Now, I'd love to regale you with the details of some of my incredibly awesome shots that day - the wigeon I dropped so hard he bounced three feet off the water when he hit, the spoonie I nearly dropped into my lap - but that's not what this post is about.
This post is about two greenwing teal I shot on the water.
I'd started my morning at one of my favorite spots under a bright crescent moon and a sky littered with stars. In other words, it was going to be a clear and bright day.
Once shoot time arrived, the flight was really good - I heard gunshots all over the refuge, and while I missed a lot in that first hour, I did drop one duck, a hen wigeon.
Then the fog rolled in, and the shooting stopped abruptly. Ducks don't fly in the fog.
There was no telling how long this was going to last, so I made a decision: It was time for a walkabout.
The beauty of where I hunt on my refuge is that it's free roam. When you hunt "assigned blinds," you have to stay within 100 feet of a particular spot. If the ducks don't happen to want to be there that day, you're effed. But in free roam, you are free to go to the ducks, so long as you're not getting too close to other hunters.
On this morning, I knew there were likely to be some crippled ducks who'd been injured, but not killed, by some of the hunters. Wounded ducks like to hide in cover. My strategy would be to walk through the grass where they hide, look for cripples, and shoot them. More meat for my table, and the end of suffering for wounded animals.
Not 60 seconds into my walkabout, I saw a duck in the grass, head up and alert. I knew he saw me, but he wasn't going anyplace. Crip! I took stock of my surroundings, determined that the angle and direction of my shot wasn't going to intersect any nearby hunters, and shot the duck. He went belly-up.
As I walked toward him to pick him up, I saw another duck doing the same thing - he hadn't gotten up when I fired the first shot. Another crip! So I shot him. He got up and flew, then dropped, so I got him too.
I took both birds - drake greenwings - back to my tule patch, went to my car for more ammunition, then returned to my spot just as the fog was lifting and the shooting resumed all around me.
When I went home that afternoon and started plucking my birds, I was in for a surprise: Neither teal had a mark on him except for the shots I'd fired. No broken wings. No pellets to the breasts. Just the distinctive wounds caused by sluicing: shots that rake across the back.
They hadn't been wounded! So why had they just sat there? Maybe they hoped I couldn't see them. Maybe they didn't want to fly in the fog. Who knows?
My first thought upon making this little discovery was, "Good! These'll be great eaters." Shot holes in the breast don't make for great presentation on the plate. These would be perfect. And they were little fatties, too.
My next thought was that this discovery changed my shots from noble - putting ducks out of their misery - to "unsportsmanlike."
So here's the big question: If I'd known they weren't cripples, would I have shot them on the water anyway?
The answer is "Hell yes!"
Why? Let's start with the reason why many duck hunters would say, "Hell no!" Shooting a duck on the water - also known as "sluicing" or "water swatting" - is considered by some to be unsportsmanlike because the shot is too easy, and the bird doesn't have sufficient chance to elude the hunter.
Me? I don't care.
I hunt to put food on the table, not to impress anyone else with my tremendous wingshooting abilities. While I love making a good shot, and I'm proud of myself when I shoot well, that's just not what hunting's about for me.
But let's take a visual look at the core argument.
Is it sportsmanlike to shoot these ducks?
Of course. Classic shot. How about these:
Sure, as long as there are no hunters hiding in those tules in the background. And these:
That was a test. If that image doesn't make you nearly pee yourself with excitement, you are obviously not a duck hunter.
How about this one? His feet are about a centimeter off the water.
Yep, still flapping those wings. Totally sportsmanlike! And this one?
Ah yes, this is where we - or at least some of us - draw the line. It's that last centimeter that makes all the difference in the world, right?
Nope. I call bullshit.
Now, you don't have to shoot that duck. I really don't care. Choosing not to take a shot is never "wrong," regardless of the reason.
But I don't think it's "wrong" for me to take that shot either. And I flat-out don't believe that the sitting duck is the most vulnerable duck (and therefore the "easiest" to shoot) in this series of drawings. These ducks are:
But let's say you miss one of these shots (which, God help me, I've done way too many times), or you attract their attention and spook them before pulling the trigger. Now that the ducks are alerted, they're going to want to get the hell out of Dodge.
The sitting duck need only launch into the air, which he can do with astonishing speed. The landing ducks, on the other hand, must reverse course. They must stop their downward movement before they can start moving up and out. So, this is really the shot that's "too easy" and "unsportsmanlike," right?
Yeah, I didn't think so.
This is the problem with some of the ethical lines we hunters draw in the sand (or in the marsh, in this case). I believe our core concern should be making the cleanest kill possible with shots that won't lead to any unintentional wounding of other hunters or dogs who might be nearby.
I mean, do we really think the duck gives a damn whether we shot him on the water or when he was still a foot off the water? If he ain't dead yet, he's thinking, "Ow! Ow! Ow! I've gotta get out of here," not, "That unsportsmanlike bastard just shot me on the water!"
And I don't feel any less guilty for ending a bird's life when it's midair, as opposed to when it's on the water. I've killed it, either way.
Hunting is, at its core, tricking animals into making mistakes that cost them their lives. On the water or in the air, that duck you're shooting has been fooled into believing he's safe there. That means you've done the first part of your job well. Now it's time to shoot him - if you choose to.
But tell me readers: What do you think? What's your line in the sand? Why?
Let the comments begin!
P.S. While I love it when everyone agrees with me, I really want to hear about it if you disagree, because I want to hear WHY - challenging my position helps me see whether my arguments are on point, and it occasionally changes my mind. Really!
© Holly A. Heyser 2011