“At first blush I am tempted to conclude that a satisfactory hobby must be in large degree useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant” — Aldo Leopold
The Duck Hunter Diaries
If Volume Two seems to begin in the middle of a narrative that is exactly what it does, opening in 1974 in the Pacific Northwest. This was the era of the infamous Arab Oil Embargo, when the search for gasoline became a constant and often fruitless exercise. My pickup truck’s dual tanks ran nearly dry all the time because there was nowhere to fill them.
If you didn’t reach driving age in happy post-Second World War days when sets of dishes and Green Stamps were offered as incentives to fill your tank often with below-thirty-cent gas, you can’t appreciate the trauma the Oil Embargo caused those of us who did. Maybe if the banks today turned off all the automatic teller machines at once.
In 1974 we had no way to envision skyrocketing fuel prices, driven beyond reason by soulless speculators who trade oil futures like pork bellies and live like parasitic pashas on the backs of the driving public. When gas prices “stabilized” at sixty cents in 1979, I felt confident enough to buy a brand-new full-size pickup. That was the year before a badly panned 1980 movie starring George C. Scott about an international plot to manipulate oil prices endlessly higher. I seem to recall the villain telling the protagonist fuel would flow again once prices reached the unthinkable plateau of a dollar a gallon. Then stay that way, until consumers were resigned, before climbing again. And again, and again. Sounded like science fiction in 1980.
Boeing laid-off a hallucinatory number of workers in the early seventies, with disastrous effect to the economy of the Pacific Northwest. That’s when they put up that immortal billboard saying will the last person to leave Seattle — shut off the lights. The Northwest in 1974 was enough to give Norman Vincent Peale second thoughts about the power of positive thinking. I tended to dark moodiness anyway. That dreary point is where Volume Two of The Duck Hunter Diaries begins.
February 18, 1974 — Day before yesterday I went steelhead fishing on the Green River below Palmer Bridge. The water thunders through a couple of narrowings, down a couple of rapids, with nice fishy-looking slicks over a solid rock bottom. I lost thirteen terminal rigs. It’s a good thing they’re cheap. I used the spinning rod with my Garcia 300 reel and toted my new long-handled landing net. All I landed was a lump of water-soaked wood festooned with other people’s tackle. I salvaged all the pencil lead and two plastic “Li’l Corkie” lures. I may have had one strike; hard to tell in that current. I saw a guy wearing a red plaid mackinaw and canvas Jones cap land one. He was insufferably casual, allowing it to thrash near his feet when any twitch could have freed it.
Five people passed me on the way back to the parking lot lugging the long dark torpedo shapes. One guy had to hold his fish at waist level to avoid its tail dragging the ground. He looked neither to right nor left, gazing straight ahead as if shell-shocked, marching along, that fish in a death grip. I suppose I have not lost enough tackle, frozen my feet enough, to deserve one. I did catch a cold. That water was so cold only its velocity kept it liquid. At one point I noticed traceries of blood on my hands where monofilament had bitten, like a series of razor cuts. I didn’t feel a thing.
One outdoor writer called steelhead a rainbow trout with the wanderlust and said scenery in Washington State is a drug on the market. Steelheading is almost a religion. It was quite a picture where the river hooked into that thundering turn across a steep rock face, with anglers in every manner of apparel, from heavy rubber foul-weather gear to bright ski parkas, elbow to elbow in silent devotion. First one and then another would chunk hardware upstream to drift back through, in (almost) synchronized ritual.
At the tail of the next run, a twenty-foot-long deadfall, so waterlogged it was below the surface, swept down on an unsuspecting angler. I called out above the roar of the river, pointed. The look on his face when he saw it was open fear. It hit a hidden obstacle and hesitated as he scrambled to escape, then rose majestically, branches reaching for him, hurdled the barrier in slow motion, and ghosted out of sight.
I was out of pencil lead when a character sighted my surgical tubing tied to my fishing vest and offered to buy some. He had plenty of lead, so we traded and I had another six or eight inches of lead to lose before I had to give up.
February 21 — I finally emptied the boat of decoys jumbled in the bilges since the last Nisqually hunt. I swept up a pile of dried mud and marsh grass and hay stems. That fine dust, which flies off mud wet for ages before you tracked it into the boat to dry, hung in the still air. When it touched the damp inside my nostrils, the full musty odor the Nisqually salt flats bloomed to life.
Nisqually is famous now. Duck Stamp money was diverted from Midwest potholes to purchase land envisioned as an oil super-tanker port and refinery. The gas shortage cost me the job I wanted — the reporting job for that chain of weeklies — but I am glad Nisqually is for ducks, not oil.
April, 1974 — the weekly job did not come through because of the manufactured gas shortage; the managing editor did not believe I could find enough gas to drive to town every day. He seemed horrified when I told him I could siphon gas from hulks at the wrecking yard where Guy works.
The first installment of my back unemployment pay came; I delayed filing a long time because I voluntarily left the union, but it turns out that’s not disqualifying. I splurged $75 for a full reloading setup from Herter’s. I have already reloaded for the 7 mm Mauser. The slowest part of the operation is measuring out each 45-grain charge on my powder scale. Wanda just found out you have to buy different cans of powder and dies for each caliber. You never explained that part, she said grimly.
A one-pound can of DuPont powder goes for $3.83, a hundred 7mm bullets for $2.84, and 100 primers for sixty-nine cents. The dies cost $8.38. The fixed costs, like a Herter’s U3 press for $19.92, a powder scale for $15.40 and so on won’t change or increase. But she still feels blindsided.
On a happier note, the horns and hide from my whitetail deer arrived from Pennsylvania in a sturdy well-padded wooden crate. The hide-tanning job is nice and the highly polished hooves, mounted beneath the horns to hold a rifle if I choose, enhance the pitiful little curve of antler. Some trophy hunter I am. Never mind that, said Guy — how much did he weigh?
I fired my first Mauser reloads at Vern’s. They functioned smoothly through the old military action, but the gun seemed to bump harder than usual. Vern said nothing should be causing that scatter on the target. He ran a rag through the barrel, discovered a gouge near the muzzle, and pronounced the barrel hopeless. A new barrel would cost $14.95 plus postage, a new front sight $15. The barrel ships unblued, another $6 if Vern does it in batch with others. He told me the first reloads recommended by the guy at Herter’s were intended for a 7mm Magnum, not the Mauser. That old Model 95 action handled 19 of them without a burp. Dumb luck it didn’t blow up. Vern said never trust another man’s word about a powder load…
I should be keeping a regular writer’s log to enter things I see here: like the horses in the pasture across the street with spring fever in them; cavorting, heel-kicking, feinting at each other, bucking stiff-legged. They run in short bursts and then profile grandly as if they think they are mighty steeds — all with their hair matted and mud-caked from the long winter.
I found an advertisement for a Seattle job in Editor and Publisher; something called Fishing and Hunting News. I applied. To get a job to write only about fishing and hunting seems so unlikely that I simply mention it and pass on…