There are just about two weeks left in duck season and, after that, hunting opportunities are limited to things like crows and squirrels. Over the weekend, I did some serious groveling, trying to get an experienced duck hunter to take me along. While my groveling may pay off before the season’s out, I just couldn’t wait.
I know there are ducks in Barnstable Harbor. I see them every time I go out to work the oysters, or to fish. I have a gun, I have my shiny new 2011 hunting license, I have all my waterfowl stamps. Nothing was preventing me from going out and trying to shoot a duck.
Kevin, while not keen on duck hunting, was willing to aid and abet. He called our friend Tim, also a novice duck hunter, and recruited him to join us. Then he called Les, whose boat is still in the water, and asked to borrow it. And yesterday afternoon, on the tail of the ebb tide, the three of us headed out for my very first duck hunt.
The plan was to take the boat out into the middle of harbor, and then drift (you’re not allowed to shoot a duck from a boat under power). Kevin, who wasn’t going to hunt, took the helm, and Tim and I settled into the bow, on the lookout for ducks.
We didn’t have to look far. It was duck central out there. Tim peered through his binoculars and spotted eiders, black ducks, pintails, and buffleheads. All we had to do was to get them in close enough.
I’d seen hunters out in the harbor before. Standard operating procedure seems to be to get a greenish boat, dress in camouflage, and set a string of decoys out behind you. We had neither the right color boat nor the decoys, so we motored out to where the ducks seemed to be, cut the motor, and hoped for the best.
Within the first five minutes, a bufflehead flew about thirty yards in front of us. Tim took aim and fired. He was a little behind – buffleheads are fast – and he tried again. It was the third shot that brought down the bird. We motored over and Tim reached over to retrieve it.
This was Tim’s first duck ever, and although he joked about its rather diminutive size, he was obviously excited. I was excited for him. I’ve been out in the field with a gun enough to understand the satisfaction of success.
Tim stowed his bird, and we went a little farther east in the harbor. The wind was out of the west, and we were drifting east at a pretty good clip when a male eider crossed the bow, heading south, about twenty yards out.
An eider is bigger and slower than a bufflehead, and is reputed to be one of the worst-tasting ducks on the planet. But I wasn’t thinking about how I’d cook it as I mounted my gun and followed the duck’s flight.
It was close in, and flying across the wind, so I stayed only a little bit ahead of it. When the distance between the duck and the muzzle seemed right, and the gun felt solid on my shoulder, I took my first ever shot at a living creature.
I was astonished. My first shot, my first duck. Beneath the adrenaline and surprise, I felt so big and bad.
Until I noticed that the duck wasn’t dead. He didn’t even look hurt, just startled and irritated. And then he dove.
We drove over and, as we waited for him to resurface, my big badness turned to dismay. I was doing the single worst thing you can do in hunting – wound an animal and then not be able to track it and take it.
And then he popped up, twenty yards out. I took aim, but I’m unaccustomed to shooting a stationary object – a sitting duck – with the regular shotgun barrel. The deer barrel is made for that, and has a notched sight to line up, but the bird barrel only has a bead on the end. I did my best, but I missed him low. He dove again. Damn!
We waited, and waited some more. He came up again, this time just feet off the bow. But I wasn’t expecting him to be in so close, and I wasn’t ready. I didn’t even get a shot off before he dove again.
And then he simply vanished. We waited, all three of us scanning the water, for longer than any duck should be able to dive. No eider.
On the plus side, that may have meant that he wasn’t seriously hurt – or even hurt at all – and he’d live to outwit another hunter. On the minus side, that was my duck. My very first duck! And it just bloody swam away!
It wasn’t long, though, before I had another chance. Tim, secure in the knowledge that he wasn’t going home empty-handed, generously gave me the shot at the next duck to come in range, another eider. This time, a female.
My first shot missed, but the second, as the duck was flying away from us, didn’t. She dropped right out of the sky.
Redemption, I thought.
We drove over to collect my duck.
No duck. No trace of duck. No feathers, no nothing. She simply disappeared.
The only reasonable conclusion is that Barnstable Harbor is the Bermuda Triangle of ducks. You shoot them, and Neptune calls them home rather than letting you have them. Even eiders, which are reputed to taste like low tide.
I had one more shot before sunset closed in, but it was on the outside of my range and I flat-out missed. We went in, I congratulated Tim on his trophy bufflehead, and we went home, duckless.
It was only when I got home that I realized my mistake. It’s such an embarrassing mistake that I’m reluctant to tell you about it, but I suppose it’s just possible that someone, somewhere, might be prevented from making the same mistake if I go public.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m accustomed to making mistakes, and my various blunders have, at various times, resulted in deerlessness, clamlessness, beetlessness, and root beerlessness. Lessness seems to be a way of life around here.
But this. This was class-A stupid.
It stemmed from My Consult with Andre.
Our friend Andre is pushing eighty, and has a lifetime of hunting experience. When I decided I wanted to go out and try for a duck, I stopped by his house with a dozen eggs in the hopes that he’d give me some good advice. Which he did.
One of the things we talked about was shot size. What should I use, I asked. “Five,” he said, and then ticked off on his fingers, “Or four, three, two, one, or BB. Use what you have.”
And here’s where I went wrong. I assumed that, since a BB gun was a little baby air gun, that BBs were the smallest shot. Therefore, number five had to be the biggest of the sizes Andre ticked off. When I checked our armory, I found that the size I had was seven. Well, that would be just fine, I figured. Large shot might be appropriate for someone whose shotgun skills aren’t all they could be.
Those of you who hunt are undoubtedly now shaking your heads in dismay and disbelief because you know perfectly well that any bonehead with Google and an IQ over room temperature can look up shot size and find out that larger numbers correspond to smaller shot.
There is an upside here. Those two ducks I shot are almost assuredly flying, swimming, and quacking in perfect health. It’s unlikely that number seven shot, at twenty or thirty yards, can even penetrate an eider’s underlayer of down, let alone do serious damage. The only injury was to my big, bad hunter ego.
I have twelve duck-hunting days left to see if I can repair the damage.