Sunday was a miserable morning for duck hunting - 25 degrees and foggy. The birds might as well have been tethered to the ground. Our fingers might as well have been frozen chicken tenders.
But Boyfriend and I had driven more than 300 miles to hunt with my new friend Brent in the Klamath Basin, so we had to give it a try.
Hunting in the fog is tough because even when you do see the occasional birds, they appear so quickly out of the mist that you barely have time to raise your gun - especially when you've got your hands stuffed in your pockets, clinging to chemical warming packs.
Our morning dialogue went like this:
"OK, the fog should be clearing now."
"OK, I think it's starting to lift."
"Oh, it just settled back in."
If we looked straight up from Brent's boat, we could see a hazy circle of blue, but the world all around us was gray. When we could see the rising sun at all, it was a muted disc.
We were near closed zones and grain fields, though, so we could hear the distant cacophony of geese all around us. Occasionally, they would lift, and we'd strain our eyes and ears, waiting to see if they'd come our way.
One time, they did.
We could hear a flock of snow geese coming toward us, making their joyful racket. But it was like watching a scene in a horror movie where you know the bad guy's going to attack, but you don't know exactly where he'll come from, or when he'll strike.
"They always sound closer than they really are..."
We all looked to the sky, waiting for something to appear in that blue spot so we could see how close they had come to us. When they finally appeared at about 80 yards, it was one of those stunning moments that make you feel so blessed to be a hunter - because there sure as hell weren't any bird watchers taking this in.
The snows were flying just above the fog, wingbeats loud and powerful in the water-laden air - whoosh ... whoosh ... whoosh. The light of the rising sun was glinting golden off their white bellies, not the gold most of us wear, but the bright yellow of 24 karat gold. There was just enough water vapor between us an them to create that dreamy, soft-focus effect of a good 1930s film. They looked like angels.
I gasped gently. My heart slowed. I was awed.
It was a moment of such crystalline joy that all time stopped. It was like a drug. Like an orgasm for the brain. I could lose myself in that sight and sound forever and never regret the world I'd left behind. I could lift up and join them.
An unintelligible shout rang out on my left.
As if drugged, I swung my gaze slowly back to the earth, down and to the left. Something had come in. Ducks. No - geese! Low flyers. Maybe 15 yards off the ground. Right in front of us.
As I swung my head left, the birds were already passing to my right. With my right hand, I raised the gun from its passive position, butt resting on the floor of the boat. I yanked my left hand out of my chemically-warmed pocket. Shouldered the gun. The geese were speeding away. Fired one futile shot at their butts. Let them go.
"What the hell just happened?"
Brent said a small group had come in for a landing, drawn to the enormous plastic swans in our decoy spread. He'd seen them in time to drop one. Boyfriend and I, befuddled, had gotten nothing.
Brent's black lab, Sage, retrieved the downed goose - a juvenile still covered with shades of gray.
There wasn't much action after that. A wounded wigeon swam into our spread and Brent dispatched him. A flock of pintails came in. Brent dropped one and I dispatched a crip on the water.
And every time there was a flight of geese moving over us and we all found ourselves staring straight up, mouths agape, I would yank myself back to earth to see if any more geese would try to pull a fast one. But, of course, they didn't.
We waited and waited for the clearing weather that would spark a massive flight of ducks, but it never came. Facing a long drive home, we finally gave up, grateful to have any birds at all.
For the rest of my life, though, I will view that day not as a failure, but as one of my most memorable hunts ever.
And in the future, I'll try to remember to keep my eyes trained on the world closer to the ground. No promises, though.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008