Despite the cold October morning, I felt quite warm and comfortable as I fired-up the vehicle in the morning darkness. Much to my delight, my girlfriend Ellen, chose to join me and my two friends, Dan and Ben, for a morning duck hunt on a tributary that flowed into the Allegheny River. It was still dark when Ellen and I pulled to the shoulder of the road, right behind Dan’s parked pickup. We quickly gathered the shotguns and a couple of Wood Duck decoys and we walked down the bank of the creek to our hunting area. Dan’s yellow Labrador retriever, Molly, loped beside us in the darkness. The water was clear and appeared to be at a normal level. Our neoprene waders kept us warm and dry as we waded into the water.
Just before the tributary empties into the Allegheny River, it forms 3 channels. These three channels segregate 2 islands that are both long and narrow. Each island has ancient sycamore trees that tower over the flowing waters of the tributary.
We chose to position ourselves on a small island in the largest of the three channels. A huge dead tree had been brought to rest on the cobblestone bank of the small island. On the downstream side of the small island, a quiet eddy swirled gently as the main current swept along the rock-strewn bank. In this eddy, we began to place our decoys. Our headlamps bobbed in the early morning darkness as we quickly set to work.
Once the decoys were set, the four of us all gathered next to the large dead tree. This would serve as our blind. Ben and Dan positioned themselves towards the projecting roots of the tree in order to keep an eye upstream on the tributary. Ellen and I looked downstream towards the Allegheny River. The light was gathering in the river valley and we could just barely see the steamy mist rising from the clear water. A distant whistling of wings was heard as a flock of ducks—well out of shooting range—flew high overhead. Their forms were silhouetted against the inky blue sky of the early dawn.
Shooting hours had arrived. We didn’t have long to wait before a small flock of Wood Ducks flew over one of the islands. The ducks abruptly came in from high above the island’s large sycamore trees. This took all of us by surprise. The ducks had already flown past Ellen and I before we realized what had happened. Luckily, Ben was able to manage a shot and brought down a hen.
We saw few ducks for the remainder of the early morning. Dan decided to walk downstream along the bank of the far channel. He hoped to jump-shoot a couple of Woodies once he turned the point of the island and started working his way back upstream. The rest of us opted to stay at the dead tree in case any birds pitched into the decoy spread. The rays of the sun were finally poking through the tall sycamore trees as we watched Dan slosh his way down the small channel. Molly bounded through the water next to him.
Many long minutes went by before we heard the report of Dan’s 12 gauge. I whispered to Ellen to get ready in case Dan’s shot pushed ducks upstream. We waited anxiously but nothing flew by. I stood up from my crouched position behind the large dead tree and glanced upstream. I saw the brief flutter of wings far in the distance. Quickly, Ellen turned around to look upstream. Two ducks were flying low over the water, straight towards us. Ellen raised her double barrel 16 gauge right as the lead Wood Duck saw us and flared. With a tremendous flapping, the drake Wood Duck began to climb in altitude as fast as he could. The blast from the first barrel was aimed too low, but the second shot hit and the drake bobbed in the air. Surprisingly, the bird continued to fly up in an attempt to clear the tall trees on the bank. I raised my shotgun and was able to bring the drake down.
When Dan returned, he was carrying another hen Wood Duck. Ellen and I decided to walk around the second island. We waded down the main channel and rounded the tip of the island. We slowly sloshed through the channel and kept our eyes glued to the water and the banks as far upstream as we could see. We came to a fallen tree that was spanning the width of the entire channel. We both carefully climbed over the log and started to work our way upstream again. We hadn’t taken more than two steps when suddenly, under the overhanging grass of the bank, we heard the frantic splashing and flapping of something on the water getting ready to take flight. With a hoarse screech, a hen Wood Duck burst through the grass on the bank and began to race upstream. Quickly I shouldered my gun and made a quick shot on the hen.
Once Ellen and I waded back to the large dead tree, we consulted with Ben and Dan. We all decided that the morning hunt for ducks was over. Ellen and I said our goodbyes to Dan and Ben as they walked back to their vehicles. Ellen and I decided to stay out for a little bit longer. We each had brought fluorescent orange with us in our backpacks. Both of us pulled out our orange vests and hats and began walking the bank of the river looking for squirrels. It wasn’t long before we saw a fat Gray Squirrel foraging around on the ground under several Shagbark Hickory trees. Ellen shouldered her shotgun and with a nicely placed shot we had a squirrel to add to our harvest.
This mix-bag hunt stands out vividly in my memory. I loved sharing this hunt with my friends and loved ones. On that morning, everything seemed perfect. The accumulation of experiences from the beautiful morning light shining through the sycamore trees, the steam rising from the clear waters, and the sound of ducks flying overhead in the early morning, all made for a memorable hunt.