I am not a good duck hunter, but I don’t let that stop me from duck hunting. The only sound I can make through a duck call is a single, mediocre-sounding “quack” and I miss many more ducks than I hit.
My headlamp dangles around my neck; there is enough moonlight that I don’t need it as I walk across a marsh near Machias, my hometown, toward the coast. I love hunting Down East. The coasts are sparsely developed and the ducks are not pressured by other hunters. Though it’s a frigid 15 degrees I’m starting to sweat. I slow my walking. I’m wearing bulky neoprene waders, carrying a layout blind on my back, a backpack backwards on my chest, and my Benelli shotgun slung over my shoulder. In my arms I carry a small blind for my dog, Argos. I don’t want to sweat in these temperatures because once I stop moving, my sweat will chill me.
I reach the spot I want to hunt in the small tidal cove and survey the water. A trickle of fast moving water cuts through the middle of the cove. I look at my watch. One hour until legal hunting, 1½ hours until sunrise. It’s an incoming tide and will soon hold enough water to appeal to ducks. Perfect. Outside the cove, the open ocean is calm. A slight breeze from the north annoyingly blows my hair across my face. I plop everything I was carrying down onto the marsh and dig a few black duck decoys out of my backpack. I slop through the mud in the cove and toss decoys in the mud. In an hour they will be floating in water.
I quickly lock the pieces of my blind together and set up Argos’s blind as well and angle them toward the decoys. Then I gather handfuls of marsh grass and tuck them into the sides of our blinds to help camouflage us. I continue brushing in our blinds until I hear quacks and look up to see a group of ducks flying low overhead. I check my watch — 15 minutes until legal. Unlike geese, which “sleep in,” ducks are up and flying early, often before legal hunting time. Legal hunting time for the entire state is half an hour before sunrise in Bangor, and I am much farther east; the sun rises earlier here and the ducks fly earlier here.
I give Argos the command, “kennel” and he begrudgingly enters his blind. Argos is a Brittany, a pointing breed, and does not retrieve by instinct, but his instinct to freeze and be quiet around live birds is an excellent trait for waterfowl hunting.
I lie down in my layout blind and fold the doors down above me. I pull on my facemask and lay with my 12 gauge down on my lap, pointing toward the decoys. I wrestle with impatience and boredom and am tempted to reach for my phone to text and scroll and click. My normal days are full of hustle, bustle and to-do lists but while hunting, I must remain present, in the moment, ready for anything. The sky turns shades of watermelon and lavender. I realize with shame that I would never watch the sunrise if I didn’t hunt.
A pair of black ducks land in the decoys and I check my watch. Seven minutes until legal. They fly off, with a few quacks, made nervous by the unmoving decoys.
It’s finally legal and I load my Benelli. My eyes scan the horizon with my finger on the safety in case a duck comes into shotgun range. I begin to appreciate this quiet moment, reconnecting with nature.
For a brief time, I partake in what humans have done for millennia; I become a player in this wild world.
I sit up, which pushes the doors of my blind open, and fire my gun.
“Fetch!” I tell Argos, and he leaps into the frigid sea toward a downed drake bufflehead.