BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Damn it! I watched helplessly as the gadwall flew off, not a feather scratched. Missed again. I turned to my friend Charlie as I jammed three more shells into my shotgun. “It’s going to be one of those days.”
And it was. Charlie, Holly and I were in the marshes of the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge. We arrived long before dawn and didn’t leave until after sunset, more than 13 hours later. It was cold, too, a damp, sapping cold that belies the real temperature. The wind blew from the south all day, gusty and sullen.
This made the shooting challenging. But I’d be lying if I blamed my epic suckage last week on the wind alone. While all three of us shot our limit of seven ducks each — and I even got a bonus snipe — it took me an embarassing 51 shells to do it. I am pretty sure I’ve never shot so poorly. I did not get my final duck until about 15 minutes before sundown.
Yet, inexplicably, I remained positive throughout most of the day. After all, I was in one of my favorite places on earth, doing one of the things I love to do most — and we were seeing ducks. A lot of ducks. It was a non-stop flight; we think the birds were flying around all day to eat up before the coming storm. And where there’s a duck in the air, there is always hope.
Hope. Other than our hope that there is some sort of life after death, nothing in human endeavor is as driven by hope as is the gathering of food in the wild. Anyone who has ever hunted, fished or foraged knows this intimately.
All day, as I huddled against the cold watching ducks fly, I hoped they would fly close enough to me for a shot. And when they did, I hoped I would hit them. When I hit them, I hoped they would die cleanly, and not lead me on a real-life wild goose chase. Finally, when I had the bird safely in hand, I hoped I’d get another.
Frustration and disappointment creep in when we do not find what we seek. A duckless day. A dry, barren mushroom woods. An empty stretch of sea. Any of us who fish, forage or hunt have felt the sucking emotional sink that is an hour, two hours, three hours — days, even weeks — spent fruitlessly seeking our quarry. Trophy hunters feel this worst of all: If your quarry is a giant buck or a monster elk or mammoth bear, you can hunt for weeks without even finding what you seek, let alone get yourself close enough for a shot.
I don’t trophy hunt. Quite frankly, I lack the patience. And over the years I have honed my hunting and gathering skills specifically to avoid testing what limited patience I possess. I don’t hunt ducks much in November, a largely duckless part of our season we call the doldrums. I wait for rain to check my mushroom spots. And when it comes to fishing, I carefully monitor tides, temperatures and seasons before I wet a line. I am not one of those guys who says a bad day fishing is better than a good day at work. I love my work, which is, in part, to catch fish.
Hope for me is an hourglass. Its sands fall inexorably toward despair, toward packing up and going home, where cold beer and hot food await. The feeling accelerates as the sands trickle out, and I begin to argue with myself. Fer chrissakes, let’s get out of here. We’re wasting our time. (Yes, I develop an alter ego in these arguments.) Wait. Just another few minutes. Maybe the wind will change. Maybe the tide will turn. Maybe the mother lode of mushrooms is just around this next tree. Maybe…
I don’t gamble, but gamblers tell me this is precisely the argument they go through when playing slot machines or blackjack or whatever. It is the fundamental hope that your luck can change at any moment. We recall fondly those instances when patience paid off, when the wind did change, the tide did turn, and the motherlode was indeed round that next tree. It is this hope that keeps us going, no matter who we are or what we do.
I went three hours without hitting a duck last week. The sands of my personal hourglass were all but out. I’d missed I-don’t-know-how-many and had even needed to go back to the truck for more shells, something we call the “walk of shame.” I began to think about quitting.
Then a drake pintail roared down from the stratosphere, directly over my head. By then I’d surmised that one reason for my epic suckage, other than the wind, was that I’d been shooting with my face mask on. This, I suspected, was messing with my mount; shooting a shotgun accurately requires you to mount your gun in precisely the right place, and part of that process is jamming the gun’s stock against your cheek. As I watched the pintail fly closer, I whipped my mask down, carefully mounted my gun and swung the barrel though the bird: tail, body, beak, BOOM! Mercifully, miraculously, the bird fell dead in the water not 10 yards from me.
And just like that, the entire day changed. The hourglass flipped. In fact, I took it off the table altogether. The pintail is a prince among ducks: fatty, sweet and large. It is consistently the best-eating duck in the Pacific Flyway. And it was my fourth duck of the day. I’ve been shooting a four-bird average all season, so in this one shot, I’d maintained my average and had a wonderful duck for the table.
This sort of turnaround is a universal feeling. I’ve fished for sturgeon for the better part of a day — a windless, sweltering, oppressive day — and then, finally, one strikes and it turns out to be a keeper. You immediately forget the hours of waiting and remember only the catch. I was hunting black truffles with Jack Czarnecki last year, with little success, when I finally found one the size of a walnut. I was elated. ”That truffle’s good for another hour of hunting,” Jack said.
And he’s right. The hourglass flips and we are buoyed again by hope. At least for a while.