Winds of Fortune

By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.

I felt the truck rocking in the crosswind as we drove down the highway in the dark, and by the time we reached our destination, I could barely open the door against its force. I hadn’t visited the slough in several weeks and wasn’t even sure it contained any open water after a recent cold snap, but the gray light revealed wavelets breaking over the ice along its edges. “This is terrible!” my hunting partner, a novice waterfowler, observed as the gale tore away his shooting vest before he could buckle it to his body. On the contrary, I assured him. This was perfect.

Fifteen minutes later, we sat huddled in a clump of brush beside a minimalist spread of a dozen decoys, each tacking crazily back and forth against its anchor line as if it meant to sprout real wings and fly. A few more knots of southwest chinook wind spilling down across the mountains’ eastern slope likely would have overwhelmed them, but the anchors held and they all managed to stay upright somehow, not that events let us worry about them for long.

I hadn’t even loaded my gun when my Lab Rocky’s face turned skyward, a cue I’ve learned can only mean one thing. Inbound from a nearby stubble field, a large flight of mallards was rocketing through the downwind leg of an approach to the slough. “Ready?” I hissed to my partner as I fumbled a pair of shells into my double. I’m not sure what I would have done had he told me that he wasn’t.

The birds offered a spectacular performance on their final descent. Fighting the wind all the way, 200 of them banked into the turn, cupped their wings, and slid downward in slow motion. Transfixed, I nearly forgot to stand and shoot, but suddenly we had greenheads hanging right in front of our faces. “Take ‘em!”

I cried, and the two of us rose to do just that.

Hitting ducks riding a stiff tailwind poses technical difficulties of its own, but paradoxically, floaters can be even tougher. There is a natural tendency to stare and point instead of putting your face down on the stock and swinging the shotgun, and experienced shooters all know the results of such breakdowns in fundamentals. By the time I isolated a drake from the flock, the birds were starting to flare, and as that bird folded, the rest turned, caught the wind, and sailed out of range before I could think about my second barrel.

No matter; two limits of mallards were obviously going to fall from the sky that morning, thanks to a good set-up, being in the right place at the right time, and a little help from the wind.

Homer’s Odyssey begins with a spiteful Aeolus, the Greek god of winds, scattering the heroes’ ships across the Aegean: no wind, no epic. In the era of sailing vessels, the only thing worse than too much breeze may have been not enough, as captured in Patrick O’Brien’s descriptions of becalmed ships in his splendid seafaring novels. All of which proves that sailors may be even more difficult to please in matters of weather than Montana farmers.

But waterfowlers feel no such ambiguity. More wind translates into better duck hunting, almost without exception. Stiff breezes make decoy spreads come to life, inviting attention from high fliers overhead. Strong winds keep ducks from rafting up in open water far from shore, beyond the reach of decoys, calls, and other stratagems. Calm days may make time pass more comfortably in the blind, but if duck hunters wanted comfort, they never would have left their cozy beds in the first place. Hence the momentary dissonance between my inexperienced partner and me that morning. He only knew how the wind felt, while
I knew what it promised.

And the wind kept its promise that morning, kept it in spades. By the time the third flock entered the familiar traffic pattern overhead, I wasn’t even bothering to load my second barrel. I told myself I was indulging this exercise in restraint so I could concentrate on working the dog, but in fact I simply didn’t want the spectacle to end any sooner than necessary. For nearly an hour, the wind kept howling and the birds kept showing up and fighting their way down toward water level on the slough. We rose and shot when we couldn’t stand it any longer, while Rocky scooped up mallards and delivered them like early Christmas presents. Finally, we had 10 greenheads lying in the snow beside us, and the hunting was over, although we still had birds trying to land on our heads as we picked up the blocks and prepared to head reluctantly back to town.

Thanks, Aeolus. I needed that.