I sat on a bucket in the ice-glazed blind. The sun rose brilliantly but without heat. Fog rolled in wisps down the river like Lee’s retreating army. Except for crows, nothing living moved. The water gurgled, the ice groaned, an occasional limb finally gave up and snapped. I remained motionless until Fontenot arrived.
His first question was, “Seen any ducks?” and I answered something like “Grrfntly.” My ability to speak had disappeared along with my body heat, an early sign of hypothermia, I later learned. Stomping in the sun and drinking hot coffee eventually got me back into the hunt, but it was a lesson for the future. To this day, I talk to myself in the blind. It’s a useful monitor of my physical condition, but it leaves a poor impression of my mental state.
The cold up north continued to push nonresident ducks our way. One morning a flock of more than 40 pintails, circling too high to shoot, dipped in for a closer inspection of my decoy set, whistling every time they flared. But it was big ducks that drew us out during the holidays, the mallards and blacks, toughened by their trip south. We swore they were Canadians—bigger, tougher—but they ate well, and Mrs. Fontenot’s Cajun spices increasingly became like antifreeze in my blood.
At season’s end, the cold broke with a warm rain that brought the New River to its highest point of the season. All the ice floes melted, and the runoff turned riffles into rapids. Only fools would hunt that last day, and so of course, Fontenot convinced me to go.
“…all those memories blur together like graying Polaroids in a photo album, save for that one season with a Cajun duck hunter, a dog who defined retrievers, and a Cajun lady who introduced me to smothered duck.”
We loaded the gear and Duke into his pirogue, strapped on life jackets, and began to wade and swim to our favorite island. With one of us hanging on each end, the pirogue carried us through the holes until our feet eventually found rocks. When we reached the island, the water was too strong for our rail spikes to hold, so we were constantly retrieving our decoys from the lower end of the island and resetting them at the upper end.
Sometime in the afternoon, a sole mallard flared over the decoys, and Fontenot dropped him. Duke retrieved, and with that the season came to a close. We began to pick up decoys, and as was his custom, Duke dragged in his share, piling them on the bank like it was his job.
In the fading light, we had to push the pirogue back to the bank, up and across the current, and the going was slow. We approached the bank well past shooting time. In the darkness, a flashlight flickered.
Funny how, if you hunt with another fellow enough, you can recognize his flashlight. Maybe by its dimness or a red band of plastic that glows around the bulb, but we knew this was a hunting buddy who’d seen our car and stopped to check on us well after normal quitting time.
In typical fashion, Fontenot greeted him by shouting, “There’s the game warden. Let’s shoot him!”
At this point, a considerably brighter beam snapped on—obviously government-issue—and drew us to the bank like a Star Trek tractor beam. As it turns out, our buddy was less concerned about our well-being than about our running into the game warden unannounced. After all, he knew one of us had almost shot a decoy on the water.
And so our season ended with a grumpy game warden going through all our decoys, sacks, licenses, and pirogue looking for an excuse to write us up. He checked our magazines, inspected every shell, counted our one duck three times.
Then he mumbled like he had hypothermia, and left.
Since that season, ducks have jumped in front of me from Rocky Mountain beaver ponds and streaked past Chesapeake Bay blinds. Retrievers have broken ice on valiant retrieves, and worked against tides to drop ducks at my feet with a grin and a lolling tongue. But all those memories blur together like graying Polaroids in a photo album, save for that one season with a Cajun duck hunter, a dog who defined retrievers, and a Cajun lady who introduced me to smothered duck.
Now, when the wind blows and my joints creak, I pour a brandy and remember the one season that stands crisp in my memory, and ask forgiveness of a game warden who thought we’d threatened to shoot him.
Since those days hunting on the New River, Jim Mize has kept a log as partial compensation for his blurred memory. Blame it on the brandy. His books are available at www.acreektricklesthroughit.com.