Illustrations by Gary Palmer
For many duck hunters, waterfowling is a social pursuit. Hunting with a buddy or a small group of pit pals seasons each experience with laughter and good-natured ribbing. Hunt together with the same friends year after year and they accrete a varnish of shared moments that brings a certain luster to the memories of a hunt. We all know how often you can wake up in the middle of the night, drive an hour or more, haul decoys and blinds, hide the dog, watch the sun rise, and still go home skunked. When the action is slow—or nonexistent—friends who share the pain are a blessing. And there's no doubt that many hands make the tough work of duck hunting easier.
For the last 10 years I've had a stalwart swamp buddy in my son, Jack. We've hunted together so often that we can load the canoe, paddle across the swamp channel, and set the decoys without saying a word. He's grown from a little kid I had to carry across creek channels to a trusted companion who can haul more weight than his old man is able to.
But he also grew into a college student, living in another town, with other priorities and new hunting buddies. I loved seeing him mature into a mentor for others, so I knew this time would come. While I still have duck-hunting pals who share a blind and canoe, I find myself on my own more often than ever. It's been a bittersweet evolution.
THIS HUNT IS A PERFECT EXAMPLE.
This is my third crack at these birds in eight days. I've been chasing a midseason mix of mallards and black ducks that have given me the slip twice already. The fact that I've been after them, single-mindedly, for more than a week speaks to one benefit of hunting solo: I never have to coordinate with anyone else's schedule.
The morning I first saw them, they winged across the top of winter-bare gum trees as I was hiking out of the swamp and headed back to the truck. First, three birds, and then three more small flocks, sailing in from down the creek. I gritted my teeth and shook my head. Ten o'clock ducks. No matter how long you stay, it's always a half hour shorter than you should have. I fixed the spot in my mind and planned a return as soon as I could swing it.
Two days later, Minnie and I were set up before dawn and ready for the long haul. As usual, poor Minnie couldn't catch a break. She's a small retriever, barely 50 pounds, and on these swamp hunts she has to swim to keep up, pulling herself over blowdowns and beaver dams, then paddling around in the dark while I attach her tree stand. She's soaked to the bone before the hunt even starts. But it's hard to imagine a solo duck hunt without her. On a long hike in, her eyes reflect my headlamp in yellow pinpricks bouncing through the woods, a comforting presence. She's a cuddler, and on a long sit she'll lean into my side, partly to share body warmth but also as if to say: We're in this together. You're not really alone.
I pulled her up onto her stand and barely twisted away in time. Her collar clattered as she shook, showering me from head to waist. I gave her a hug and she licked my face with her typical gusto. The tree stand put us at eye level, an unusual arrangement, but a fitting one given that she's my equal partner now. Part of the trick to embracing a solo hunt is to separate the concepts of being alone and feeling lonely. A face full of dog slobber seems to help.
The first half hour passed without a single big duck overhead, and I settled down on a five-gallon bucket to wait. This time, Minnie saw them first, or sensed them first, and I followed her rigid gaze down the swamp. The ducks were early, but, inexplicably, the X had moved. First, a half dozen ducks set their wings and settled down 80 yards up the swamp. Minnie whined, as if knowing what was about to happen. "I know, girl," I whispered. "Hoodwinked again." Over the next 15 minutes, another two dozen ignored my calls and decoys and parachuted into some unseen opening in the swamp, some place that looks little different from where I sat.
I looked around and the second-guessing began. Two dozen decoys in the hole. Is that too many? Am I too close to the open water? Maybe I should have moved Minnie to the other side of the tree. Maybe I should try the hunt without Minnie. But the ducks had never veered from their line. It didn't seem as if they flared. They simply knew exactly where they wanted to be.
I marked the spot by a dip in the pines on the far horizon. Those ducks had rejected us twice. Things had gotten personal. I didn't want to just shoot a duck. I wanted those ducks. We could try to put a sneak on them, but birds busted from a beaver swamp are birds you'll likely not see again. Minnie and I slipped out quietly. I was already scrambling my mental calendar to clear out yet another morning.
I WAS LUCKY I'D FOUND A FEW DUCKS IN AN ACCESSIBLE SPOT.
That's a big hurdle for the solo freelance duck hunter: pinning down ducks in a place that doesn't require a ton of decoys. Another challenge is hauling all the gear by yourself, especially when walking in to hunt. A canoe makes it easier, for sure, but I have a pretty good system for my hike-in spots. I start with an oversized decoy bag, the kind with a strong backpack-style shoulder harness system and a padded back. It will swallow a five-gallon bucket, easy, and I stuff the bucket with a spinning-wing decoy cushioned with camo netting. Next come the decoys—maybe a half dozen, with another four or five on a jerk cord. My blind bag goes on top of all this, and I cinch down the pack top. My two concessions to middle age are a knee brace and a collapsible walking stick. All told, the gear and pack and gun and shells weigh close to four million pounds. Or so it seems, some mornings. But busting through a dark beaver swamp in chest waders and a heavy burden is so much fun, I hardly feel the weight at all.
The night before my third hunt for those peripatetic ducks, I decided to pare the kit down to three mallards on a jerk cord and a pair of black ducks on short anchors. I ditched my bucket seat for a plan to hug a tree, which would give me a lower profile. And I made the tough call to leave Minnie behind. The less I gave these birds to look at, the better. While I packed my gear, Minnie followed me up and down the basement steps, ready for action. I couldn't bring myself to tell her that she'd have to stay home.
As I drove to the swamp the next morning, Minnie sat beside me in the truck's passenger seat, scarfing down the crusts from my peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwich.
WE FOLLOW THE TREE BLAZES AND OTHER NAVIGATIONAL LANDMARKS...
...around the food plot, through the woods, into the swamp, under the triple- trunked tree, down the creek channel, past our prior hunting spots. No chance of getting turned around now.
By the time the stars wink out in the east, the decoys are set, the jerk cord is rigged, Minnie is on her tree stand, and I am dripping with sweat. I weave a few branches into the tree to break up Minnie's silhouette. She mops my face again, an unwitting thanks for my overnight change of heart.
And this time, the third time, we are charmed.
The good luck comes after I pass up some early shots on edge-of-range wood ducks and wait through an hour of duckless skies. That's when I begin to question what I am really after in the swamp. I've committed three good mornings chasing just a handful of birds during the peak of migration, when there is no guarantee they will stick around. I have other places to hunt. And easier places, for sure.
But there was something about the way those ducks had skimmed the trees that first morning, slipping in behind me after I'd pulled the plug on the hunt. Something I can't seem to shake.
It has taken a week of obsession to begin to understand that it isn't the ducks I'm after. It's the murmuring voices that had taken root in my head long before those birds appeared and long before the season even opened.
What are you trying to prove?
Why are you dragging yourself out here alone?
Nobody cares if you sleep in. Nobody's going to know.
Why are you doing this?
Maybe going at it solo isn't worth going at all.
I fold the first duck that shows, the lead drake mallard in a threesome that comes in on a string, just like all the others, straight down the swamp, setting big orange feet without a second thought. No calling, no drama. Wings in the trees and one shot and a splash of duck and the dog leaping off the stand and then the bird in hand. Heavy and wet, the water beading on its impossibly green head.
I wait another half hour, then pull the decoys. I have other work to do, and I have what I'd come for: a duck in hand. Today, one seems to be the perfect number. There are no more whispers. There are no more voices.