A reptilian monster inhabited our favorite duck hole.
The black, stagnant water quickly closed around our waders as Bill Cockerill, Tom Doyle and I waded into the dense and tangled South Carolina swamp. It was mid-November, but we had yet to have any wintry weather. There would be no frost this morning, or any ice to crack.
However, some mallards were down and had been working Pocallo Swamp -- a wetland about 20 miles long and no wider than a half mile across. Once, it had stood with magnificent hardwoods and well-defined creeks teeming with redbreast, bream, jackfish and largemouth bass. Then one day, loggers mowed down the beautiful ancient trees. The swamp quickly became a place of briars, rotting trees, felled trees, underwater stumps and deep holes where massive stumps had been extracted. It turned the swamp into a mallard magnet. The place also housed black ducks and hordes of summer ducks.
Sometimes a flock of pintails would drop into the decoys.
It was truly a wonderful place to hunt.
15 Feet Long
I was not comfortable wading in darkness to a spot named "Bloody Hole" for the numbers of ducks we had killed over the years. I picked my way over and around logs, stumps and collapsed trees, because their huge roots provide shelter for thick-bodied water moccasins.
The swamp primeval also housed alligators -- one in particular.
I saw the beast sunning one summer day on a heavy mat of grass. He looked to be 15 feet long, with a girth of 4 feet. He was indeed a monster. Fish, turtles and raccoons were his usual rations, with an occasional swimming hound during the early hunting season, before the reptile retired for winter. He was simply doing his job as a top predator.
Wading in the Dark
We came to a creek, where we waded gingerly across, but still experienced spillage into our waders. We exited the middle quickly to find waist-deep water.
As we waded, I wondered what it would feel like if suddenly the gator grabbed me and began his death roll. How long would it take me to drown or to have my bones crushed?
Sounds silly, doesn't it? But I'll admit I was spooked that morning. I kept one eye forward and one to the rear.
"Lord, help me," I said a bit too loud.
"What was that you said?" Cockerill queried as we splashed forward.
"Just mumbling to myself," I answered.
"Sounded like you were praying," he said.
I said nothing more.
Progress was slow, but we kept going. Mosquitoes swarmed incessantly, and the slap of bare hands hitting faces broke the hum.
A snake. I could see the snake's serpentine movements in the water beneath the moonlight. A cottonmouth moccasin?
We were lathered when we reached Bloody Hole. All three of us lit up. I smoked, and the nicotine began to quell my fears -- my anxiety of being attacked by an alligator.
It was not the way I wished to go. No sir.
Summer Duck Bounty
Daylight crept in. We seeded the water with two bags of decoys, giving us 30 fakes to fool fowl. Morning would dawn crimson and follow with a hard, hot China blue sky.
We were certain we would kill a few summer ducks at day's good light. But the mallards were of concern. It was not mallard killing weather.
A couple hundred yards down the swamp, we could hear the restlessness of summer ducks splashing about as if they were bathing.
Light cracked the eastern horizon. A few wood ducks, maybe a dozen, sprang from the water. They became winged black knots above the treetops, leaving to destinations unknown. The swamp wouldn't see them again until sunset, when they would return to bed down for the night.
Then, the mass of summer ducks lifted from the water and flew directly over our heads.
We fired and fired, until our two-bird limit per man was filled. All were dapper drakes.
My pair would grace the table baked brown and served with cornbread dressing.
The sun was up and in fine shape. The blue sky was high and forever reaching. The mosquitoes were gone. But we had yet to hear the first deep-throated quack of a mallard hen. Not even a blackbird winged overhead. The temperature was getting hotter. The weatherman forecasted the temperature to be in the high 80s. It seemed for sure we had skipped winter.
Noon came. Still no mallards. Sweat streamed like narrow creeks down our faces. We considered pulling the decoys, cutting our losses and wading back to the hill. I had picked and gutted my two summer ducks.
We began to wonder if someone had played a fine joke on us, duping us into believing a big bunch of mallards was using the swamp. If so, we took no delight in the fun.
I had also gotten over the overwhelming sense of apprehension of a gator getting me.
Yes, it was well beyond me now. The silliness of the matter embarrassed me for having such thoughts.
An alligator getting me? Preposterous. Buffoonery. But I had not shared these feelings with my gunning mates.
"Not going to happen today!" Cockerill called. We agreed to wrap and sack the decoys.
We were in the decoys when we heard them. If you're a mallard hunter, you know the sound of their arrival. The heaviness of wingbeats above the trees. Mallards by the droves. A well-formed dress parade, with orange webbed feet stretched wide with wings aflutter.
We dropped the decoys and hurried back to where we had stored our guns. We shot as fast as we could reload. Dozens swam in the decoys while we shot mallards on inward-bent wings. It seemed as if we could not shoo them away.
Where did they come from? We did not know. But for the moment, it wasn't important. We were among beating wings and bones.
ing for Life
It seemed as if it took hours to fill our limits, but it lasted only a few minutes. With the gunning over, greenheads and susies were still dropping out of the sky.
One drake fell about 60 yards in front of me in a pile of watery brush. I waded to retrieve the limp duck. I was halfway back with my mallard in hand when something reached up and caught me in my crotch. I could feel the creature's long, toothy, leathery snout.
"Gator!" I screamed.
My fear was now real. It had happened. An alligator had latched onto me. I was a goner for sure.
Down into the water I went. Over and over we rolled, and I surfaced barely long enough to get a breath. Once as I came up spewing water and longing for air, I heard Cockerill and Doyle yell, "Hold on! Hold on!"
The leviathan had me. There was nothing I could do but scream and thrash as I wrestled to free myself.
How much longer did I have? I saw no vision of things past or present or things to come.
There was no bright light at the end of the tunnel for me. Nor did I see my wife or kids.
Neither did I try to relay my final messages to them to keep them on the straight and narrow. I had no memories. Just darkness.
I felt the gator crunching my thighs, but I felt no pain. My glasses were gone.
How much longer could I battle before I passed out? Why weren't my partners trying to free me from the beast?
My strength ebbed.
Suddenly, the fight was over. The gator had released me.
Then, looking down with my fuzzy eyesight, I saw the head rising between my legs. I thrust my hands into the water to get a grip on his head. The monster emerged.
It wasn't an alligator, only an underwater log I had stepped on and bubbled up between my legs.
Tears of Laughter
For a panicked moment, the "gator" was real.
There I stood, my waders ballooned with water, my glasses swallowed by the murk and my two white-knuckled fists grasping a log.
Because I had nothing to stand on to drain my waders, Cockerill and Doyle each took me by an arm. They dragged me to the hill, where I rid myself of my waders.
My partners laughed uncontrollably at my wrestling match with a phantom gator. Tears rolled down their faces.
The story spread quickly through our small town. For a long time, I carried a new nickname: "Gator!"
Jon Wongrey of Sumter, S.C., continues to hunt ducks near toothy swamp creatures.