Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dusk Patrol

Boiling dark clouds scudded before me in the growing gale. I was cheating the speed limit as I raced westward, trying to beat old man winter to the ranch.

The weather forecast warned of the approaching blue norther for a few days now. This far south in Texas however, the cold fronts often lose their punch before reaching us. I guess that’s why sometimes it seems the snow birds outnumber the ducks.

Today however, we were braced for the first cold blast of the winter. The news of the change in weather had me on edge for days. I wanted to be able to be on the water when the front arrived, but the timing of such an event is bound more by Mother Nature’s laws than the laws of the work week. As a harassed slave of industry, these convergences normally arrive without me as a witness.

This time the planets aligned, and I escaped the city. I packed the truck the night before with waders, shells, and decoys. I tied down the dog’s kennel and wrapped it with its insulated waterproof cover.

When I was able, I snuck out of the office, raced home to grab my black lab, and hit the road. While most people were headed to the grocery for hot chocolate and chili supplies, I raced a mass of cold air to the ranch where I often hunted. It was a race against the approaching front, and sundown. If lucky, I might get a 30 minute hunt in before legal shooting time elapsed for the day.

The ranch I hunt is located in the Texas Hill Country. Defined by the geological uplift called the Llano Estacado, it is a semi-arid country of rolling hills, mountain cedars and live oaks. It’s a region renowned for deer, not duck hunting. Cattle ranches dominate the landscape, and the ranchers have created ponds, known locally as “tanks”, to keep their cows well watered during our searing summers. The tanks pull double duty as rest and refueling areas for waterfowl on their migration to the gulf coast.

While not a mecca for duck hunting, we have enjoyed many memorable shoots at the ranch. Most are morning affairs, and the best shooting is when the weather is cold enough to ice over most of the area tanks. The ranch has three tanks that never ice completely, because they are spring fed. Since they never freeze over, they become very popular with the gadwalls and teal when other smaller waterholes are inaccessible. A fourth tank is shallow and only holds water in wet seasons, and it normally will not hold ducks.

Since I would be hunting alone, I planned to hunt the smallest of the three tanks. It is lined with trees along the dam, making a perfect place for a natural blind. In addition, when the wind turns out of the northwest, it would be quartering across my back, making shots at decoying birds relatively simple.
The wind was still gusty as I approached the gate to the ranch, but had not yet turned northwesterly. I drove past the house, my truck knowing the way by heart from our frequent visits.

Parking near the barn, I quickly gathered my gear and my dog, who was as anxious to get going as I was. A short ten-minute hike put us on the tank, and in short order decoys were splashing into position. The evening was steel gray, closing around us, and the winds began to come around from the north. We settled in to wait for what the winds might bring us, my lab softly whining and shivering in anticipation. I squinted into the spitting rain ahead of the clouds, trying to make out the squadrons of web-footed, feathered jets that I hoped would appear.

Bandit, my lab, was a young dog who had not yet made his first retrieve. I had a secret fear that he might not get a chance for a retrieve today, or worse yet, might get tangled in decoy lines. Seasoned dogs know to avoid the decoys, but had I trained him well enough?

This was the hunt I had dreamt of for years. Everything seemed perfect…now if the ducks would only cooperate.

As I looked across the tank, I made out faint dark spots that grew larger in the sky. The rapid wing beats identified the knot of birds as a small flock of teal. They circled behind me, too high for a shot. I pulled my head turtle-like deeper into the parka hoping not to give away our position. As the squadron passed, the wind over their feathers sounded like tearing silk.

The flock rocketed downwind as I blew into my call. They wheeled and dropped like stones into the decoys. I don’t remember shouldering my shotgun, but as the blast echoed against the gale, three ducks rocketed for altitude; two remained behind on the water.

Bandit made two retrieves of the birds, just at the close of shooting time. We hiked back to the truck, and then stopped by the house to talk to Mr. Kirby, the ranch owner.

“Well, I heard shootin’, how’d you do?”

“Got a couple nice teal,” I replied.

“Mr. Kirby, why don’t you come shoot with me next time?”

“No, thanks son. I used to hunt a lot, but since I got back from the war…well I guess I have done enough shooting for one lifetime.”

Mr. Kirby, you see, left the hill country of Texas as a boy, saddled a P-38 Lightning and rode it to the Pacific, where he became one of the fighter pilots of World War II. On the wall of his ranch house are personal letters from Charles Lindbergh, who also flew P-38s in combat. On another wall is a shadow box with a picture of one of NASA’s shuttle crews, and Mr. Kirby’s pilot’s wings, which accompanied the crew on their mission. There is data telling how far, how fast, and how high the wings went while in space.

For him, there was no longer joy from watching ducks fly into the decoys. Too many memories of watching flights of more lethal birds crowd his mind. Blue eyes that once peered down the sights of four Browning .50 caliber machine guns at approaching Japanese Zeros mist over for a moment as his thoughts returned to dogfights won, and the dusk patrols.


Drew said...

That's a pretty interesting story, and I don't think I've ever thought about the fact that flying a plane in combat could diminish the experience of hunting animals. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a fighter pilot; now that I'm older (and hopefully a bit wiser), I'm kind of glad that I didn't have to go through the same thing as Mr. Kirby did.

I suppose that once you take another man's life, even if you deem it justified, you're never the same. Life takes on a whole new perspective, I would think.

Mark said...

Yeah, plus he lost a lot of his friends, even in flight training. Planes weren't as well built back in the day.