Duck and Cover!

Green Water And Blue-Winged Teal Equal Calamity
23

September in our neck of the woods is still rather hot. Coming on the heels of the Hades known as “August,” the ninth month is generally warmish but it is also the first time you’ll feel an occasional breath of cool air rushing down from the north, hinting at the welcome relief of fall. After a few days, the weather patterns will shift back to the “broil” setting but in the meantime, those brief September cold fronts bring welcome relief from the heat — and flights of teal.

I’m an inveterate duck hunter but in my case, don’t take enthusiasm to correlate with any skills. Regardless, I still have loads of fun, at least when I don’t end up with undergrowth lounging around the breech of my shotgun. Let me explain.

My Happy Place

Whenever I’m in the area, I always keep a sharp eye on my friend’s swamp. It’s a place he considers basically a wasteland full of muck and detritus, but in truth, it’s actually a fantastical wild landscape full of muck and detritus. While driving past one day, I saw the unmistakable flash of ducks on final approach over the country road bordering the wetland. I immediately pulled over and soon marked another group inbound. It was easy to see, based on the size and speed, it was a flight of blue-winged teal.

The swamp covers about 40 acres, most of which are reeds and cattail growing shoulder-to-shoulder in shallow water, along with occasional stands of shrubbery mixed in for good effect. On one edge of the vegetable morass, there is a strip of deeper open water of approximately one acre. The swamp is technically full of water, though most of it is completely covered by duckweed, a tiny floating plant resembling green confetti and dearly loved by waterfowl.

The other exciting thing about spotting the blue wings was the fact the next day was September 1, the opening of the early teal season in our state. Though I couldn’t greet the morning in the swamp due to work commitments, I resolved the ducks and I would have a nice meeting towards sundown.

After a rushed early dinner, I parked alongside the gravel road, gathered my gear and staggered toward the field of battle. I was wearing camouflage hunting togs and a pair of knee-high rubber boots as I did not intend to seriously challenge the bottomless mire, instead planning to pick off ducks around the perimeter as they descended into the evening roost.

I soon discovered getting to the shooting spot would be difficult. The landowner had once mowed a path down to waterside but this late in the season it had become an overgrown jungle of 10-foot-high willow shoots and other weeds. The path was punctuated by a nifty collection of outsized September spiders who enjoyed nothing more than spinning webs at face level to see if they could frighten any passing writers to the point of incontinence. And — trust me here — you don’t want to experience incontinence while wearing tall rubber boots.

Hacking through the undergrowth took longer than anticipated. The sun was only a few fingers above the horizon when I finally arrived at a spot near the open water where I felt it reasonably likely to both intercept incoming birds and retrieve any who might intersect with my shot column.

While still getting comfortable in up my pass-shooting hide, my reverie was interrupted by a swish of wings. Hot dang, a flight of teal landed nearly at my feet! In one smooth motion, I hoisted my camouflaged 12-gauge Remington 870, stood up, shouted and took the first bird to mistakenly fly overhead. The #4 steel shot did its job admirably and the duck crashed onto dry ground 30 yards away. I had scored in less than two minutes!

Before I could even retrieve the first, my thoughts were interrupted by yet another whisper of wings as more birds set to land. Another shot and another duck fell. Things were going far too well — and I should have realized my old friend Fate would soon show up to stick a finger in my eye.

I passed up several more shots after judging a hit bird would fall deeper in the swamp than preferred. A few moments later, another flight was inbound with the correct angle and velocity for a likely recovery so I fired. In a final act of defiance, the mortally wounded duck swerved and aimed for deep into the accursed bog as he trailed feathers like a crashing fighter jet.

A Personal Problem

This presented a dilemma. Vehemently not wanting to waste game but also not wanting to get up close and personal with muck and detritus, I internally argued over the next step. Eventually the sense of responsibility all hunters should possess reared its ugly head and I became resigned to what needed to be done. After stowing my wallet and cell phone in my shooting bag, I smashed through the green wall of cattails and slowly eased into the vegetation-carpeted water.

Stupid sense of responsibility. Why can’t it bother somebody else at times like this?

I gasped upon discovering the nasty black soup lurking beneath the duckweed was colder than I had imagined. It was also deeper, immediately coming to mid thigh and releasing huge black bubbles of putrid methane gas with each step of my now-full boots. A disgusting oily sheen rose to the surface until the duckweed quickly closed around my legs. To the casual observer, it appeared I was sinking in putrid green quicksand.

It was slow going as I carefully waded, blindly feeling for sticks and other trip hazards as the water eventually reached just under my armpits. Gun held overhead, mental pictures of soldiers in Vietnam doing the same thing immediately conjured thoughts of leeches. After a brief full-body shiver not due to temperature, I put this thought away though my mind was not satisfied until it had also considered snapping turtles, snakes, malaria, flesh-eating bacteria and a host of other things you don’t want to contemplate when armpit-deep in a swamp. In the distance, a frog laughed.

Reaching the other side of the deep channel, I pushed aside more cattails and could see the dead bird a few feet away, still held aloft on a cushion of vegetation. After some careful thrashing, I retrieved the hapless duck and began the return trip. Though I had been very vigilant, my urge to get out of the “water” overwhelmed caution and when I was only a few feet from safety, my hurrying foot caught on a submerged branch.

Ruin Awaits

Everything happened in slow motion. First, the 870 disappeared as the green blur rushed higher. I snapped my head upward, fighting to keep my mouth dry in the knowledge ingesting even a few drops of the green-and-black fluid would prove exceptionally unpleasant for anyone who isn’t a big fan of chronic diarrhea. Fortunately, the greasy water only rose to my chin before my arms hit bottom. With the urgency of a man falling into a shark tank, I scrambled back onto terra firma. Black, blue and speckled with green, I was quite colorful.

I’ve always been taught you should keep your firearms clean and lubricated and I do so religiously. In light of countless dire warnings on the buildup of dirt, old oil and powder residue, I idly wondered why I had never been warned against allowing live vegetation and pond scum to pack the inner workings of your gun.

Fortunately, the Remington is a robust design and after a complete disassembly — including finding a stowaway crayfish hiding in the breech bolt — it was none the worse for the experience.

Now a year later, only one minor gun-related problem remains: figuring out how to explain to hunting companions why my shotgun smells like a trash fire at the salad bar. Then again, given my history, most of them aren’t too surprised.

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