The First Hunters
Foxes work in pairs when they go duck hunting. One fox hides in an ambush point close to shore, while the other races up and down the water’s edge. Something about the fox’s red flapping tail agitates the ducks, so they go ashore to quack and squawk at it.
Native Americans observed this phenomenon and began tying fox skins to ropes. Two people would hold either side of the rope and drag the skin back and forth along the shoreline, mimicking the antics of the fox. Rather than leaping out of the grass and snapping ducks in their jaws, Native Americans shot arrows. This hunting method is known as “tolling.”
I was living in China and had returned to North Carolina for two weeks over Thanksgiving. My best friend invited me to go duck hunting, something I‘d never done. Cullen lived with his girlfriend in a bungalow in Morehead City. I showed up the night before, and, after a four-hour nap, dressed up in a borrowed pant / jacket ensemble that looked like tree bark.
Unsatisfied that his military camouflage didn‘t resemble his woods in Virginia, bow hunter Jim Crumley took a Magic Marker and made himself look more like a tree. Now, four decades later, his Trebark® design is standard-issue for both hunters and Larry the Cable Guy.
We climbed into Cullen’s maroon 78’ Blazer and headed across town to pick up two other hunters, Dale and Ellis. The way I had golfing buddies, I figured, Cullen had hunting buddies. We drove to the flat-lying woods of Craven County, taking a turnoff which gave way to dirt.
- “I shot this duck last week,” said Dale. “He damn near landed on my head.”
- “I can’t tell if that’s good or not,” I said.
- “I wish I could hunt all day,” Dale said, “not just morning and evening.”
- “We pretty much hunt every day,” said Ellis.
- “What do you do during the day,” I said, “when you’re not hunting?”
- “What do I do?” Dale said. “I don’t do nothing.”
We took a dirt road off the dirt road. The truck wobble-wheeled over mud puddles and tree roots. Before long we came to a gate and Cullen hit the lights. We got out, retrieved our guns under a brittle overhead light. There was a layer of loose shotgun shells on the floor, which I grabbed by the handful and loaded into my Mossberg and cargo pockets.
The warmest gloves I owned were slick and made of neoprene. They’d touched the underside of sea urchins, but never the wooden stock of a 12-guage. Dale was wearing a pair of neoprene waders that came up to his chest. I recalled what he’d said earlier about wanting to hunt all day, but didn’t think to ask what specifically he liked about it. Was it the guns? The woods? The camaraderie? Those were my reasons, but perhaps it meant something different to him. Perhaps killing ducks made him feel accomplished in a way I couldn’t understand yet. Maybe I was looking for a way to feel accomplished too.
You have to wait till there’s an essence of light on the eastern horizon to begin hunting. When an essence came, the four of us walked down a sandy trail. The trees appeared scrawny and sharp in the slivering light. When we’d gone far enough, Cullen pointed out a good-enough spot and I crouched down between two young pines. We spread out along one side of the trail. The other side was marshy with open sky above it. One of the guys had a duck call. He quacked it. It’s hard to believe ducks still fall for this, but they do.
The first duck call was patented in 1870 by Elam Fisher of Detroit. A metal reed sandwiched between two curved pieces of wood, the call often cut the blower’s tongue and mouth.
I heard a fish flop in the water. Then I heard a gun go off to my right. One duck then another tore through the opening. I slung my barrel around after them and slammed it into the tree trunk. No one saw me thrashing around, but still, I felt a little foolish. I couldn’t believe how fast they were. These weren’t the type of ducks you tossed day-old pieces of bread to in the park. If they had been, I might have had a chance. When the next duck flew by I stood up and took my first shot, but missed. The kick nearly shook the gun from my gloves.
Fred Kimble of Knoxville, Illinois invented the choke-bore barrel in 1868, revolutionizing the shotgun, extending its firing range from twenty-five yards to forty-five. When Kimble was thirteen, his father bought him his first shotgun. Black powder and lead shot would have been poured down the barrel of this gun.
Ducks often feed off the bottom of wetlands. Unfortunately, this is where much lead shot collects. Lead poisoning in adults can cause headache, abdominal pain, memory loss, kidney failure, and reproductive problems. Lead shot was banned for hunting waterfowl in the US in 1991.
The last ducks we saw were flying in a tight V formation high overhead. A mayday call was sent up, but those ducks couldn’t have cared less. They kept flying, maybe to Toledo. It was almost light, which means the end of duck hunting. After five minutes, I heard crunching leaves so I came out from my makeshift blind. “Those ducks got off lucky today,” Cullen said. Then he threw his spent shells into the marsh.
That afternoon, Cullen and I drove out to Harlowe, in marsh country, to bring his friend a battery for his truck. The only store in Harlowe is Nadine’s Stop-and-Shop. Zach lived in a trailer at the end of a dirt road. There was a beer keg in the side yard, and a garbage pale out front. Beyond that, past the pancake-tired lawn mower, was a million-dollar view of the sound.
I walked down toward the sound to a pier. I walked to the end of the pier and found a fishing rod. I picked up the fishing rod and cast it out into the water. On the eighth cast I hooked a flounder. She was eight inches long and as wide as a football. I slid the hook out of her little flat head. She gasped a few times and I lowered her down into the water, where she swam beautifully.
Zach had the new battery in his big black pick-up. We grabbed the guns and walked down a path by the water’s edge to a frame structure camouflaged with grass. The blind was no bigger than a tree house. It had no roof. Zach took the decoys and waded out to waist deep, arranging them in a circle.
- “How do the ducks look?” Zach yelled out to Cullen.
- “Move that brown one over more,” Cullen said.
- “How’s that?”
- “They look like they’re having a party.”
- “Good,” Zach said, wading back. “Maybe they’ll have guests.”
As a child, one of my favorite cartoon characters was Daffy Duck. In an episode titled “A Coy Decoy,” Daffy Duck falls in love with a sexy wooden decoy, which lures him ashore to be ambushed by a wolf.
(klō áy sèe), n. Zoology. The cavity (in birds, reptiles, amphibians, and many fish) at the end of the digestive tract into which the intestinal, genital, and urinary tracts open.
Most birds mate by touching their cloacae together, in what’s known as a “cloacal kiss.” However, male ducks retained the grooved phallus of their reptilian ancestors, which, like the human phallus, can vary greatly in length and ornamentation.
Waterfowl are generally monogamous. Nevertheless, forced copulation by other males is not uncommon in the wild. The length of a duck’s penis is strongly correlated with how often he will rape another duck, according to a Yale study on duck genitalia.
Cullen and Zach took turns blowing the duck call, trying to seduce far-off ducks into attending our decoy party. Sometimes a group would circle around, and someone would whisper “this is it,” but they never came close enough to shoot.
Zach wanted to shoot a duck so his young Chesapeake could practice retrieving. Ellie’s dull straw coat was a slightly darker color than the blind. “She has a real soft mouth,” Zach told me, and she looked up, baring her front teeth in a dopey grin. I did not particularly want to shoot a duck. I was having a fun-enough time wearing camouflage and drinking beer and riding in trucks and toting guns. But there was a reason for this. Male bonding aside, I had to shoot a duck to get the full experience, to see what it was like. It would not be like fishing, I knew. You can’t throw a duck back once he’s shot.
We waited an hour before heading back to the trailer. We were talking by the trash can when a Wood Duck landed out past the end of the pier.
- “Well,” said Zach, “if you’re going to shoot a duck, here’s your chance.”
- “How should I approach him?” I said.
- “When he goes under water . . .”
. . . You can sneak up on a Wood Duck by running down the dock when he dives down for food. When he pops up, you’ll be near the end of the pier, waiting for him to take off. Your trigger finger will stiffen, and, in that split second, you’ll think this is it. But unlike previous ducks you‘ve heard about, this one will not fly away – he’ll show you his duck tail, like some bread-gorged duck at the park, and paddle away.
I hesitated, hoping he’d take off, but the duck just paddled out further.
After shooting Daffy Duck from the sky, Elmer Fudd looks down at what he thinks is a dead duck and apologizes. “Sorry I had to plug you, Mr. Duck. But I’m a sportsman – a great, great sportsman.”
I didn’t notice the kick of the gun so much as the water rise up around him. When it settled, the duck was half submerged, floating like a ruined toupee. Though it was over, I kept my barrel raised, lowering it only after hearing Ellie splashing into the water to retrieve it. As I stood at the end of the pier, looking out over the dog-paddled water, with my camouflage and my shotgun, I found myself wondering, with a rising sense of panic, if this made me a great sportsman, or simply a lone coward who shot a duck in the back.