My wife and I watched the big ball on Time Square drop at midnight with a group of friends. She saw me glance out the window at the hard blowing north wind.
When I turned back to the party, she simply said, “Are you going?”
I smiled. “Of course. The forecast is for rain turning to sleet and ice by daylight. You know the only thing cold is good for is duck hunting and snuggling.”
“I’ll put the coffee on.”
“Thanks, I knew you would understand.”
A few minutes later, I called Ronnie Kirkwood, "Are you still up?"
"Of course. Isn't this perfect weather?"
"I'll pick you up at four-thirty. See if your brother wants to come along if he's not too drunk."
Duck hunting is a masochistic sport undertaken by the hardy or foolish in the most miserable of winter conditions. If the north wind is not blowing at twenty miles an hour, the temperature hovering around freezing, and rain turning to sleet, ducks won’t fly much, and crazy duck hunters will not crawl through mud an hour before sunrise telling themselves they are having fun, damn it.
An hour later, I had packed my camouflaged Remington 870 long barrel three-inch magnum shotgun, boxes of No. 4 magnum shells, a duck call, dog whistle, flashlight, and two dozen teal and mallard decoys into camo bags. I prepared for the cold by laying out extra insulated clothes, a heavy waterproof jacket, and waders.
Brewster, my brown and white English Springer Spaniel, watched me anxiously, whining for fun to start. Springers were perfect hunting dogs oblivious to miserable weather. When I finished gathering gear, he lay down on my shotgun to prevent me from leaving without him.
"Don't worry, old pal. I wouldn't dream of going without you." He raised his head, panting with excitement. “Let’s try to get a little bit of sleep.”
I tossed and turned, waiting for the 3:30 alarm. I climbed out of bed to find Brewster curled up in front of the door to prevent me from escaping. After a quick breakfast, I loaded up my station wagon and drove to Ronnie’s house through gusty wind and rain. When I pulled into the dark driveway, I saw frosty breath from Ronnie and Steve waiting in the garage.
I got out, and Ronnie asked, “Are you ready to slay some ducks?”
“You betcha. We’ll limit out today. This is perfect weather, twenty-eight degrees and falling. Climb on in guys.”
We filled up the back of my station wagon with gear and drove north to Kyle with the heater on high. Brewster was in his cage, whining with anticipation. The further north we went, the more the temperature dropped, rain turning to sleet, then ice.
I had the perfect ten-acre duck lake in Kyle, Texas, just thirty miles south of Austin on my family ranch. By the time we arrived, the wipers were losing the battle to keep ice off the windshield. When we stopped to unlock the gate in the car’s headlights, I let Brewster out to run the last mile and wear off some energy. Even though the road was gravel, my car slipped through icy water as I carefully drove through white darkness to the back of the duck lake’s dam.
I said, "Here we go, guys. Let’s get geared up.” We opened the doors and were met by a blast of wickedly freezing wind and snow.
Ronnie shivered, “I don’t think this wind has slowed down since it left Canada. There’s nothing but telephone poles and barbed wire between here and there.”
“Jesus, I hear you,” Steve replied.
I laughed, “Let’s go, you wimps.”
We laboriously turned on electric socks, climbed into waders, buttoned jackets, loaded shells into coat pockets, put on face masks, and donned two sets of gloves. Bogged down with enough clothes to be an astronaut, I couldn’t swing the large bundle of decoys onto my back.
“Steve, help me out. Hold up these decoys while I get into the shoulder straps.”
After Steve helped Ronnie and me with our decoy bags, we carefully picked up our shotguns, turned on our flashlights, and walked into darkness.
“Brewster, heel up,” I ordered. I didn’t want him to run over the dam and scare away any ducks on the lake. He obediently fell in behind me.
With a top-heavy backpack of decoys, I felt like an arctic explorer. I took slow, careful steps on slippery ground. I knew if I fell down, I would need help getting back up and would be harassed by my buddies. We climbed to the top of a forty-foot high, east-to-west dam. I barely saw the reflection of water through blinding snow and wind. We walked down the front of the dam in knee-high, brown grass lightly crusted with snow. The dam blocked the fierce north wind, making for smooth water at the lake’s edge.
My flashlight picked up the duck blind ten feet from the water. This was my one of a kind, first-class, duck blind like no others. Ronnie and I had sunk a ten-foot diameter aluminum corn silo into a pit next to the lake, leaving only the top two feet above the ground. We camouflaged the silo with paint, surrounded it with brush, and put in a wood floor to keep us above water and mud. A section of the silo’s top was hinged so we could raise the lid to jump up and shoot. A bench and small shelf ran along the inside front wall to hold shells, coffee, and duck calls. Behind the bench were additional decoys and a propane heater for mornings like this. After we unloaded our gear, we walked to the lake.
Steve exclaimed, “You won’t believe this. The lake’s frozen!” Sure enough, a quarter-inch of ice covered the water.
"Not to worry, guys, Brewster will take care of that."
I threw a stick out onto the ice and commanded, “Fetch.” He charged out, breaking a path through the ice. With his tail wagging, he brought back the stick and dropped it at my feet to play his game again. After three more trips, he had created a twenty-foot hole in the ice.
"This is just what we want guys," I said through chattering teeth. "This is the only wind-protected open water for miles. The ducks will be swarming to get in here soon. Let's hurry up and get the dekes out before sunrise."
With heavy gloves on, we clumsily unwrapped weights and lines from the decoys. Brewster anxiously watched as we threw them out to the hole in the water.
When one of the decoys landed upside down, "Fetch," was all I had to say. Off Brewster dashed through the icy water to retrieve the upside-down decoy, leaving the others alone.
"Good boy." The years I spent training him sure paid off. He sat down, shivering as ice forming in his fur already. He loved this game, watching to make sure the rest of our decoys landed right side up.
We threw out the remaining decoys in a strategic J pattern that invited ducks to land in open water fifteen yards from our blind. The first glimpses of light slipped through purple, angry clouds. I had located the blind so that sunrise was to our backs, making it difficult for the ducks to see us. We trudged back to the blind and hid under the roof to stay dry. By now, ice covered Brewster. He ran in circles, dug holes to keep warm, and then ran around again while he waited for ducks.
I called, “Come back here.”
He pushed through the small, hinged door on the side of the blind and slipped in. He shook violently, sending ice and mud flying all over us, then laid down close to the gas heater.
Looking over dark water, I saw fleeting shadows of teal slip through the cold gray dawn, but they disappeared before we could raise our guns. With no wind behind the dam, dancing snowflakes built up lightly on the tall weeds, not yet heavy enough to crush them down. A few more minutes made it shooting time as grey sky replaced darkness.
Ronnie whispered excitedly, “Six widgeons at ten o’clock.”
Steve replied, “Wait until they land.”
A formation of birds swooped down over us, rose for one more inspection circle, and dropped down to land against the wind. They splashed down at twenty-five yards, outside the open water that Brewster cleared. When the white and green headed widgeons dropped their legs to land, they hit the slick ice and tumbled onto their backs, spinning like hockey pucks. We laughed so hard, we decided not to shoot them. The widgeons got to their feet, looked around sheepishly, shook all over, straightened out their feathers, then flew away to find a better lake.
A few minutes later, Steve whispered, "I got a flock of mallards at nine o'clock. Keep your heads down."
Perfect. I shot best with duck flying left to right. With anticipation, I pushed the safety off my shotgun and turned my face down. I resisted the urge to look up, which would scare the birds like a big red flag. We watched out of the corner of our eyes until they set their wings at twenty yards to land in the open water.
I hissed, “Now!”
We jumped up and fired, catching the mallards six inches above the water with wings open and bellies exposed. I tumbled the lead duck with a single shot while Ronnie and Steve each took a bird. Brewster dashed through the door, hitting the water in two leaps. Dead ducks still rocked in the water as he swam past the decoys to grab a mallard. He came back, tail wagging and barking excitedly with a large duck in his mouth.
“Good boy.” He dropped the duck at my feet and eagerly plunged back into the lake to retrieve more birds. By the time Brewster made two more trips, ice balls looked like white cockle burrs in his thick, brown hair. When he dropped the last bird, he shivered with cold but looked up at us with his tail wagging expectantly.
His eager eyes said, “Hurry up and shoot more ducks, Dad. I’m ready.”
Despite all my insulated clothes, the cold was brutal. Just looking at my dog made it worse. Ice formed on the outside of my facemask where my breath came through. Snow covered my hat.
Ronnie laughed, “You look like Frosty the snowman.”
“I feel like Frosty’s snowballs.” My numb fingers could barely handle the shotgun, much less push the safety and pull the trigger.
“You’re a wimp,” kidded Steve.
“And a damned cold wimp at that. I lost feeling in my toes thirty minutes ago. How about you?”
Steve jabbed, “What toes? I thought they already fell off. Can't you turn that heater up anymore?"
“It is supposed to heat a small room, not the great outdoors,” I replied with a shaking voice.
Fifteen minutes later, a flock of twelve bluebills circled overhead. I blew my duck call, coaxing them closer.
“Let them land,” I whispered. “See how close we can get them to the blind.”
The small black ducks made one more pass, then landed in a tight group in an open space between decoys. I raised my shotgun and fired into the middle of the flock. Only three of the bluebills rose off the water. My buddies dispatched those three while I shot at wounded birds trying to swim away.
Brewster bounded out the door to the chaos of six of the twelve birds flopped among the decoys. Brewster plunged into the water, retrieving live ducks first. We shot wounded birds so they wouldn’t escape under the ice.
Brewster dove into the water, repeatedly retrieving ducks for the next fifteen minutes. He shook and whined with cold, but wouldn’t stop. A couple of decoy lines became entangled around Brewster and slowed him down as he swam ashore. After I cleared the lines, he turned around and jumped back into the water.
“Good boy. Fetch the next one.” It was better that he waded through the ice than me.
My fabulous Brewster retrieved duck after duck through the ice and frigid water. When a wounded duck attempted to escape across the ice, he chased it by crashing through the thin ice with his large feet. We cheered when my dog caught the bird. With his soft mouth, the bird was still alive after he brought it back. I sent him out again for the last live duck. When it dove under the water, Brewster swam in circles for five minutes, but the duck never came back up. I had heard that ducks will dive to the bottom and hold onto the grass to drown themselves rather than be caught. Now I believed it.
I called Brewster, “Come back here. Let’s get warmed up.” Back to the blind we went, three shivering guys and one shaking dog huddled around the heater.
After warming up a little, I said, “I’ve had enough fun guys. Let’s pack it up.”
I sent Brewster out to retrieve decoys this time.
He looked at me with 'No ducks, Dad' on his ice-covered face.
I threw a rock at the decoys and ordered, “Fetch.” Brewster reluctantly swam out to brought back a decoy.
“Good boy. Now go get the rest of them. The water’s too deep for us.”
He barked, then went back out for the other twenty-three decoys, one at a time. Despite being waterlogged, covered with ice, and whining with misery, he went back time after time until he retrieved all the decoys.
By then, we to were soaked from wet ducks and decoys. We shouldered our birds and waterlogged gear to trudge back in slow motion through snow and ice to find Brewster waiting for us. He wanted to get into a warm car.
As we slowly drove back through mud and slippery roads, Ronnie said, “Gordon, That dog of yours is unbelievable. No way we could’ve hunted without him.”
I smiled, “That’s the best duck hunting dog I ever had. Wanna come back tomorrow?”
They rolled their eyes, hesitated, and then said, “Count us in.”