The all but undetectable coffee scented steam rose to a height of just a few inches until some silent force dispersed it to the wind. The steam sensing it’s emanate demise throws caution to the wind as it preformed a seductive ballot, knowing at any moment the wind could and would end the dance. The aromatic steam determined well before leaving the cup to explore as much of the world as the unpredictable wind would allow and then to fight the forces of natural until its strength was totally exhausted and then, and only then, surrender to the breeze.
I watched by a lantern light as the same scenario was played out on both sides of me. Each hunter held his face mere inches from the cup allowing the aroma to fill their senses. The steam dance capturing each of their gazes and freezing the minds of all that ventured to this place. The thought of ducks, decoys, dogs, and calls slipped to the background. Not forgotten just frozen for the length of the steam dance.
At some point that had no rhyme or reason each hunter would bring the cup to his lips and temporarily halt the dance. Once satisfied the hunter would lower the cup and the dance would begin again.
This melodrama was preformed over and over until the dawn brought the first rays of light at which time the hunter’s minds were able to escape the fascination of the steam dance and allowed to think of things still to come.
Each decoy was placed with the help of experience and a depth finder at just the right place. Cord was measured and adjusted to exactly the right depth to allow each and every decoy to move at the beck and call of the wind with the hope that any duck passing by might find it irresistible and drop in to investigate. This would not be a chance encounter, knowledge and understanding dictated where to place each Mallard, Pin Tail, and Widgeon. All factors considered, wind, sun shine, temperature, and cover were all measured and calculated for all incoming flyers.
Unsure of the wind’s cooperation in our venture we placed a jerk line of 20 Mallard and one of 15 Pin Tail. When the first rays of light peered over the surface of the lake you could see the jerk line decoys moving in synchronization with the movement of the hunter’s hand to my left. He was the puppeteer controlling the players in a drama of life and death. The decoys seemed to be an extension of his will. Each movement of his hand, arm or body produced a specific movement of the life like replicas, it was as if he willed them to move left or right and without hesitation or regard for forces unseen they moved in unison. His arm would move so slightly as to be all but undistinguishable and the decoys would move where and how he wanted.
As if showing off for the breeze and the water he picked up both jerk lines and started to work them. Just fifteen feet in front of my boat a symphony of movement, a choreographed drama of wind, water, and decoys entertained hunters and dogs alike. A master puppeteer at his best and I didn’t have to pay to see his work. Now if the passing ducks liked the drama unfolding beneath them it would be a great day in the flooded timbers.
Our humble foray to the wilds of Lake Belton’s flooded timbers section for a day of duck hunting was just as I’d planned it. We arrived well before most creatures were capable of opening their eyes from a long winters night sleep and those that could see at that time of day were about to go to bed. We’d place 150 decoys of many different ilks, sizes, shapes, and colors all in just the right spots for the wind de jour. My fellow hunter on the jerk lines preformed each maneuver like the master he was.
Coffee was drunk, decoys were bobbing up and down like they should, and the dogs were eager to taste feathers and to discover, first hand, how cold the water was. The only thing left to do was to start inviting our guest, by the means of a mixture of double and single reed duck calls.
Individually but in unison each hunter gazed up at the sky and reached for his favorite duck call as we opened the receiving line. We started the chorus of invitation for our guest of honor. Within an instant the air was filled with a symphonic chorus of Green heads being enticed to pay a visit to the flotilla of plastic right in front of us. The chorus continued for a minute or so then a short pause to catch your breath then a repeat of the duck overture followed closely by several encores.
After an internal struggle on par with the struggle between good and evil I choose the soft hen call made exclusively of cocobolo wood, my favorite I might add. This call works best in flooded timbers so you can blow it softly and the sound reverberates though the timber. Each hunter had their favorite call plus spares hanging on lanyards of all shapes and designs each decorated with jewelry more valuable to a duck hunter than all of South Africa’s minds.
The duck hunter’s lanyard is a combination of pride and bragging rights. We display duck identification bans which we affectionately call jewelry, duck calls that cost as much as the boat we’re hunting from plus spares. I’m only guessing here but with all the calls and duck bands on most hunters’ lanyards, wearing it constitutes a major portion of most duck hunters exercise regiment.
Mine is adorned with three single reed calls one wood and two acrylic, a teal whistle, a wood duck call, a dog retriever whistle, my dogs’ collar transmitter and a partridge in a pair tree. Oh how we love our lanyards. I even have two calls that are engraved hanging with pride from mine.
I was all but out of breath when the first brace of Mallards appeared on the horizon. They were coming in from the east over the lake at tree top level as would a flight of B52 bombers trying to evade some unseen enemy’s radar.
We’d set up to allow the ducks to land only fifteen feet in front of the boat which we anchored on the north side of the decoy spread. The wind was from the west at about 15mph, all was ready.
We kept calling until they were cupping, yet no one ever said to “cut or take em” so we watched as they landed. We looked at each other speechless.
Then someone said, “Anybody going to shoot these ducks or what.” The noise disturbed the ducks and they bolted for parts unknown.
“Cute em,” I yelled, just to make sure. For a second I thought with all the gun fire I might have been at Normandy in 1944. Fifteen ducks took off for parts unknown, eight are still flying. A great start to a beautiful day.
Once the first shotgun barked, Bailey was on her feet hoping someone would hit a duck. Daisy on the other hand is much more laid back about the entire duck hunting thing. Once the shooting stopped she looked at me to see if I was going to disturb her beauty sleep. I was. Bailey was off the front end of the boat not using the ramp that I had provided for their use. I’m sure I heard her say.
“I don’t need no stinking ramp.”
Daisy used the ramp as she raced for a downed Drake. She made the retrieve poetically and started swimming back to the boat. The grace and beauty of a retriever is a sight to behold. They swim on par with the refined moves of Fred Astaire.
I don’t know if they can count but they always know exactly how many ducks are downed. These dogs are world class in what they do. Along with swimming like Jonny Weissmuller they have very strong jaws however they never tear up a duck or a dove.
They can swim for what seems like hours retrieving ducks effortlessly and they seem to enjoy the simple act of retrieval. A good water dog is an important hunting partner. Not like me an old out of shape writer with a pretty good eye, they are world class athletes that make the hunt that much more enjoyable with their enthusiasm and willingness to please.
The hit parade went on for the next two hours in that time the four of us downed 20 ducks. Not a bad morning of duck hunting. At the end of that time the dogs and hunters were tired but ready and looking forward to the next time we would be captivated by the steam dance in the world of ducks, dogs, and jerk lines.