–By Hampton Bourne
Eventually all of us will experience one of life's unforeseen curveballs, a knee-buckling event that will test your character and try your grit. I have always heard that there are two kinds of trials: the one that you are currently going through and the one that you are about to experience. My life had been as near to perfect as I could have ever imagined when, two years ago, my curveball came.
Death is never easy, but I underestimated the void that would be left when I lost my best friend. When your best friend also happens to be your father, the feelings are greatly magnified. Through the flash flood of emotions and the whirlwind of events that followed, it was natural for me to wonder why he left so soon, when we still had so many adventures to pursue.
I knew from my upbringing in the church that leaning on faith was imperative. Plus, it was duck season, and I can't imagine better medicine than time spent outdoors. I knew that the first hunt without my go-to partner would be tough, but I also felt confident that the healing sight of the migration would ease some of my heartache.
My father was an outdoor writer, and he exuded a passion for outdoor adventures. Of all the exotic places he traveled, he frequently reminded me that his favorite place was with me, wherever the wind blew us. For my first hunt without Dad, it was only fitting to return to our Missouri rice field with family and friends, including Dad's brother, Uncle Joe.
On this trip, birds in the bag were far from the primary objective, but we were quickly rewarded for our efforts. At first light, flight after flight of teal buzzed our pit. But this was January, and the stout north wind told me that this would be a mallard day. I had a feeling that clouds of greenheads would soon find our spread.
I would guess that many hunting parties are similar to the one in our blind that morning: during lulls in the action, some hunters sit, sleep, or eat, while one stands and watches for birds. It was during one of these lulls that I assumed my role as watchman.
Daydreaming over the hum of snores and the occasional crinkle of a Honey Bun wrapper, I began reminiscing about Dad and realized that, even though he isn't physically with us, his legacy lives on. I understood that the spirit of duck hunting carries much greater meaning than bragging about a bag limit or finding an escape from the daily grind. That day, I counted at least five major life lessons that my father taught me through duck hunting.
Hampton Bourne and his father, Wade, shared duck blinds and life lessons for nearly three decades.
Duck hunting is hard. If you step back and consider everything we do in a typical day, it's obvious why nonhunters might raise an eyebrow. Alarm clocks set for 3:30 a.m., icy-cold weather, and mucking through soft-bottomed marshes is certainly not for the faint of heart. Even at age 69, my father never balked at helping out with the heavy lifting. Always willing to chase a downed bird, brush a blind, or tie anchors to hundreds of decoys, he consistently put in his share of effort. He considered himself the host, striving to make sure his guests had the best opportunity for success. Seeing the results of our sweat equity always gave him a sense of pride in our accomplishments.
That same outlook overflowed into his personal and professional life. Monday through Friday were workdays, whether or not a cold front was pushing down from the Dakotas. What a great example that was for me.
For many years, Dad and I made an annual hunting trip to Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee. Formed by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812, the lake holds rich vegetation and relatively shallow waters, providing perfect duck habitat. Sometimes, you can find narrow trails in the woods leading to open holes that ducks frequent.
Several years ago, through local lore and a few homegrown connections, Dad managed to hear about a hole deep in the sawgrass and cypress timber that was well known for being a mallard haven. One narrow trail was the only way in or out, and it was hardly wide enough to fit a boat, much less turn one around if the route proved impassable. After entering the trail, the only option was to press forward until it emptied into the hole. It was a high-risk, high-reward gamble to access a potential promised land, with a strong probability of becoming stranded in thick vegetation.
We decided to try our luck and test the limits of our small boat. After hours of push-poling across logs and plowing through weeds, we finally finished the trek. We needed much less time to finish our limits than we had needed to reach the honey hole. Words can't adequately express the joy of watching hundreds of ducks freely work our spread after the shooting had stopped.
We made that same trip several more times in subsequent years, each time knowing the obstacles that lay before us. And each time Dad led with a driving determination. In all my years, I believe that was the hardest hunting I have ever attempted. It was also some of the most fulfilling. Without Dad's determination, we would have missed out on this adventure, as well as many others.
Respect for Your Quarry
It can be easy to use your bag count as a benchmark for success. While numbers may help determine some sense of fun, there is a proper way to show reverence for the harvest. This has always been nonnegotiable in our blind.
The first rule of waterfowling? Hunt with a license and a duck stamp. State and federal agencies use proceeds from licenses and stamps to fund wildlife conservation programs. Hunting without them is equivalent to stealing from the resource. If you forget to buy your license or stamp, it doesn't mean you can't enjoy the hunt, but you should leave your gun in the truck.
The second rule is to know the limits and abide by them. Waterfowl limits are based on populations and are designed to maintain the various species at sustainable levels. This is conservation at its core and a rule that every hunter must follow.
The third rule mandates that downed ducks should be immediately retrieved. Whether or not it is retrieved, every downed duck represents one duck that is not available to reproduce and multiply. The prevalence of lost ducks can be reduced by prompt retrieval, especially while hunting in areas with thick cover.
Finally, all bagged waterfowl should be properly cared for and consumed. Waste is indisputably unethical.
Make it a point to do what's right in your hunting endeavors, not just because laws mandate it but also because a strong sense of ethics makes a big difference in preserving wildlife and hunting for future generations.
Relationships Enhance Experiences
As a child, I hated riding in the car. I relished the excitement of a hunt but equally loathed the process of reaching our destination. Then, over time, I grew to enjoy the drive more than any other part of the hunt. It became a special time for Dad and me. With few distractions, we could talk like best friends as well as father and son. These became the times when we would discuss some of life's most sensitive and gentle matters, free of judgment, while forming a genuine, rock-solid bond.
Relationships take effort, and the extra effort made to spend time with a friend or loved one is always worth any inconveniences. Schedules, distance, the pursuit of however you define perfection, and many other insignificant aspirations give us a clouded view of success. In reality, our successes in life can be measured through our lasting relationships with others.
Would you rather share a great duck blind with people you don't enjoy, or a terrible duck blind with your best friends? Truly, the time spent with people you care about is a much stronger contributor to happiness than any number of birds in the bag.
A prolific outdoor writer and broadcaster, Wade Bourne was beloved by hunters and anglers across North America.
Pass It On
Of all the excitement I have experienced in waterfowling, none can compare to the joy I feel when a first-time hunter sees a group of ducks make an upwind turn into the decoys. I love to see their white knuckles gripping their shotguns and the adrenaline rush that peaks after that first round of action.
What if my father had never taken me hunting? One freezing day, when I was eight years old, he took me to a flooded cornfield two hours west of our home in Clarksville, Tennessee. I wore the same winter jacket that I wore to school every day, and Dad covered me up with a long-sleeved camouflage T-shirt. I don't remember much from that day besides playing my Gameboy and coming home without a single duck. Nevertheless, I was one of the guys.
I'm sure it was inconvenient for a seasoned outdoorsman like my father to take a cold, uninterested kid on a long, slow hunt, but his joy came from sharing his passion. In truth, the long-term success of wildlife in North America depends largely on public support for conservation. Recruiting new outdoorsmen and women is one of the most effective ways to create new conservationists. Sometimes a Gameboy (or these days an iPhone) is needed to hold their interest, but over time the sound of whistling wings becomes hard to resist.
On that first hunt after Dad was gone, my companions napped, snacked, or perused their phones while I reflected deeply on these life lessons. I snapped back to reality just in time to see a high line of mallards riding the wind. I punched my groggy partners, and, after some long, loud notes on my call, the flock began to break up. In that moment, I found a great sense of peace, a confirmation that we were doing exactly what Dad would have wanted.
As the ducks fell toward our decoys, I realized that I was prepared. Over nearly 30 years of mentoring, Dad instilled values in me that will transcend generations. It also struck me that it is now my responsibility to ensure that those values live on.
After that flight passed, many more followed. At day's end, we retreated to our cabin to watch the sun set over the mighty Mississippi. With that sunset, one chapter finished, and another was just beginning. Dad's wisdom is now mine to share.
Hampton Bourne is the son of the late Wade Bourne, longtime editor-at-large for Ducks Unlimited magazine and host of Ducks Unlimited TV. Hampton lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is an avid outdoorsman and conservationist.