20 Years Later
This September marked a milestone in my life as an outdoorsman. It was 20 years ago that I was went on my first duck hunt and began a love affair with waterfowl hunting. The journey has been remarkable for me not because I don’t have enough hobbies. It has been unique in that I have never been a stick-to-it kind of guy. I have tried lots of things but I have never developed a true passion for much. Other than writing, which has been a constant for most of my life, everything else seemed to be a passing fancy that burned bright and faded just as quickly.
The outdoor life captured my interest when I was five and I went on my first fishing trip with my father. I am blessed with vivid memories of that experience which gave me a solid start. I was shaped more by my time in the Boy Scouts, living for our monthly camping trips. I started hunting rabbits at 12 and moved on to squirrel and deer soon after. I was on the right path but still treating those pursuits like occasional activities and not a calling. Then in the fall of 1993, fresh out of high school, one of my hunting buddies suggested we try to jump shoot wood ducks on a small stream that we knew well. Being game for adventure I happily agreed.
Today, my closest hunting buddy and I laugh when we talk about that first trip. We realized the night before that we didn’t have the proper licenses so instead of being on the water at sunrise we were waiting in the parking lot of the post office. As we left the building, duck stamps in hand, we ran into a friend’s father who asked us what we were up to. We gleefully replied that we were going duck hunting and when he saw the bright red canoe tied to the roof of my Chevy Impala and chuckled to himself. We didn’t know much about camouflage back then but thankfully we didn’t let his pessimism stop us. An hour later we were floating down the stream.
It wasn’t a terrible plan. Float-hunting can be a successful tactic when properly executed. The problem was that the ducks would see the colorful bow of the canoe rounding a bend in the stream before we could shoot and would simply fly out of shooting range. We were also being too loud and with the stream very low from lack of rain, the sound of us dragging the boat over the shoals alerted every animal within a quarter mile to our presence. But we saw plenty of birds that morning and it sparked something in us.
The following year we improved on our strategy. A better boat and the addition of camo clothing and a few duck calls gave us hope for a successful hunt. On a very cold January morning we sat in the johnboat, tied to a bank on the Salt River. Ice was forming on our gear and the only wildlife that we had seen was a large beaver that swam right along side us and then slapped his tail and disappeared when we said hello. Just before we gave up a pair of woodies came zooming down the river and my friend, always the quicker shot, dropped the first of the pair. We sat in stunned silence as the dead bird floated downstream in the moving current. Springing into action we pulled hard on our paddles and caught up to it, fishing it from the cold water and admiring its plumage. To this day a drake wood duck is still the most beautiful waterfowl in my opinion. It was then that we realized we were also drifting in the current and had traveled quite a distance from our original location. We turned the boat and began to fight our way back upstream.
I learned that day that the flat bow of a johnboat is not ideal for smooth travel. We soon tired, having made no progress and paddled for the bank. With no other alternative we hauled the boat out of the river and into a cornfield, a half-mile from my car. Luckily we had some extra rope and we tied it around our waists, acting as sled dogs as we marched through the field, dragging the boat behind us. I remember laughing a lot and maybe whistling the marching song from the Bridge Over the River Kwai. I still have a photo of my friend on that day. He looks much younger than 18 as he holds his wood duck and smiles from ear to ear*.
As the years have progressed I went from novice to more experienced hunter. I have hunted all over Kentucky including memorable trips to the Mississippi flyway in far Ballard County. We have had plenty of misadventures along the way, as waterfowlers often do. Holes in waders, gun malfunctions and trucks stuck in swamps. Nearly every year I have at least one hunt where I finish the day with ice in my beard, a mark of pride for a serious hunter. I have also learned a lot about myself and the long path towards excellence.
As I reflect back on my two decades of waterfowl hunting, which began on a lark and has developed into an obsession that dominates much of my free time, the thought that keeps recurring is that I can’t believe I am still doing this. Unlike my other hobbies I have stayed with this one despite the frustrations of lean years, the financial costs (which are no small thing) and the realization every season that I still have a lot to learn. I feel very blessed to have found this calling and everything that has come with it. As I quickly approach my forties it feels good to have found the dedication to a pursuit that I have always admired in others.
My passion is hunting but other people have their own callings and what I am really interested in is hearing about them. My fellow writers here at Ordinary Times have talked about their own interests, whether it be a love of sports or gaming or food and drink. It’s what makes this community so special to me. I’ve been honored to share my outdoor stories from time to time and I will continue to do so as long as there is an audience willing to read about them. In the meantime, here’s to 20 years afield and optimism about the next 20.
* You can see our first wood duck and other waterfowling photos on my Facebook page here.