Even though my son Alex is only 14, the State of Oregon is declaring him no longer a youth.
Just a few weeks ago, Alex and I participated in the last “youth hunt” for ducks that he will ever have. The opportunity to be the only person bearing a shotgun on a duck hunt is over now at age 14. From here on out, Alex will be carrying Rob Elam’s old Remington 870 20 gauge pump-action shotgun while in the company of men who will be carrying their big duck guns and who are quick to shoot at incoming birds.
Alex will turn 15 during this duck season – his last youth duck hunt behind him – and if he pursues it – he will be able to legally drive in early 2014. Alex also had to provide his social security number to get his hunting and fishing license this season, presumably so the state could ensure he is not behind on any child support. That is not a bad idea for someone a bit older – but for Alex it seems like the end of innocence.
I had been out to Sauvie Island to scout for birds, check the blinds and prepare decoys during the week before Alex’s hunt. And while I would not be carrying a gun or take a shot, I was able to enjoy a very nice set of simple pleasures that are a big part of any fishing or hunting trip – you have to like the preparation and the process because that might be all you get from a trip.
Think about it.
The car can break down full of your lovingly packed gear. The boat trailer tire can blow out and leave you stranded. You can be pulled over by the man for trailer lights that often are not working. The river can be blown out. The weather can get so nice that instead of digging into your blind bag for extra shells, all you are reaching for are sunglasses or sunscreen. Preparing for the hunt made me happy. Alex was excited but also dreading the loss of a weekend morning of sleeping in. I had neglected to get some tasty breakfast bribes to help with this and I could only reply “Oatmeal” when he asked what was on the menu. He got up though. I got up about a half-hour before rousing Alex to check the list, make some coffee and the promised oatmeal. We had packed about 95% of the gear the night before but I am always surprised how pesky the last 5% of gear on the list can be. It does not wrangle easily.
After the short drive we now know by heart, we wadered up and walked out to the small ponds. Posey, our lovely 5-year-old rescue shelter duck dog, was excited about her first youth hunt as well. Last year, our hunting mentor Joe Furia allowed us to take his steady Brittany, Trigger, who we love like family. Trigger and Alex were a good team.
We spent the summer before last training up Posey but had been uncertain about her progress enough so that we opted to hunt with Trigger. After a pretty remarkable mid-to-late duck season for Posey last year, we were excited about having her for this hunt. She is a smaller lab mix – small enough that a large owl we had heard at the beginning of our walk to the ponds swooped down upon her as she explored the field out in front of us twenty yards. Our cries of warning caught in our throats as the owl stopped it’s talon’s-down flight about 5 yards above our unaware dog and it hovered momentarily – reconsidering it’s prey – and then flew off. What a start to the morning!
We did not startle any ducks when we got to the blind and we got to work setting our spread and placing the spinning wing. A few moments finding ear and eye protection, selecting the first shells and checking the time – 17 minutes until shooting hour –and a comfortable and pleasing amount of time to cool down, calm down, visualizing how you hope the morning might unfold. Shooting hour came and passed. No birds were in the air. No other nearby shots. Perhaps there just are not many youth duck hunters – even in this duck paradise – out on a cloudy cool Sunday morning. We waited. Silently. Neither of us is very good with a duck call although Alex is far better than I. The old saying is “better to be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt” and we were sticking to that premise as we left our calls dangling from our lanyard. Alex likes to use the foam ear plugs to protect his ears from the shotgun’s report. He can barely hear a thing as a result. I only was wearing one in my ear nearest his gun. I like being to hear the call of birds or the rush of wings I have not seen. My 50-year old hearing has already suffered the assaults of power tools and loud music so my flawed logic is that I have less hearing to protect. With my open ear, I suddenly heard the splash of a bird that had landed midst our decoys. Alex had not heard a thing. I tapped his leg and held up one finger and pointed to the right. Before he could even turn to look, the lone duck burst off the water, disappearing before our eyes. Alex did hear that and so did Posey. We turned to look at each other and smiled. Simultaneously, we imagined that lone bird flying south, seeing our decoys and dropping right in on them. Alex and I laughed quietly as we imagined the bird splashing into the gang “Hey guys, what is up?” and then taking a closer look at its quiet new friends. “Oh fuck!” and then bursting straight up into the air and disappearing into the brightening morning dawn. Maybe that would be the only bird we would see this morning.
We did see several small groups of birds flying high and we chose not to try to lure them down as our friend Joe so consistently does. We had not practiced our calling enough to feel good about it. As happens so often, and so suddenly, two pairs of wood ducks flew past our spread, wheeled and landed – not a single call nor even a single spin of the spinning wing decoy had tempted them. Alex looked at me and held up two fingers. I held up four. I whispered that he should ready his gun, stand and take any shots that were present. As I took Posey’s collar to prevent her from crashing through the blind on the shot, Alex nodded, turned and stood. I heard the birds leap off the water and Alex’s two shots followed. Posey lunged and almost took me off my bench. “Two birds, Dad.” I stood and saw the birds in the water and left the blind with Posey who immediately launched herself into the pond far from where the birds lay but she soon had homed to one and eventually she retrieved both birds to the shore where we stood. As we collected ourselves three more ducks we had not seen flared away upon seeing all of us standing at the water’s edge. Had we been calm and collected, we might have seen them coming and had a chance at them. By then we were both a little shaken by how fast our quiet morning had turned into an action-packed hunt.
In fact, that would be it for us for the day. A few other birds flew by but none came within range. Talk turned to soccer, guns, dogs and fantasy duck blind design and construction. We gathered up our spread, packed our gear and walked back to the car.
On the way home, with the heat on high and some Grateful Dead space jam on KBOO, Alex napped.
My boy. 14 +. He can’t drive. He can’t vote. He cannot accept the credit card offers. He can’t be drafted. His dad still has to buy his hunting and fishing licenses. And on this wet and windy Sunday afternoon, he could snooze on the way home from his last duck as just a kid.