November 22nd by Worth Mathewson


November 22nd
In their own ways they were both one in a hundred, Dave and that canvasback drake.
by Worth Mathewson
From the November/December 2007 issue.
 

 
Along with everything else, it was simply a lousy tide. Dave and I had discussed it the night before. But we were dealing with black brant, and believe me those birds sidetrack common sense. It’s nearly impossible to explain why a few of us in the Northwest hold the brant in such remarkable esteem. But I’ll offer that we view the brant, and the storm-swept bays in Oregon where the token few flocks still winter, with reverence.

November 22 wasn’t the best of days for Dave. He had a cabin a few miles north of the bay, where each Thanksgiving his family gathered—sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law, and a bunch of grandchildren. On Thanksgiving morning they would pile the kids into three TDBs and go wigeon hunting, returning in the early afternoon for dinner. Dave was hesitant to go branting, what with the family hunt to organize the next morning.

The tide was lousy because full low wasn’t until 8:30 p.m. The little gravel island we hunted starts coming up about four hours prior to full low, and the brant come to the island just as it starts to show.

Of course this meant the brant wouldn’t come until about four or later, just as it was starting to move toward darkness. Coupled with this, all the rivers that empty into the bay were at full flood stage, so we weren’t sure that, with all that extra water, the island would come up in the usual time frame. Or whether the brant would come that late. Also, the weather forecast called for a strong storm in the evening. But then, it was brant we were dealing with.

We decided to meet at the bay at two, look things over, then go out or not. I headed for the coast several hours early, and sat in my truck beside another brant bay down the coast. In part I wanted to see what the brant were doing on that bay, but mostly I wanted to check the water conditions, as that bay is far more dangerous than the one we would hunt. Even with small but strong squalls coming in off the Pacific, the water didn’t look bad. I was surprised.

When I got to the boat ramp Dave was already there. He had his 17-foot TDB, his Marsh Rat, and 35 cork brant decoys he had made. They were nice ones, and he was justifiably proud of them. There was still no hurry, so I told him I was going to drive several miles down the bay to where I could check the water conditions near the island. I sat in the truck with binoculars looking for brant but saw none, only a few scattered flocks of scoters. But even with the briefest squalls, the water was almost calm.

When I got back to the ramp and unloaded my Marsh Rat, I told Dave that the bay would be a piece of cake.

Still, I wasn’t happy with the ramp. It was on one of the rivers flowing into the bay, and it was about three miles down to the island. On a high tide this isn’t a problem, but we would need to come back on the falling tide, likely in the dark, and the channel could be tricky to find. I saw the real possibility of grounding on a sandbar and then having to wait until after midnight for the tide to return. I wanted to launch over at Garibaldi and then come straight across the bay. It was shorter by a half mile, but more important it gave us deeper water even at low tide. I also didn’t want to use more than 10 decoys because I felt we would be racing darkness, and Dave’s full spread took a lot of time to pick up and carefully pack away. Besides, when the brant do come to the island you really don’t need any decoys. It’s their place, they come right in, and I’ve shot them there for nearly 40 years. My standard decoy rig is about seven.

Dave didn’t want to launch at Garibaldi because he didn’t want anyone to see the brant decoys or that we were branting. I pointed out that all the duck hunters launched at the ramp on the river, while crabbers and fishermen used Garibaldi. If he wanted to keep our branting secret from hunters, he couldn’t have picked a worse place.

If Dave were still alive it would be far easier to write about him. Where once there were broad smiles and laugher when relating Dave stories, now there are sad, slow shakes of the head with the mention of his name. After November 22, the Northwest became noticeably quieter.

Dave was a widely known favorite in our region. He was about as serious a waterfowler as can be imagined, and he was good at it. For years he had Oregon’s largest and best-known taxidermy shop. He sold various types of waterfowl boats, and manufactured the Marsh Rat himself—an excellent 9½-foot layout–type craft.

He was also as intense as any individual I’ve ever encountered. He lived life at full throttle, with a broad grin that was his trademark. While he was one of my all-time favorites, he could also wear me out on occasion.

I’m certain he must have been nearly a genius. He had a degree in engineering, and at midlife, heaped on top of his pressing business, he went back to school for his master’s—got an A in organic chemistry to boot, a course I view as one only a select few can master, much less pass with a perfect grade. But I’ve noticed that similarly bright people don’t have time for mundane things—such as remembering to leave his pickup truck in gear while launching a boat, or making sure that motors are firmly attached to transoms. In about a nine-year span Dave had five motors come off his TDBs. Two went to the bottom, two bounced off highways, and the fifth he was able to pull back into the boat.

He was my age, 64, and about 15 years ago had the last of a series of heart operations that the doctor told him should give him about 10 years. So during part of the time I hunted with him he was already on the other side of his due date, making me often wonder if this was why he spent every waking moment in blurred motion doing something—anything.

Down deep he was likely the kindest human I’ve known. His interaction with his grandchildren tugged at the heart.

Because it has a direct bearing on the happenings of November 22, I’ll point out that Dave was famous for taking chances, pushing the envelope or whatever term one cares to use. His close calls over the years were legion.

So few brant winter in Oregon now that it’s questionable even having an open season. As many likely know, about 40 years ago black brant began bypassing British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California for wintering bays in Baja California. Today only Washington has any number of wintering brant. I was indeed fortunate to start branting in Oregon when we still had good numbers of birds. There was a four-bird limit, and a season that ran from November into February. I shot a lot of brant in those days.

For the past 15 years or so I’ve been very secretive about my branting in Oregon. I didn’t share it with anyone. I went on days when I would go unnoticed by other hunters. I told no one about my success. If asked, I lied.

In 2004 I invited Dave. I owed him, I felt, in part because he had invited me to join him for a wigeon hunt. He had found an overlooked location on a large bay where on a falling tide the wigeon just smoked in—500 to 600 ducks arriving inside 20 minutes.

But as remarkable as it was, I didn’t feel that wigeon hunt rated a payback with brant. Instead, I reciprocated with a hunt for cackling Canada geese. Then he included me on a redhead hunt in eastern Washington. It was January, bitterly cold, with thick ice and snow and more redheads than I dreamed existed outside Texas. More important, the drakes were all one-in-a-hundred knockout plumaged birds. And Dave shot a cross between a redhead and a scaup, with a head of deep reddish purple. I can’t recall holding a more striking duck.

As a taxidermist, exceptionally plumaged birds were important to Dave. One in particular will have a bearing on all this later.

The redhead hunt fully warranted the highest payback I was capable of, so I took him branting. That first year we went twice, using my 14-foot TDB. We anchored off the side of the island, setting out about 10 of my decoys. Both times we each quickly shot our two-bird limit.

But Dave wasn’t happy. First, he felt we needed more decoys. Then he didn’t like that I’d used Mo-Marsh grass on the blind covers instead of cutting brush onshore.

So in 2005 he wrangled a switch to his 17-foot TDB, thus largely gaining control of the hunt. He set out 30 or more decoys, and he brushed his boat up to the point that it looked like a slash pile on a logging clear-cut. We anchored off the island and shot our limits.

We did have two large flocks, however, that weren’t happy with the floating brush pile. They circled several times and then landed out of gun range. The birds we did get were singles, pairs, or trios—all of which came straight in. While we limited quickly, those large flocks worked on Dave. On the next hunt he had his Marsh Rat. His plan was that we would put out the decoys, I would get out on the island and stand in water up to about my crotch, he would take the big boat a good distance away, anchor it, come back in the Marsh Rat, and we would use it as a blind to hide behind. And I’ll admit, it worked well. The big flocks didn’t hesitate to drop in.

On the final hunt of 2005 I took my Marsh Rat also. Again we had the big flocks in. I totally agreed that the Marsh Rats worked much better, but I still maintained that they amounted to just another complication—I like to keep branting as simple as I can. Basically, I like to be able to make a run off the bay as quickly as possible if needed. Over the years I’ve had some close calls while branting, and twice I’ve left the decoys behind when the bay suddenly turned upside down.

The 2006 season started with problems. Neither of the first two days, November 14 and 17, was really enjoyable for me. On the first day we both figured the tide wrong. When we neared the island it was already well up, and about 30 brant were on it. We spent a few seconds blaming each other. Then I told Dave we needed to do two things quickly: put out no more than five decoys, and anchor the big boat and shoot from it.

That didn’t happen. Instead we started putting out the 30 or more decoys, including one whose line got caught in the prop. While he was fighting to untangle it, I called Dave’s attention to a flock of brant that had spotted us and were veering off. This happened with several more flocks. I actually liked it: It gave me something else to needle Dave about.

It was a nice day—warm and sunny with a light breeze. By the time we got all his decoys out—with Dave moving some I had set—got the big boat anchored, and came back in our Marsh Rats, the bay was placid. All the gulls, shorebirds, wigeon, scoters, and brant were entirely content doing what birds do midday at low tide: seemingly nothing. I told Dave it was a shame we didn’t have a shovel as we could dig clams. I couldn’t get a smile from him.

While we sat staring at blank water, I noticed that the brant had stacked up off a sandbar about a half-mile down the bay. The tide was running out strongly. I suggested to Dave that he let the outgoing tide take him and his Marsh Rat down to the brant. He declined. So I did it. With a little sculling, I got right into a good flock and shot my two birds. It was all very simple.

Returning was different. You paddle a Marsh Rat with a kayak paddle, and with it I was unable to make headway against the tide. So I walked the boat back alongshore, and in the soft sand and mud that wasn’t easy. I mentioned this to Dave, who was clearly unhappy that he hadn’t gotten any brant. He brought up the mistake with the tide several times on the way back to the boat ramp, but didn’t mention the delays in setting up and the flocks we flared. This gnawed on me a little. But not much, as I had my two brant and was happy.

On the 17th the island would come up about noon. Dave was adamant that he wanted to launch at seven. I told him there was no need to be that early. When I couldn’t talk him out of it we agreed on a plan: He would go early, set up, and I would paddle out to him in my Marsh Rat.

I got to the bay about 10. The tide was still high and I had no problem putting in the Marsh Rat from the bayside road. Dave and his grandson, Alex, were at the island. They had about 40 decoys out, including two really good cork buffleheads Alex had made. Dave had his two brant, one banded. Apparently they swam into the decoys just before I arrived, and Dave had shot them from the big boat.

I anchored my Marsh Rat over the still-covered island, Dave took the big boat off behind me, and we waited. About two hours later the island started to come up. A big flock of about 30 swept in, and I should have let them make another pass. Instead I took two barrels at long range.

Soon after, a flock of six dropped right into the decoys. Again I missed with both barrels. Then I missed a flock of about eight, just as close. Finally I killed one of a trio, and then got my last bird from a flock of 10 or so.

Of course this meant I had shot into five flocks before getting my birds. When Dave brought the big boat over to the island he wasn’t just irritated; he was plainly pissed. We had run into this problem before. Dave was an exceptional shot. He rarely missed. As for me, at times I shoot very well and at others I don’t. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. He was incensed because I had “educated” so many birds. While we got the decoys in I made several attempts to lighten the mood. He was like a cartoon character with a large black cloud over his head.

As I paddled back to shore I became pissed, too. When I got home I discussed it with my wife, Marge. This branting had long been my closely guarded solo hunt. I enjoyed it more than any waterfowling I did. I had included Dave, and he more or less took command of my hunt and then spoiled what had been a good day because I missed birds. On November 22 I decided to have a serious discussion with him.

Foremost, on the 17th I was shooting Marge’s gun, a Ruger Red Label, and since she is a small woman she has had the stock shortened considerably and a large plastic rise installed. It’s hard for me to shoot, but branting is frequently a very wet affair, and the stainless-steel Ruger survives the salt water better than other guns.

But for November 22 I took my old W&C Scott three-inch magnum. When I met Dave at the boat ramp I began discussing what had been simmering since the 17th.

He was taken completely by surprise. It was evident he had dismissed the entire event and showed genuine embarrassment that he had upset me. We just stood awkwardly for a moment, he gave me a somewhat nervous grin, and we shook hands. The air instantly cleared. But I did point to my Scott, and told him to see if it made a difference in my shooting.

It did. We had put out all the decoys, and he had taken the big boat back behind us to anchor. Then he came out in his Marsh Rat to anchor to my left. I told him I wanted him to shoot at the first flock. I had two reasons for this: Of all waterfowl, brant offer the greatest chance of multiple kills when shooting into a flock. When the limit was four there wasn’t much of a problem. With the two-bird limit, it is. In 2005 Dave and I shot into a flock and knocked down six. His son-inlaw was wigeon hunting up the bay, so we were able to give our extra brant to him. Second, I had already killed four this season and he had killed two. Due to the lateness of the tide, we weren’t certain any birds would come, and if they did I wanted him to have first shot.

As it grew later it appeared we weren’t going to do anything. Little squalls blew in, raining hard at times then blowing on past. At about four, Dave hissed that brant were coming in. A flock of seven swept over the decoys; Dave dropped one but was unable to swing far enough to the right for the others. One bird turned and came back, and Dave was frantically trying to reload his 870, rushed his shot, and missed. The brant turned and was fully 45 yards away when I killed it stone dead.

“See,” I told him, patting the Scott.

He paddled his Marsh Rat out to retrieve. His Lab, Angel, came swimming past me from the big boat. Dave picked up the nearest brant; Angel got the second. As they both started back to the big boat, I noticed that Dave was paddling very hard, and Angel didn’t seem to be making much headway. He got to the boat first. I yelled for him to go get her, but he didn’t and she finally made it.

When he returned I mentioned the problems he and the dog had making way against the tide. He dismissed it with a shrug.

After a while we discussed calling it quits. A strong squall had blown in, the high point of the island was now above water, and big waves were beginning to thud around us. We moved the Marsh Rats up onto the bare gravel. But just before we moved I noticed Dave’s Marsh Rat was really bouncing with the waves. Mine was taking them much better. My Marsh Rat is the fiberglass model, weighing 90 pounds. Dave was in one of his new polyethylene models, weighing 60 pounds. The 30-pound difference certainly seemed to make a difference in the waves.

Just as the worst of the rain was passing, another flock of brant came into the decoys in that wonderful cupped-wing glide that brant so classically do. Dave called for me to take the first shot. I muttered back to be sure to select just one bird—don’t flock-shoot. I folded my bird dead. Dave knocked his down as a cripple.

“See! See!” I pointed to the Scott. Dave reached over and gave me a strong handshake.

Both the dead bird and the cripple were in the decoys off the point of the island, about 30 yards away in the whitecaps. The cripple seemed confused, swimming in circles.

Dave unsnapped the anchor rode and paddled out. When he was a few yards away he turned and flashed that wonderful grin that said, We’ve done it. We have our limits of the most beautiful bird on earth. We’ve shot them over my hand-carved decoys. And most important, Life is good! which he said aloud about half the time or silently with his grin. We were both very happy, as only brant can make a waterfowler.

As he went for the dead bird he was getting bounced around. I was momentarily concerned. He had to ride out several waves before reaching over to pick up the floating bird. The cripple had turned and was moving quickly down the bay.

At that point he started after it, and everything became very tragic, very sad.

I called for him to come back and get the big boat. He just kept going. I wasn’t worried about bad water—once away from the island the waves were laying down and he wasn’t having any problems. I just didn’t think he could catch the brant by paddling, and if he chased it too far down the bay it would be dark by the time he returned.

But my tone of voice was more along the lines of an afterthought, sort of a “Gee-whiz, Dave, use the big boat.” What I should have done was bellowed, “Hey dumbass, come back and get the big boat!”

But I didn’t, and I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. I think I could have turned him back. No: I’m sure I could have.

Since then a lot of people have been quick to say, “Well, he died doing something he loved.” But as one of his closest buddies said: “Bullshit. He died cold and scared to death.” I have a bad feeling this was the case. But I frequently find myself hoping that his heart gave out, suddenly, quickly, so he didn’t have to face the sheer terror of that storm-swept lonely bay.

After he disappeared from sight I decided to start pulling in the decoys. Then I heard a single shot, very far down the bay. I decided I’d better get the big boat and go get him. I figured that he’d got the cripple and would most likely paddle over to shore then walk the beach back, as I’d done on the 14th. But then he might just try to paddle back against the tide. I couldn’t help but worry about his bad heart— in fact I mentioned it to him several times when he did something especially strenuous, such as when he packed out two moose on his back in Alaska while hunting with a son-in-law.

I tried to launch my Marsh Rat off the island, and swamped immediately. My Scott was in a floating gun case, and I had to grab it and the paddle as they floated out. With nothing but a quart fruit container for a bailer, it took time to get enough water out of the boat so that I could drag it up on the gravel and tip it over. I tried again. And again I swamped.

I decided that I’d either need to wait until the waves calmed or for the tide to drop more. All this probably took a half hour. But with dark coming on, I decided to see if I could wade out to the big boat. I put on my life jacket, held my gun above my head, and waded out past the worst of the waves near shore; by walking on my toes I made it to the big boat with about a half-inch left on my waders.

There I found Angel hopelessly tangled in a thin decoy line that Dave had used to tie her. She was whimpering in pain. I freed her with his brushcutting machete.

Then I tried to start his 50-horse motor. I’ve never had an electric start on any of my boats. When I turned the key nothing happened. I started hitting switches on the control panel, turning on lights and bilge pump. I looked over everything on the motor that might require turning on, checked the battery connection, unplugged and re-plugged the gas line, then gave up. I pulled down the nine-horse kicker, switched over the gas line, and it started on the second or third pull.

I was down the bay about a mile when the nine-horse suddenly quit. It never crossed my mind that the 50- horse was a four-stroke and the nine a two-stroke. I had just burned it up, although I didn’t figure that out until days later. I spent 10 or so minutes trying to start the nine-horse and then turned again to the 50-horse, saying almost out loud that there had to be something simple I was overlooking. There was. Within seconds I saw that Dave had left the motor in gear, something I never do. Under full power I raced down to Crab City, a bay within the bay. There was no trace of Dave.

I was then certain he had gone to shore after getting the cripple. Likely he was walking back up to the island. I turned around and went back. He wasn’t there, nor did I see him walking along the beach. Even though the water wasn’t bad, I felt the first real concern for his safety. There was a chance he didn’t want to walk the beach in the soft sand, had pulled the Marsh Rat up above the tide line, and was using the hiker’s trail back of the beach, up in the timber, where I wouldn’t be able to see him.

 

Even so, I decided to get to the Coast Guard Station at Garibaldi. I did take a few minutes to hurriedly get in his decoys. I still guessed that he was on shore, and when we rejoined he would want to retrieve the decoys— in the dark. I didn’t take them off the lines; just yarded them, big weights and all, into a pile in the bow. I had to climb over the pile to pull the anchor, and I tripped and stepped on one, snapping the head off. “I’m going to catch holy hell for that,” I thought.

As I raced toward Garibaldi I lost the last light. With the darkness came the forecast storm. It wasn’t the small squalls of earlier but a powerful howling wind with driving rain. Down in the lower bay, away from the protection of the shoreline timber, the water was terrible. I had to cut back on the throttle to deal with the waves. Then I ran up on a sandbar I couldn’t see in the darkness. I quickly jumped out and tried to push off. I could move the boat no more than an inch.

The lights on the dock at Garibaldi didn’t seem that far away. I started shooting in the three-series. Surely someone on shore would hear me out in the bay. After about a box of shells, I quit.

I knew I was safe as long as I stayed in the big boat. I would just have to wait for the tide to return. Previous experience had taught me the wisdom of staying exactly where I was. It was in 1972 on New Zealand’s Lake Taupo. Another fellow and I had been camping and fishing over in the western bays. We started back at midday, encountered a storm, and made it to shore. We set up our tents and I gathered firewood; the plan was to sit out the storm in perfect safety. Later that afternoon things calmed down a little; the fellow I was with wanted to go home, and it was his boat. Against better judgment I took down my tent and got back into that little boat with a two-horse motor and no life jackets: we were a half-mile offshore when the storm kicked up again, this time much stronger. We were lucky to make it back to shore. It was a lesson I never forgot.

I replayed that day as Angel and I huddled in the boat in the driving rain. It was clearly the only thing to do. Dave was safe over on shore; I would be if I stayed put. But I was overcome by creeping fear that Dave wasn’t okay. Maybe he’d had a heart attack and couldn’t paddle. Maybe he was down the channel on some rocks that come up at low tide. Maybe he was floating out to the Pacific.

Angel and I walked across the sandbar to the channel between us and the lights of Garibaldi. One second the lights didn’t seem that far away, the next very distant. I went back, got my Marsh Rat, and dragged it over the sandbar to the channel. There I stood for 10 minutes in near panic debating with myself. I decided to try to get across. I didn’t want to leave Angel in the big boat because I was afraid she would jump out after I left. I put her in the bow, waded out to about my knees, timed the waves, and jumped in. When I did my knee smashed down on her tail and she jumped wildly. That tipped the boat and we swamped.

Again I had to grab for my gun case and paddle. Again it took me considerable time to bail out enough water to be able to drag the boat back to shallow water and tip it up. I anchored the Marsh Rat and went back to the big boat. Almost from the second I got back in, I was hit by panic over Dave’s whereabouts. Soon I was back down at the channel. I decided to try again. This time I made Angel lie facing me. Just a few yards out I knew how very stupid I had been. The waves tossed me wildly, and there was no turning back. As I paddled I began yelling for help, hoping that someone on the dock could hear me. But when I yelled Angel tried to jump up, making it hard for me to paddle, and I hit her on the head to get her down again.

About three quarters of the way across we must have hit some sort of eddy in the channel, because the boat jerked to the side. We took a wave. It was enough to float my gun case again.

I’ve been close to death before. As a teenager I nearly passed from spinal meningitis. I went down on one of my vintage BSA motorcycles, and my body was smashed on the pavement like a water balloon. There was that time on Lake Taupo. Then once on a brant bay I went too far out chasing a flock in my scull boat, and the very last crabber on the bay that evening saw that I was in trouble and came to get me. My arms were ready to drop off from rowing to keep the bow into the waves, and I wouldn’t have lasted many minutes more.

But when that wave hit us, I felt real terror unlike anything else in my life. I remember looking over at the lights in Garibaldi and feeling a strange rage that all those hundreds of people were just going sit there and let me die. A second wave would have finished it. When the tide running out, that channel has a current not unlike a strong river. I would never have been able to make it to shore even in my lifejacket. But a second wave didn’t get us. It wasn’t my time.

On shore I wanted to run directly up to the Coast Guard Station, but instead I had to sit for a minute or two hugging Angel. I grabbed her so hard that she began fighting to get free. I pounded on the door at 6:30. I had last seen Dave sometime after 4. I was somewhat embarrassed to have the Coast Guard begin a search, as I still felt Dave had paddled to the beach. He wouldn’t have been 150 yards offshore when he shot the cripple. But he hadn’t. They sent out boats, brought a helicopter down from Portland. They found him two miles down the channel, floating out into the Pacific. The attending doctor ruled he had died of hypothermia.

At the funeral several members of the Oregon Duck Hunters Association came in full camo. At the gravesite they blew highballs and chuckles. Old Tom McAllister, a retired fish and game biologist, chimed in with a voice brant call. I joined him very briefly, but sadness and the terror of that day caused me to quit in midcall.

Remember I mentioned Dave and the full-plumaged prime drakes? Two months after November 22 I had lunch with Dave Jr. Like his father, he’s an avid and skilled waterfowler. During our lunch he related an event to which I could only reply, “Christ.”

Being a taxidermist, Dave frequently stressed just how difficult it was to get the perfect drake for mounting. He maintained that there were marked differences in plumage after the bird had been shot. Only once in the times we hunted together, with those redheads up in Washington, did he carefully examine a bird and, smiling broadly, pronounced it one in a hundred.

The Pacific Northwest is largely puddle-duck hunting. There are locations with divers, but not many. There are even fewer locations for canvasbacks. About twice a year Dave made a canvasback hunt up the Columbia River in Washington. Aside from the limit of one drake can he would get redheads, scaup, and mallards. But the focus of that hunt was for the one drake canvasback.

“Dad was after me for the past several years to join him on his can hunt,” Dave Jr. said. “Something always came up, so I couldn’t make it. Also, it’s a five-hour drive up there, Washington’s nonresident license costs a bunch, and I didn’t feel that going to that much trouble for just a single duck was worth it.

“But we agreed I’d go this year, and we planned to discuss what day when I was with him at Thanksgiving.

“He loved those drake cans. He’d talk about just one bird for weeks afterwards. He’d take about a million photographs of every one. And a few of the best he’d mount—like he needed yet another mounted drake canvasback.”

Dave Jr. and I were in Newport eating at Mo’s, a waterfront café famous for clam chowder. Our conversation was very emotional for him, and at times his voice rose nearly to a shout. There were tears also. A woman at the nearest table pointedly stared, and I returned a Sonny Liston glare: mind your own business.

“I owed Dad that hunt. So before Christmas I took my son and my sister’s boy, Alex, up there. Dad always hunted with a fellow in the region, so I called him. He told me not to come. There weren’t any ducks.

“We went anyway. We were late putting in, and it was nearly nine before we got upriver. Alex had hunted with Dad a lot, so he was able to point out the inlet they hunted in. But there were two hunters right at the mouth, so I didn’t think it was worthwhile to set up back of them.

“We went on upriver. I found a place that looked okay and set the lines of diver decoys, and after a while two mallard drakes came in. I got them both. But that was about all the ducks we saw. There were no ducks on the river. There were no ducks flying.

“About one we called it quits. I still wanted to see exactly where Dad hunted, so on the way back down we pulled into the inlet. Alex was in the bow looking for the spot. He pointed out a small beach with a large rock behind it. He told me that was the place.

“I beached the boat, and we walked up and stood by the rock for awhile. I had a brief cry, sort of said I was sorry that I had never made the can hunt with him, and then we started back to the boat ramp.

“The river is wide at that point, and I was running not far offshore. Way out toward the middle I saw something white. It was far enough away that I couldn’t make it out. I thought it was a salmon net float or something.

“I was already past it when something made me turn the boat to go out for a closer look. It was a dead drake can. Not just any drake can, but one in perfect plumage. No sign of being shot anywhere: just about the absolutely most perfect drake can of all drake cans in history. You figure the odds! There were just no ducks around that day. None. Then finding a dead drake can ... A mallard, or wigeon, or teal, or bluebill, maybe. But a can? Then to have that can be perfect!

“Dad put it there for me,” he said, staring hard at me.

And as I said, all I could do was whisper my amazement and blink away the sudden tears. That was a hell of a good-bye, but then it was from Dave. He always did that sort of thing.


Worth Mathewson is field editor for Delta Waterfowl, and the author of numerous books about ducks and upland game. You can see the canvasback drake Dave left for us in a photograph on his Web site, www.mallardmarine.com. That’s Dave Jr. holding it.

 
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