Perhaps my most memorable hunting trip is that of my son's first duck hunt. Oh, Alex had been duck hunting with me often enough, but this was his first year carrying a gun into the blind, and a very special hunt in every respect. Idaho has a special youth only weekend for waterfowl hunting in which youth between twelve and fourteen years of age get to hunt, the weekend before general waterfowl season opens. This season allows kids to enjoy hunting before the birds get decoy wise and are educated to the ways of the hunter each fall.
We rolled out of bed to alarms screaming at the very dark hour of 3:30 am, fixed a thermos of hot chocolate and one of very strong hot coffee, cooked some pancakes and eggs then loaded our gear into the Suburban before heading out to the Pend Orielle River. The morning was unseasonably warm, being in the upper 40's at four in the morning, with a very clear, black sky. The morning star shone bright as we headed east, out of town towards Cocalalla Slough. As we drove along the river, my son, Alex and I discussed the different shooting situations he might encounter, shoot-don't shoot scenarios, reviewed bird identification and discussed leads and follow through on the shot. It was old news, but worthy of review before his first hunt carrying a shotgun.
We arrived well before daylight, with not a hint of breeze blowing. We had to portage our canoe for a considerable distance to gain access to the slough and as we packed decoys, shotguns, thermos and life jackets to the water's edge, the air was alive with the music of ducks, hundreds of them. The unmistakable highball of mallards, the whit-whistle of widgeon and teal by the scores. Finally as we finished loading the last of our gear into the canoe, the first glimmer of dawn's gray light began to show in the eastern sky.
Time had passed quickly, and it was later than we realized as we silently slipped our paddles into the mirror still waters of Cocalalla Slough. We had about three quarters of a mile of waterway to cover as daylight grew brighter, illuminating a layer of fog that hung two or three feet over the water in the stillness of the morning. Yet more birds joined in the choir of morning serenade as time ticked on, and we paddled onward. We had the entire place to ourselves that morning, and as I glanced at my watch, it was already two minutes into legal shooting hours!
No sooner had I checked the time, then a lone gadwall drake came screaming up from behind us, out about thirty yards from the canoe. Alex gave an anxious glance at the duck, then at me. After giving him a quick nod of approval, he cocked his NEF single-shot twenty gauge and swung smoothly through his trigger pull as he followed the drake. To my complete surprise and elation that bird did a complete cartwheel in the air before hitting the water about forty yards away! Talk about proud! Alex's first duck hunt, his first shot of the day, and he bagged his first bird of the morning! His grin was worth all the lost sleep, the time spent shooting tossed tin cans and floating sticks. A lifetime memory had been made in a split-second! He was hooked!
We collected Alex's first duck, and headed for the inlet where Cocalalla Creek runs into the slough. There, on the north side of the inlet we set up a dozen mixed decoys. We set out a few mallards, a pair of canvasbacks a few redheads and some teal. We set out the decoys, and as I was getting into the canoe to go hide it, a pair of mallards tried landing in the decoys! The drake never made it any further! Alex's single-shot twenty barked again, and the greenhead landed six feet from his blind! Two for two! I almost didn't want him to shoot again... it might ruin his record!
I did manage to hide the canoe and get halfway back to the blind before a third shot rang out, and a resounding KERSPLASH followed! As I parted the cattails nearing the blind, Alex was carrying a widgeon drake by it's neck! He was now really getting into his bird hunt! The sun just peeked over the Cabinet Mountains and started to warm us, and dissipate the blanket of fog that hung on the water when another pair of mallards made a half circle around us and set their wings for a landing. Once again, a widow left alone, leaving a nice greenhead mallard in the cattails within twenty feet of our blind! This was awesome! It was so special to be out there with my son, and not be shooting myself. It was HIS hunt, and his alone. No competition, no wondering who's shot it was, and I couldn't have enjoyed the morning more in any way!
By eight o'clock, Alex had fired nine of his two and three-quarter inch loads, and had seven ducks to round out his bag limit for the day! Not once had I even bothered to use a call, as the birds were so unaware of the very real danger of that little single-shot twenty gauge since bird season didn't open until the following weekend for fall hunting. Just as we finished a cup of hot drinks and were considering picking up our decoys, Alex heard honkers! We hunkered down in the head-high cattails watching the slough to the west of us, listening to the melodious call of the honkers as they made their way towards us, twenty feet off the water. I could see Alex getting almost uncontrollably exited as the birds made their approach. Fifty yards out, forty, thirty, twenty, then as Alex stood up, they flared both directions at once. As the little twenty gauge spoke, a big gander dropped slightly, his legs and head drooping in flight. Then, to my surprise, almost as fast as I could shoot a pump gun, Alex shot him again with a load out of his single-shot. Down came the goose. It looked like a 747 coming down so close to us!
What an incredible day! First duck hunt, first two hours hunting and there in the canoe with us was Alex's first full limit of ducks and his first Canadian Honker! The day will be burned into our memories for our lifetimes. That day, with the wonderful weather, the mild temperatures and the terrific hunting success, and no competition, a lifelong passion for waterfowl hunting was passed along to the next generation! Alex would rather go duck hunting now than go either deer or elk hunting! Yes, elk camp is a writ of passage here, and fall just wouldn't be the same without our annual ten days or two weeks at elk camp. But the truth is, that Alex would rather be duck hunting!
It's funny, the next weekend we returned to our previous weekend's duck blind, and repeated the success of the first outing. Alex and I both limited out on ducks before nine in the morning, and we each bagged a honker apiece. It was a great time out together, and we had a wonderful day. Although Alex now has a twelve gauge 870 shotgun, when he really wants to kill something, he always grabs that single-shot twenty gauge. His confidence in his abilities, and that little gun were so deeply instilled on these two hunts, that I am truly amazed.
I'm grateful to the State of Idaho for making available that special youth waterfowl hunting weekend. It provides the perfect environment and conditions for that first experience in the duck blind to be not only productive but comfortable, safe and enjoyable. Too, I appreciate that special hunt, because without it, Alex's first day in the blind as a hunter, I would have accompanied him, but carrying a shotgun as well. I would have missed out on an incredible experience with my son. It was HIS hunt and HIS day! Alex's memory will always keep it that way, as it should be! As for me? I too remember it as his day! I wouldn't have wanted it any other way!
This year, my oldest daughter, Sarah, is old enough to hunt and took her hunter's safety class this spring before turkey season. Neither she nor I can wait until this year's special youth waterfowl weekend! I pray that the Lord gives us as special a day together on that first duck hunt as Alex and I did!