An hour before
dawn it was unseasonably warm, with the wind out of the southeast pushing a
bank of thunderheads in the moonlight. It was indolent weather, the sort one
associates with the morning hatch on a trout stream in July. It was
mid-December but there were mosquitoes in the air at the marina. I swatted at
them while my friend finished loading the skiff with decoys and shotguns and
attempted to coax his yellow Labrador, Rain, into the boat.
Rain is a
wonderful dog. When you are around people and call out to her, everyone looks
up in the air. If you shout "Rain" angrily, the people are likely to
look askance at both you and the sky, and feel sorry for the dog. On this
morning Rain was acting put upon and, when called, lay on the dock with her
feet in the air. She didn't want to go for a boat ride in the dark for as yet
unrevealed reasons. I lifted the dog gently into the boat as the motor
proved to be the strangest body of water I've ever been on. Leaving the marina
we traveled down a long canal, still in total darkness. The canal abuts a huge
dike built during the Depression to control Okeechobee's floodwaters. The lake
level is thus higher than the canal, so your boat must go through a small lock
that opens at 5:30 a.m. for duck hunters, bass fishermen, commercial catfish
long-liners and other odd citizens who might want to be out on the lake as the
world wisely sleeps. The lock was strangely thrilling to an outsider. As the
skiff rose a foot under the arc lights, the attendant yelled down for our
boat's identification number and the operator's name. I learned later that our
goings and comings were recorded, in part to keep us from staying lost if we
got lost. Okeechobee is an immense lake, and the swamps of palmetto, saw grass
and cane are a navigational nightmare that takes years to solve. To the
inexperienced Northerner, Okeechobee looks like the "green hell" of
stories and motion pictures; a sense of insecurity mixes with breakfast in the
pit of the stomach.
It was a
half-hour run to our spot, and our speed in the dark was appalling, nearly 40
knots, with bugs stinging against the face so powerfully that you tried to keep
your head down. The speed seemed senseless, but we wanted to set out our decoys
before dawn broke. One consolation was that Okeechobee lacks the logs and
deadheads that plague northern lakes. I signaled happily to my friend as our
boat kicked up large rafts of ducks. He shook his head and yelled,
"Coots!" over the roar of the big outboard motor. A coot is a daffy,
unwary member of the rail family. In sporting terms shooting a coot is akin to
shooting a parked car.
clearly understood only by those who share them. My wife's vertigo I find
quietly amusing, though she hid in the backseat in terror on a day when we
drove over the Bighorn Mountains. Mice and spiders can crawl over me if they
choose. And on airliners I often sleep during takeoffs and landings. However,
snakes drive me up—and over—the wall with a visceral kick of adrenaline. Thus,
when we reached our spot and I stepped off the bow of the boat into a large
truck inner tube with a sling in the middle, my heart pounded at the thought of
water moccasins. The inner tube is unquestionably a wonderful device for
warm-water duck shooting, but within moments, sitting in one, you feel a
terrible sort of vulnerability. Your wadered legs hang down treading water—an
obvious alligator meal—and though the top of the tube is six inches above the
water, you are sure this is no barrier for the feisty moccasins that slither
around in search of Michigan hunters dumb enough to challenge Okeechobee.
I pulled myself
through the reeds to where my friend stood on a ladder in the chest-deep water.
Rain sat on her platform looking utterly bored, her eyes peeking out from the
camouflage covering. She was glad to see me and wriggled precariously on her
narrow seat. I explained my fears. My friend shooed me away.
can't hunt this close together. We'll make an outline, and the ducks won't come
into the decoys."
"I'm not sure
I like you anymore," I said, pushing back toward my spot. "I don't see
any ducks around anyhow."
"Ssshhhh!" he hissed, pointing out into the lake, now gray with
I could see a
large raft of ducks about 200 yards away that he seemed to know weren't coot.
My fears were not really allayed, though. I had heard a probably apocryphal
story about a water skier who had fallen into an Alabama lake and been attacked
by hordes of moccasins. But then a giddy resignation began to come over me. How
noble to die a truly "natural" death. It was the same feeling I have
had in grizzly territory in Montana or at sea when the motor fails. Or in
Africa once when we lost our transmission near a pride of lions.