Friends Old, New, and Soon to Be,
A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about my friend Jonathan Wilkins. Therein, he said something to me that stuck, “Studies have shown that hunter satisfaction goes up when limits go down. Now that the term is in vogue, people are focused on limiting—it’s the number, not the experience.”
I’ve always lived for experiences over quantifiables. That’s fortunate, since neither “United States Marine Corps” nor “Writer” on a tax form indicate a particularly firm grasp on how numbers might translate as “percentage points” or “compound interest.” But if there were a monthly account statement for experiences, I reckon I would be doing pretty well against the market. Consider me the Scrooge McDuck of sensations; rolling around in a mental pile of past glories again and again; seeking new ways to add to them. At the center of all that is a sense of wonder I mean to never shed.
I reckon I can’t ever truly escape the numbers so, as your monthly correspondent, I seek to commoditize that wonder. I indulge it and then I tell you about in return for the currency of your time, no small price in these days of carefully scrutinized “clicks” and “open rates.” But at the essence of my efforts must lie experience and this duck season has given me a massive experiential return on my investments, courtesy of folks you’ve met here before.
Captain Seth Vernon and I paddled a canoe into a bald cypress swamp early one morning to be thigh deep in tannin before the woodies started flying. It was my first time hunting from a canoe or in a cypress swamp. I never pulled a trigger and Seth’s gun spoke only once, the reply the slapping of green and chestnut feathers plummeting through winter-bare cypress limbs to splash in coffee colored water. With the birds largely flying out of range, we decided to explore. As we canoed the swamp’s byways, a limit of woodies flared behind us in easy shooting distance. As surprised as us, they reversed course so fast as to leave my shotgun less than an afterthought. Seth and I laughed and wished them well as they whistled into the distance.
A couple of weeks later, Bill Mattes invited me to share a flooded corn field within a cob’s throw of Lake Mattamuskeet. Eastern North Carolina duck hunting is all consuming, existing within a tradition of secret spots and shrouded agreements made contingent upon not talking about agreements made. It was, in a word, generous. More so was his willingness to again serve as teacher to a couple of students, effectively transforming his planned hunt into another work day. Jed’s sire, an AKC Master Hunter named Axel, was unhappily relegated to the truck as Jed joined Bill and I in dragging sleds along a mucky dike before wading into knee-deep water from which rose the dried cornstalks in which we’d hide. At one point at least 600 teal flew over, but it was another day of ducks in the air but not in range and only one wigeon fell to Bill’s gun. The single duck gave Jed a truly difficult retrieve in thick brush. Trying to guide him to where we believed the bird to be, Bill tossed shotgun shells to get Jed’s attention. Demonstrating the quality of his nose, Jed scented Bill’s hand and proudly returned the shells from deep in the thick black mire in which they lay. I laughed hysterically as he repeatedly came back to us, a 3-inch Magnum triumphantly jutting from his jaws like a cigar. Eventually, he found the wigeon, a fact my wife appreciated at dinner that night.
The next week found me on the banks of a river in Virginia with veteran water fowler and custom call maker Shawn Swearingen. The first time we met, Shawn opened the door to his home, showed me to my room, and fed me goose pastrami and pan seared wood duck breast over farro at his family dinner table. Kindness counts, y’all. It was 21 degrees when we got out of his truck the next morning to hunt a public land spot he’d worked hard to develop. With the heirloom wood duck call he made for me on my lanyard, and after a one-mile hike through trackless woods with Shawn and his Lab, Sully, I pulled the trigger on the first flight of the morning, sending a woodie hen tumbling into the fast-moving river. As we joined Sully in racing the current to recover her, black ducks, mallards, and more woodies flashed overhead, so close I felt as if I could reach up and swat them from the sky. We’d left our shotguns on the bank in the name of safety and I did not know whether to curse my impotence as the birds raced overhead or laugh at our inability to put any of them on a game strap. I chose laughter and joy in their presence as Shawn predicted. I embraced the wonder of sunrise from a river bank, the whistle and quack of sought birds, and hunting with a new friend.
For all the miles driven, dollars spent, and sleep lost this season, some folks might find three ducks a paltry reward. I suspect the “greenheads in truck beds” kill pile photo crowd are shaking their heads at the paucity of my collective take. But as I write this, I’m thawing the single duck breast I’ll feed my wife tonight. I’m reveling in the re-lived moments of the season. I am thankful for the generosity of my friends and hunting companions and a gracious wife and child who allow me to seek such exquisite experience. Given all that, I submit to you that I “limit” every day.
Russell Worth Parker
Editor at Large, Tom Beckbe