I stood along Cabin Creek at my favorite sweet spot with my Remington autoloader locked open and empty and three dead mallards—two drakes and a Susie—floating in the slightly swollen, murky stream.
The greenheads were in open water beyond the thin skein of ice that stretched out from the bank on which I was standing. One had kicked enough to reach the narrow line of mid-stream current and was moving downstream faster than the other drake, which had fallen beyond the swiftest flow. The hen seemed stuck in the thin ice.
It was Jan. 3 and we were having a little spell of winter weather. I was struggling back from my second December round of bronchitis. Down in spirits and down in luck, I had needed a break such as finding ducks in my preferred run of creek.
That morning the lower creek, the part that flows unbroken from the old Vaughn Crossing all the way to the river, was mostly covered with a thin layer of clear ice. I had spotted the ducks from far down the creek, but the only birds I had identified from that long distance were hooded mergansers—“fish ducks” as some call them. Though edible with considerable cooking amendments, these ducks were in low regard in the traditions of the Springdale hunters who had formed my attitudes, so I had no interest in shooting them, yet I wanted to take closer scrutiny.
So I had crossed a hollow and made a conservative approach across a field, ending with knee crawling into a depression that has given me cover and helped me sack several ducks over the seasons. From that tactical advantage point I had seen green among the scattered quackers.
The successful stalk and shots were only a prelude to the real challenge.
My retriever does not walk along obediently at heel, nor is it loving and loyal. It is unwieldy and often difficult to manage on long hikes through thick terrain. But it doesn’t need feeding and vet care, nor will the cruelties of time and misadventure ever act upon it to break my heart. I have used and lost several such retrievers over the years at the cost of only minor aggravation and expense.
My retriever is a baitcasting rig, its current terminal tackle being the ultimate evolution in my experimental designs: a long plastic cigar float, swivel, and 8 inches of 60# test monofilament with a pair of large treble hooks. In the past I have used large surface lures and I once had 3 inches from the end of a broom handle fitted with an O-screw for tying to the line and treble hooks.
This contraption worked well for several seasons until I lost it on a small lake while trying to retrieve a goose bound in ice. I got the bird later in the day after the ice thawed and it had drifted to the bank, but my “duck plug” had disappeared. The current contraption became successor to the lost broom handle grabber.
As often occurs with my bank-walking style of duck hunting, difficulties and errors began immediately after the kills. The Susie was the most conveniently situated, so I began to cast for her first. The rig is difficult to cast accurately and my first try failed to snag the kill. One of the design’s difficulties appears when ice is a factor because the trebles hook under the edge of ice and hang up, and this quickly happened.
The solution was to throw rocks to hit near the plug to break the ice that had caught it, but though my accuracy with the shotgun had been deadly, my throwing accuracy was horrible and after six tosses the retriever was still caught. Proper pitching rocks were also hard to come by because most were frozen to the ground.
As I was taking too long to fetch the easy bird, the drake in the current was scooting quickly downstream, so I left the rig snagged and went after the drifting greenhead in hopes that I could intercept it in the narrow rapid that enters the river pool.
That scheme didn’t work either. The rapid was too deep for my field boots and I bitterly discovered another error. We often hear the advice to “dress for success," generally meaning to wear nice-looking clothing when we are seeking to make good impressions, but on that day I had not dressed anticipating success. Though properly equipped to hunt and kill ducks, I had not accoutered myself to retrieve one.
My life usually goes better when I have handy a serviceable pair of rubber gum boots. The gum boot is a reviled item of footwear, which most folks detest. They are uncomfortable, hard on one’s feet, and usually not warm except with heavy layers of socks. I own a decent pair, but hadn’t worn them that morning because I try to avoid them when possible. But I could have stepped right into that riffle and picked up the drake had I been wearing gum boots and then waded to the east bank to retrieve my other kills.
Even without the boots, had I gone for the drake first and not hung up my retriever device futilely trying to fetch the Susie, I could have easily used the outfit to gather the drake from the rapid. Would bad decisions before leaving the house and while on the creek cause me to lose my cleanly killed game on what should have been the best outing of my season?
I was frustrated and upset with myself, but I didn’t despair. A solid ice skein was visible just 75 yards down the creek, so I knew the drake wouldn’t go far and he was slowing down very near the far bank. I went back to the Susie and the ice-trapped rig. She had escaped from the ice’s hold and had begun to drift slowly on the same route as the second greenhead. I finally made a good throw and freed the pole and then quickly walked the several hundred yards to the car and drove home. The gum boots would save the day.
The rough rubber boots made crossing the creek at the mouth of Owl Hollow easy. Within five minutes I was reeling the Susie in well above the rapid at the beginning of the river pool. The other drake was just a few yards from her and safely becalmed, so I next went to look for the drake that had caught the current. He was in easy reach of the rig and had not even floated to the ice line. Soon I was hiking homeward with all three fine mallards in hand.
I will always remember that hunt. Such duck hunting days are too rare for me, but it will not be the shooting that sticks in memory so much as the little blunders I made and the avoidable difficulties they caused, which worked out to make the episode into such an adventure after the shooting part was long over. Ironically, the snafus had made the hunt into a richer experience.