Even with the certain knowledge that the cannons would fire, the blast from six of them going off simultaneously startled me. But only for a moment as the net, driven by small charges of black powder in each of the blasting devices, rose and dropped atop what seemed like hundreds of blue-winged teal.
Their tiny wings beat against the net momentarily, and then they seemed to know they would not be hurt, and settled down.
Memory doesn’t serve me as well as I wish. This event happened in the 1960s, probably in 1967 or 1968. My dad had become friends with the fellow who took care of a wildlife refuge near where we lived in North Dakota. I think he was essentially the game warden, the caretaker, the biologist, and did about anything else that needed doing.
Dad was helping out with some of the projects on the refuge, and one of them was banding ducks. I got lucky with an invite. The specifics of that day, more than 50 years in the rearview mirror, escape the memory of advancing years. In truth, the particulars aren’t important.
It goes along with all the encounters in a lifetime of waterfowl hunting that strafe the deck of memory around this time of year. It is a part of the composite of experiences that make the pursuit of ducks and geese special.
If you are a waterfowl hunter who also hunts all sorts of other game, you know what I mean. If someone asked one of us, “If you could only do one kind of hunting the rest of your life, what would it be?” our answer would be waterfowl.
Perhaps that sounds funny coming from a guy who worships the ground an English setter named Winchester hunts on. Make no mistake, I love following him into the mountain passes in pursuit of white-tailed ptarmigan, and if both of us could keep doing it, my answer might be, “Go to the mountains,” but probably not.
It’s a different kind of hunting, and the joys of it, at least for me, are watching Winchester and being in the wide-open alpine. Aside from transporting him to the right place, the “hunting” I do is mostly about keeping up with him. He points the birds and says, “You think you can hit one this time?” Maybe.
I wasn’t indoctrinated to ptarmigan hunting or any other upland hunting as much as I was to waterfowl as a young person. Not that we didn’t notice newly hatched broods of pheasants as we drove country roads in the spring, looking for ducks and geese, listening to the deafening sounds of 5,000 snow geese lifting off a feeding field for the midday siesta.
You spend enough time watching waterfowl, and you start to think like them. You get to know things, like Canada geese are lazy and won’t lift off a roost until well after sun-up. That is pure blasphemy to the waterfowler who expects to have some action right at or a bit before sunrise.
One morning we were watching a small cattail slough, maybe an acre in size with a bit of open water in the center, when two Canada geese swam out. They appeared enormous to me. My dad got excited and said, “You need to watch these geese. They may be the last two of their kind.”
They were Giant Canadas, and they were thought to be extinct for some time when a small pocket of them, I forget exactly when, was discovered and protected. Today, they are so prolific they are considered a nuisance in some areas.
Most of my dad’s friends were duck hunters and would often accompany us on these scouting missions. I learned about the commercial duck hunters on the East Coast and their role in the demise of waterfowl in America, to near extinction in some cases.
No one wanted to see that sort of behavior again, but these guys revered the old watermen who made their living on the salt-bitten bays and brackish water sloughs, shooting out of battery boxes set level with the sea.
Often wet and miserably cold, they certainly took their share. I don’t know of a waterfowler who wouldn’t like to go back to that time, along the Chesapeake Bay, and take a limit of bull canvasbacks, the king of the ducks.
The hunting of waterfowl is different from other hunting at nearly every level, and it is understandable why the number of waterfowl hunters is dropping. If you weren’t raised sitting in duck blinds in cold, driving rain, crawling hundreds of yards across stubble fields in the dark knowing respite would not come in any reasonable time, then it may not be appealing.
But that is only a small part of it. The hours spent scouting or helping out with surveys, building blinds, training retrievers and working overtime to buy extra duck stamps because you know how important they are, those things are also part of the deal.
OK, that might be a sneaky way to talk about Rigby yet again. But retrievers are as special as the hunting they thrive on. It is different than working with pointing dogs, which are a wonderful experience of refined beauty and elegance well worth the price of admission.
But the first time you see a Chessy or a Labrador fight through pounding surf, the salt water freezing on the rocks, to pick up the duck you shot, or break the ice to get to the wounded mallard already halfway across the lake, or plow into a Cook Inlet tide rising to plus 24-feet and dive under the muddy water to retrieve a widgeon that won’t give up, you fall in love with the dog. It epitomizes the life of a waterfowler and will forever share your couch, your bed, and your chair next to the fire.
And when you know all that and you have a pup — brand-new and full of curiosity and insecurity, with a love of water and natural retrieving instinct — that first time might just be as good as it gets.
So, off we go, a new pup and a new place to try, to give Rigby a tradition of his own.
By the time you read this, he’ll be a duck dog, and we’ll be even prouder of him than we already are. Which may make us insufferable, but we’ll take the chance.
Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and avid shooter who lives in Kenai.