The Red-Headed Guy(1)
The first time I saw the redheaded guy was at the Highspire public access point to the Susquehanna River. He stood in a small knot of men, his copper top almost extinguished by the deepening October twilight. There were four or five of them, all facing the river silently, hands in their pockets against the chill. There was something ritual in their stance and demeanor. Two wore sweat-faded camouflage Jones caps and one wore a canvas hunting coat; all were garbed in well-used work clothing.
To reach the boat launch, I wound through densely packed little steelworkers’ homes, drove under an old narrow trestle that lifted the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks above the rutted road, and arrived at the river’s edge just upstream from a small private boat club. The light breeze off the river had winter halitosis on its breath.
I parked at a distance from the men and took my time about climbing out of my too-shiny Barracuda to approach them, self-conscious in my white-collar attire of button-down shirt, tie, slacks and city shoes.
“Howdy,” I ventured. The word sounded folksy-phony to my own ears. There was a quiet ripple of response, noncommittal.
A couple of battered jonboats lay ashore, chained to a large iron ring set in a half-buried slab of concrete. One was dark green, one dun-colored. I asked if the eroded slope of mud entering the water at our feet was the public access point I had been looking for. They indicated the affirmative with seeming reluctance. For something to say, I said I hadn’t been sure, seeing the boats moored there.
“One of ‘em’s mine,” the redheaded guy said. “The rock’s mine, too. I put it there for something to chain to after they stole one of our boats.”
It was the first thing he said directly to me. He said it almost as if he weren’t quite sure I might not be one of the unknown “they” who would steal a man’s hard-purchased boat. He was as big as I was, broader in the shoulder, solid-looking. His expression said I could take offense at his tone or not, for all he cared.
“You a fisherman?” put in one of the others, his face in hat-shadow.
“They say the smallmouth fishing is good on the river here,” I said.
“You looking to go fishing this weekend?” my questioner asked.
I just looked at him. Surely this apparent native son realized that duck season started this weekend. Didn’t he?
“Duck season starts this weekend,” I said.
“They say the smallmouth fishing gets awful good this time of year,” the redheaded guy picked it up. He seemed almost to mock my words.
“The largemouth fishing was real good this time of year too, on the lake I learned how to hunt ducks on,” I said. I realized I was committing myself. “The fishermen screwed up the hunting until the Fish and Game Department split the day. Gave us from dawn to noon, and the fishermen the rest. I’d rather hunt ducks half a day without fishermen than a whole day with ‘em.”
“Amen to that!” the redheaded guy said.
The atmosphere relaxed perceptibly. I had recited the correct catechism.
“That’s a pretty good plan they had on that lake,” Hat-shadow said. “Wherever it was.” When I didn’t name it, he went on: “Wish they’d do something like that here.”
“But they won’t,” said the redheaded guy. “Hush now! Listen!”
Far off across the darkening river, through the restless murmur of the town behind us, I heard a highballing mallard hen.
“Look.” I pointed. “Birds. Pitching in.” A handful of black dots spilled out of the still-lighted upper air, swallowed one by one against the dark of the far shore.
“We come down here a lot, just before the season,” the redheaded guy said. “Mostly just to watch the river. There’ll be some of us here come Saturday. You’ll have to come early if you want to find you a spot.”
We stood for a while longer, communing with the river, until the dropping thermometer and total darkness separated us to our respective vehicles. “Leave a few for seed,” urged the redheaded guy, implying I was a duck hunter whose skill would require such restraint.
Across the length and breadth of my first Pennsylvania season, I saw him a couple of times at the launch, and we shared news of our luck. I was having a difficult transition from lake bluebill shooter to river black duck hunter. Bag limits were restrictive that year, but even so I never achieved one. The ducks were warier than I could believe. I didn’t know how to use a mallard call. My commercial Herter’s decoys were too few and too small to compete against the vast spreads of homemade cork blocks the river hunters used.
The season passed. I busied myself again on being a reporter for the Harrisburg Evening News. There was public corruption and private chicanery to pursue, and the months wore away on story after story. Almost before I knew it I found myself alone one evening at the access point, plotting my opener. I stayed until dark, lonesome for those nameless men of the year before. But their now familiar rigs were there, covered with dew, when I showed up late on opening morning. Some of them already were shooting, out on the river, as I fumbled my jonboat off the car top carrier and scratched the roof paint of the Barracuda in the process. I spent the day on the river and bagged one black duck.
Back at the landing, the redheaded guy said only a couple of parties had done any better. It looked to be another tough season. Out of the blue, he invited me to buy a chain and padlock and moor my boat to his rock, to save time getting on the river. I gladly accepted. With my boat in place, I was able to schedule afternoon interviews at the Steelton offices of a Great Society poverty program whose travails I was tracking, and then go straight to the river. My luck continued poor, and the weather too mild.
I picked up a lone wood duck one afternoon. On another, I was astonished by the fluting call of Atlantic brant, this far upriver from their saltwater haunts, and missed them cold when they decoyed to my six Canada goose blocks. When the weather changed one Sunday morning, I took Monday off and went up to Calf Island, which is bisected by the Turnpike Bridge. The river was off an earlier peak, frigid and black. Ice crackled in the bottom of my boat as I loaded it. The wind was spitting snow, and I was glad for the companionship of my newly acquired catalytic heater. Despite ideal conditions, only one goldeneye decoyed all day, and I bagged it.
That afternoon, the redheaded guy motored by. We exchanged waves. He came back early and stopped by my blind. He had one ruddy duck. He looked half-frozen, and explained he had forgotten his gloves, and worn only thin socks under his hip boots, in his rush to get from work and onto the river. I invited him ashore to share the heater.
His season’s bag so far was identical to mine: three ducks. As he thawed out, we discussed our plans for salvaging the season. He had a week off Thanksgiving, and so did I.
He had an old river man “chopping” a canoe for him. He explained how to “chop” a canoe into a duckboat: the ends are lowered into a downward curve, and a “shield” is built along one gunn’l. The shield consists of olive-drab canvas stretched tight over a pair of long, bendy two-by-twos, bolted at each end to the canoe and held apart in the middle by a two-by-four insert. The canoe is fitted with a rudder attached to a pedal harness for the stern man. Both hunters hunker way down behind the shield and wield short paddles on the side opposite the shield, while the stern man holds the canoe at an angle with the rudder. You set all the decoys you can find in a good spot, then anchor upriver and come down on birds that stool in, like a floating piece of driftwood.
Just before Thanksgiving the redheaded guy and I showed up at the mooring rock on the same afternoon. He said why not just leave my little three-horse motor and decoys in the car and come on upriver with him to his big permanent spread behind Steelton. I jumped at the chance. He had forgotten his gloves again and jammed his free hand deep in the top of his hip boot, saying it was warmer than a pocket. I helped him reset some of his huge cork black ducks that had dragged their anchors due to river debris across their lines. When I admired their workmanship, he told me that he was proudest of salvaging the cork from a wrecking yard where they were cutting up old refrigerated boxcars. The decoys were huge, a good two feet long and five inches thick, and heavy with soaked-up river water. They rode the current with authority.
That afternoon, with the winter sun gilding the smokestacks of Steelton, turning them bright and strange, with trains pounding down both banks of the river, with afternoon commuter jets cycling into Harrisburg Airport, the redheaded guy treated me to a duck-calling demonstration of which I have seldom heard the match. He pulled small bunches of black ducks from clear across the river to circle and circle above his rig.
They talked back to him but they would not come down. Western hunters of my acquaintance tout for wariness the pintail, but they have never been humbled by black ducks in the heavily industrialized East, a month or so into the season, before the northern birds show up.
The redheaded guy pleaded, he cajoled, he sweet-talked — and we got one opportunity for a shot. He missed. I never fired. My sweatshirt hood bunched up at the back of my neck and pushed my hat over my eyes and I stumbled and fell in the mud in the bottom of the blind. Later, in the twilight, a big duck showing lots of grey looped over the decoys from behind and I took him going away, thinking mallard. It was a merganser. The redheaded guy grinned and allowed that hunting gun-shy black ducks could lead to mallard hallucinations, but said it had been a good shot.
One final afternoon we met by prearrangement and motored up to his decoys, adding three more of the huge black ducks for good measure. We talked of ducks and duck hunting in between his demonstrations with the call. He laughed again about the merganser, and let me take first try at a lone black duck parachuting in, after I promised I had thrown away the offending sweatshirt. Even with my hat out of my eyes, I missed. It was our only try of the day. We moored his boat in the dark and paused to wish each other success in our coming Thanksgiving vacations. I was bound for the Chesapeake. I said I’d see him later that season. But I never did. By the time the next season rolled around, I was working at a different trade, and trying to figure out how to hunt California pintails without belonging to a rich man’s duck club.
From time to time across the years I’ve read sentimental stories about chance encounters with an unknown hunter who epitomized all that is noblest in the outdoorsman. While I’ve yet to meet this paragon, I never read one of those stories without trying to remember what the redheaded guy looked like. I can’t. I remember that he shot a High Standard pump gun as battered as his canvas coat, with an action so slick it would open itself if he held it upright and hit the release. He said he’d never found another model that came close to its smoothness. Certainly my snake-bit Remington 870 did not — if I could cycle it at all without its jamming, which was never a sure thing.
I hunted the Chesapeake mostly the rest of that year, and was gone from Penn’s Woods before the 1972 hunting season rolled around. My hunting grounds since have been far from the Susquehanna, and sometimes the rivers don’t even flow into the same ocean. I never did find out if he had success on his Thanksgiving vacation, or if his chopped canoe worked out for him.
Our common link was his mooring rock, the condition of the river and the ducks we hunted. We never discussed women, politics or any other trivial topic, such as each other’s names. It was a hunting partnership in its purest form, brief, to the point, and gone with the vanished seasons.
1 A version of this story, “A Susquehanna River Friend” was published in Ducks Unlimited Magazine in the 1980s.