Learning to love the rice field duck hunting traditions
Pluff Mud Chronicles
After graduating from school, my father went to work for his father. His brother, my Uncle Henry, went to work for his mother’s brother, my great Uncle George Buist. One of the elixirs that helped Uncle Henry through the pain of not working for his father was the fact that Uncle George owned Estherville Plantation on the Santee and he got full access. Plus, Uncle George was a really nice guy, and my father was sometimes invited too.
As a young lad, I often tagged along with my father on various Estherville outings, but none was more exciting than my first real duck hunt. I’d heard a lot about the hunts and seen first hand the swarms of ducks pouring into the rice fields over the pines and moss-covered oaks. I’d seen time and time again the rafts of what seemed like a million coots all rise simultaneously, setting out a splash and racket as we approached. The names of the various ducks had never been far from my ear: pintail, teal, shoveler, gadwall, canvasback, ringed-neck, and that cagey prize, the drake mallard. And although I could never identify the ducks as they flew in, I was in awe of these men who could, and sometimes long before they appeared before my young eyes as dots coming in over the tree line.
The night before the shoot was always exciting. We stayed in the bunkhouse on the grounds not far from the big house. The meal was always game, venison, duck, quail or doves and rice. The men drank and played cards. I was put to bed early and told to sleep. But it was tough.
The problem with duck hunting was simple — it happened in the cold. Real cold. At six years old I probably weighed in at a stout 40 pounds. Just getting out of the bed and walking across the chilly room was numbing. Furthermore, I never had an older brother. But I did have four older cousins who lived in Charleston. So this is how the hand-me-down system worked in the Smythe family: First, it was bought new for Guy, then went to Henry, then David, then to George and finally, sometimes with skid marks and all, to me. So nothing I wore ever fit right. The hems of my pants were stapled, twine held them around my waist and the weathered jacket looked like it was made for a boy twice my size. The only body part of mine that was bigger than theirs was my head, so my hat sat way up high, exposing my little ears to freeze so badly I thought they had broken off. When my posterior hit the frozen bench of the cypress pirogue, I was shivering to my bones instantaneously. Duck hunting was the most miserable fun I could imagine.
When I complained, it was made abundantly clear that I was not cold, I was just impertinent.
After two or three of these hunts, I got used to it. Yes, it’s cold, but watching my father call the ducks in and shoot them was incredible. I was also helping put the decoys out and pick up ducks when there was no dog. Most importantly, I learned my way around a gun. So, in my second season, I accompanied my father to the blind with a 20 Parker that had belonged to his father, my grandfather.
The routine was the same and before long we had the decoys out, the boat put away and were hunkered down in the blind. I had shot this gun at tin cans, hand thrown clays and various other targets, but never a flying bird. So when the first ducks came in, I jerked up and threw the gun to my shoulder ready to shoot and watched as they flared away, never coming close to in-range.
“That’s the greatest sin in duck hunting,” he explained, “letting the ducks see you before they’re in range. Sit quietly; let them come to you; then shoot.”
Moments later a single drake mallard approached from my left. I watched quietly, stood up and with one shot dispatched him — coffin dead. A drake mallard! My first duck! My father, smiling, said, “I suggest you put that gun down now and never shoot at another duck for the rest of your life, that way you can claim you’ve never missed.”
And although I shot at a lot of them, I don’t think I killed another duck that season.
Welcome to the team, Gus. Your experiences mirror many of my own up on the Santee Delta, and I remember a number of your family members hunting over at Annandale, next to Estherville. The smallest world of Lowcountry connections brings us together in the countryside traditions that have become legends.
I guess I created plenty of reasons for my father to delay my first dove and deer hunts until age nine, and it took until age 12 for me to get my first duck up at Annandale Plantation. However, I had a warm up experience with no shots at 11, listening to John Daughtridge call a flight of geese for what seemed 20 minutes. “Bwana” Daughtridge was our host and he regaled my father and yours truly with hunting tales from East Africa all the way up the previous afternoon. When it was time to get in the rice field, I carried a Hunter Arms 20 bore that was my grandmother’s dove gun and my father’s earliest shotgun.
Back to the geese: I was mesmerized. How could a guy know exactly how to get his calling right and turn a massive flight again and again. Eventually, someone shot at another flight of waterfowl and discouraged the incoming geese from landing in our decoys. I remember how a musically attuned Whiffenpoof complimented Bwana on his calling as we packed up to leave; that was a hell of a compliment from Mr. Sam Ross. He looked like he came from central casting and a leading role commanding a ship in the Pacific in a WWII film.
My admiration for all the old boys did nothing but grow, and I must credit my father for giving me the full briefings on his friends, many of whom were of the Greatest Generation. Of course, my father never intended for me to know as much as I did; I just listened at every opportunity and stayed nearby when he conversed with his pals and my mother. While hunting, I was never in the card room, which produced other tales for another time, and stayed in a drafty cabin where we ate steaks, baked potatoes and some attempt at salad. Bwana always brought an extra down sleeping bag for me and made sure I did not turn to ice in my cot.
For a brief moment the next morning, I wished that I had remained in that sleeping bag, but the chill was something you just endured, as you took the bitter with the sweet. With practice, the sunrise and pageantry of waterfowl made every shiver tolerable. As I have told many times, I connected the next year with a hen pintail as my first waterfowl and did so Christmas Eve, which made me the boy whose head was rubbed around the festive table and bar at Mr. Ross’s party that night.
Like you, Gus, it took me a while to get my shooting rhythm together. I remember at age 13 when my father killed seven ducks with nine shells and I got one with half a box. Six of his were pintails and another a teal. He called the ducks like no other and would monitor all the other birdlife in the sky simultaneously and report with a Marlin Perkins-like whisper on the various species. He really was that good, and the Santee Delta made him better; it does that for all who know it.
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