"Don't even think it," my pal Patrick Malouf said. We were hunting his lease in the Mississippi Delta. "We've all been here before."
"I know, I know," I replied. "But holy moly, look at 'em coming."
I peered through my binoculars. In the 20 minutes after legal shooting light, hundreds of mallards and wood ducks had been pouring into an 80-yard-long slough in the middle of a cornfield. How there was any water left for them to land on was beyond me. We were planning a hunt there in the morning. It could be the most epic morning ever.
I felt my stomach turn over. We've all had the sure thing, can't miss, we-really-found-'em-this-time scouting trip that turns into a skunk the following morning. So many things could go wrong. A coyote might bust the roost. Another hunter might scout the slough late and not be as careful as we had been. Or the ducks might do what ducks often do: Vanish overnight, with scattered feathers on the water the only trace of their passing. That's the problem. Those pointy things on each side of a duck's body? They're called wings. And they like to use them.
It wouldn't be the first time. A few years ago, I scouted a beaver swamp thick with willows. To get to a promising-looking area of open water, I had to carry a canoe a few hundred yards, paddle up a small creek, and silently stalk through the brush. I spotted the first greenhead at 15 feet, barely visible through the willows. I took another two steps to get a better visual and suddenly the world exploded into wings and feet and bills and quacks. I had blown some 60 mallards and black ducks out of that hole. After backtracking as stealthily as I could, I started scheming for the hunt, knowing full well that it's often folly to hunt busted birds.
Two mornings later I was back, in the dark, waiting on glory. Not a single duck showed. I chalked that up to busted birds. They must have settled in somewhere else, undisturbed. Or migrated out.
Another time, I hiked in the predawn light to a bluff where I had a view of a giant cattail-rimmed slough. Mallards and black ducks rained down by the hundreds. I could hear them chattering even before they emerged in the wan light. I sent a few video clips to my son, Jack, and assured him that I could not, with a clean conscience, make him go to school in the morning if he was feeling puny. He agreed that he did feel something coming on.
Full of expectations, we settled into the cattails before sunrise the next morning. Only four ducks showed, settling down on the far side of the slough, and that was it. I'm not sure Jack and I have ever been more disappointed.
I'm no heartless duck shooter, but neither am I in this game only because I love sunrises and sleep deprivation. I actually do care, deeply, about whether we shoot birds or not. Sometimes we get skunked. I know that. But I still get all whiny and hard to live with when it happens.
Back in Mississippi, in those ever-hopeful minutes before shooting light, Malouf, B.C. Rogers, and I ran the decoy-laden UTV to the cornfield hole. You know how this story ends, of course. The ducks were gone. All of them. Not even a grebe or coot hanging out in the moonlight.
"Maybe it's a good thing," I said. "At least we're not busting them off the water."
"It could be a good thing," Rogers said. "You never know with ducks."
"It is not a good thing," Malouf responded. "And both of ya'll know it."
It took us three hours to down a half-dozen wood ducks. The mallards never showed. We were gobsmacked. And in that moment I recalled a bit of waterfowling wisdom that had been handed down to me many years ago: When duck hunting, the ducks always hold the aces.