(Another in a series of boyhood remembrances by a resident of Point of Pines at Beech Creek.)
Like many southern boys, I was weaned into manhood through hunting. At an early age, young boys in our extended family were taken into the woods with fathers, uncles and male cousins for their first hunting experiences. For me, Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ farm was my introduction to the rituals.
After the feast and mandatory recovery period, the men and boys would gather up rifles, shotguns, and move into the hickory flats and hollers for an afternoon of squirrel hunting. The dogs led the way, noses to the ground, with an occasional trailing bark. The dogs' sudden change to yelps and bays signaled that a squirrel was treed. The leisurely walk in the woods suddenly changed to an exciting rush.
The experienced hunters would take up positions around the tree, scanning the limbs and trunk for movement, color, or a bushy tail. Once found, the scene crescendos with yells of instruction, howling dogs, and then a shot. The squirrel was recovered and pocketed for the final trophy count and future delicacies, maybe dumplings or maybe breaded and pan-fried.
THE BONDING events with men and brethren are woven deep into the fabric of a boy’s soul. Taking a gun in hand and moving into the wild is from then forward a source of excitement, anticipation, and joy that is more easily felt than described.
As late autumn approached, the boys of the cove felt these pangs of the hunt. By mid-boyhood, we were experienced with guns in the field. Our parents were confident that we understood gun safety, would use good judgment, and were following a natural path of development to manhood. However, our parents enforced strict rules. You could carry a shotgun unescorted at age 9, but you had to wait until you were 11 to carry a rifle
By early December, the waterfowl had arrived. Flocks of ducks, gaggles of geese, and rafts of coots were so common that they were a part of every scene on the lake.
Waterfowl hunting was new to the boys of the cove. We knew next to nothing about species or hunting techniques. Undeterred by our inexperience, we gathered our shotguns at dawn and went out to hunt these new game birds. We patrolled the shore stealthily, slipping along, guns at the ready.
OUR FIRST KILL was the lowly coot. The coots hid along the shore or under docks. When we were upon them, the sudden patter of feet on the water gave them away as they flushed. The coots ran, flapped, and created a wake behind them. Their slow progression to flight gave us time to shoulder arms, take aim, and fire. On our first morning out, we took six.
I remember bringing them home and laying them out on their backs heads up, feet down for the trophy count. We boys could never be prouder than we were after that morning’s hunt. My father was amazed at our success. He said, “What are they? Do you think we should get one mounted?” Mercifully, we didn’t wander into local taxidermist with our prize coot to mount.
Our appetite for waterfowling was whet by this experience. Soon we were in a store's sporting section studying "The Duck Hunter’s Bible." It was an inch and a half thick paper-back book, filled with action shots of hunters in blinds, boats, or jump shooting ponds. The pictures created enough excitement to make your heart beat fast, just thinking of the adventures to come. I learned that the greenhead mallard, the drake, was the prize trophy duck of the South.
SOON THE BOYS of the cove learned to scoff at coots and traveled further and further in search of the elusive greenhead. We quickly learned that stalk-hunting mallards was tough duty, but it was our only option, for we had no blind, or boat, or decoys, or calls. Only ambition remained. Whenever we saw mallards, they were sky high or would flush way before we could get into shotgun range. I knew that somehow, I had to level the playing field.
One morning before a hunt alone, I rummaged through my father’s ammo bag and found something that would give me more range and knockdown power: two 12 gauge paper hulled 3 inch 00 buckshot shells. I pocketed them and headed out the door into the pre-dawn cold and mist. I moved quickly down the shore to the secluded back of the cove. This was good duck country.
That morning was very misty and foggy with a visibility of less than 100 feet. I loaded the buckshot shells in my Remington 870 Wingmaster and crept along the shore as quietly as possible. At the far end of the back of the cove, I stopped and peered into the fog.
Across a small marshy inlet, a greenhead swam out of the fog. A female behind him gave a loud hail call as I raised my gun, aimed, and fired. Smoke and flame belched from my gun, and it kicked like a mule. It knocked me back several feet and broke my focus on the duck.
When I recovered and looked across the inlet, a still shadowy clump floated in the shallows. I squealed with delight. I had accomplished the near impossible. I had killed the trophy of trophy ducks, the greenhead mallard.
I walked into the knee-deep water and crossed over to the duck. I held him gently and respectfully, admiring his every color and feather. After a long while, I held him by his feet, shouldered my gun, and headed home.
What a commotion developed as I arrived with my greenhead! My father beamed with pride that I had taken the trophy. He pronounced that this was a worthy accomplishment and that the duck would be mounted.
The trophy was caringly cleaned, wrapped and frozen in preparation for the delivery to the taxidermist. My father searched the yellow pages, placed the call, and made an appointment to deliver the duck.
ONE DAY THE the phone rang at home. It was the taxidermist. He began to explain to my father that there was a serious problem with the duck. It was unusually damaged through the body and unmountable.
My father went into a rage. This taxidermist must be a crook. Maybe he was incompetent and had damaged the duck in preparation. Maybe he coveted the trophy for himself or intended to sell it to another hunter for a high price.
Not mounting the duck was not an option! The war of words raged. No explanation was acceptable to my father. He declared, “My son’s first greenhead mallard will be mounted!”
“OK, “ was the final answer from the other end of the phone. "I’ll do my best.”
My father smugly returned to his easy chair as the victor of the debate. I laid low.
A couple of months later, the taxidermist called again and said, “Your duck is ready.” My father and I loaded in the car and with great anticipation, headed for the taxidermist shop.
As we walked in the door, my eyes were filled with wonder. Behind the counter on a long wall were lines of beautifully displayed trophies.
THERE WERE greenhead and hen mallards, canvasbacks, black ducks, American widgeons, teal, and Canada geese. It was a treasure trove and a feast for the eyes. I looked at the biggest most beautiful greenhead on the wall, pointed, and asked, “Is this one mine?”
“No, son,” said the taxidermist with a sheepish grin. “As I told your father, we had a little problem with your duck. That one is yours.”
He pointed his finger to the corner of the room in an out-of-the-way area. There, to my astonishment, was the first shoulder-mounted duck I had ever seen.
As I stared slack-jawed in amazement, my father and the taxidermist joined battle again.
After a few minutes of pointless red-faced arguing, we left the store. The shoulder-mounted duck was handed to me for the ride home. While my father was in total disgust, I started to cherish the odd mount and held it dearly all the way home.
Now I am a more experienced waterfowler with many fine trophies on the wall. But that shoulder mounted greenhead is still with me. It reminds me of old memories of that cold, misty morning in the cove when I took my first and most prized trophy duck.