Tom Martineau.jpg

Tom Martineau/


I didn’t want to go. Seriously. I’d asked four pals to come along and none could make the trip. And to be honest, even before that I wasn’t all that stoked about an all-day hunt. I’d been on the road for a solid week, I’d hunted plenty for a three-month stretch, both freezers were full, I had work stacked up, I was bone-tired, and I didn’t want to go. You know the story. You’ve been there.

There’s nothing wrong with that, really. Except for everything.

That’s because everything was finally right. Temperatures were dropping fast. Ponds and swamps would be frozen overnight. Snow was falling two hours north. And this was during the middle of the week, when hunting pressure would be low to nonexistent. The stars were aligned. The duck-hunting ball was in my court.

But dang it, what a pain. I’d have to load the canoe by myself, lash the bike into the boat by myself, drive an hour by myself, stash the bike in the woods, and then drive to the put-in. After the float, I’d have a long, cold bike ride back to the truck—in full camo—to serve as my own two-wheeled shuttle driver. Then load it all back up by the river, just to unload it all at the house again.

Did I really have to go?

The next morning I dragged myself out of bed and into the canoe-and-bike-laden truck. As the headlights cut through the highway dark, there were few vehicles on the road. Already, I was coming around. Outlaw country music seeped out of the speakers, and when I finally pulled off the blacktop and heard the truck tires crunch gravel, the sound was like a hymn. In the two-track leading to the river, frozen puddles revealed that my competition had given in to the don’t-go temptation. By then I was hopped up on caffeine and self-congratulations. What was I thinking? Why would anyone not go?

There’s more to staying home than missing out on a hot shoot. Succumb to the sofa, I believe, and something happens to the human body—or perhaps the human spirit—on a mysterious molecular level. Some genetic actuator ticks back just a notch. Some neurological willpower pathway in your brain weakens a smidge. Something subtle and surreptitious happens to your psyche every time you don’t go. And one day, you don’t think about going at all.

This phenomenon may affect any hunter, waterfowler or other, or anyone pursuing a passion that is often difficult and sometimes seemingly unrewarded. Truth be told, as duck hunters, we’ve gotten a bit spoiled. I remember 1988, when Atlantic Flyway duck seasons were cut to 30 days and a three-bird limit. And that was hardly the most restrictive we’ve ever seen. In 1962, Mississippi Flyway hunters were restricted to a 23-day season and a two-bird limit. And only one of those could be a mallard.

Back then, those shortened time frames goosed the sense of urgency we felt every single day of duck season. There was no waiting on weather or a break in your work schedule. You had to go while the going was legal. Now, with liberal seasons being the norm across all four flyways, the temptation is to pick and choose when you hunt—when it’s good, when it’s right, when you want to.

But even today, there are only so many days on the duck season calendar, and there is but a subset of those days when the weather and work schedules and family obligations line up for a clear runway to the water. I didn’t want to go, but at the same time, I knew I’d be out there.

All the second thoughts, all the misgivings, all the aggravation of all the trips from the basement to the truck—it all disappears when I slip my canoe into the river. I move downstream without lifting the paddle from the water, slicing the blade forward to steer close to the bank. Two river bends into the float, I drift within 15 feet of a half-dozen wood ducks, so unconcerned about my camouflaged boat that I have to slap my paddle against the water to get the birds to flush. I connect with a drake on the second shot, then hold my fire. There’s no rush. There’s no pressure. Who would want to get this over with?

The night before, as I was up and down the basement steps and back and forth from the front door to the truck—coffee bottle for the road, coffee bottle for the hunt, spare clothes in case I tipped the canoe over, extra this and back-up that—Julie just shook her head.

“Why do you do this to yourself?” she asked.

“I’m a duck hunter,” I said. I suppose I thought that should settle it.

“I’m a beach lover,” she parried, “which requires only a chair and a book.”

Just then, a strap on my life jacket got caught on the dustpan hanging from a hook in the stairwell, sending dustpan and broom clattering into the basement.

“You need a different hobby,” Julie sighed.

I couldn’t tell if she delivered the line with notes of pity or disgust.

No, I thought. That’s not what I need. What I need is as plain as the canoe on the truck.

I need to go.