There’s something about waterfowling lately that makes me feel old. Really old.
Earlier this fall, a classmate was spinning a great yarn about a summer deep-sea excursion out of Rhode Island. It played out like something Papa Hemingway might have written — the hook, what felt like hours strapped to the seat in the sweltering heat, a huge bluefish, and the blisters to show for it all.
His eyes widened as he remembered it; mine did too as my imagination took off.
“We should plan a charter trip this fall,” he suggested.
Awesome, I thought, finally someone at Yale who might be game for sharing in some sporting weekends. So I steered the conversation toward my real interest, waterfowl hunting. Since my freshman year, I’ve mulled the idea of trying to shoot in one of Connecticut’s public hunting areas but never tried.
An alluring statement on the dust jacket of “Gunning the Chesapeake,” by Roy Walsh, one of the classic books on the subject that I remember from boyhood, has kept the notion of ducking here in the front of my mind. It reads: “Mr. Walsh is a graduate of Yale University, though he says there were several times when his academic standing was precarious because he spent too much time duck hunting on Long Island Sound.”
It sounded too good. So I pressed my luck. Lack of a hunting partner was one of the significant hurdles to my Sound shooting reverie.
“We should do some duck hunting this winter, too. I’ve heard crazy stories about canvasbacks out on the Sound.”
A strange look.
“You’ve never been hunting?”
“No. You hunt a lot?”
He tried to pretend he at least knew people who hunted. Somehow I doubted it — the look on his face told me otherwise — and I started to doubt too that there was anyone to share my idea with. Walsh’s book is nearly 50 years old, after all; the cover is coffee stained, and the inscription on the title page from my grandmother to my grandfather says, “Merry Christmas, 1962.”
Times have probably changed more than I realize. But nonetheless, I spent much of Thanksgiving break out in the marsh back on the Chesapeake. The earflaps on the old hunting cap I wore still kept me warm. My old 12-gauge, the classic Ithaca Model 27 pump that my grandfather gave my father 40 years ago, shows no rust.
I was up before dawn each morning, tramping out through the muck with my father and brother for a chance at the early teal that we always missed. I was usually in bed by 8 or 9 if I didn’t get a nap — I’d call my girlfriend to say good night, and her family would not have even eaten dinner yet.
The ducking has been slow so far; it’s still too warm. It was in the 60s by midday all week. We shot three ducks in three days, including a merganser — “enough to make the pot stink,” as an old-timer once said. But no geese.
It was really the geese we were there for, being the first open season since I was a toddler. Large V’s flapped and cackled up and down the river at dusk and dawn. But none paid any attention to our rig of decoys or our calls. None even swayed at our invitation, much less flew in range. Maybe times had changed.
On the final day of our trip, my brother slept in, then left for a lacrosse tournament. He skipped the morning’s hunt. My father quit the blind, too, after 8. The geese were not interested that day, either, it appeared. It was a bad wind, blowing into the blind, and the sun was in my face. I was tired and disappointed.
And then a single goose flapped and set up to land in my decoys. It came in from behind the blind because of the wind, and I did not see it until it was damn close. The thing never made a sound — I heard the rustle of its feathers first. My heart skipped, and I had my goose.
As I clambered into the rowboat to retrieve it, the excitement coursed through me. I had trouble rowing in a straight line. And as I walked back to the house with my bird, I couldn’t help smiling. It was the first goose taken since we bought the place, and the first goose I had ever taken.
As my roommate and I savored the grilled breasts last night in our apartment, we determined goose rivaled any steak we could remember. I had been skeptical when told the meat was so tasty, never having had the opportunity to eat it myself.
I imagine some things have not changed that much after all.