by Wade Bourne

It was my darkest day ever in a lifetime of waterfowl hunting.

Two partners and I were in our floating blind on Lake Barkley in western Kentucky. Action was slow, and we were passing the morning swapping tales and scanning the skies.

"Wonder what those guys are up to?" one of my buddies asked, motioning toward an island 100 yards left of our spread. Four hunters were standing in brush, surveying the scene.

"Probably freelancers looking for a place to set up," I surmised. After a few minutes, the hunters turned and disappeared back into the cover.

A couple of minutes later we heard yelling, and we saw one of the hunters running back across the island in our direction. He lunged into the water armpit-deep, waving and calling for help.

"What's wrong?" I shouted.

"Our boat sunk," he replied. "One of us has drowned!"

There is no way to describe the shock those words brought. "Go back. We'll come around in the boat," we instructed.

When we got there, we encountered a pitiful scene. Three young men were wet and shivering. All were crying. Two bags of decoys were floating at the waterline. A Labrador retriever was nosing around in the brush.

We learned that these hunters and a companion had paddled across the river in a low-sided johnboat. After surveying the scene from the island, they had reentered the boat and pushed out into the channel. As one hunter explained, "We had the load balanced just right, but then the dog shifted his weight, and the corner of the boat went under."

The hunters suddenly found themselves in the water. None was wearing a life jacket. Three swam into the shallows where they could stand up, but the fourth a 19-year-old college student panicked while struggling to remove his hip boots. He went under in deep water as his companions watched helplessly.

We ferried the survivors back to shore, carried them to a local grocery to warm up, and summoned the rescue squad.

Waterfowl hunting can be perilous. It is practiced in wet, wild places in the heart of winter. It exposes hunters to the risks of hypothermia, getting lost, or several other possible injuries. Duck and goose hunting involves using firearms in a time of great excitement.

This is why waterfowl hunters must temper their zeal for good shooting with safety and discretion. Take too many chances, and sooner or later you might wind up in trouble. Following are tales of hunters who had close calls. They are offered so others may learn from their experiences and conduct their own hunts in a safer, more aware manner.

Gun Safety: The First Concern

Gun safety is paramount in waterfowl hunting, and careless gun handling and shooting are two ever present concerns in this sport. When ducks or geese are dropping into decoys and the firing starts, pandemonium reigns. A lapse in safety can lead to permanent, devastating consequences.

Jim Ronquest came within an inchliterallyof becoming a victim while duck hunting in Arkansas in the mid-1990s. Ronquest runs the RNT Guide Service out of Holly Grove. On this particular morning, he was leading a party on a hunt out of a "wet blind" in a dead timber brake. The blind was just a bench in the water with a 2x4 frame and some brush surrounding it.

Ronquest narrates, "One of my customers that morning wanted to take his own retriever, but the dog needed help, so I was out of the blind picking up birds and chasing down cripples. "I was wading back to the blind, almost to the left corner, when somebody in the blind said, 'Don't move.' I froze where I was, and in a few seconds, ducks started landing behind me, straight off the corner of the blind.

"The next thing I remember was seeing a shotgun barrel about five feet away, pointing in my direction. I yelled 'Don't shoot!' just about the time the gun went off. The first shot spun my cap off. I could feel the heat and pressure from the blast on my face. I thought I was shot. I instinctively threw my hands up over my ears. The hunter shot two more times as the ducks flared out. He never knew I was there."

Ronquest stood frozen in place by the incident. A doctor in the party rushed out to examine him and found no wounds. When the traumatized guide retrieved his cap from the water, the bill was frayed from shot.

Today, Ronquest is "very adamant" about gun safety among his hunters. "Before we start hunting, we have a discussion about me calling all the shots. I tell them to keep their safeties on until they hear me say shoot and they're raising their guns to their shoulders. And I brief them to be aware of their swing area and to shoot only what's directly in front of them. I do this for seasoned hunters as well as novices. Everybody needs to be constantly aware of gun safety."

First a Pop, Then an Explosion

Gun/shell malfunctions can pose other dangers in the duck marsh or goose field. Barrels plugged with mud or snow, shells going off late, and loading 20-gauge shells into a 12-gauge shotgun are examples of problems that can result in an accident.

During the 1998 season, Dwain Ganser and Scott Nemecek of Port Clinton, Ohio, got a quick but lasting education about shots that don't sound right. These two men were hunting on the Pickerel Creek Wildlife Area. Action was good, and the hunters were alternating shots. It was Ganser's turn to shoot when a drake pintail sailed in.

He swung on the bird and fired, but the report was a "wet shell pop" instead of a loud bang. Watching the duck get away, Ganser cycled his pump and jacked another shell into the chamber. This time, when he pulled the trigger, the shotgun blew apart. The barrel ruptured just above the forearm. The forearm exploded in his hand, which was encased in a heavy glove. Nemecek was standing a few feet to Ganser's side, and he felt splinters fly against his clothes. Fortunately, neither hunter sustained injury.

Later, after thinking about this incident, it was obvious that the wad cup from the malfunctioning shell had lodged in the barrel. Then the second shell fired normally, and pressure from the blocked charge blew the gun to bits.

The lesson is that when a shell misfires or doesn't sound right, hunters must stop shooting to learn what's wrong. This is hard to do when birds are flaring and getting away. Still, hunters must discipline themselves to put safety first. Getting off another shot is no justification for placing yourself or your partners in harm's way.

Falling into a Void

Ice can pose serious hazards to waterfowl hunters. One major worry is running a boat on a river clogged with ice floes. Another danger is falling through thin ice. Rick Windham learned firsthand that this is, indeed, a scary situation.

In late 1978, Windham was living in Peru, Nebraska. That winter was one of the coldest in modern history, and the nearby Missouri River was completely frozen over. One day, Windham was hunting along the river bank, and he spied and stalked a flock of Canada geese that was resting near the frozen shoreline.

Windham recalls, "When the geese flushed, I knocked one down, and he fell about 10 yards out from the bank. The ice seemed plenty thick to me. I was very careful about testing it. There were a few pressure ridges close to shore, but I stepped over them and started easing out to retrieve my bird."

When he was halfway there, the ice suddenly gave way, and Windham fell through. "I actually fell through a void and landed on rocks about five feet below the ice. I didn't know it, but the river had dropped after the ice had formed. I fell onto what had been the river's bottom near the bank."

When he fell, Windham hurt his knee and back, but at least he wasn't fighting current. "When I regained my senses, I looked around under the ice, and the water started around 10 yards farther out from where I'd fallen through. If the river had been up a few feet, the current would have probably swept me downstream under the ice."

Still, Windham had a dilemma. "I couldn't pull myself back out. I could stick my head up through the hole in the ice, but there was nothing to grab onto to climb out." Windham eventually rescued himself by shooting a trail through the ice back toward the bank. "I shot every shell I had, but I finally gained enough distance and height up the bank to get out."

Windham now advises hunters to never go out on ice they're unsure of, especially when they're alone. Thin or rotten ice can be a killer. He was lucky to have survived this incident.

And his goose? "I didn't go back for him," Windham remarks. "I'd guess he became some coyote's dinner that night."

Blind On Fire!

Gas and charcoal heaters present an obvious danger in duck blinds, which can be dry tinderboxes waiting for a spark. Blind fires can flare quickly out of control. Stories of hunters bailing out of flaming blinds are all too common.

For instance, four years ago Cody Quick of Samburg, Tennessee, was hunting with friends on Reelfoot Lake. The morning was chilly, and when they entered the blind, one of the hunters decided to light the propane heater. He opened the valve on the gas bottle, which was on the back of boat shed. The gas flowed through a hose to the heater in the front of the blind.

However, since its last use, the hose had ruptured, and propane gas was escaping at the break. When he struck a match, flames erupted around the hose. "It happened so fast," Quick recalls. "One second everything was normal, then the next second thick smoke was completely filling the blind."

One of the hunters had the presence of mind to dash through the door and close the valve on the gas bottle. "If he hadn't done that, the blind would have burned to the waterline," Quick continues. "We'd have probably gotten out, but we might have lost our guns and equipment. It was pretty scary."

Hunters should take the possibility of fire into account and equip their blind with a fire extinguisher. An inexpensive home extinguisher mounted on a back wall will provide an effective means of quelling flames that threaten a blind and its contents and inhabitants.

Every Hunter Has Stories to Tell

In my years of waterfowling, I've had several close calls. One afternoon, two friends and I became lost in a swamp where ducks were "filling it up." We didn't have a compass. The sky was overcast, so we had no directional clue from the setting sun. A hard rain was forecast to move in that night, followed by a rapid drop in temperature. We faced spending the night on a log, drenched and battling hypothermia.

Finally, we collected our wits, waded in a straight line by keeping the wind in our face, and found our way to dry land around 11 p.m. Our panicked wives had notified the local sheriff that we were lost, and he was organizing a rescue effort.

Another time when I was young and tough, I was hunting alone next to a creek, which was the only unfrozen water in the bottoms. I shot a mallard drake that fell in the middle of the creek and started drifting steadily with the current. After a couple of minutes puzzling over what to do, I stripped naked and hit the water like a well-trained Lab. (Yes, I know stupid.) I swam to the duck, grabbed it by the neck, and turned for the bank. That's when an overpowering fatigue set in. I almost didn't make it back. Another five yards, and I wouldn't have.

One foggy morning, trying to get to my blind, I nearly ran my boat beneath a towboat. Another day my outboard quit while I was in the channel of the Ohio River. We couldn't get it started, and a towboat was bearing down on us from upstream. We had a paddle, and my partner and I took turns paddling madly to get out of the barge's way. The pilot blew his horn at us as he plowed by, too close for comfort.

Every hunter can tell similar tales. Maybe they aren't as dramatic as having a cap bill shot off or falling through ice on a major river. Still, the nature of the sport causes hunters to take chances. Most such incidents have happy endings, but every once in a while, one leads to disaster.

Truly, hunting wildfowl is wild, exciting and challenging. That's why we enjoy it. But it's not worth risking life and limb over. There will always be another day--and another season--for those who temper their passion for the sport with prudence for staying safe. In pursuing ducks and geese, hunters should allow commonsense to reign as the good times roll.