Blurred Memories

Duck hunting in Virginia, with Cajun seasonings.

[by Jim Mize]

DUCKS FLY THROUGH MY MEMORIES. The set wings of a mallard with dangling orange feet personifies all the mallards that have taunted me over the years. Places fade. Directions not written down are gone forever. Still, one season remains crisp in my mind for its novelty, newness, and absurdity.

As a mountain kid studying at Virginia Tech, I was introduced to a new professor from south Louisiana who wanted to find some ducks. Our agreement was, I’d provide the where if he’d provide the how.

The professor was called Fontenot, after a character in one of Cajun humorist Justin Wilson’s comedy albums; then there was Fontenot’s wife, and Duke, their Labrador retriever.

Fontenot’s wife was a Cajun, and she served everything that made it to the game pot smothered in what to my mountain eyes looked like brown gravy. The first bite I took singed my head from the inside out, and not a follicle has shed a hair since.

Duke came from south Louisiana as well, and had a personality to match Fontenot’s. On the drive to the duck blind, Duke would curl up in the backseat of their old Dodge and crunch aluminum beer cans until they disappeared. Maybe he passed them, but I don’t remember seeing any shrapnel.

Once, to avoid an early drive, I stayed over at Fontenot’s, and Duke charged me one boot for the privilege of sharing the basement. In the morning he gave me a partial refund, if you count the sole and strings as change. On another night before a hunt, Duke found a case of liquor in the basement, removed only the sherry—four bottles out of a dozen—chewed the tops off, and lapped up the contents. A hungover Lab makes for a very still partner in a duck blind.

“They came up beside us, at our feet, and behind us in places where no duck should be. Duke found whatever we hit, but after walking through flooded timber with ducks flushing like sprung mousetraps, we were wound as tight as the spring on a cheap watch.”

Duck season in Virginia kicked off in the early fall with a few days of waving off gnats and throwing gun barrels after racing wood ducks. We hunted the New River in stretches flat enough to wade but wide enough so the woodies could easily avoid us. Still, we did our homework, made some good guesses on flight plans, and dropped our first ducks of the season.

I replenished my fly-tying supplies with flank feathers, and Mrs. Fontenot’s smothered duck made me look forward to the main season. Opening day in November was like a one-card draw from a poker deck. You had 52 choices for weather, and we drew hard rain. The river rose too high to hunt the islands we’d haunted in wood duck season, and the mallards needed slower water to sit in.

We found a bend where the water backed up and the decoys would just about hold. Ours were weighted with railroad spikes we picked up from the tracks as we walked to and from the blind. These held the decoys fairly well, but they carried like a sack of rocks. We found a spot where the river washed tight against a stand of oaks, and piled brush from older floods into a natural blind. All we needed to do was set the decoys.

At first light, Fontenot quacked a few times, and mallards started dropping through the trees. Not out where we could shoot, mind you, but back behind us on wet ground, where puddles were filled with acorns. We abandoned the blind and began stalking and jump-shooting mallards in the woods.

Every flushed mallard caught us by surprise. They came up beside us, at our feet, and behind us in places where no duck should be. Duke found whatever we hit, but after walking through flooded timber with ducks flushing like sprung mousetraps, we were wound as tight as the spring on a cheap watch.

Having walked the woods, we circled back up the river’s edge to our blind. While we were off chasing flooded ducks, one of our decoys had worked downstream in the rising current, and the railroad spike had snagged on an underwater root. Whenever a surge of water pulled the cord, the decoy tipped like a feeding duck. Fontenot saw it and began to stalk.

It was one of my decoys, and I recognized what had happened before Fontenot did, but sacrificing a decoy seemed a small price to pay for a tale to tell. As his gun rose I was already quivering with suppressed laughter. The duck tipped one last time, his safety clicked off, and just after the decoy bobbed back up Fontenot heard me snickering. With a flurry of Cajun insults he grabbed the decoy, and we laughed all the way back to the blind.

The cold came in December that season. To the east, the Chesapeake Bay froze solid, and they ran food to the islanders by helicopter. The New River was even colder; the water froze in sheets that broke off, floated downriver in the stiff current, and piled up on rocks, sometimes on edge, their jagged horizons replacing rounded boulders.

To the north, the New River dumps into the Ohio River, and our best hunting usually came when colder weather chased the ducks south. Black ducks drew us into single-digit weather, our shivering forms dark huddled shapes in the pins-and-needles sleet that always found the crease of bare skin between cap and collar. On one of these mornings, Fontenot was teaching, so I went ahead and set the decoys. His plan was to follow after class.