All My Heroes are Duck Hunters

March 29, 2009 by  

By PJ Maguire

PJ patiently waiting on late season mallards

PJ patiently waiting on late season mallards

The Old Man and I spent many summer afternoons discussing the usual topics; investing, religion, fishing and of course duck hunting. He was a strong Catholic, the kind that kept a painting of the last super by the dinner table. We said grace before we ate our meals, and we enjoyed many a glass of Burgundy from the box he kept hidden in the cupboard. It is important to understand that the Old Man and I had no blood relation. He wed my Grandma’s sister in the forties and spent the summers of my youth across the lake from my cabin. Regardless he was referred to as Grandpa, although I never said it to him in person.

The Old Man loved to tell stories about waterfowling in North Dakota, particularly Devils Lake. Years ago a good friend of his owned a duck shack and a piece of land North of Devils Lake that was engulfed by Wildlife refuge. It was the kind of place where mice would scamper out the front door when the shack was first opened for the season. For years he would go there, bringing a handful of my cousins along in the station wagon, and hunt ducks and geese.
I  was a quiet child and could sit and listen to him for hours. We had a few things in common; crappies were our favorite fish to catch, and chasing ruffed grouse was our passion. The old Man could remember the smallest details of hunts that had occurred years ago. Like how the sun caste shadows the day he doubled on ruffs near Bemidji. The stories I would hear more than once were his favorites, and the memories would bring a smile to his face.

I usually would bring one of my bird dogs across the lake with me. The Old Man called my dogs; mutts, soup hounds or lap dogs. They were allowed in my cabin and not in his, so they sat outside whining. He loved to tell stories about his Golden Retriever that had spent some nights in the finest hotels in North Dakota, but never in his house.

Once on a trip to Devils Lake a young man he worked with complained that Ginger was stinking up the station wagon. “What’d ya bring the dog along for anyway?” the young man inquired. The Old Man, who was not so old at the time replied, “She will retrieve our game for us.” He looked into my eyes and a smile swept across his face like a gust of wind across the prairie.

The Good Old Days

The Good Old Days

He explained to me that they used to pass shoot snow geese coming off a body of water North of Devils Lake; I have to believe is what we now call Dry Lake. “The geese came off into the wind real high. About like the ceiling!” The Old Man would lift his arms and smile up at the imaginary geese.

“The young man, boys and I were on the East side and I cannot remember how many geese we dropped but we sailed one into the sheet water.” He sent Ginger on the long retrieve. “She got about as far as half way down the point and stopped and looked at me like. ‘Dad, you cannot shoot this far.’” He sent Ginger out into the ankle deep water another hundred yards and stopped her with a whistle blast. The Old Man paused and made a motion with his left arm like he was a quarterback dropping the football over an incoming defensive tackle on a screenplay. “Like power steering she turned left and caught the wind.” With her nose to the ground she plucked the white bird the muddy field.

When Ginger returned with the bird the young man noticed something odd about it. “The snow goose was wearing a target!” It was a collared bird that had been banded earlier that year in Canada. The young man asked if he could have the collar and the Old Man graciously gave it to him keeping the leg iron for himself. “The young man commented that he had never seen a dog perform such a task.”

Yes the young man in the story certainly did learn the value of hunting with a well-rounded retriever. Losing birds is a waterfowler’s worst nightmare. When his last dog passed on, Blaze, I was about Eleven. I offered to let him take my Water Spaniel, Cocoa, hunting anytime he wanted. As I was leaving he gave me a bag full of steak scraps for Cocoa. He brushed his white hair down his brow with his palm and said, “I shoot big ducks PJ.” The Old Man chuckled and returned to his coffee.

The Old Man still has the goose’s leg band and we still sit at the lake. When he is not yelling at the television during a Twin’s game the Old Man still tells stories. Now that I am older I have my own stories too, but I’d rather listen to his.


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