The guy from Delaware

One of the fascinating things about duck hunting is the people you meet. You swap stories, lend a helping hand or share a cup of coffee and then move on. Between hunts you often find yourself thinking about those random meetings.

A lot of autumns have come and gone since January of 1969 when I talked to the duck hunter from Delaware on a coastal lake in Northeast Florida.

I still run into folks who don’t believe you had to crunch skim ice out of the bottom of the boat after an overnight freezing rain. “Not in Florida,” they say, disbelieving.

Yep, Florida. Of course you can get mosquito-bit in December, or put out decoys in a grumbling, rumbling thunderstorm with lightning like faulty neon tubing illuminating the spread. But coast weather always has the chance to turn bitter and that’s how I came to meet the guy from Delaware.

I learned duck hunting on the Guano when I was still a teenager. For just under $10 I rented a rowboat, a three-horse Evinrude and a dozen decoys. In 1969 I rented from Mr. DeGrove, who had a fish camp on the northwest lakeshore. I had my own decoys by then.

It was next-to-the-last-day of the season. We tucked our boat into a reed-choked island for shelter from a blustering northeast wind. I had the lemon of all Remington 870s, constantly jamming, and she had my trusty Model 12 Winchester sixteen-gauge. The bluebills would bore over, flare at the shot, and hang on the wind like leftover Christmas tree ornaments. We would miss, and miss. How do you lead something apparently motionless in a running river of air? I took an old baldpate drake dropping in to swipe grub from the bluebill decoys. Then the bluebills came again in a freight-train rush. I got a peripheral glance of one on Wanda’s side folding cleanly, then focused on one on my side. When I asked where hers had fallen, she wasn’t sure.

We kept repelling swarms of birds as they came in looking for shelter from the big ocean wind, emptying our shell belts while I cursed wind-blown patterns and yearned for a three-inch Magnum. In a kind of lull, another of DeGrove’s wooden skiffs hove into view around our island, rowed with precision by a guy in a canvas coat and hip boots. He had a big Labrador in the bow. He was bringing us Wanda’s bluebill hen.

“One of yours,” he said in a northern accent. “Saw it fall, saw it floating, and sent the dog.”

He was a blocky, well-built guy. Not tall, compact — clean-cut, tanned, fit. There was an air of quiet competence about him even in the storm. He slipped smoothly over the side of his skiff without seeming to worry if he was over a ‘gator hole. He wasn’t. He held the boat easily, one-handed, and waded up to hand over the duck. The dog sat quietly, perfectly behaved, in the skiff.

“She’s just a little rusty,” he said fondly. “Still trying to shake off being in the dog pound.”

It was nearly noon, legal quitting time on the Guano. He offered to walk our boat around while we picked up. He never went over his hip boots, never stepped in a gator hole, or even seemed to consider that he would. I asked if he had been raised around here.

“No, in Delaware,” he said. This was his first season on the Guano.

He just looked so comfortable, so self-contained in his worn coat and Jones cap, totally at home with only oars three miles downwind from camp, that I was hesitant to offer him a tow back up the lake. But he accepted readily.

“I was hoping you would offer,” he said. “That would have been a rowing job.”

So we got him and his Lab into our boat, tied his boat off, and started the slow slog uplake with the three-horse. He said he was in Florida to take some schooling and had sold all his duck hunting gear to make tuition. Then the weather turned dirty and he couldn’t stand it.

“I didn’t count on weather like this in Florida,” he said quietly. “Thought I could get by without hunting here.”

He had purchased his double-barreled shotgun from a roommate for $50; an open-choke quail gun. Two boxes of number nines — quail loads — came with it. He said he was too thin in the wallet to be picky.

“Tough shooting today, for any gun,” I ventured tactfully.

“Yeah, well — I got three. You just have to let ’em come in,” he said, almost apologetically.

“Use a lot of shells?” I had used about thirty.

“Well…four. I got a little eager on the first pair that came in.”

Time to change the subject.

“That’s a good-looking dog. Had her long?”

He considered. “About three weeks. Paid seven dollars for her at the pound. Got her the day they were going to put her down.” He rubbed her ears affectionately. “She’s been a hunting fool.”

There are some stories too good to be true. I was beginning to think this was one of them. As we moved on up the lake he said that a woman had come to his apartment and offered him $200 for the dog, convinced it was her field-trial-trained bitch, gone over her fence while she was away.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I turned her down. If I hadn’t gone to the pound that day…” He let the rest of the thought go on the wind. The dog sat patiently, watching him, while Wanda toweled her dry with an old Army blanket.

I noticed some decoys out in a snug cove across the lake, protected from the wind by huge shoreline trees. I pointed.

“Mine,” he said. “Leave ’em there. Tomorrow’s the last day and I’ll be back. Nobody will bother them. No loss if they do. I bought ’em out of a classified ad for ten dollars.”

We went on to DeGrove’s, unloaded gear and parted company. I wondered if the guy from Delaware had been exercising some subtle Yankee humor on me. The next morning we were back in place with less wind, fewer ducks flying. The teal were out in force and I managed a couple of decent shots before the damned 870 jammed again.

On the way in, we swung into the cove. The decoys were still there, but the guy from Delaware wasn’t. We picked them up for him. DeGrove had a burlap sack in the motor shed. We bagged them and left them there.

“Knew a lot about duck hunting. Geese too,” DeGrove said. “Said he hunted a lot of places across the country. Shore did talk funny though. Never knowed a Yankee duck hunter before. Too cheap to rent a motor.”

That summer I got a job offer from Nassau. A chance to be a young expatriate; tax-free salary, journalism in a foreign land, travel the Out Islands for stories.

“What the hell,” I said. ”Let’s go to Nassau. If a guy from Delaware can find ducks in Florida, I can probably find ducks in the Bahamas.”

I didn’t have much luck doing that, however. When we left the islands for good, we stopped by DeGrove’s on our way through Florida. He had his camp up for sale, and was burning trash. The guy from Delaware had never been back to claim his sack of decoys. DeGrove told me to take them — otherwise they were going in the fire.

The old papier-mâché mallards in the bag were rotting apart, but I salvaged two plastic bluebills and a small plastic mallard with tape over a shot hole. The two bluebills joined my rig of Herter’s decoys — and later rode through their previous owner’s home state on the way to hunt the Chesapeake. When I turned into a serious mallard hunter, they were pushed to a corner with the others, all webbed together by industrious spiders.

I never found a fifty-dollar double like the guy from Delaware. But after gunsmiths gave up on my snake-bit 870 I traded it straight across for a LeFever Nitro Special. That gun was deadly on ducks and never once failed to function, even when the fore end screws shot loose one day and I had to wrap a bandanna around the barrels to finish a limit.

We did find Harry the Dog as a puppy in a Tallahassee pound several years later, and bailed him out for under ten bucks. He was no field trial dog, because I trained him myself, best I could. But as far as he was concerned, nothing flew and fell didn’t belong to him. He was a retrieving fool.

The ripples stirred in my life by that brief chat with the guy from Delaware seem all but stilled. But should some demon twist of fate interrupt the flow of my seasons, for reasons I cannot and do not want to envision, I would like to think that remembering the guy from Delaware would help me find a way to be back out there, and ready, come another season.

(Note: more than one twist of fate interrupted the flow of my duck seasons. The final one: old age and disabilities. It is almost a decade since I occupied a duck blind. November weather makes me restless every year, even when I am housebound. I am grateful I wrote so much about duck hunting before my life went off the rails in the last decade of the previous century. At 78, I can sit here listening to the rain peck at the window as maple leaves flutter down and live vicariously with good coffee and a pipe of Perique.)

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.