“When you have shot one bird flying you have shot all birds flying. They are all different and they fly in different ways but the sensation is the same and the last one is as good as the first.” - Ernest Hemingway
“The perils of duck hunting are great, especially for the ducks.” - Walter Cronkite
The rain has recently become a little more frequent lately. The pond in the back pasture has mercifully refilled to some measurable extent. The creator does this sort of thing every fall about this time of year. The swamps, potholes and low spots slowly become inviting and inherently joyful places for the visiting northern ducks to arrive, feed and fatten for the winter.
This is also the time of year when we used to dog-ear any and all catalogs in hopes that someone, anyone, would take notice. One particular long gone catalog was a favorite this time of year.
Doug Smith of the Star Tribune wrote in 2015 that : “Before there was a thing called the internet or a Cabela’s, Bass Pro or Gander Mountain, there was Herter’s - the first outdoors gear juggernaut. Say the word “Herter’s” and a legion of mostly men, now middle aged or older, in Minnesota and nationwide nod their collective heads in fond recollection. Herter’s mail-order catalogs were legendary, hundreds of pages jammed with hunting, fishing, camping and other outdoor gear that could be delivered to your doorstep.”
Paul Collins wrote an essay for the New York Times in 2008, “George Leonard Herter was a surly sage, gun-toting Minnesotan and All-American crank —the kind of guy who would take his own sandwiches to Disneyland because the restaurants were No Dammed Good! The arrival of the Herter’s catalog was like Christmas with bullets.”
The decoy bags in the barn still retain the one single mallard decoy that I was able to finally purchase from the Herter’s catalog after mowing 42 lawns and raking leaves for a living. The antique decoy still floats to this day, even after a rather extensive number of number 4s peppered the paint job over the years.
Every single time the old decoy is deployed it splashes down in a cascade of many wet but warm memories bubbling to the surface in the cold winter water. I catch myself looking at the aluminum bands on the call lanyard and drift off in a fit of reflection at how this thing called duck hunting all began.
Old George Herter taught many wan-a-be duck hunters the fine art of setting a foolproof decoy spread. His catalog was exhaustively instructional about the use of his invincible decoys. As best as I can remember, the only remaining one Herter’s decoy in the bag in the barn cost somewhere about $2.75, plus shipping and handling. A box of 12 gauge, number 4s was about $3.00 at the time of that reflexive splurge for the world’s best mail order decoy.
But, before the purchase of such a high dollar decoy, most local duck hunts consisted of sneaking up on wood ducks on either North or South Chickamauga creeks, nearby swamps, potholes/farm ponds, flooded corn fields and occasionally around the lake. This was all before boats, waders and retrievers could be afforded. The old Beagle refused any and all training attempts to traverse cold waters for anything as nasty as wearing feathers in December and January.
Plan B for collecting dead ducks entailed cutting down a two piece spinning rod, and clumsily turning it into a four piece pack rod, hauled around in a surplus army pack. Spinning rod destruction/redesign included a brief tutorial session at Frank’s Bait and Tackle Shop in Hixson. The terminal end of this duck retrieving device involved sacrificing a wooden Hula-Popper by screwing as many treble hooks as possible into the wood body. Depending on the creek bank, brush concentrations, complexities of the casting location and the dead duck, this homemade duck catching system was at times merely marginally effective. A Mitchell 300, wrapped in a pair of dry socks, was in the pack with the rod and the grappling hooks. The 300 was the reel of choice in those days.
Jump shooting creek ducks took an enormous amount of time, leg work, stealth and patience. These lessons weren’t the sort of subjects even old George Herter could sell in his catalog. But, they sure made you lust for a boat, a good dog and a decent spread of his decoys.
When the first flimsy boats came into the picture, we floated the swift creeks, drifting as silently as possible into the flocks of the colorful little woodies feasting on pin oaks. Occasionally there were teal and green heads to be jumped, especially when the swamps and potholes were frozen solid and the creeks were running fast, foggy and ice cold.
We didn’t fully appreciate how frigid and dangerous this sort of float could actually become.
Those were the days when most life jackets were blaze orange and bulky. Too bulky for the snap shooting jumping ducks required. We’d pile the front of the boat with cane for camouflage, thinking that no duck could see us drifting towards them in our low sided, well used, leaky boats. The life jackets doubled as seat cushions at best.
One memorable but frigid January morning, when the creek was running especially fast from a recent flash flood and all the swamps were badly frozen over, my partner, “Old Edro,” the black lab Saba, and I got into a tight series of twisting, treacherous and tricky S-curves in the most narrow portion of the float where the current sped up in exponential increments.
It went something like this;
“You see that log?” The bowman questioned tensely. I immediately detected a subtle bit of panic in his question.
“Yeah, I got it!” I considered myself an expert canoeist at that time in life.
The dog whined. Looking back on it, on that particular morning, the dog was the smartest occupant in the old boat.
The buddy in the bow stretched out his paddle as far as he could in order to push off of the impending impact with the log. He was all of five foot and four inches tall at the time.
I had seen different logs.
Blame it on the massive cane break we had stuffed the front of the canoe with.
The canoe was now approaching speeds in excess of 30 MPH. That was about the time we center punched another underwater log with the bow of the boat. This abrupt impact, from 30 to zero, resulted in flinging Edro out of the boat like he was launched from a canon.
I was knocked out of my seat into the floor of a rapidly filling canoe. I splashed into the dog as the listing boat filled with a good extra foot of ice water. The only thing saving the boat from completely capsizing was the big overweight lab, who somehow managed magically to keep her balance and keep the boat upright. The orange life jackets floated around the dog nicely.
I immediately tried to locate signs of missing Edro. The water in the creek was pretty clear that day. But, all that was visible was a floating hat. By quick calculations, “Old Edro” was drowning, pinned under some unseen log. This left me no option but to have to paddle down the creek, in a flooded boat, for help with extraction of the wet corpse.
The lab barked rather hysterically when Edro surfaced. He suddenly erupted, a better word erupted, gasping wild eyed for air. After years of telling and retelling of the story, I liken the dramatic resurfacing of Edro to the breaching of a killer whale just like you might pay to see at some tourist mecca like Sea World.
The fat dog tried to bite his cold hands as he clung to the side of the boat like a terrified baby chimpanzee. We drifted to the shore, drained the boat and tried to start a fire. It didn’t ignite. The dog refused to get back in the boat until we got to the next bridge. By then, hypothermia had joined us rather dramatically in the vessel. The shotguns were frozen to the bottom of the canoe.
Jump shooting is not the easiest way to collect the necessary fixings for a Wood Duck Pot Pie. But, sometimes you ‘just gotta do what you gotta do.’
“A hunt based only on trophies taken falls short of what the ultimate goal should be.” - Fred Bear
WOMR Notes: “You can talk any redneck into a challenge. That’s why so many rednecks die in strange ways.” - Jase Robertson
That about sums it up doesn’t it? You can’t very well blame any of that on some old catalog can you?
Send comments to email@example.com