Article Contributed by Field Staff Writer B. Carleton.
Late season diver duck hunting is not for the faint of heart. It is wrought with danger and a calculating mind will be well prepared for the multitude of things that can go wrong. Personally, I know of eight men in my 36 years of duck hunting that have succumbed to the perils of our lake’s depths. Names like Donny Lumbra, Mark DeSimone and Roger Pepin, who, in their own right were talented outdoorsmen, and just happened to meet an untimely demise by missing one small detail.
When I prepare to go diver hunting in December it is always as with a wealth of precautions. First off, I rarely go alone. Secondly, I always let my float plan be known to my closest of kin. Then there’s the checklist. PFDs on the body, space blanket, first aid kit, boo-boo kit, GPS, compass, waterproof matches, off shore radio, or cell phone in a waterproof case, starter fluid, axe, hatchet, spotlight, EPIRB for locating the boat and/or me, heater, propane, change of dry clothes, wader belt always on, flare gun, engine starter pull rope, spare spark plugs, gas can full of non-ethanol gas, working navigation lights, bowline, and flotation cushions. I run a checklist of all things and load them in to the boat the night before because I don’t trust my memory when I first wake up.
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That done, I feel that if I am cautious, reasonable and prepared, the greatest prize I can think of is to return home safely after spending a glorious morning on our lake as the late whistlers and bluebills strafe the inner bays in search of wild celery and edible forage.
The starkness and solemnity of a late season morning on the lake, brings a great deal of gratitude to my spirit. I don’t see it as “man against nature” but rather “man as a part of nature.”
As I set up in the bay, my decoy spread hovers over water that is beginning to look more like slush. The icy wavelets beat gently against the shore, making a sound like the tinkling of thousands of glass shards against a rocky shoreline. I have parked my boat and waded into the shallow hard bottom. My hands are stinging from the wet decoy lines and cold lead anchors. I toss them in a pattern resembling a fishhook with a long shank extending out into the deeper water.
With the spread assembled, I crawl back into my boat blind, covered in woven palm grass, light the propane heater under the spray curtain, then plop myself down on the floor and pour a cup of French roast coffee. In the dark purple and helio light to the East, I hear wings whistling a high pitched “weee weee weee weee” as Arctic air flows over the strong wing pinions of a flock of goldeneyes, colloquially known as “whistlers.” Over the distant bay, I can make out a flock of bluebills as they slip across the open water in a twisting murmuration, not unlike starlings.
I load my trusty semi-automatic shotgun with a load of chilled 3” #4 steel shot and get ready for the whistlers to finish their turn around the bay to the southwest.
The light is gathering and legal shooting time is upon me.
I wait with my gun cradled in the crook of my arm, finger poised outside the trigger guard to the front of the safety.
Here they come!
Wings cup, feet drop down and the flock begins swaying from left to right, pitching into the wind, then back out again, looking for the right spot to land. Heads are craning. The lead bird suddenly slams his powerful white chest into the frigid water. The rest of the flock prepares to follow.
I pick out a nice drake with its bulbous black and white head and swing in front of the bird by four feet, never stopping my barrel or taking my eye off the dark black/green head. Another drake is one foot behind him.
The gun barks twice and two birds fall into the spread.
I breathe a sigh of relief and out loud say “thank you.”
To hold such a beautiful being in my hands and know that he has lived a life wilder than any I have known is truly a privilege. I honor and respect this bird and will plan on preparing him with the most love and care an epicurean palate can bestow.
To all the wild men and women out there who feel the tug of their primitive spirits to seek a connection to our planet and the animals that inhabit it, I toast you and pray that you too can find the sacred in our everyday life.