I wasn’t wearing a life jacket, either, nor did I have one in the boat. Foolhardy? Of course. But that’s the way it was back then, at least in our neck of the woods. Fact is, in all of the fishing and hunting I had done, beginning long before I started shaving, seldom had I stepped into a boat or canoe with someone wearing a life jacket. Eventually, and wisely, Maine’s boating regulations mandated that all watercraft contain a life jacket for each person aboard.
This time, however, Lady Luck had trumped Murphy’s Law, so I restarted the motor and continued downriver. Minutes later, the smudgy silhouette of Porcupine Island emerged from the sodden darkness. Shortly thereafter, a counterfeit flock of 14 decoys tugged in the tide as I hauled the boat across a shelf of marsh grass and hid it beneath the drooping boughs of a stunted spruce.
“The duck tumbled and fell trailing feathers as the report of my 12-gauge rolled across the river and into the hills…”
The dawn breeze was stretching and yawning as I got situated in a blind cobbled from driftwood, rockweed, and fir boughs propped against three large rocks forming a triangle. After loading the 12-gauge pump with threeinch magnum 4s, I looked at my watch and saw that we were 10 minutes shy of legal shooting time. Seated outside the blind, at his customary right-front corner, Coke wagged his tail steadily in anticipation of the first fetch.
Legal shooting time arrived with the chiming wing beats of whistlers (goldeneyes) passing unseen in the murky light. Something must have spooked them, I thought. They usually don’t start flying until after daylight. However, black ducks had begun moving at the first hint of dawn, and now the rising tide was crowding them off the mud flats. When a flock of five lit outside of my decoys, well beyond shotgun range, I stood and waved to scare them off. Otherwise, they would have attracted others.
The day was only a few minutes older when Coke cocked his ears and looked to our right. Crouching statue still, I heard the low, wheezy recognition call of a duck looking for company and saw, from the corner of my eye, a black crossing the end of the island. Continuing out over the river, the duck ignored the decoys and snubbed the welcoming notes of my greeting call. Or so it seemed. In the next breath, the black wheeled into a tight 180-degree turn and came scaling toward us on cupped wings, rocking and tilting in the wind, head cocking from side to side, looking for anything that didn’t appear right. As one who hunts waterfowl hither and yon, I’m not bashful about saying that duping a black duck is as good as it gets.
The duck tumbled and fell trailing feathers as the report of my 12-gauge rolled across the river and into the hills, where an echo that lived there shouted it back again. Coke didn’t need a “Fetch!” command to send him charging toward the dark form floating head-down, but I shouted it anyway to make him feel important and to give me a sense of accomplishment. Come to think of it, ever notice how a retriever swims high, shoulders and back showing, when going after a duck? But upon grasping it, the dog swims back slowly, as if conserving energy. So it was that while I admired the red-legged, yellow-billed drake that Coke brought ashore, he shook and showered me with muddy water.
During the next half hour or so, singles and pairs started toward the decoys but flared and kept going. Moreover, a flock dropped behind the island without tipping a wing toward us. And to my surprise, pouring a cup of coffee and sharing a doughnut with my hunting partner didn’t bring ducks pitching into the decoys. Worse yet, as the waiting game continued, I looked upriver and spotted a large cake of ice drifting on what appeared to be a collision course with the decoys. But shortly thereafter I was relieved to see that the ice would miss the rig. Not by much, but enough. Otherwise, some of the decoys would have been towed seaward. Meaning, of course, that I’d have to get the boat and go after them, which surely would have brought ducks to the decoys like relatives flocking to the reading of a will.
I was giving thanks for being spared that agitation, when Coke suddenly lowered his head. Following his line of sight, I saw a pair of blacks swinging toward the decoys with wings set and feet lowered for landing. Duck soup. As one flew away, the other folded and dropped—to my slack-jawed surprise— onto the cake of ice, which by then was drifting opposite the decoys. It couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.
Breathing its last, the black flapped a wing recurrently as Coke churned toward the icy raft. Reaching it, he half swam, half climbed aboard, picked up the duck, and stood looking at me as if to say, Get a picture of this, chummy, because you’ll never see the like of it again. And didn’t I know it. I frantically pawed through the pack basket, searching for the camera purposely kept there. But Murphy had borrowed it and hadn’t brought it back. So there I stood, watching the picture of a lifetime begging to be taken, and all I could do was capture it with the camera of my mind.
The praise that Coke received for completing that unusual fetch started him strutting, huffing, and puffing while still holding the duck. In a word, the big retriever was special. The tracks he left in my mind were deep and indelible. With a limit of two blacks in the bag and the tide beginning to slack off, it was time to head for the barn. The scattered pines and spruces atop Porcupine Island were sighing at the stale gossip of wind as I picked up decoys. All’s well that ends well, I thought, when the 3-horse outboard started on the first pull and settled into a steady trot.
We hadn’t gone far when the motor skipped a few times, sputtered, surged, and stopped, announcing unequivocally that I had forgotten to fill the outboard’s self-contained fuel tank. Furthermore, there was no need to bring extra fuel on my excursions to Porcupine Island because a full tank was more than enough for the round trip. So, having no one else to blame for my oversight, I muttered several adjectival phrases beginning with “You . . .” and ending with “. . . you’re numb as a pounded thumb!”
Then, allowing that nobody’s perfect, I cursed Murphy’s Law, raised the outboard, locked the oars, and started the always-dependable “Armstrong” motor. Responding smoothly to each pull of the oars, the versatile double-ender peapod cut a bow wake in the river’s current. Thus it seemed that Porcupine Island was drifting downriver as it steadily disappeared around the bend. Little did I know, however, that my trips to the island would end sooner than expected.
In 1982, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reduced the daily limit of black ducks to one throughout the Atlantic Flyway, I gave up hunting on Porcupine Island. It wasn’t easy, but eventually I decided that one duck wasn’t worth the planning and slogging and lugging and hauling. Not to mention jockeying a boat on an ice-cluttered river in the wee hours, or dealing with the dispiriting maliciousness of Murphy’s Law. All part and parcel of getting on and off the island without incident or accident—and to getting Coke home safe and sound.
Why is it that the special times we take for granted and think will last forever are soon gone for good?
Tom Hennessey is a noted sporting artist and retired outdoors writer for the Bangor Daily News. He is the author of three books: Feathers ’n Fins, Handy to Home, and Leave Some for Seed. Tom lives in Hampden, Maine, with his wife, Nancy.