Driving down the road the other day, I witnessed my past: A young man, likely in his 20s, blowing a duck call. And not particularly well.
The sandy-haired kid pulled up next to me at a four-way stop, one hand on the steering wheel, the other grasping his fancy, acrylic hen mallard call. His lips mouthed it like he was drinking from a pop bottle.
As his long series of “quacks” mellowed, I nodded approvingly and knowingly. The kid has the fever, I said to myself. Twenty years ago, I’d wear my lanyard of calls around my neck and blow them while I was driving down the road, too, drawing my own befuddled looks.
I didn’t care. In a few weeks, the duck season would open, and I wanted my calling repertoire finely tuned.
I don’t know when it started, but there is a moment in late summer when my personal calendar turns the page and the hunting season begins. The trigger is typically two-a-day football practices, as well as the shorter days and cooler nights. Soon, my imagination takes over, with the verdant landscapes of summer giving way to my favorite hue: Autumn. Out are my fishing poles; in are my shotguns, rifles and other gear. It’s like living in a new world of expectant joy.
For me, the hunting season unravels much like a story: a beginning, middle and end. The beginning is the prelude to the mysteries ahead and the practical, almost ritualistic preparation that goes into every opening day. The middle is the hunt itself. The end is the preparing and eating of game — the celebration.
I’ve hunted nearly everything there is to hunt in Minnesota, but nothing over the years inspires retrospection more than the duck season. The only thing I can compare it to is a young boy’s giddy anticipation of Christmas morning.
Waterfowl hunting is gear-intensive, and I love the seemingly mundane preseason tasks of patching my Neoprene waders, spit-shining my decoys and, yes, honing my calling. It’s a perishable skill to be sure.
When I was in elementary school (and later in high school and even college), my coursework badly suffered before the duck opener. I couldn’t concentrate. I was lost in the dizzying daydreams of bluebills and canvasbacks hitting my string of decoys.
My imagination was fueled by the era’s outdoors periodicals: Field & Stream and Sports Afield magazines, which I smuggled into school and read. Why concentrate on math, science and history when I could be transported to Manitoba’s Delta Marsh for a diving-duck hunt or to the flooded timber of Arkansas for mallards? To paraphrase Mark Twain, I never let my formal education get in the way of my learning.
The marketing mavens of outdoor gear brainwashed me early on, too. Their glossy mail-order catalogs — first Herter’s and later Cabela’s — had me foaming at the mouth as I longingly gazed at the new gear I couldn’t possibly afford. By the time the duck opener rolled around, my kill gland was swollen like the neck of a rutting buck. I’m certain I wasn’t alone.
You’d think I’d mature or mellow with age. I didn’t — and haven’t. Instead, I’ve only added preseason rituals as prelude to the hunting season. Before my black Labrador, Buddy, passed away, we’d travel the gravel, washboard back roads of South Dakota (where I once worked and where Buddy grew up) scouting for our opening-day duck-hunting spot. Riding shotgun, Buddy would turn into a 65-pound quivering mass of anticipation, his tail fanning my seat like a windshield wiper while we conducted our informal brood-count survey.
I can still see his nose prints on my rusting SUV’s passenger window, to say nothing of his muddy paw prints on my seat. As the duck season drew closer, and the more I assembled and arranged my hunting gear, Buddy’s behavior would change dramatically. Normally he was my shadow, following me everywhere I’d go. But before the season, Buddy would lie restlessly on the mat at my front door (he’d even sleep there on occasion), for fear I’d leave him behind. Of course, I never did.
Today, the prelude to the hunting season plays out in varying degrees on social media. Many of my friends, as their Facebook posts attest, already have the fever. One friend — a particularly rabid duck hunter — certainly spoke for the sandy-haired kid I happened by the other day, as well as the countless others who wait with giddy anticipation: “Fully embracing the carnivorous lifestyle. Last batch of free-ranging duckie fajitas for now. Just 48 days until the next batch!”
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.