The following appears in the January issue of California Sportsman:
By Tim E. Hovey
The four of us filed into the small blind, following the red light cast by our headlamps. I took the seat on the far right; Mike was next to me; his friend Brian was next to him; the final hunter, who I first met that day, had already been seated in the best spot on the far left before we got in. Time has erased his face and name, or exactly why he was invited. I was, however, going to remember his presence for a very long time – for all the wrong reasons.
This particular hunt took place almost 20 years ago when I started getting back into waterfowl hunting. Mike had extended the invite to me, and I was looking forward to the hunt. When I’d pulled in, I noticed two other hunters with Mike standing next to a few piles of decoys. Brian, I knew. The other hunter I did not.
We exchanged handshakes and pleasantries and started gathering gear for the hunt. The blind was a short walk from where we met, and the first thing I noticed was that the new guy – we’ll call him Doug – was only carrying his gear. Me, Mike and Brian were carrying three big bags of decoys, chairs, coolers and all that is needed to be comfortable in a blind for a morning hunt. Doug didn’t even offer.
At the blind, Doug quickly staked out the spot with the most shooting opportunities and sat there while the three of us placed the decoy set. While we tossed plastic ducks in the water, I pointed to the blind, gesturing for an explanation of why Doug wasn’t helping. Mike simply stated, “Don’t ask!” It turns out that Doug was Brian’s neighbor and had kind of invited himself along. Brian had given him a ride that morning, surprising Mike.
Mike had made it clear that he wasn’t happy with the unexpected visitor, especially for a hunting blind that only accommodated three people comfortably. They were still in uncomfortable silence when I’d arrived.
With 20 minutes until shooting time, we got our gear set and got ready. A strong odor of alcohol wafted through the blind. I looked down to my left and watched Doug take two long swigs from a silver flask and tuck it back into his jacket. He then bent down and pulled a half-filled box of shells from a blue gym bag. In the dim light, I noticed that he had brought No. 7 lead shot shells, which were illegal and way too small for waterfowl.
Mike noticed it too and told him he couldn’t use what he brought. “Who’s going to know out here?” Doug said without even looking at Mike. As the short exchange started to become heated, Brian offered up a box of his steel duck shells to diffuse the situation. It became clear that no one was comfortable sharing a blind with Doug.
The last straw, and the last thing I remember before I opted to leave the blind and hunt 100 yards down the bank, was Doug taking two shots at a pair of ducks that landed in our decoy set, 15 minutes before shooting time. After that morning, I never saw Doug again.
I LOOK AT WATERFOWL blinds the same way I look at small compact cars full of people on a lengthy road trip. If the people involved don’t mesh or get along with each other, it can become uncomfortable and unenjoyable quickly. Fortunately, I could easily remove myself from the hunting situation. I made sure that I never hunted with Doug again.
I have shared waterfowl blinds with dozens of friends and acquaintances over decades of hunting. We’ve been brought together by a love of the activity and camaraderie. Those who remain in my small hunting circle are enjoyable to be around, get my warped sense of humor and, above all, follow the rules. They are as serious as I am about hunting and can easily transition to a laugh-filled evening over pizza and beers afterwards.
Recently, I was invited to hunt waterfowl with my buddy Mike Bridges and his son Matt. I first met Mike a few years ago when he approached me about helping him improve waterfowl and upland habitat on his property. He had heard that I had worked for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and wanted to know if I was interested in helping him out. Once we discovered our shared interest in hunting and fishing, we became friends and shared outdoor adventures together.
THE MORNING OF THE hunt, I arrived about an hour before first light and we piled into Mike’s brand-new Polaris and headed to a spot where Mike had erected a temporary two-man blind. Matt graciously volunteered to wade out and set out several decoys, while Mike and I cut vegetation to add to the outside of the blind. A few minutes before shooting time, Mike and I got into the small portable structure and Matt set up about 10 yards to our left.
While we waited for ducks to come in, Mike and I talked about the property and future hunting and fishing trips. We joked about silly stuff and essentially enjoyed each other’s company. A shot from Matt pulled us back into the hunt.
During a time of the day when ducks should be filling the sky and looking for places to feed and land, the area was quiet. We could all tell it was going to be a slow morning flight. Matt had dropped a female gadwall a few minutes into shooting time, but not much else was flying.
Mike and I started talking about where he wanted to place additional blinds on his parcel. As I sat there listening, it occurred to me that ducks or no ducks, I was glad I had accepted the hunting invitation. Mike tried apologizing for the lack of birds, but I told him I didn’t care. I was comfortable, had great company and was hunting an amazing piece of property.
The morning sun came up and still nothing was moving. The day was forecasted to be windless and blue skies – not the best conditions for waterfowl hunting – but I don’t think any of us cared. At this stage of my hunting career, the company and location are what do it for me.
I remember we shot a few ducks during that hunt, but I don’t remember who shot what, and I don’t really care. I will remember sharing a blind with a couple of good friends and watching a beautiful sunrise.
Back at Mike’s place, his grandkids came out to check out the birds and hold our ducks. As we all snapped some photos of the kids, I felt myself smiling. “The next generation,” I thought.
OVER THE YEARS, I’VE hunted with some great people, including family, and I always tell them the story of Doug. I often wonder if some very slight adjustments on his part back then would have improved his standing during that early hunt. I guess we’ll never know.
Those who I regularly hunt waterfowl with are there because I enjoy their company. We’re serious about hunting, but not beyond laughing and having a good time. As I get older, I notice that keeping my hunting circle small works for me.
I like spending time outdoors with good people; it’s that simple. Life’s too short to hang out with a Doug! CS