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Born for Waterfowling

Why hunters love the ancient sport

Josie deftly navigated through a spread of decoys to retrieve the real thing.
      Someone in our blind hissed, “Four coming in, right in front. ” We had been straining our eyes for almost an hour, peering out over a broad river for a sign of waterfowl, and now these had appeared as if from nowhere. My hand eased toward my long black Benelli leaning in its perch along the front of our hide.
      Our young guide Casey Kennedy somewhere in the background warned, “Not yet, not yet.” Then, just as they were almost in range, they turned. The unmistakable silhouette of the lead hen canvasback flared gracefully and rocketed away. “They’ll come back,” the guide assured us.
      We were all old hands at this, however, and these waterfowl are the king species of the Chesapeake. None of us held high hopes that the big birds would return for sure. But we all hoped that they would.
     Watching the sun come up over a spread of canvasback and mallard decoys on the Choptank that early morning was the prettiest thing I’ve beheld yet this season. The water was rippled from a northerly breeze, our breath was clearly visible in the 30-degree air and the sound of distant geese and ducks beginning their morning rituals was music.
     There were three others in the blind with me that day, Ernie ­Mallema, my friend Ross Stalie who had invited me, and Josie, Ross’s seven-year-old black Lab. All of us were experienced waterfowlers, though Josie was to turn in the best performance. 
    Our hope that day was to bag a canvasback or two, the premier waterfowl. They are the largest and by far the fastest and most desirable duck on the Chesapeake. The drake features a long black tapered bill on a scarlet red head and neck and an iridescent red eye accented by a bright white canvas-colored back.
     The hen has the same distinctive bill, followed by shades of buff brown on her head, neck and body. They are a diving duck and winter on the Bay in various-sized flocks, feeding on underwater vegetation, small crustaceans and mollusks at depths of 30 feet or more. If you’re in doubt about the identity of a particular duck but it appears as though it were specifically designed to go supersonic, you’re probably looking at a canvasback.
      Moments later that flight of four returned only to flare out again at the last minute, severely testing our nerves and presenting only the most desperate chance at a shot.
     “Let ’em go,” someone offered. “The third time is the charm.” I’m not sure who said that, but I had a very difficult time believing it.
     Yet they came back again, this time heading straight in, setting their wings, dumping altitude and lowering their feet for a landing. They were still four feet off the water and hardly slowed when we rose in unison, swung on them and fired. Three dropped out of the sky.
     Josie immediately stood and with just a little direction from Ross, stepped calmly into the 35-degree water, swam her way through a multitude of decoys and their anchor lines and intercepted the first bird. She returned it to Ross’s hand, then did it twice again.
     Calmly accepting our praise, she surveyed beyond the decoy spread once more to be sure there were no other fallen ducks that we, foolishly, had not noticed.
     There are no outdoor activities that are not improved by the company of a dog. With duck hunting their presence is paramount.
     Additional tolls of ducks that morning garnered us a virtually unheard of bag: three limits of two canvasbacks with a bonus brace of mallards. None of us had expected that kind of success. Only Josie was unimpressed. Having personally retrieved all of the trophies, a few by long distance swims, she was fully aware that none of us shooters was even close to such perfection. Of course we weren’t born to the hunt like she was.