Sunday, July 8, 2012

Gunning

A big dictionary doesn’t have enough words to explain the experience I had hunting duck and geese on Tangier Island on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay.  It was one of those magical times where everything just goes right.  I had rarely hunted birds larger than quail or dove, although I had hunted teal a couple of times.  But I was ready to give it a try.

My job had me visiting stores on the east coast during November one year when one of the store managers invited me to go with him on a guided hunt for goose and duck.  The hunt wouldn’t be until January so I would have some time to prepare, get my license, practice with the shotgun, etc.  It sounded good to me.  Especially since I could use my own shotgun.

I had recently been in Spain on business where I had an opportunity to hunt for red-legged partridge and quail near Madrid and Barcelona.  I had borrowed shotguns for both hunts and, although I had fun (sort of), I found the big twelve-gauges to be more work than enjoyment.  I had always used a twenty-gauge bolt-action shotgun, and I didn’t see the need for anything bigger.  I still think I’m right about this.

My shotgun was older than me.  It had been my grandfather’s rabbit gun, and when it became mine, I felt it was the perfect shotgun.  Under Texas laws I had to wait until I was twenty-one before I could hunt with it, but that was all right with me.  My hunting focus had always been with game I could hunt with a bow, so the shotgun was easy to wait for.  When I turned twenty-one, the old shotgun went quail hunting.

The skeet and trap range a few miles from my home was closed until spring, so I didn’t really have much opportunity to practice before the scheduled trip.  I did manage to hunt some rabbit a couple of times, but it’s just not the same as a bird flying by, so I resigned my self to using a lot of shells for minimal birds.  I was told to bring at least one box each of BB and BBB, so I bought two of each.  And I bought two of each in magnum as well.

I had to return to Raleigh for business just before the January date for the hunt, so I chose to drive rather than fly and ship my shotgun and shells by carrier.  I had traveled enough to know that anything not in the hand was probably lost forever.  And I didn’t wish to lose the shotgun.

I arrived in Raleigh during a winter storm that made me think the hunt would be called off, but after three days the sun came out and I made the drive up to Richmond in time to be picked up by Feargus the store manager.  We drove to the Chesapeake where we caught a boat over to the island on the east side.  We met the guide, checked into the lodge, and talked hunting. 

The guide insisted on examining our shotguns and shells before the hunt, and when I unwrapped my twenty-gauge, I though he was never going to stop laughing.  He had seen a few twenty-gauges used in the past with little to no luck, but he had never seen anyone bring along a bolt-action version.  Pumps, over-and-under, side-by-side, semi-automatic, even a single-shot, but a bolt-action?  Had I ever even been hunting before?  That evening I made certain I screwed the full choke onto the end of the barrel, and I placed two of the boxes of magnum shells in my hunting bag.  I was going to make absolutely sure that twenty-gauge did its job.

My alarm sounded off with the most annoying noise at 4:00am the next morning, and I was very confused about it.  I had slept so well that I couldn’t remember where I was, why I was there, or why I wanted to get up so early.  I managed to fall out of bed and stumble around in the dark all the while trying to locate the source of the noise and/or a light.  Finally I discovered a lamp and turned it on so I could see where the alarm was sitting.  Then it came back to me.  I’m getting up at 4:00am because breakfast is at 4:30am, and I’m going duck and goose hunting at 5:30am.

By 7:00am the guide, two dogs, Feargus, and I were sitting in some rushes/tall grass along side of the water looking over several decoys floating a few yards away and watching the sky grow lighter.  We had less than twenty minutes to wait before several Canadian geese flew by about fifty yards out.  The guide pointed at me to take the first shot.

I gave the first goose a short lead and squeezed the trigger.  The magnum load sounded extra loud in the early morning quietness, and the second goose in the formation fell from the sky.  The guide, two dogs, and Feargus looked over at me with their mouths open.  I just smiled and said that’s how we do it in Texas.  I didn’t tell them that I had actually missed my shot.

The black lab brought back my goose, then stood beside me to shake some of the icy water off him and onto me.  The next fly-by was a few ducks and Feargus brought down two with his double twelve-gauge.  Then my turn came again.  This time it was a flock of teal.  I could see them a distance away, so I removed the choke and waited until they were about thirty yards out.  Then I squeezed off a shot.  Four teal dropped into the water.  One of the dogs growled at me.

I did miss my next shot, but that was purely my own fault.  I had forgotten to screw the choke back on the shotgun, and the goose was just too far away for an open cylinder discharge.  But I took a second goose and a few ducks that day proving that a twenty-gauge bolt-action could do everything its bigger relatives could do.

That evening the guide wanted to reexamine my shotgun to see if I was doing something illegal, but it was exactly as it looked—a twenty-gauge bolt-action shotgun.  He wasn’t convinced, although he conceded that I did manage to keep up with the bigger guns.  He just wouldn’t admit I had done a bit better.

The following morning found us a mile away from the previous location, but with the same set up.  We were on the shore shooting (excuse me, here they call it gunning) over a few duck decoys floating several yards away.  This time I left the full choke in place for the entire day.  Feargus, however, was sporting a new twenty-gauge over-and-under.  Hmmm…  When I inquired about the change, he said his shoulder was sore from yesterday.  Hmmm…  Well, I don’t know about that since he took only a dozen or so shots, but there it was—a twenty-gauge.

The guide started in with his duck calls, and soon a few ducks (I think they were Golden Eye) were flying low over our decoys.  Feargus let loose with one barrel, and one duck hit the water.  The chocolate lab sighed and jumped in the water to retrieve it.  The guide didn’t say a word, but my turn was next, and I noticed the duck calling was not as loud and a bit more sporadic.

We watched as ducks and geese flew by out of range for an hour.  Actually there were more ducks than geese, but they were all about seventy yards or more away.  Finally Feargus had enough.  He strongly suggested we move back to yesterday’s spot, or go home.  Either way, it had to be better than this.  With that the guide pulled out different call and gave it a few loud quacks.  For some reason this worked.  A flock of snow geese changed direction and came directly at us.

Feargus and I both opened up.  He got off both barrels; I emptied my three shots.  And we nailed four geese.  The guide snarled louder than the dogs.  We decided that we had enough.  It was cold, the dogs were stopping beside us to shake off the water, and the guide was upset; however, Feargus and I were quite pleased with ourselves.  And Feargus became a lifelong twenty-gauge fan.

That evening back at the lodge (wait, they called it an ‘inn’) we dined on goose and duck from the previous day’s hunt.  I noticed the guide wasn’t talking much, and a few of the other hunters staying there were watching him closely.  I’m usually not the one to bring up a subject that’s attached to a sore point, but I couldn’t help it this time.  I asked Feargus how he liked using a twenty-gauge.

The guide dropped his fork, pushed back his chair, and left the table.  The other hunters snickered until the guide turned and stared at them for a long moment.  Then he left the room not to be seen again.  The hunters turned to us with questions written all over their faces.

Why bother to explain? 

Feargus and I returned to Richmond with our geese and ducks packaged and frozen.  And I drove back to Texas laughing all the way.

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