My buddy Greg Grimes called me a few years ago.
“I’ve got a sweet spot to go duck hunting. Let’s go.”
Sure, why not?
The alarm clock went off at 2 a.m. After pouring a cup of coffee, we put his Lab in the truck and hauled tail for Calhoun. On the ride up he said the plan was to hunt the edge of some standing timber and shoot mallards as they came out to leave.
Two hours later when we got there it was still pitch-black and seriously cold, like 20-degree cold. I stood there beside his truck and piled on the layers of clothes. Then I had to put on waders that rode in in the back of the truck for two hours.
Man, I was cold.
“Here, carry this bag of decoys, I’ll carry the other bag,” said Greg.
In waders that were probably a little small, I waddled down a steep hill to the edge of the pond with a strapless 12 gauge in one hand and a heavy bag of decoys in the other.
The pond was frozen around the banks, so we had to break ice with heavy steps. I got about six feet off the bank and fell waist-deep into a rotted-out stump hole. Quickly trying to climb out I went into a series of off-balance steps that put me right back on the bank and on my rear end.
Oh-boy. Now my gloves were soaked. Regaining my composure, I filed in behind Greg and followed him toward a spot in the bank 100 yards away.
Quack, quack, quack.
“Mallards, they busted us,” Greg said.
Sure enough. The ducks knew we were in town, and I could tell at how quickly that quacking sound was disappearing that we wouldn’t be seeing them when the sun came up.
We finally slugged our way over to this spot, and it was time to sling decoys out. Of course several of the ones I threw fell on their side, so I had to do some careful wading into even deeper, below-freezing water.
With daylight approaching I went digging for three shotgun shells and realized I’d lost about half of them on my stumble out of the stump hole.
Fifteen minutes later daylight had arrived, four hours after my alarm clock buzzed.
Honk, honk, honk.
“Geese,” said Greg.
A flock of five or six geese flew over us and we each shot a few times, knocking down one big honker. The hunt was over. It was time to head back home. If I remember correctly Greg went back the next morning.
Now, I’m not picking on duck hunters. Trust me — I can respect any hunter who has a super passion about hunting a specific type of game. I’m just trying to see what makes these quack heads tick — what drives guys to get up in the middle of the night in frigid temperatures and then wade or motor through freezing-cold water to kill a 4-lb. bird?
“That risk factor is a draw for some guys,” said Yancey Houston of Macon. “When you’re either wading in mud or riding in a boat in the dark there’s a little bit of risk to every duck hunt because it involves cold water. That’s why most people think it’s the dumbest thing to do for two wood ducks or no ducks, but that risk factor is a draw for some guys. You hear about people dying duck hunting every year. In my life I’ve almost died twice, and both times it was duck hunting.”
Fifteen years ago Yancey and two buddies were in a 10-foot jonboat on Lake Blackshear. It was so cold that the only moving water was over the river channel and there was thin sheet of ice everywhere else. They were headed back to the boat ramp with waders on and decoys in the bottom of the boat.
“The boy in the front just happened to look down and see that we were taking on water,’” said Yancey.
With waders on none of the guys felt the water in the bottom of the boat.
“Our decoys started floating in the boat,” said Yancey. “Then the water was at seat level and the whole front end tipped up. Were were teetering and the decoys were floating down the lake. We were a long ways from a tree. I don’t know how we kept the boat up, but with our hands we threw water out of the boat and finally were able to get back to the ramp. We should have died that day, but God was with us.”
You see what I mean? Even with a near-death experience, Yancey didn’t quit duck hunting. In fact, he’s spending thousands of dollars enhancing his own private duck swamp. What’s his drive to duck hunt?
“It is really about the camaraderie,” said Yancey. “I know that’s a word that gets over used, but it’s really what duck hunting is all about. Dove hunting is close to it because you can move and talk with your buddies, but you sit alone dove hunting. When duck hunting you gang up with your buddies, and there’s a lot of talking. It’s really the only type of hunting that you are sitting shoulder to shoulder, and there’s a lot of talking, a lot of joking and a lot of stuff is worked out in a duck blind. There are a lot of days in Georgia when there are no ducks, so the time in a duck blind is real.”
This real time with friends and family is worth dealing with bad weather conditions and freezing water, according to Yancey.
“You’ve got to get where the ducks are,” said Yancey. “Ducks like the nastiest places, the nastiest weather, so you have to go on the nastiest days. That danger is a draw with some guys. The older I get I think about the stuff that could go wrong more, but I was raised where you don’t think about that. If you want to kill a duck, you just go.
“It’s kind of like gigging frogs. If you’re afraid of moccasins and you worry about them you won’t gig frogs. If you’re duck hunting you have to deal with cold water and cold weather.
“Being a little bit afraid… nobody really talks about it, you just go. If you die duck hunting you just die duck hunting. You can’t not go because of that. Duck hunting gets in your blood.”
Scott Hodges from Byron said the time he spends with his buddies has made for years of duck-hunting memories.
“It’s a team sport, it’s not like deer hunting,” said Scott. “It’s kind of what the whole waterfowling thing is about. It has a deep history of camaraderie.
“I’d rather get up in the morning and go hang out with three or four buddies of mine in a swamp than sit up in a cold deer stand. You’re there talking and having fun, even if you don’t kill something. I’ve been to Lake Juliette and watched the sun come up and killed nothing. I still have a good time. It’s an adventure.
“I just have a fascination with waterfowl. They’re pretty. Even when it’s not duck season, I like to watch them. They’re cool creatures.”
Duck hunting now carries Scott to places as far north as Maryland. He admits that since seeing larger numbers of ducks it has slowed down his Georgia hunting some.
“I still go around here, but now I usually just walk in somewhere to shoot wood ducks and go home,” said Scott. “Even though Georgia duck hunting isn’t like other states, it’s going with my buddies that’s fun.”
Although most of Scott’s overnight duck trips are either west or north of Georgia, he said that overnight trips were a big part of the excitement of duck hunting. He recalled trips to Seminole, Juliette and Darien.
“Back in the late 80s Darien was the place to go,” said Scott. “We’d go with a group of four or five boats. It was an adventure having to work around the tides. Depending on the tides we’d sometimes have to get out there real early. We’d take the stove and cook some bacon and eggs. Sometimes we’d sleep in the boat.”
Scott said before Darien got so publicized the good hunting had him making the trip several times a season.
“I’ve killed hooded mergansers, wood ducks, green wings, blue wings, gadwalls, mallards, widgeons, pintails, shovelers, bluebills, ringnecks and redheads in Darien,” said Scott.
Scott Brookins of Statesboro was part of the big fleet of duck boats that enjoyed the success of Darien back in the late 80s.
“There was just a bunch of good friends down there, and we’d tie our boat together and eat bacon until our stomachs hurt,” said Scott. “Back then you’d go down there for a duck killing, now you go to Arkansas for that.”
Despite lower hunter-success rates at Darien, Scott still makes the trip five or six times a year.
“The first time of the season crossing that dike every year, me and my buddy (Rodney McCart) stand there and look back at the city lights of Darien and say, ‘we’re home.’ Being there is certainly a passion,” said Scott.
“For two decades we’ve put in at the same landing and parked in the same place. It’s a very special place to be, being on that river with a moon and shooting stars everywhere. Traveling down that river with a spotlight at 4 o’clock in the morning with big sky. It’s a neat feeling.”
Scott hunts places in the Altamaha WMA area, and he said that when he hunts there he always expects to get in some wing-shooting.
“Down there it’s neat to see what you’re going to kill,” said Scott. “That’s what drives me. I remember killing a cinnamon teal on the last shot on the last day of the season one year.
“I was with some friends, and we were about to pack up when some low flying birds came into the decoys. They shot a few times and I shot one time, and it was that cinnamon.
“I had a friend kill a Mexican duck, and I’ve seen different kinds of sea ducks killed down there.”
Scott agrees that part of the allure of duck hunting is much like that of saltwater fishing — you never know what you’re going to put in the boat.
“That’s right — there are like 27 different species of ducks you can kill,” said Yancey Houston. “You never know what you’re going to kill. You can be killing wood ducks for 10 years and one day a mallard comes in or you shoot a banded duck.”
Yancey always hopes for a band on a duck, which is another factor that makes his blood boil for duck hunting.
“You learn to look for that leg,” said Yancey. “There are times when you had a band and didn’t find it until you’re cleaning ducks. Then you don’t know who killed the bird. Now when I pick one up I always check for a band.
“I did kill a banded mallard in Arkansas a few years ago, and I found out the duck was 13 years old. Wildfowl magazine came out a few months later and said the oldest banded duck on record was 12 years old. I sent a letter telling them about my bird.”
Yancey and his brother have about 12 banded birds from Georgia between the two of them.
“I was on Blackshear and had a duck come in and thought I saw a flash when I shot him,” said Yancey. “When I picked him up he had a band, but it was worn almost in two. I could only read one number on the band. I was scared to bend it at all. The duck looked really old. There’s no telling how old that duck was.”
When I talk to duck hunters, every one of them gets a twinkle in their eye when you talk about mallards. Dropping a beautiful drake mallard is rewarding, according to Yancey. The chance at killing a mallard is another driving force that’ll get a duck hunter out of bed at 2 o’clock to go wade through freezing water.
“In Arkansas, if it doesn’t have a green head, it’s not a duck,” said Yancey. “Calling mallards is a draw. Most people who first start calling see these pictures of people with mallards and they think there’s nothing to it. Then they’ll have trouble killing one, and it embarrasses them. It’s really hard, and it takes years and years of trying and you still can’t do it every time. Mallards are so smart, which is another draw to why we hunt them.”
To me it sounds a lot like turkey hunting, which is also a challenge and makes hunters go day after day.
“You have to let him know where you are but not see you,” said Yancey. “Mallards and blacks will show up and be out of gun range and looking and may circle 50 times. If anything is wrong, if your decoys look bad or they see you — somebody looks up or somebody clicks a safety, those mallards will go somewhere else. It can happen, especially after they’ve been shot at coming down the flyway.”
The reward of that big duck hitting the water is another reason duck hunting is addictive.
“Duck hunting is a whole different level of shooting compared to doves, rabbits and squirrels,” said Yancey. “It’s a bigger gun, bigger loads, a bigger bird hits the water and makes a bigger splash.”
Duck hunters are passionate about feathers. The challenge, the mystery and the camaraderie: they’re at least some of the reasons duck hunters do the things they do, the reason they’re addicted to quack.