The Ghosts of the Old Duck Hunters

I was working at my desk this morning, but I couldn’t help but stare out the window.  Tomorrow is the opening day of duck hunting in Wisconsin, a day that has been referred to as a “high holy day” by some in my family.  The temperature was in the 50’s and the sky was overcast with consistent rain.  Dad would’ve called me three times before 10:30 AM today.

Call #1 would’ve reminded me that today is perfect duck hunting weather.  As if I wasn’t already aware.  He would’ve said something about the direction of the wind and how that would’ve either aided or prevented the ducks from coming in from the bay.  I could never keep it straight, to be honest.  I’d never given it that much thought.  I just go to the same hunting spot with my buddy Hoot and do the same thing every year regardless of the weather and I like it that way.  Dad might have always gone to the same spots too, but he at least knew when he got there if he’d see ducks based on the wind direction.

Call #2 would’ve come within five minutes of call #1 and it would’ve had something to do with how it drives him crazy that he can’t get out and hunt like he used to.  His brain aneurysm in 2005 definitely had a negative effect on his reflexes and that was a damn shame.  I’m not just saying this because he’s gone now, I’m not doing the “my dad is better than your dad” thing, and I’m not exaggerating to make him sound like he was greater than he actually was.  It’s a fact: He’s was the best shotgun shooter I’ve ever seen.  There isn’t a close second.  Ask anyone who hunted with him.  They will agree.  The only thing greater than his shooting ability was his confidence (arrogance?) when it came to said ability.  On one occasion he shot at a bird and my brother-in-law, Brett, asked if he hit it.  Dad responded, “I shot, didn’t I?”

The last time I went goose hunting in Horicon Marsh with dad we traveled with a group of six hunters.  It was a bad day…at least as bad as a day hunting at Horicon can be.  The geese weren’t coming anywhere near us, but one person dropped a bird.  Of course it was dad with his reliable Benelli 20 gauge shotgun.  He mocked the rest of us with our 12 gauges for years after that.  I can still hear his voice…”That 12 gauge cannon you carry around is too slow and heavy.  My 20 is lighter and faster.  I don’t need the extra shot.  It’s not worth it.”

The last time I went duck hunting with dad was an opening day in the early-2000’s.  I’m guessing somewhere in the 2003-2005 range.  We walked out on Longtail along the west shore of Green Bay with Brett and Hoot.  We claimed an available spot somewhere several hundred yards from where we parked, which is not an easy accomplishment with so many hunters arriving hours before the opening fighting for territory along that shore.  When the season opens it sounds like a military invasion on Longtail for the first few hours.  Amidst the chaos a lone teal came screaming west toward the shore from the bay like a fighter jet.  It would be impossible for me to exaggerate how high and fast this bird was, so I’ll say he was at least 500 feet in the air and moving about 600 miles per hour.  This duck was propelled by rocket fuel.  Hoot, Brett, and I didn’t even bother raising our shotguns.  Dad, on the other hand, quietly pointed his 20 gauge toward the sky and with one shot dropped that poor teal.  As the bird made what felt like a 30-second descent to the ground Brett just yelled, “What the fuck, Jim?”  I can’t think of a more appropriate response.  If I hadn’t seen it, I would’ve never believed it.  That bird was so high and fast it never even crossed my mind to shoot at it.  There’s an amazing scene in Empire Strikes Back when Luke Skywalker tries to lift the X-wing fighter out of the swamp, then stomps off pouting when he can’t do it.  Yoda nonchalantly walks over and force lifts the X-wing out of the water back on to the shore.  I was Luke looking at dad saying, “I don’t believe it.”  Dad was a giant Yoda with a shotgun saying, “That is why you failed.”  Of course, he never let us hear the end of that shot either.  I’d like to think that was one of his proudest moments as a hunter.  He acted all cool about it like it was just another day duck hunting for him, but my theory is that after we all parted ways that day he got really excited and said to mom, “You should’ve seen that!  I can’t believe I hit that shot in front of those guys.”  He definitely schooled us that day.

Call #3 today would’ve happened at about 10:30 AM.  That call would be an invitation to one of his famous truck lunches.  Truck lunch is…well…exactly what truck lunch sounds like.  He would pick me up from work in his truck.  We would find a place to get lunch, and then we would drive and eat lunch in the truck.  On days like this in the fall, truck lunch meant a drive north up the bay shore to Suamico.  We would cruise Lineville Road and Harbor Lights Road and he’d tell me the same duck hunting stories he’d told me every year since I was 12.  They never got old.  He’d point out the spot where grandpa would row out in his skiff and he’d tell me all of grandpa’s stories, too.

We’d always end up at the same little park on Sunset Beach Lane where he’d stop the truck and pull out two pairs of binoculars.  He’d watch the birds and analyze the situation.  I’d nod and assume he knew what he was talking about, because I sure as hell didn’t.  I’d contribute something profound to the conversation like, “Wow, that’s a lot of birds!”  Inevitably he’d end up saying, “I don’t know why the hell you and Hoot don’t just get a nice duck boat and come out here where you can actually get some birds.  You can do whatever you want, but you should be hunting out here.”  I’m sure that annual rant was always at least partially inspired by his desire to watch us.  If he couldn’t get out there anymore, he wanted to see me do it.  When we hunt our usual spot on the Ahnapee River he can’t see us.  The only public access to that spot is a small park with a boat landing about a mile away by the Forestville dam.  He told me one opening day a few years ago he drove all the way there and parked by the dam just to sit and listen.  He wanted to know if we were getting any shooting.

At some point during one of our truck lunches along the bay shore he told me that he’d frequently come back out to Harbor Lights Road to say hello to the ghosts.  He was referring to the old duck hunters – his dad and his hunting buddies.  I always thought that was really cool, but now I truly understand.  He’s with them now.  Soon I’ll be taking my son out there telling him these stories and saying hi to dad, grandpa, and the rest of the ghosts.  I drove out to the end of Lineville Road today and said hello to dad and the ghosts.  It wasn’t the same without him, but the rain felt like dad’s way of saying hello back.

I hope he’s watching tomorrow morning when Hoot and I unleash our 20 gauges on the unprepared local ducks and geese of the Mighty Ahnapee.

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