I don’t know if you still remember my first duck, but I sure do.
Hunkered low in the front of grandpa’s duck skiff, I nervously clutched my shiny 20-gauge pump as you powered us through the cattails. At the far end of the main lake of Uncle Jack’s cranberry marsh, tucked back in a weedy pocket, a small flock of ducks raised their heads in alarm as we drew near.
My heart raced as the birds bunched on the water, seemingly calculating their best escape route. I shifted my grip to keep the gun barrel pointed at the ducks.
“They’re close enough!” you whispered from behind me, just before the ducks lunged skyward.
I straightened my scrawny shoulders under a too-large parka and mounted the shotgun. The flushing birds rose and flew to my left, a fortunate turn for me as a right-handed shooter. Still, they were up quickly, four fast little ducks winging toward the safety of open water.
You sat silently — and I’m sure rooting for me — at that instant so as not to distract my shot, but I recalled your earlier coaching as I took aim.
“Don’t shoot at the flock. Pick one duck and swing with it,” you had instructed.
Although I was a headstrong teenager, I had been listening. When the ducks jumped, I lined up my bead on the front bird.
I fired. To my surprise, a duck folded. I was too excited to care that the third duck in the group — not the one I was targeting — fell to the water.
I got one!
You couldn’t paddle us fast enough to reach that downed blue-winged teal. If I could have run to that duck, I surely would have set a record in the 40-yard dash. In hindsight, I probably could have made it most of the way to the bird by skipping across the lily pads on pure adrenaline.
I had shot my first duck. Finally.
It was a long time coming. Maybe your memory has faded about the hours you spent paddling me through the creeks and backwaters, flushing wood ducks along oak-lined channels and sending mallards skyward from the remnant cranberry bogs, only to have me miss time and again. I went an entire season without killing a duck.
You were patient, and if my horrible marksmanship was frustrating, you never let on. More importantly, you kept putting me in the front of the skiff and encouraging me to “Watch up to your right” and “Be ready — the ducks like to sit around this bend.”
Somewhere along the line, I figured out that although I shoot right-handed, my left eye is dominant. I learned to compensate and started regularly hitting birds. Today, some of my hunting partners even consider me to be a pretty good shot.
I recall my first mallard, a young-of-the-year greenhead I shot over at grandpa’s farm pond. Remember that? We were hunting pheasants, and we saw a flock of 25 mallards dump in the pothole. We went into duck mode and made the perfect sneak. I tried jump-shooting that hole 20 more times over the years, but that was the one and only duck I ever shot there.
I’m positive my first Canada goose is etched in your memory. I shot it right out behind the house before school in October 1984. I surprised you that morning — I brought home a goose all by myself. Back then, a Canada goose was a rare trophy. And mine had a metal ring on its leg with numbers on it. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant as I trotted home through the cornstalks to show you my goose, but I knew it was special.
I’ve never told you this before, but my career in the waterfowl world started that evening. I stayed up late writing all about our duck and goose hunting exploits in my little black hunting journal. I penned wild stories about paddling those creeks with you and shooting ducks — even the ones I missed.
A lot of opening days have come and gone since, and I’ve been fortunate to hunt ducks and geese at some of the most storied places in North America. I proudly tell people that waterfowl hunting is my lifelong passion, and for me, it was born at Uncle Jack’s cranberry marsh in Wisconsin.
As you know, I’ve written hundreds of magazine columns and stories, and I’ve reminisced in several of them about my early waterfowl hunting experiences.
But in all of those pieces, I’ve never really come right out and said it: Dad, thank you for taking me duck hunting when it would have been easier and more fun to go hunting with your buddies. For my first shotgun under the Christmas tree. For all of those rides in the front of the duck boat.
Thank you for being my mentor.
Paul Wait is the editor/publisher of Delta Waterfowl magazine.