Outdoors/Adventure

An ode to the duck opener, and to the hunters and jesters over the years who have made them memorable

Rigby happy to be gainfully employed again

Cook Inlet mud, swamp gas, brush hauling, rotten fish carcasses, and the aroma of wet retriever dominating your sense of smell. The dreaded standing in line at the post office for your duck stamp, and the satisfaction, practically a sigh of relief, when you find out they have them.

The announcement that the annual brood survey, a document as important to waterfowlers as the Farmer’s Almanac is to farmers, has been published.

These unmistakable signs lead up to the opener of waterfowl season across most of Alaska on Sept. 1. Sorry for you hunters in Southeast — where the season opens Sept. 16 — and on the Aleutian Chain and Kodiak Island, who must wait until Oct. 8.

Opening day carries some significance for most folks who hunt. Maybe the anticipation is similar for opening day of moose or sheep season or the upland hunting opener. Whatever it is, it’s a wonderful feeling, that anticipation and all the preseason rituals that occupy those of us bent that direction in a profound way.

These obsessions over the years have allowed many of us to miss the obligatory events, a wedding, or funeral for a distant relative or not-so-close acquaintance, a dance recital, or a homecoming game. It varies, perhaps depending on upbringing and how important hunting was to the people who brought you along.

Having been a part of hundreds of opening days, I gotta say that no group I’ve ever been around loves and anticipates the opener more than duck hunters.

My dad set the stage for how important it was before I started carrying a shotgun. One year he broke his ankle in a farm accident. Medical folks, to his objection, put it in one of those awful plaster casts a couple of days before duck season opened. I came home from school and found him sitting in his gun room, sawing the thing off with a hacksaw.

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Missing school for the waterfowl and the deer opener was an accepted part of the rural culture I grew up in. A pity that it seems not the case so much anymore.

Christine Cunningham and Rigby with the first duck of the 2022 season

These are the things I’ve been telling Rigby while I haul brush out to our duck blind, and he plays in the mud, chases snipe and tries to fetch seals when their heads pop up in the river. He doesn’t seem to understand how important the rituals of hunting are, at least not so much so that he’ll refrain from rolling in the mud while I educate him.

He’s fairly ungrateful, truth be told. Nevertheless, I pressed on. One opener, I was 11, and my dad and two of his buddies made up the hunting party. A favorite spot had two cattail sloughs separated by a wheat stubble field. Ducks would fly back and forth, and one would have to be a duck to understand why.

Dad and Eddie went to one slough, and Terry, his other buddy, and I would go to the other. Among us, there was one dog, Dad’s. But the sloughs were small and generally, one could retrieve dead ducks with chest waders, which Terry wore.

To this day, I don’t know if it was my shot that hit the bull pintail first thing when we were situated on the slough. At the time, I wasn’t well versed enough in calling my shots to be certain that my shot had dropped the duck in the slough. Terry said it was my shot and made a big deal out of it, pintails being my favorite duck.

He got about half the distance between the shore and the dead duck when the slough became too deep to go farther. When Terry returned, he said that all we could do was wait for the dog at the end of the morning, but, he added, when he was young like me, he would swim out and get his ducks.

When you are 11 years old and trying to be a part of a world that you would rather die than not be a part of, you’ll do all sorts of what one might call marginal things to impress your betters.

I stripped down to long johns and started walking out to the duck, the Red River Valley mud sucking at my ankles like quicksand. I swam the last 10 or so yards, grabbed the duck with shivering hands, and started back.

“No,” Terry hollered, “Retrievers use their mouth.”

Betty, a black Labrador retriever who lost a leg last year

Terry was a character, quick with a joke, relentless in fabricating wonderful stories, and a terrific fellow for a young person to hang with. I knew he was messing with me, but by then, I had learned to bite through a wounded duck’s skull to dispatch them quickly and efficiently.

I dropped the pintail, grabbed it by the neck with my teeth, and swam back. The look on Terry’s face, and his retelling of that story to anyone in earshot forever sealed my place in duck hunting lore. Pretty cool for a ratty little kid.

“What do you think about that,” I asked Rigby, as he attempted to escape the wrath of a young seagull that wasn’t yet able to fly away. He barked once, to what meaning I have no idea.

Another buddy of my dad’s who didn’t hunt with us as much as the others, would dress in a nice wool suit coat on opening day, complete with vest, a necktie, tweed pants and rubber boots.

The other guys would kid him about it, but he never got angry. I asked him why and he told me he thought it was good to pay some homage to the waterfowlers who came before us. The one I remember him naming, Nash Buckingham, perhaps the most famous of all the gentlemen duck hunters from the early 1900s.

The history of waterfowling, including the market-hunting gunners who supplied East Coast restaurants with fine table fare, is rich in culture and tradition. While it is impossible to do much more than scratch the surface in a brief article, every hunter is a part of a long history, and the pleasant misery of duck hunting lends itself to storytelling.

Losing interest in the seagull, Rigby looked at me and said with his shining gold eyes, “Now get me a cheeseburger.”

Steve Meyer | Alaska outdoors

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting.

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