Evolution of a Duck Hunter

Crawling from the mud and duckweed, he became an upright hunter.

by Rusty Ward

AS I UNDERSTAND WHAT WE THINK WE UNDERSTAND OF EVOLUTION, it does not necessarily progress toward a higher order, rather is concerned only with differential reproductive success in response to selective environmental pressures—progress toward any defined goal not involved. I have no quarrel with the fact of evolution as the powerful and overarching framework of modern biology; still, I think we may not yet have grasped the whole warp and woof of it. The same biology that decries evolutionary change as progress teaches that inert matter self-assembled into cells and, after a billion increasingly complex iterations of microbes, worms, fish, dinosaurs, birds, shrews, and primates, in more or less that order, composed the Ninth Symphony and Hamlet. I might add to those achievements the eventual crafting of elegant 6½-pound double guns capable of extending our diminished fang and claw with an ounce of 7½ shot. It seems that reconciling our present understanding of evolution with the observed progression of life without acknowledging something like linear progress is like forcing a camel through the eye of a double helix. And yet . . . , and yet . . . , my own journey as an aspiring duck hunter seems to have followed the textbook evolutionary formula—of adaptation to opportunities presented randomly when life exposed me to various waterfowlers, each of whom pursued the craft in a manner distinct from the others.

“Much as an ancient fish waddled out of a primeval ocean and found new ways of doing things on land, I knew that if I was to evolve as a duck hunter, I needed to explore new environments…”

ALAN WAS THE FIRST. Transitioning out of high school into college, I was already a determined hunter whose thoughts lived in the woods more so than anyone I knew. Alan, a year older, dabbled at hunting but was driven by political and career ambitions I lacked, so he sought out and befriended community movers and shakers. To my good fortune, he wasn’t shy about asking them for favors.

“Hey, Rusty,” his call came breathlessly one winter afternoon as the north wind rattled the windowpanes with needles of cold rain. “I met a guy who owns some catfish ponds south of town, and he said they’re full of ducks and we are welcome to come hunt them!” A whirlwind hour later, we were on the road with newly acquired duck stamps, high brass 4s, and our go-to shotguns—mine a Remington 870, Alan’s an 1100.

We drove close, saw ducks on the ponds, sneaked up to the nearest pond, Alan to one side, me to the other. We jumped up, ducks flew, we shot, nothing fell. Undaunted, we flattened ourselves on the bank and for the next hour shot at ducks as they arrowed overhead, the wind driving them at relativistic speeds from which they arced like falling meteors into the ponds. Speeding up our swings, we finally killed a few, but our plan hadn’t included how to retrieve water-bound ducks. Stymied, the wind, which had been our nemesis, became our friend as it slowly nudged the floating birds to the bank.

Proud that I was now a duck hunter and eager to feast on nature’s bounty, I removed the smallish breasts from our entire take (Alan’s interest ended when the ducks hit the water) and noticed for the first time a faintly fishy smell as I chunked them on the grill. Innocent of even rudimentary cooking skills, I hoped if I cooked them long enough, the smell would go away. They were, of course, mergansers, and their fish-fed breasts condensed in the flame to the size and density of golf balls and smelled like cheap cat food gone bad. True caveman style, I ate them to the last bite, proclaiming them excellent fare to my dubious parents, and thought, Hell! Yes! I am a duck hunter! Of course, I was no such thing. I had merely shot a few ducks, but it was a start.

A FEW YEARS LATER, Alan and I stood at the edge of a backwater slough dotted with towering cypresses and laced with duckweed and hordes of high-balling, quacking, chuckling mallards. Ducks streamed in as we crouched in the shadows and planned our attack. By then, my evolution as a duck hunter included leaf-pattern camo, rubber waders, a Yentzen call around my neck, and a dedicated light duck gun in the crook of my arm. I had bought the Parker long-distance from an older gentleman who sent a couple of Polaroids along with a two-page description that concluded with the magnificent hook line, “She’ll gut a duck at forty yards.” She was a skinny 16-gauge DHE (these were pre-steel-shot days) with 30-inch barrels, twin ivory beads, and a stock of flame-colored walnut pretty enough to palpitate the heart. Duck-gutting patterns with high-brass 6s were the norm, and 4s weren’t far behind. Life just didn’t get any better.

Though Alan had more spare change than I did, he was also shackled with a boring pragmatism and clung to his 1100, wore GI hand-me-downs gleaned from the bins of army surplus stores, and— get this—wrapped plastic bread bags around his boots to keep his feet dry. In evolutionary terms, I was eons ahead of Alan.

Our plan, actually Alan’s, called for him to remain hidden where we were (so as not to put his bread bags to the test) while I worked around to the far side of the slough. Alan agreed to sit tight and not disturb the ducks until I got into position; then we would rise in unison and have our way with them. It was a good plan, but I had barely rounded the end of the slough when Alan’s 1100 clattered itself empty and the sky filled with more ducks than I had ever seen, mostly streaming away from me. I tried to run and immediately swan-dived into the duckweed.

Sputtering foul water, barrels plugged with fetid mud, dripping duckweed, and filled with dark anger, I told Alan he had five seconds to explain why he ignored our agreement before I throttled him. He said with a little too much glee that he had agreed not to flush any ducks before the appointed time, but nothing forbade him from popping the easy pair that came in on set wings.

Later, I discovered a philosophical gent named Montaigne, who had something lively to say about everything; I read of a Spartan king who, after agreeing to a seven-day truce with his foe, fell upon him after nightfall and vanquished his army. The Spartan afterwards declared that the truce stipulated seven days but made no mention of nights. Montaigne’s conclusion—that “the hour of parley is a dangerous time”—would have benefited me had I read him earlier. As the years flew by and my duckhunting experiences broadened, I found the wily Frenchman to be a reliable companion, guide, and sometime source of solace, and determined that even if he himself hadn’t been a duck hunter, he was no stranger to their ways.