Most of you probably know that ducks migrate. In the fall they head south and in the spring they come north. There are a few of you who might not know this, but I’m sure you’re the ones whose primary reason for visiting Vermont is to get an Armani suit at half off. You can stop reading about here. The rest of you may proceed.
Ducks have their own highways – they’re called flyways and they correlate basically to large bodies of water that lie in a north-south path. These lakes and rivers have to do with the amount of available water for the ducks to land, feed and sleep during the course of the southward and northward migration. It is to them as Interstate 81, Motel 6 and Stuckey’s are to the great homo-sapien mini-van migration. There is the Atlantic coast flyway for obvious reasons, and the Mississippi flyway that follows the great river southward. These are the great interstates of the duck world. There are other lesser flyways such as the Champlain-Hudson flyway and the Connecticut River flyway that feed into these majors, and then there is the Mettowee Valley flyway. This is the blue highway of the duck world. In our experience these roads are adorned with small motels with individual cabins, souvenir stands that sell moccasins and maple syrup, or further south, boiled peanuts and stuffed baby gators. It is the forgotten path taken by those ducks that wish to discover the heartland.
There are two opinions as to the nature of the intelligence of the ducks that take this path. One, this is the intelligent duck route, as they avoid the high traffic, heavily hunted routes such as the Atlantic, the Hudson and the Mississippi flyways where the gauntlet of gunfire is significant. Under this opinion mallards and blacks fly the big routes, Anas platyrhynchos and Anas rubripes fly the Pawlet Valley. There is the other opinion, that these ducks are obviously stupid and therefore lost. Unfortunately in either case, there seems to be a dearth of adventurous and intelligent, or stupid and wandering members of the duck family and therefore a mere smattering of duck traffic up the Mettowee.
But, it’s down this path in the late days of autumn that our few, selective feathered brethren encounter the Pawlet Duck and Retriever Club. A small (very small) group of overly optimistic duck hunters, we believe the fact that you might even see a duck is impetus enough to climb out of bed on a frozen November morning and go sit and watch the sun come up.
The PDRC is located squarely in the heart of the Mettowee flyway. To put this in perspective for those of you unfamiliar with the madness that is duck hunting, ducks on the Mettowee is equivalent to residents in Manchester on Columbus Day. There is a chance, perhaps through divine intervention that you might see one.
Perhaps the most telling statistic of the duck traffic in this little valley is the PDRC membership. There are six of us, give or take the occasional guest - myself, Murph, Tom, and the three dogs (this means that one of the dogs has to hold office under the normal President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer hierarchy), but this where we live and this is what we love.
Our clubhouse is Tom’s house, located directly on the shores of the Mettowee. Nearly every morning of the duck season we gather before work around 5:00 a.m. for coffee. Tramping into Tom’s kitchen in waders and boots, we stand in one area to avoid tracking mud and debris into the rest of the house and maintaining the good graces of Tom’s lovely and extremely tolerant wife. The dogs meet and greet with raised hackles and noses shoved in disgusting places until they discover they’re best friends, at which time they race relentlessly through the house in search of bones and toys. Our cars are loaded with decoys and camo, hunting stools, kennels and guns. Were one to do a per duck expense report, each duck harvested would be worth a small engagement ring. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it. There are of course economic advantages to hunting ducks in southern Vermont, one being we don’t spend much on ammunition.
Tom’s deck overlooks a substantial run of the river and this time of year, the fire of autumn foliage is nothing but embers and ash. The mornings are sharp and the coffee that much more comforting. This isn’t exactly Stuttgart. If not familiar with Stuttgart, Arkansas, it’s the duck hunting capital of the world. It’s here that the world championship duck calling event is held and thousands upon thousands of ducks (and hunters) risk their lives each year to pass their way south. It is to duck hunting as Broadway is to the theater. Pawlet, to continue the analogy is street theater.
We members of the PDRC work together at Orvis, which allows us a bit of leeway to pursue the elusive duck, as it is in fact part of our business. Essentially we hunt two areas. On mornings when duty calls and we need to make an early meeting, we simply walk down the hill from Tom’s deck, put our decoys in the river and kick back in the bushes. I think we actually shot three ducks the entire season here, but the coffee was good and the conversation better.
On those mornings when time permits, we head for the “Lease”, a secret section of the river, kept private by the fact that nobody else gives a damn. Here the river opens up and the ducks can see a big stretch of water and slow, wide pools in which to set their wings and drop. When the weather gets cold and the still waters of the valley freeze over, these pools suddenly become an attractive option for open water.
Accompanying the three of us is the trio of Labradors – a frenzied, whirling dance troupe of otter tails and enthusiasm. Once out of the car, they scream across the pastures in pursuit of nothing but freedom. Flo is the matriarchal ten-year old that belongs to Murph. She has seen the great duck wars on the West Coast when Murph worked for Bauer and her heroic retrieves are legion.
Trilly is Tom’s driven adolescent whose decoy retrieves far outnumber her duck retrieves. This is partially our fault as she has seen far more decoys than actual dead ducks, but whose desire and willingness to hurl herself into freezing rivers is legendary and whose focus on the sky and its denizens is truly uncanny. Trilly is also famous for her games of keep away, and is often seen headed upriver, duck (or decoy) in mouth with Tom in hot pursuit screaming NO! Perhaps the ultimate dog/owner moment came when Tom literally dove through the air to tackle his dog and the two wrestled in the mud like bimbos in a beer commercial. I had a near death experience swallowing my chewing tobacco in uncontrollable laughter.
My dog Pickett is the infant, a young chocolate who made his first appearance in the blind at four months and promptly curled up on a decoy bag and went to sleep. As the season progressed and he grew stronger, he watched Flo and Trilly until that day toward the end of the season when he strained at the lead and implored me to let him have his turn. Flo led Trilly into the water as a pup and imbued her with her incredible desire to retrieve. Trilly has since done the same for Pickett. His first tentative steps in the water are now Herculean leaps thanks to Trilly’s example. To watch them together crashing headlong into the current is a retriever owner’s great joy.
In truth there were in fact great days, “great” being a relative term. Fact is, there are no bad days duck hunting, only unsuccessful ones. Most of the time we walked out of the field with a bag full of decoys and some disappointed dogs, but every once in a while we would get lucky.
When we hunt the lease, we put out the decoys and then spread out in the hedgerow to wait. We separate partially to cover more of the river, but more importantly to keep the dogs separated and quiet. This is generally fruitless as all three love to warn us of impending ducks (or duck as it were) by barking as loudly as possible.
Murph is the veteran duck hunter and as such the resident caller. When Murph cuts loose with a hail call or feeding chuckle, most of the time the ducks turn and take a look. As for my calling, instead of “Hey over here, the food’s great!” I somehow get the impression I’m saying, “Get the @#%$%^ outta here you m+_&*$@^%* er!” I’ve never been able to prove it, but the fact that the ducks seem to fly much faster when I call gives that impression. I’m not allowed to call when there are ducks around. Generally when ducks are spotted we rely on Murph to call them in. The problem is Murph is a bit hard of hearing and as such between the dogs barking and us screaming at Murph to call, we generally scare away the few lost souls that do happen by our hunting ground. Tom’s shotgun is legendary for jamming at just the right moment. I remember wondering during one instance when ducks were actually coming in, why he wasn’t shooting only to look over and see him banging his shotgun against a fence post.
Taking all our foibles into consideration, we do though, occasionally harvest a duck or two and there are those remarkable days when we walk out with our limit and the office is, later in the morning, regaled with stories of incredible shots and heroic retrieves.
I remember an e-mail from one of our colleagues recounting a trip to Arkansas where he and his guides saw thousands of ducks and had their limit in minutes. I think this would be intriguing once or twice, to say I’d done it, perhaps more importantly just to see that many ducks, but I don’t think I would trade my valley in Vermont and my hunting companions for any of it. I’ve huddled by the river, hands wrapped around a warm cup and watched a cloud paint a mountainside with ice. I’ve witnessed blood red skies and fields touched by the first sunlight suddenly shimmer as if covered with scattered diamonds. I’ve shared time and laughter with two great friends and three remarkable dogs. What few duck breasts I have are savored over the course of the year and the memory of each successful hunt vivid in its rarity. Stuttgart may be a great place to hunt, but it depends on what you’re hunting. Me, I’m hunting more than just ducks.