“Son, I want you to listen to me, and I want you to listen real good,” Arthur Farrell said into the receiver. “Son, there are ducks on the river here at the farm. Ducks like you’ve never seen before. I mean thousands and thousands. Green heads and flapping wings as far as you can see down our little half-mile stretch.”
The day had started off quite miserable for Arthur. Well, not miserable in the way of your “every man,” but just not well spent to a fellow like Jeremiah Johnson, Jim Bridger, or Arthur Farrell, whose wife of more than 30 years kindly asked for some chores to be done around their home in North Alabama, an hour due south of his beloved farm in southern Tennessee. With the season all but over—for deer and ducks—Arthur had not found the energy to make a six-hour drive out to Arkansas to duck hunt, especially when he would have been the only one in camp and no ducks to speak of for miles around. So instead he surrendered to domestication, lovely Mary the whole while giving honest direction to the chores needing completion. Please, dear, those leaves there. And yes, that dogwood needs straightening. That was until about eleven o’clock when Arthur’s nephew, Rob, also known to have found the law profession a successful and rewarding endeavor, pulled up to the house.
“Hey Uncle A., Aunt Mary.”
“Top of the morning, Rob,” they chimed.
“I had meetings in town this morning that ended quickly and just wanted to see if you would like to ride to Tennessee to kill some time, Arthur.”
By the grace of God, only Mary and Rob could tell you that the rake Arthur had been holding in his hand had not yet hit the ground by the time he rushed inside to change clothes, grab his coat and boots, and was back out the door walking towards Rob’s truck at a stern and determined pace. Mary, with a smirk on her face, never said a word, just waved them goodbye as they pulled out of the drive.
“Thank you, nephew. Lord knows that rake isn’t going anywhere, just like the leaves that’ve been lying there since fall.”
Entering the farm, they went first to the cabin to check the pipes as it had been in the single digits for near two days—almost unheard of in southern Tennessee! The well-insulated water system was all fine, except for the spring from which they drew potable water that was frozen solid. Arthur bent to his work rewrapping the insulation around the pipes when the music first hit his ears.
Quack, quack, quack! The calls in succession from down toward the river. But not just one duck…
“You hear that?” he inquired; looking long at Rob to make sure that he too had heard ducks.
“I did. I did hear ducks. Mallards too. Let’s drive down and see what we see.”
“That’s crazy,” Arthur muttered, leaning downhill toward the river with his good ear. “There might be hundreds sitting down there. Let’s ease through the woods and get a better look.”
Sure enough, green covered the expanse of the little river for as far as Arthur and Rob could see. It was certainly shaping up to be one hell of a finale to an already good winter, if they’d hang around another day.
“I’m going to call Jack and tell him to get here, quickly! You go to town and get your license and duck stamps if you don’t already have them.” Arthur was rummaging through his old blind bag checking the loose shells. His calls were there as were his leaky old waders, but no matter. No decoys, but that too didn’t matter as the ducks really didn’t have a choice. With the ridiculously cold temperatures over the last few days, every body of water that didn’t move would be frozen. A hunt like he anticipated would probably only happen once in a lifetime.
Jack showed up late that night, having driven five hours to get there on the insistence of his father, who had never sounded so excited on the phone. He was almost giddy, Jack thought.
Arthur barely slept that night in front of a roaring fire that fought back the cold with a wicked flare, dancing upon the walls of the little cabin in eerie harmony. Mallard dreams filled his subliminal world when he finally did fall into a restless sleep, only to be awakened by the chilly air as the fire burned down to red embers. Finally, it was time to go.
The quacks and feeding chuckles were near deafening as they slowly approached the river from above, stepping gingerly on the damp leaves in wader boots. It was still dark with only a sliver of moon that passed behind curtains of clouds in steady increments to light their way. The plan was for the three of them to sit together. Jack had his yellow Lab, Aubie, on a leash, which didn’t do much good. You only need to pick up a gun to send him into fits. The sound of ducks nearly caused a conniption.
They entered the river bottom, dropping to hands and knees, and crawled to the bank. Luckily, the bank was elevated and they’d be just above the river, mere yards away. Hearts raced like a steady horse as they waited for the seconds that seemed like ages tick away until legal shooting time.
“Alright,” Arthur began in a hoarse whisper, “when I give the signal, we’re going to jump up and commence to shooting. But, be damn sure that the duck you’re shooting at is off the water and is a greenhead. Let’s limit the hens, if possible.”
You might as well imagine a plus-three rapid for the raging ripple of water caused by the fleeing ducks. For an instant, Arthur didn’t fire a shot. In fact, nobody did, only watching as thousands and thousands of mallards and black ducks rose from the little river. As far upriver as they could see and as far down, it was as if they were reliving the heyday of ducks, depicted in such classic photographs as a million birds rising from Claypool in Arkansas when nobody worried about the decline of the population. Then, depletion in anything natural just wasn’t possible.
The split second ended in the click of a safety as Jack, youthful and eager, picked out a hovering greenhead and fired. Arthur and Rob were close behind as ducks began dropping into the water, Aubie’s excited whimper barely audible as he broke above the beautiful pandemonium of whooshing wings and the boom of their shotguns and the aromatic smell of gunpowder. Seven ducks were down, nearly half their limit, as the whole flock circled back over the river, setting another pass. They quickly retrieved what they could and let the dog do the rest.
The sound of wings again, the clicking of safeties, the barrage of gunfire, and it was all over. Smoke and fog cordially mixed over the river as the distant roar continued off through the hills of southern Tennessee. What a spectacle!
The hunt was over, but the flight had only begun. The whole group—minus 15 drakes—continued circling, trying to sit back on the stretch of river where they felt safe and out of the wind. Despite the shooting and the dog in the water retrieving their brethren, it was almost if the Holy Land called and they could not resist.
Arthur, Jack, and Rob stood on the bank watching, always appreciative, and if a tear developed in one eye or another, nobody noticed or dared to point it out. It was truly a thing that makes life worth living; hunting worth the dollars spent and the cold endured. For times like those are meant to be cherished and enjoyed with those we love, with a respect to the quarry and a trembling flick of the hand that said, “Fly on, and we’ll hopefully see you next time.”
Image by Josh Wolfe