A Frugally Foolish Duck Hunter

by Bill Miller

There are many ways to categorize waterfowl hunters. You can slice and dice the demographic profiles to infinity if that’s your thing. However, when it comes to passionate — even fanatical — pursuers of web-footed fowl, two classifications are clearly evident.

Some waterfowl nuts freely spend money on their passion. I envy these guys and gals. They buy fancy new factory-camo rigs and mud motors every few seasons. They dress like magazine covers. Their decoys are the latest, greatest, most perfect fakes. I’m surprised their dogs don’t sport gold-toothed grins.

The rest of us are more reserved with our credit cards. We’re equally passionate in our pursuit of birds, but we’re more willing to spend time than money.  Our anthem is, “Well a lot of ducks were killed before anybody ever had (blank.)”

All that’s the politically correct way to admit some of us are … shall we say … frugal?

My earliest foray into the realm of frugal fowling in my pre-teen years revolved around my desire to own a magnificent spread of decoys of every type and species. Even then, that amounted to real money for a farm kid who didn’t have any. Yet, my growing passion for waterfowl hunting and lust for decoys couldn’t be quenched, no matter what my economic circumstances.

Since I didn’t have cash, I invested time. If I’d been paid minimum wage for all the hours I toiled away in the barn “making” decoys from every kind of refuse and scrap imaginable, I’d probably own a decoy company today. Most experiments were total failures and never saw the light of morning in a marsh, but like a duck-crazed Thomas Edison, I figured every failure was simply a lesson in how not to build decoys.

One memorable episode followed my reading about some defunct North American tribe that crafted decoys by gathering bundles of dried tules and shaping them into ducks and geese. We lived not far from a swamp with acres of cattails that offered the best kind of materials — free ones! They were there for the taking.

Armed with an antique corn knife I found hanging on the wall in the barn, I set off early one morning on my bike for the mosquito-infested swamp. For half of a steamy day, I waded in the smelly black ooze, hacking down armloads of cattails and hauling them out to a stack near my bike. Once the pile was nearly as tall as I was, I figured I had enough reeds to make a huge spread of decoys. Then it struck me … I had to get them all a couple of miles back to home.

I restacked the bounty of my labors well off the trail and pedaled homeward to see if I couldn’t get Mom to come with the car and make a pick up. No dice. All that got me was chased back out of the house, hosed off in the front yard, and told, “Wait until your dad gets home!”

Yes! Pa!

He was the other hunter in the family and from whom I’d inherited my frugal tendencies. We’d take his truck down the swamp trail to collect my harvest. He would understand. He’d probably even help me make our decoys!

When he came home from his town job, I ran to him with my brainstorm. His first reaction was wide-eyed disbelief that I could possibly be his son, then (I think) some stifled chuckles. Finally, when he’d regained his stoic fatherly composure, he offered a stern lecture on taking his “good tools” without permission and a gruff reminder to do my real chores … which I did after I had biked back to the swamp to recover the corn knife and hung it back on its nail.

By the time we returned to hunt together in the swamp that fall, the pile of cattails was long gone. Back then I imagined some other hunter slaying stacks of ducks over a magnificent spread of reed decoys made possible by the sweat of my brow and the mosquito bites on my everywhere.

Today, I wonder who walked up and found a pile of cut and stashed cattails and thought, “Wow, free blind material! Cool!”

Undoubtedly, it was a fellow frugal fowler of kindred spirit.