November 03, 2010
Keeping the memory and dreams of an old Friend Alive.
Lately I've been thinking about Harry Terry. I always do when autumn flames the land with her ripened foliage and ducks begin their long trek south. I guess its because Harry is dead. He died in August of 2001 from a massive heart attack following a short illness in which his kidneys were failing. Not long after he passed, his youngest son, Max, came by the house and gave me a dozen of Harry's decoys and one of his calls.
Harry's decoys were of the old style and were certainly not anatomically correct with near perfect feathers generated by computer. The anchor lines were weighted with old rusted bolts, lug nuts and sparkplugs. And every year in late summer he would paint the bills of the drakes and hens. The drakes received an almost red color and the hens a gaudy orange application.
The ducks didn't seem to care. There were no frills to Harry who was an extremely large man and as tall as timber. His remarkable strength matched his unusual skills at calling and killing ducks in public places. Harry never placed one of his large feet in a high-dollar lodge. No sir, he'd jump right in the middle of the crowd and come out on top. He knew every creek and run and hole in the swamp that he hunted near home. He always said, "All little creeks run into large creeks that will take you to the river and out of the swamp." More than once Harry was called out in the middle of a brutal winter's night to go and fetch some lost duck hunter or duck hunters. He never came back empty handed.
Harry did many things in life to earn money to duck hunt. Once we had a mighty hurricane by the name of Hugo to hurl itself from the coast through our South Carolina town. Harry was out the next morning with chainsaws and a hastily thrown together crew cutting trees. His last endeavor was a barbeque business.
In the beginning Harry cut his own wood, preferably oak, for green oak is a slow burning fuel and emits a lot of heat. Then he decided to start burning wooden pallets, which he got for free. One day a customer said, "Harry, why do use pallets to fire your ovens?"
Harry smiled a toothless smile and said, "Sir, my barbeque is French. I call it Barbeque Paillasse. Paillasse is French for pallet."
Before Harry began losing weight, he was so large that he couldn't find a pair of waders to fit him. So he had a young man drag him in his boat through the swamp and then cut branches to cover him and the boat while he shot ducks. Harry also had a charcoal grill between his legs for warmth. Not to say that Harry wasn't naturally insulated.
I remember going by his small barbeque restaurant late one Friday afternoon before the night crowd came. Sitting across from him was a woman who was probably in her mid-30s. And as we say in the South she had been rolled wet and dried hard from rough living. Even so, she was still quite good looking. She started reminding Harry about his days when he ran a beer joint aptly named the "Bear's Den."
She asked him if he remembered the day when a man, who had had a little too much to drink, smacked Harry in his face.
"Oh, that hurt," Harry said and put a massive left paw to his head.
"But you got 'im good, didn't you, Harry?"
Harry returned the smile.
"Harry, them were good times!"
"He'd close down his restaurant on January the first and would remain in Arkansas until the season ended in late January. Soon he was outstripping the locals in killing ducks"
Before the duck hunting slipped into the abyss around home, Harry was satisfied hunting the swamp. The ducks, mallards, were in large numbers and there was no need to stray.
Then he and his crew began going to Stuttgart, Arkansas, to hunt public land. He'd close down his restaurant on January the first and would remain in Arkansas until the season ended in late January. Soon he was outstripping the locals in killing ducks. This probably wouldn't have worked for any other outsider, but the locals just naturally took to this immense man. And before leaving he would barbeque a hog with all the trimmings for his Arkansas buddies.
Then one day he got sick and could no longer go to Arkansas or anywhere else. That, I believe, is what really killed Harry.
Harry also had other duck hunting ambitions to hunt other places. "I'd like to go to North Dakota to shoot mallards like I've read about in the magazines. You've been there, haven't you?"
I said yes.
"Did you like it?"
Then one day he up and bellowed, "Let's go!" And we made our plans. This was about a year before he passed.
The years slipped by and there were other places to go. Then I met artist and writer Bob White who lives in Minnesota. He said he had some land near Ashley, North Dakota, and that we should meet and share a duck blind. Later on he said that a friend of his by the name of Art Boger had a house in Ashley and was coming out with his son-in-law Chris Niskanen who is the outdoor writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota. Bob said we could all stay with Art at his house and hunt for a couple of days.
This would work just fine because I was going to Prairie Sky Ranch near Veblin, South Dakota, to hunt ducks and sharptail grouse for three days. Ashley wasn't that far from Veblin.
In mid-October of 2007, I left my home in South Carolina with Joe Jackson who was an old high school friend whom I used to hunt and fish with when we were kids. Crammed in the back of Joe's pick-up was one dozen of Harry's decoys and on my call lanyard was the duck call Max had given to me. Harry was going to North Dakota to duck hunt. We had a wonderful duck shoot in South Dakota and knew that it would be as good or better in North Dakota. And for Joe, returning to North Dakota would be somewhat of a reunion. He was in command of an Air Force missile silo in Minot in the 1970s and remembered some great mallard shoots.
After leaving South Dakota I began to remember my first duck hunt in North Dakota.
"Crammed in the back of Joe's pick-up was one dozen of Harry's decoys and on my call lanyard was the duck call Max had given to me. Harry was going to North Dakota to duck hunt"
It was during the mid-80s and America's wetlands, the duck crib for many of the states, had been in a severe drought for a number of years. Gray clouds over a waterfowler's eyes. But I wanted to see the wide openness of the prairie country where brown was once the color from the seemingly endless herds of shaggy-haired buffalo.
Through contacts I met Woody Woodward who lived in Jamestown, North Dakota, and he was none too optimistic about my coming out because of the poor conditions.
"I'll give you a ring this fall if I think you should come," he said.
I held fast to my belief that somehow there would be an improvement. Then one night in October the phone rang. "We've got some ducks, but I can't promise anything spectacular," Woody said.
"I'm on the way." And like a good Marine, who is always at the ready, I maintain that discipline to be ready for any waterfowl emergency. I was out of the house with my Black Lab within the hour and rolling towards North Dakota. Two days later, under a thumbnail moon, I pulled into Jamestown.
Woody came by the motel to introduce himself. We chatted for a while and when he left a deep slumber came over me until my sleep was broken by a heavy hand on the door. It was then I was introduced to Woody's brother Bob. That morning I killed my first North Dakota greenhead from a flock over a marsh when the sun rimmed the horizon. But nary another mallard came.
We left and began to ride and lay witness to the sun-cracked potholes so long deprived of moisture to pack its wounds. Such conditions would bare no feathered fruit.
Bob drove to another marsh where he had found some mallards the day before my arrival. We put out the decoys and took cover in a dried sunflower field bordering the field. We had not settled back 10 minutes when quicker than a shadow€¦.faster than a greyhound, a flock of mallards drove into the decoys from a cloudless forever reaching azure sky. A feathered treasure wrapped with ribbon and bow. A single fusillade ensued knocking down our limit of three greenheads per gun. My Lab was gainfully employed as she raced to and fro nine times to snatch from the water limp mallards in a way only a Lab can. This is what I remembered.
This past year we rolled into Ashley a bit before noon and, as directed by Bob White, parked near the only gas station in this small farming hamlet of 800 souls. A seemingly externally idyllic village where you can find a pinochle game most anytime of the day at the Dakota Family Restaurant.
I knew rightaway that Harry would have liked Ashley and Ashley would have liked him and his unpretentious ways. He would have liked to go to a bar called the "Roost" where on the weekends you can cook your own steak on a small grill and have no one to blame if it isn't to your liking.
The weather was warm and I got out of the truck and walked into the gas station to get a soft drink. I asked the woman behind the counter if there were many ducks in the area and believed I had another answer coming other than what I received. "No. They must be in Nebraska," she said.
"This could not be. I wanted Harry to have a mallard shoot to match his vision"
This could not be. I wanted Harry to have a mallard shoot to match his vision. I did not haul Harry's spirit and decoys 1,500 miles to hunt a desert. But my first North Dakota hunt was also under a heavy shadow.
I relayed the news to Joe. He did not speak.
At precisely noon, the designated time Bob was to meet us, he pulled up beside us with Art and Chris. From there we went to Art's house on a quiet street flanked with trees in autumn's bright clothing. Lorraine, Art's wife, welcomed us as we entered the house. After changing clothes, we left with Bob and went out into the countryside dimpled with ponds and lakes and sloughs and potholes to find Harry some ducks.
We looked at several and chose to hunt a small cattail marsh in the navel between two high hills. One of those places where you know at any moment ducks will top the high ground on fixed wings and race into the marsh with their colors flashing in the clear water as the sun strikes the afternoon land beyond all time and haste. That moment never came. We stayed and watched the moon, a very pregnant yellow orb, rise over the hills to cast its brightness in the still water.
Morning came cold and married to a wind and with Harry's decoys I began to seed the water where it was hoped they would take root and flourish as they had for Harry. Yet I could not help but laugh at those ridiculously brightly painted bills though they had seduced many a duck.
We jumped a goodly number of ducks, mostly gadwalls, going in, and felt they would return perhaps with some mallards, for I wanted to put a flock of those birds on top of the eyeless, voiceless fakes for Harry.
Many gadwalls came back but they were skittish and with splayed webbed feet landed in the middle of the pond where they bottomed up to feed. No green came with them.
A pair of gadwalls later cupped into the decoys and both tumbled into the high cattails. Harry and his decoys had gotten their first North Dakota ducks. Ducks, yes. Mallards, no. They just weren't there and there was no evidence of a migration coming through. No wedges of high birds. It had to be the weather, for where we hunted was rich with water and food. Yet not everything that shines is gold. This is duck hunting. Even the best can sometimes go sour.
That afternoon we took Harry to a rather large lake and set-up a shore blind in hopes of getting some divers to decoy. This, too, turned rancid.
Tomorrow morning's hunt found Harry and his decoys in another marsh. Once again desolation covered us. The evening hunt would be our last. It could not end in disappointment. It just couldn't. For me, yes. For Harry, no.
The water was as still as a summer's pond in its quietness when we returned to the marsh we had hunted the first morning. Bob went down to the far end while Joe and I remained fairly close together. And for the last time I put out Harry's decoys. Hope was not gone but it was fading as does the sun at night's approach.
High overhead were endless flights of snow geese heading for the Arkansas and Texas rice fields. Perhaps the mallards were behind them, for something was pushing down the snows.
Standing there alone with my thoughts, I apologized to Harry. When we left home I did so with my mind cluttered with North Dakota mallards swinging into the wind and hanging over his decoys as they had been witness to for so many seasons with Harry. An infestation of wings. Harry's bigness wrapped around his 20 gauge that he shot with such accuracy.
What birds we were seeing were probably home-raised ducks and scattered over all creation. Later I would learn that
there was a herd of mallards up north around North Dakota's Devil Lake. Many more still in Canada. They had just not come down. Not yet.
With about an hour until dark, I looked up to see a gadwall crossing the marsh. I pushed Harry's duck call against my lips and began to make music. The bird wheeled to the right and came on the run straight to Harry's decoys. The duck caved-in as scorching steel met feather, flesh and bone. Three more times this happened. Harry's decoys still had charm.
Harry was killing ducks.
Joe was now shooting. So was Bob.
While out retrieving a crippled gadwall that had sailed for about 100 yards before collapsing, a flight of those big red-headed canvasbacks came zipping by me and heading straight for Joe. I yelled. He fired. A handsome drake left formation and plowed into a high weeded bank. It was Joe's first can.
The North Dakota duck hunt had not been a barn burner and the ducks we shot were not mallards but on that final afternoon we packed out short of two birds from having our limit. I was satisfied that Harry finally got to North Dakota. He would enjoy the ride home. Harry will return when green is on the prowl.