Lynn Burkhead — Even in a frigid duck blind, the Light of Christmas dawns
(Editor’s Note: As he has done for many years now, longtime Herald Democrat outdoors writer Lynn Burkhead continues his yearly tradition in 2021 of penning a fictitious outdoors story as a gift to readers. And with unusually warm weather gripping the region this year, he dreams of a hunt straight out of Bing Crosby’s Christmas carol about a White Christmas.)
As he gently tossed the last mallard decoy into the icy water, Jed Sullivan didn’t have much hope for duck hunting success on the morning of Christmas Eve.
Even so, he smiled and recalled the words of a famous outdoors writer, Gordon MacQuarrie, when he penned a long ago essay that pitied the duck hunter who went for ducks alone, and somehow failed to see the magic of a winter morning spent in the blind.
“Long live the bleak bitterness of such a morning,” Mac had written. “Long live the memory of that churlish dawn.”
Indeed, Jed thought, as he stepped from icy water and made his way towards the duck blind where his dad Raymond sat waiting with Liberty, a new yellow Lab addition to the family earlier in the year.
As moisture froze on his new Sitka Gear waders, Jed climbed into the Lakeside Condo, a steel mesh duck blind contraption constructed by the local FFA chapter in the nearby Montague County town of Nocona. Brushed in with cedar branches and limbs from a couple of fallen oak and pecan trees down in the bottom, the blind was only a year old and offered the chance to get out of the wind, lean back, and hide from the prying eyes of any ducks that might be circling the 20-acre water body situated less than a quarter mile from the Red River.
“Dad, got to admit that this feels like an exercise in futility,” Jed said in the half-whisper of early morning duck blinds. “If it weren’t for the tradition of this Dec. 24th hunt, I’ve got to admit, I was pretty tempted to sleep in today.”
Raymond burrowed into his old duck hunting coat — an ancient Remington brand parka that he bought years ago in the sporting goods department of Barrett’s Cut-Rate Drugs on a business trip to Denison in nearby Grayson County — and nodded in agreement.
The reason for pessimism on this late December duck hunt was the weather. One of the worst sieges of arctic conditions that the Red River Valley had seen in years had gripped Montague County and its surrounding environs for more than a week now. Overcast skies, a burst of snow on occasion, and daily temperatures hovering in the teens and 20s had left most small water bodies in the region covered with a thickening sheet of ice.
“You’re right son, if it weren’t for that icy old Red flowing a short distance from here, and the need for ducks to get up and stretch their wings and feed, we might not see much at all,” said Raymond. “But you can’t shoot a greenhead if you’re in bed dreaming of sugar plums, now can you?”
As the begrudging light of that bleak dawn slowly grew, Jed surveyed the landscape. There was several inches of crusty snow, ice in the local scrub oaks and mesquites, and the small lake — Lake Bill, named after Raymond’s father and Jed’s grandfather, who bought the place years ago — held only a few tiny pockets of dark, open water, thanks to the efforts of an axe and cattle that needed to drink.
As the sun gradually gave way to the turning of the sphere, shooting time arrived as Jed felt his new iPhone buzz in the parka’s pocket. With the law coming off the new day, he pulled his gloves off, blew some warmth into chilled digits, and started inserting a couple of shells into the old 16-gauge Fox Sterlingworth side-by-side he had received last Christmas. The gun had been given to Jed by his aging Uncle Floyd — now 101 years old in a West Texas assisted living facility and a survivor of both the 1918 flu pandemic and the current COVID-19 crisis — to keep and enjoy.
As Jed fingered the last low-pressure non-toxic shotshell load and slid it into the gun’s remaining open tube, he closed the action on the century old wingshooting piece and heard a faint oily click. Despite it’s age, a local gunsmith had pronounced the gun fit for service and had tightened up a few things. Since then, the side-by-side had found use on a few quail hunts last winter, an FFA sporting clays fundraiser last spring, and some September dove hunting action.
But this was its first duck hunt since Jed had been using time off from his football coaching duties to climb up into a tripod stand clutching his Mathews bow. The target buck he was after was run over during the November rut, but a previously unknown 11-pointer showed up and made for a nice Pope and Young Club record book consolation prize, as well as a freezer filled with venison for the months ahead.
Raymond reached into his own parka and drew out some Bismuth #4 non-toxic loads for his aging Browning Superposed over-and-under. As he closed the stack-barrel with its own oily click — the Sullivans were well known for babying their shotguns — he heard the whistle of wings overhead on the moaning north wind.
“Shhh!” he motioned at Jed, who was trying to situate the neoprene dog parka on his Lab. “Overhead, a flock of two greenheads and a Susie!”
Jed fumbled for his Rich-n-Tone cocobolo Original, a long ago Christmas present from his late grandfather, and Raymond reached for the Yentzen One-2 double-reed he had grown to depend on in recent years. With one call from Stuttgart, Arkansas and the RNT shop of Butch Rickenback and the other from Groves, Texas and the Sure-Shot Game Calls company started by Jim “Cowboy” Fernandez, the father-and-son team pushed air across the plastic duck call reeds and brought to life some soft quacks and feeding chuckles.
It must have worked, because Liberty was soon plowing into the slushy water and fetching a pair of greenheads that were floating with their red legs kicking. Soon, the dog was back in the blind, entombed in ice as Jed wrapped an old wool blanket around her shivering form.
“It’s pretty amazing what Labs will do for us, isn’t it Dad?” queried Jed as he scratched the retriever’s head. “I had to really do some sweet talking to Ashley earlier in the year to get Liberty in the family. She thought one aging Lab and a bird dog was enough, but her heart melted when she saw that pile of squiggling puppies.”
Raymond was about to answer when the whisper of wings overhead cut his efforts short. This time, it was a flock of 10 gadwalls — gray ducks, as many hunters in the region called them — that circled twice, set their wings hard, and glided in towards the three dozen Avian-X blocks bobbing on the rippled surface.
A few moments later, after a particularly good session of wingshooting by the 30-something son and the 60-something father, Liberty had more work to do as four ducks bobbed on the water.
“Pretty good shooting son, if I do say so myself,” smiled Raymond. “It’s kind of tough to wear all of these heavy clothes and push that barrel in front of a retreating puddle duck, but that wasn’t too bad for a chilly morning like this one.”
Jed laughed, looked at his phone — whose battery was quickly dwindling in the intense cold — and replied: “Chilly morning, Pops? I’d say it’s a morning straight out of the North Pole. The weather app says it’s 7 degrees in town!”
Raymond nodded, unscrewed the top off of his YETI Rambler thermos bottle, and poured some hot coffee that steamed heavily in the slight breeze straight out of Canada.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he said. “I bet Ashley, the kids, and your momma don’t get out of bed too early this morning. But I’d also bet that there will be a St. Nick approved big breakfast when we get back to the house. I could sure use some hot flapjacks, some scrambled eggs, some bacon, and maybe even some biscuits and gravy. How about you?”
Before Jed could answer, more wings whispered over the spread and in a few moments, a pintail drake was being fetched to hand by Liberty.
“Wow, wonder what kept him off the coast,” said Jed as he smoothed the bull sprig’s feathers and looked at an especially long tail feather. “Usually, these guys are long gone from here by the time it gets cold. But who’s complaining?”
Little by little, the morning hunt went along steadily as ducks would appear — and once, even a pair of big Canada geese — from the direction of the Red River. With most water locked up tight in the area, there wasn’t much need to call convincingly at local traffic ducks. They wanted in, and it showed.
By mid-morning, the bag slowly increased and there was pile of waterfowl — a couple of greenheads, several gadwalls, the pintail drake, a wigeon, a couple of green-winged teal, and the two Canada geese — with their feathers all smoothed out and laying on a snow covered log.
“That’s quite the haul,” said Raymond, as he finished counting up the stiff birds soon headed for the picking shed. “Hard to believe, but we’re one bird shy of our limit.
“I really wasn’t sure what to expect this morning with all of the ice and this intense cold. Kind of figured that most birds had headed for the tropics. As I recall, it’s the first time that I’ve had to put the truck in four-wheel low when there wasn’t any mud around. But even on a dark, cold morning like this, you just never know unless you go, now do you?
Jed pounded his mittened hands to create some warmth, and was about to respond when the pair of Sullivan hunters heard the sound of silk tearing on the wind. Before they could even reach for the calls, a canvasback drake and his female companion were sailing into the decoys low, hard, and fast.
As the final shotgun report of the morning faded away, muffled on the wind, Liberty was soon whining and swimming her way towards the big bull can, belly up no less, and not moving a single feather with its invite to the dinner table now complete.
When the dog got back into the blind — and shook muddy frigid water from her coa t— Jed took the trophy duck, turned it over, and caught his breath.
“Hey dad! Look, it’s another Jack Miner band, just like that one from a few years ago,” he exclaimed.
Raymond took the bird, fingered the cold piece of aluminum draped around it’s webbed foot, and took a look at the band produced by the Jack Miner Foundation in Kingsville, Ontario. In place since the early 1900s, the foundation continues to band birds to this day, with an accompanying Bible verse stamped into the aluminum.
“What’s the verse on the band?” queried Jed.
“It’s one from 2019, a verse from the Gospel of John,” said Raymond. “’I am the Light of the world,’ from John 8:12.”
As the father and son sat silently and reflected on a cold and steady hunt when everything went right — for once — neither said anything for several minutes.
Finally, as a few snowflakes began to fall and dust the top of Raymond’s old Stormy Kromer wool cap, the misty eyed dad spoke up.
“You know what Jed?” said the father to his son. “I’d say that’s just about as good a hunt as we’ve ever experienced together. I used to worry about what would happen to our hunting time as you got older, got married, had a family, and settled down in the world.
“We sure don’t get to hunt together like we did when you were a kid, but I wouldn’t trade anything for these mornings. You’re a mighty fine duck blind companion. And I’ll remember this day for years and years to come.”
Jed smiled, scratched Liberty’s icy head, and said: “You bet Pops; this was a morning for the books. We got a mixed bag limit, there’s a white Christmas coming for the kids, and something tells me there’s a good meal or two ahead of us over the weekend. And that band? That’s the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae if you ask me. Pretty appropriate verse for Christmas Eve morning, don’t you think?”
Raymond smiled, nodded, and said: “Yes sir. Now what do you say we knock the ice off those blocks, bag ‘em up, and head for the house. I think I can almost smell your momma’s cooking from here.”
And with that, Liberty shook her coat one more time, almost as if to add her own nod of agreement on a Christmas Eve duck hunt that proved to be memorable, in more ways than one.