duck decoys. I'd passed on each of those opportunities despite the temptation they offered, leaving me to wonder in retrospect if my judgment hadn't been a bit too conservative.

I was calling ineffectively to a flock of pintails when Lori whispered "Goose!" with a notable sense of urgency. "Not up there," she added as I glanced toward the sky and fumbled for my goose call. "It's coming right into the decoys!"

When I lowered my line of sight, I saw a large white bird bearing down on us silently right out of the sun. But the marsh was full of large white birds that weren't snow geese, and plenty of pelicans and egrets had flown into shotgun range since sunrise. When the bird backpedaled and showed us its black wingtips and pink feet, I almost choked. After waiting all morning for a goose to fly over us at 50 yards instead of 60, we had one flaring right in our faces. By all rights the bird belonged to Lori, so I urged her to take it, which she did.

I have friends who would be happy if they shot nothing but drake mallards every day of the season. In fact, they'd be happy if they saw nothing but greenheads. While I have nothing against mallards, I'd frankly find a season like that monotonous. Give me variety instead, and the surprises that go along with it.

Years ago I dropped a lone duck in the surf on the north side of Kodiak Island. I thought it was a hen bluebill when I shot it. (We'd been camped out for a week—bowhunting deer—and food supplies were low, so I suspended my usual reluctance to shoot hens.) When I had the bird in my hand, however, something didn't look right. After a moment's thought, I identified my contribution to dinner as a ring-necked duck. 

My two companions disagreed with me. One of them, who lives there and guides waterfowl hunters, announced that he'd never even seen a ring-necked duck on the island. "Want to bet?" I asked with all the confidence of a man holding pocket aces. That surprise earned me a free beer when we finally made it back to civilization and a bird book.

Surprises can take many forms in a duck blind. Among the best is the pleasure of discovering jewelry on a duck's foot when the dog delivers it to hand. I have friends who claim they can pick out banded ducks over the decoys and shoot them selectively. These friends are either better observers than I am or better liars. I'll settle for the pleasant surprise at the end of the retrieve.

Lori and I carried three snow geese with us when we left our blind that morning, which is three more than I expected. Each showed up in exactly the same way, as an unannounced single suddenly hanging right over the decoys. Oddly, we didn't see any of them until they were at point-blank range, which should tell us something about the way we observe (or fail to observe) game. 

In such ways are surprises born. Let's just hope they're all as pleasant as those three geese we never expected to shoot. 

Don Thomas's latest book on waterfowling, The Language of Wings, can be ordered online at donthomasbooks.com.


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