November 03, 2010
Who else would create something as magnificent as a wild duck?
I have been contemplating it for quite some time, and I have come to the unquestionable conclusion that God is most definitely one of us -- you know, a duck hunter.
The thought first entered my mind while I was standing on the deck of our lodge overlooking Lake Oahe, S.D., in 1995. My best friend and hunting partner of more than three decades, Mark Saner, and I were enjoying our final sunrise of the trip before pushing off for our Kentucky and Ohio homes. The west side of the Missouri River resembles the desolation of the moon, however, the landscape was bathed in crimson tones of the early morning sun and the airspace above it was crowded with tens of thousands of migrating geese. Giant honkers, miniature cacklers, snows, blues, Ross's geese and specklebellies too numerous to count traded up and down the river, creating a deafening symphony.
"Look at that, admiral," I said to my friend. "Half of the geese in the flyway are up there this morning. I'll bet you that God is on the lake hunting today."
Saner looked at me as if I'd just lost my mind.
"Why would you say that, Griff?"
"Look at that scenery, the sunrise and all of those geese," I replied. "Where else would he be?"
The admiral smiled and slowly nodded his head.
"What sort of gun do you suppose he uses?" he quizzed. "A Benelli? An 870?"
"Nah," I said. "The man has to swing a perfect side-by-side. Probably a Purdy or maybe a Churchill. A Midas grade I would imagine."
God has to be a duck hunter, because who else would create something as magnificent as a wild duck? Sometimes however, my calculating mind tends to take things to an even higher level. Now, we all know Jesus found his disciples on the Sea of Galilee, where they were all fisherman -- allegedly. I maintain they were all duck hunters, and it was simply the off-season. After all, garnegays, a beautiful Eurasian puddle duck related to teal, migrate through the Holy Land on the way to their wintering grounds in central Africa, and because the Chinese had yet to invent gunpowder, nets were the only way for them to take home a limit for rumaki. But let's get back to why I personally believe God is a duck hunter.
After my mother died in the spring 2005, I purchased the lovely one-acre vacation spot on Rocky Fork Lake in southern Ohio that had been in my family since the 1960s. I made it my permanent home. The front door is less than a half-mile from the boat ramp, so I anticipated serious duck hunting in the years to come.
That fall, on the second day of the season, Bill Klaire and Richard Smith, two friends from Kentucky, drove up to join me on an early-season wood duck hunt. We shot four birds, but one special drake proved to be a life-altering experience for me.
Carolina wood ducks are among my favorite birds to hunt, but never in my years afield have I taken or seen a woodie to match my first duck of the season. The drake was enormous, with a huge crest and bold colors. More importantly, the duck didn't have a mark on it or feather out of place.
"You really should have him mounted, Griff," Smith said.
The thought definitely crossed my mind. I enjoy displaying trophy memories from my hunts, and I had 18 ducks and upland birds displayed in my trailer at the time. One of them was a drake wood duck I had also taken on the Fork years earlier, but that duck was a far cry from the one I now held in my hands.
Back home that evening, I tucked the pristine woodie into my freezer. Three days later, as I browsed an art book, I noticed an article about Cory Caruthers, a world champion taxidermist from Des Moines, Iowa. After a phone conversation with him, I knew he was the artist to handle my trophy wood duck. I promptly shipped it to him. The next morning, Caruthers called me.
"Steve, this is the finest wood duck I've ever seen," he said excitedly. "If you don't mind, I'd like to do something really special with him."
With my knees shaking, I told him that would be fine, just as long as the bird was mounted in a flying position.
Five months later when I received the finished mount, I realized it was an unparalleled work of art. I gave away all of my other bird mounts, intent on beginning a new collection of ducks.
"I don't deserve to own a trophy of this caliber," I told friends. "The way I see it, only God himself is worthy of this wood duck mount. I figure he simply wants me to take care of it for him until Michelangelo finishes painting his new trophy room."
As usual, everyone rolled their eyes and laughed at my logic.
A few years earlier, I began a new career as a screenwriter. Until the sale of my scripts allows me to build a new little home on my property, I had decided to make do living in the old mobile home my father had purchased years before. When I received my wood duck mount, I refused to take it out of its packing box, vowing that it would only hang in a place of honor in my new home one day. After a month of admiring it (still in the box), I repacked "Woodrow" and taped the box shut.
Two months later, I was laying on my bed writing when I heard a strange sound. As I walked into the small room where I kept my prize, I instantly saw debris flashing past my window. Then, my flagpole bent in half and my heavy Amish glider rolled across the yard like a child's toy. Looking toward an open field adjacent to my property, I watched in horror as a tornado tore across the ground. It was headed directly at my trailer!
Clearly, I was in desperate trouble. With no time for a quick exit, I placed my left hand on the box containing my wood duck.
"Woodrow, if you go, I go," I said loudly.
At that instant, the tornado lifted off the ground and passed right over my acre, then dropped back down and ripped through the rest of the community. My neighbors' roofs were blown off. Sheds were destroyed and huge trees were pulled out of the ground like green garden onions, but other than my flagpole and a few scratches on my glider, my property was undamaged. Luckily, no one was killed, but
the entire area resembled a lawnmower cutting a swath through tall grass, with one exception: Woodrow and me.
Now, I'm sure there is some kind of scientific explanation for what occurred, but in my mind, God clearly didn't want anything to happen to "our" wood duck.
During the 2006 waterfowl season, I vigorously attempted to take another perfect trophy duck to keep Woodrow company. Taking such a special bird without damaging a single feather is one tough chore, but as Napoleon once said, "I'd rather be lucky than good."
With three days left in the season, Lady Luck again shone down on me -- literally.
Big George Torline and I hunted Rocky Fork Lake on a brutally cold, dark day with clouds hovering just above the treeline, when a brace of what appeared to be bluebills blitzed out of nowhere over our decoys. I swung on the tail-end Charlie and folded the bird with my second shot, while Torline emptied to no avail.
A few minutes later, I stood in the bow of the boat holding a long-handled landing net as we motored toward my drifting duck. When we were within 20 yards, a small hole suddenly opened in the clouds, and a brilliant, single focused beam of sunlight flashed down directly on my duck. Instantly, I saw the brightest crimson imaginable.
"Oh my God, it's a drake redhead!" I stammered.
The second I slipped the landing net under the bird, the clouds closed back up, leaving me with as surreal a moment as I have ever experienced.
We rarely see redheads in Ohio, but without question, this drake was one for the ages.
Just like the wood duck the year before, the redhead was incredibly larger than any I'd seen before. With textbook plumage, the duck's head was the size of a softball, with a puffy raised forehead. More importantly, there wasn't a mark on the duck. I shipped it to Caruthers right away.
"You've done it again," he told me when we spoke. "Do you carry a rabbit's foot or something? I've never seen one like this except from Laguna Madre in Mexico. He has to be 8 or 9 years old."
"No rabbit's foot, Cory," I told the taxidermist. "Just some divine intervention."
Nowhere in Highland County, Ohio, saw so much as a flicker of sunlight that day, except for the solitary beam that shone on my redhead seconds before I lifted it from the water.
Where was Rod Serling when we needed him?
The finished mount was stunning. After a month of admiring it (again, in the box), I covered the duck with packing peanuts and taped the box shut. Woodrow now had a roommate: Big Red.
The weather the next season was a dichotomy. The first half was too warm to send any ducks south, and then when it got cold, it got real cold. Both ponds of Rocky Fork Lake froze solid in a matter of days. I lucked into a few birds, but finding another duck of perfection proved elusive -- until I asked for a little help.
I went to visit an old hunting buddy who owns a large ranch 20 miles from my home. His place has a large pond and a small lake. I drove to his ranch planning to shoot the breeze rather than shoot birds, but as I passed the driveway pond, I spied two ducks cruising along the back edge. Training my binoculars on them, my blood pressure soared when I realized they were gadwalls.
Gray ducks are a very unappreciated bird. While not as colorful as other puddle ducks, I love their herringbone feather pattern. A nice gad was one of the mounts I had given away two years earlier, so I was anxious to take a replacement drake. I had one swimming 100 yards away.
The pond is shaped like a large figure 8. I thought I could flank the ducks and get into position for a shot from a high dirt mound situated near the back. My plan was working perfectly, until I passed behind a slight opening in the trees. The ducks spotted me, so I rushed up the mound, uttering a few words of prayer as I went.
"A little help here, God," I pleaded as I topped the mound in time to see the gadwalls jump 50 yards away.
Snapping my shotgun to my shoulder, I tried to get ahead of the fleeing drake. I fired two rounds, both of which missed by a mile. I lowered my shotgun as the ducks became more distant with every wingbeat. Over the years, I have maintained a philosophy that if I have to reload two shells, I might as well reload three. Throwing the shotgun back up with no semblance of a swing, I pointed it three car lengths in front of the drake and cut loose.
To my amazement, the gadwall folded as limp as a dishrag and splashed down on its back in the front area of the pond. With my mouth gaping open, I walked around to the driveway side, where the duck lay hung up in skim ice just yards from the bank. I lobbed a few snowballs on the opposite side to bring the duck within arm's length, and then carefully lifted my prize from the water.
I don't mean to seem redundant, but once again, this drake was a goliath among gadwalls, with no sign whatsoever of a pellet wound.
As I looked back at the dirt mound where I stood while shooting, I realized I had just bagged my dream gray duck from a distance of 80 yards. To be honest, I believe the duck had a coronary from laughter at my intentions to shoot it from that range. That's a likely explanation, because I am not capable of making a shot like that. Heck, no one is, but clearly, someone wanted me to put that gadwall on my wall one day. I might have pulled the trigger, but I guarantee you a fellow duck hunter from up on high pointed the barrel.
And that, my friends, is why I believe God is a member of our waterfowl hunting brotherhood.
So, a word of advice: If one day, a stranger carrying a superb side-by-side shows up outside of your blind asking if he can join you for the hunt, then by all means, invite him along.
Stephen Griffin of Hillsboro, Ohio, is still adding to his divine taxidermy collection.