irrationality is peculiar to phobias. I have never had an accurate intuition in
my life, but a few days before, while snipe hunting near Palm Beach, I had
envisioned one of the particular, very individual giant eastern diamondbacks
striking the back of my knee as I stepped over a log. As I fell mortally
wounded, after blasting the snake, I knew what I would say to my friend:
"Looks like you'll have to clean the birds." This mood had ruined my
shooting for the first hour; it is difficult to lead a bird properly when you
are staring at the ground in front of your feet. But, avoiding the nonexistent
logs, I had begun hitting birds, and we soon had our limit. On the way back to
the car my friend said, "Think about it this way. You're never going to see
the one that gets you." Wonderful.
By midmorning on
Okeechobee, nothing duckwise, as they might say on Madison Avenue, had
occurred. My interest had long since turned from the inanely bobbing decoys to
the overwhelming life in the reeds behind me. In a lifetime as an amateur bird
watcher, I had never eye-balled warblers so closely, and there was a profligate
amount of other bird life. The birds would bathe, then stand on lily pads to
dry, all within a startling few feet of my camouflaged mound in the water. The
warblers saved the lives of the three ringbills that did fly over. Before I
recognized the sound—the staccato huff and sigh of low-flying ducks—they were
well past range.
By noon we
decided to make the run back to the lodge for lunch. My skepticism about
Okeechobee duck life was noted, so we made a short detour out into the lake. We
flushed great rafts of ringbills. Hordes of ducks. Thousands of them, in fact.
I had never seen so many ducks, and the whole purpose of the trip returned in
main strength. The trouble was that it was so hot and clear and calm that there
was nothing to urge the birds in toward the sheltered water of the reed beds.
The fact that I had leaned forward too far to study warblers and had filled my
waders didn't matter. The warmth of the water was tropical. There were plenty
of bass there in the weeds; a rod would have served me better than a shotgun.
At one point a bass fisherman had passed quietly in a boat with an electric
motor and cast a plug near me. I had considered shooting the jitterbug as a
practical joke but instead had raised my camouflage net and grinned. The
fisherman had widened his eyes, then pretended indifference. I should have shot
At lunch we ate a
big basket of catfish freshly caught from the lake and drank a copious amount
of beer to counter the heat. The bass mounted on the lodge wall were immense;
any of the hundreds would have been a trophy in Michigan. My thoughts went back
to all the warblers I had seen just after dawn; they had enough sense to leave
Michigan for the winter while I turned my home into a hibernating cave. If you
wanted to hunt our late bluebill season in December you would likely tear your
waders on the ice.
And as a night
person who can't really sleep before 3 a.m., I found the classical shooting of
Okeechobee most improbable. Dawn in a duck blind back home would require a
tailored polar-bear skin for comfort. People do it by the thousands, but I
don't have to admire them for it. A leisurely breakfast at midmorning perfectly
suits the grouse hunter.
After a nap we
returned to the lake with revived interest. We covered a crazy-quilt 40 miles
on a scouting trip and again saw thousands of ducks, but few within less than
mortar range of shore. I explained the highly dangerous cut-shell method to my
friend. With a jackknife you make No. 6 bird shot shoot like a slug. You fire
over distant rafts of ducks and, you hope, flush them toward your blind. I
leave out the technical explanation here to avoid poisoning young minds.
On our scouting
expedition I shot a particularly low-flying duck—a cripple, in fact—that we had
seen swimming in circles before its wobbly takeoff. Crippled game is the most
unsavory aspect of hunting. It makes any aware hunter queasy, but most know
that it can be largely avoided by not taking the long shot known as "sky
busting." It is a disgusting practice. While grouse can fall with a single
pellet, a duck is a sturdier creature and any grace the sport possesses demands
the etiquette of a surer shot.
We finally found
a likely spot near a point. While putting out the decoys, I saw a large animal
swimming in the water some 50 yards away. It was plainly an alligator. We
motored over to get some idea of its size. Measured against the skiff the
alligator was around 13 feet long, and girthy. It submerged and came up another
30 yards or so away, but not really very far from where my legs were going to
be hanging down through the inner tube. My friend was nonchalant and I tried to
ape his attitude of indifference. Now I had something new to fret
about—compared to which a moccasin would look as puny as a tadpole.
Oddly, I was soon
able to push the alligator from my mind. It has taken me too many years to
learn that when you are hunting you can think of nothing else. There is nothing
more painful than wandering through a clearing thinking about lunch and
flushing half a dozen grouse. This had happened to me one October, and I had
blown the only truly easy shots of the season.
But within an
hour my attentiveness began to dissipate. Again the ducks were out there on the
horizon, sitting still and comfortable like tiny floating Buddhas. A bald eagle
passed high above us. Hundreds of swallows flew in from the lake; they were
barely higher than our heads.