Even beneath five layers of clothing, I could still feel my muffled heartbeat as a single mallard drake broke from a flock and earnestly winged in to examine decoys carefully scattered about a cut cornfield.
Beneath the duck, a group of camouflaged women waited in coffin blinds, fingers poised near triggers. After a series of safeties clicked off and the insistent, quacking calls of the guide ceased, the only sounds remaining were the rotating wings of motorized decoys and the soft whoosh of the descending greenhead’s feathers. Tension seemed to scream in the air.
Each of us awaited the call to fire, fixated on the bird that seemingly hung in suspended animation. The duck that previously had thrust its wings so quickly and fluidly while higher in the sky now seemed to be in slow motion.
The shape of the bird’s body as it readied to land, the parachute spread of wings and brilliance of colors looked like a magazine cover. The still image that remains in my mind could be framed in oak and placed over a mantle. It was that beautiful.
But just like that, the greenhead was gone. Not a shot was fired. We all let out breaths we didn’t realize we had been restraining. Our guide explained that if the shot had been called, we would have turned the bird into “hamburger meat.” We understood, and didn’t protest.
“You’ll remember this moment forever,” one of my fellow hunters said with a smile. She was as enchanted as I was, even though she’d been hunting waterfowl for years. I’d only been doing it for a few hours.
For a first-time hunter, nervousness is inevitable. Normal newbie fears can be quelled, however, by a group of supportive people who are as eager to teach as you are to learn. My first hunt took place in such a situation.
The Delta Divas, the only all-women’s chapter of Delta Waterfowl, were my instructors and companions, in a setting of both water and land at Saginaw Bay, Mich., last October.
Our group of 20 women, all decked out in camouflage, was enough of an oddity to turn heads in the small-town diner where we grabbed lunch.
“Who are all these women?” asked one old-timer.
The Divas are an average group of hunters from all walks of life. One was a former state legislative member, one a special-education teacher, another a professor at Michigan State University, while another is a mother of eight. A 10-year-old girl came along with her mother, too, with enough hunting know-how to put me to shame.
But we were all here to learn, regardless of our experience levels. It would be a weekend of many firsts.
“I’ve been up since 5:30 a.m.,” said Mary Stone, vice president of the Delta Divas chapter, the night before the first hunt. “I woke up and couldn’t fall back asleep. I just get too excited for this every year to sleep.”
For five years, the chapter has held an annual ladies’ hunt during October to educate and introduce women to waterfowl hunting. Although the events have varied from year to year — one year brought temperatures down to 11 degrees with few shots fired, while another sent the women home with at least one bird apiece — all the members eagerly anticipate the hunt.
On late Friday evening, a quick meeting in a banquet hall laid out the schedule for the hunt the next morning. Half of the group would hunt over water in two blinds in the morning, while the rest of the women would set up in a cornfield. After lunch, the two groups would swap locations. I would get the full experience of hunting in both environments — ideal for a first hunt.
After a conservation officer spoke to us about safety, regulations and licenses, we trudged off to bed in the nearby hotel. I could hear practice quacks and honks being blown on through the banquet room as I left.
ON THE WATER
The blackest of mornings I’d seen in years did little to keep me as awake, but the approaching loud, gritty motor of the airboat we would ride in was a good substitute for coffee.
I had been told the boat ride was one of the best parts of the hunt over water. It was. Riding on the Great Lakes in the dark with wind rushing past was exhilarating.
I shared the water blind with our guide and three other hunters. We watched the sun come up to reveal skies that were too blue and too still. Although ducks sporadically flew in the distance, most were too far to hear our calls. I quickly learned to differentiate between the slow wingbeats of a seagull and the faster pattern of ducks, but everyone in the blind still felt a jump of excitement at every silhouette spotted.
“You get to take the first shot,” whispered Sue Tabor, one of my fellow hunters, as the prospect of ducks coming into range became greater.
“No, you,” I hissed back nervously, suddenly intimidated by the reality that I had never pointed my barrel at a bird before, and feeling self-created pressure to make a good shot. I had shot trap and skeet and did OK, but remembering to lead the bird and not snap off a quick shot out of instinct was a skill I knew I needed to practice.
In time, a mallard drake swooped around the blind, curiosity piqued by our guide’s expert call. Tabor’s shotgun cracked. Miss. I swung and pulled the trigger. The duck pumped its wings even harder.
“Keep shooting!” the guide urged.
My mind processed the reminder. I was using a Benelli M2 20-gauge semi-automatic shotgun with two more loads in it so I could shoot again. My second shot was poorly timed, though, and the bird lifted away unscathed.
Still, as I clicked my safety back on, I felt gratified. The feeling didn’t leave, even though none of us used our guns again that morning.
This was fun.
IN THE FIELD
Arriving back on land, we met the group that hunted in the other water blind, where we had heard shots ring out. Sure enough, the women had killed a green-winged teal and a drake wigeon. The morning group that hunted the cornfield, however, saw as few birds as we had underneath the calm sky.
Regardless, we went to the cut cornfield. A varied lineup of goose and duck decoys greeted us, prearranged by our guide, Tom Mueller, a veteran waterfowler sporting a heavy necklace of bands. A row of layout blinds faced the fake birds, hidden well under sharp stalks of corn. I gamely climbed in, found the blind surprisingly comfortable and listened to how the game would be played.
“Keep your safeties on till I say, ‘Get ready,'” Mueller instructed. “Be ready to shoot when I say, ‘Cut ‘em.'”
Yet, many of the women had doubts about how often the call would be made. The evening before, a full moon had shone, inviting the birds to feast under moonlight instead of during the day when we sat waiting with guns. It was simply poor timing.
For most of the afternoon, we socialized, huddled cozily in our blinds as rain intermittently sprinkled and I intermittently daydreamed. No alarm snaps me to attention as quickly as a honking goose call, I discovered, accompanied by the soft flapping of a black flag beckoning geese down.
But these educated birds didn’t want to be beckoned. No matter. As shooting time came to a close and we prepared to leave, there were some “aw shucks” sentiments, but no one sounded pessimistic. “That’s why it’s called hunting” was the motto repeated throughout the day by many of the women.
SOUND OF WINGS
Most of the women had to depart that evening, so the next morning’s hunt comprised just a group of five. The promise of an impending storm that afternoon kept our spirits as high as the ducks and geese were surely flying above our cornfield-framed blinds somewhere.
It amazed me how unpredictable waterfowl can be. A flock could set wings, come in close and then reluctantly dart away, or a distant group of birds might suddenly materialize above our heads, emerging from the bleak fog. Vigorously flapping wings would swing by in a rush, a sound so entrancing that the chapter president, Becky Brown, proclaimed, “That sound of their wings: That’s why I got hooked on this.”
As we studied the sky, lessons in waterfowling were passed along from Mueller to the women about decoy arrangements, banding and wind direction, along with an hour of goose calling practice.
The chorus of experimental calls might not have brought the birds in, but at one point, a pair of Canada geese hovered temptingly above us. Looming large, they swept right in front of the blinds as our guns cracked. Again, their movement looked nearly frozen, like thumbing through a flipbook page by page and seeing every stage of their wings in flight.
My inner reminder to lead the birds was too late, and my shot behind. But Marla Frear, the only woman with more than one kill to her name that weekend, crumpled one of the geese, making it look easy.
The day wore on, beaming sunlight, with nary any wind or rain. Temperatures held in the 70s as the other Delta Divas departed.
I stuck around with the guide and two of his waterfowling friends, optimistic the storm would arrive soon and the birds would move.
It never happened. Our guns lounged as lackadaisically as we did.
But as the shooting time slipped away and I picked up the last of the decoys, I understood why waterfowlers call themselves “quack addicts,” “quackheads” and “duckin’ crazy.”
Even when the sky was void of silhouettes and the small talk had died down, and even without the promise of birds and without the booms of gunshots, I realized that I am a waterfowl hunter.
Angela Pham is associate editor of Wildfowl.