Morning In The Swamp

January 12, 2016

No matter how hard you wish it, a hooded merganser will not morph into a wood duck.

I tried, though.  The three mergansers zipped into the decoys just after legal shoot time, but the shadows linger in the edges of the river swamp so I couldn’t get a bead on them when they landed.  They came in low over the water, and skidded across the slick surface with that soft, swooshing sound.  I could see the wake as they coasted to a stop, but between the dim light and the intertwining branches, I couldn’t tell what they were.  A low approach like that usually indicates diving ducks, but all I’d ever seen in this stretch of the Northeast Cape Fear had been woodies.

The trio motored toward the decoy spread, silently cruising across the inky water, and as they broke into the open, there was no mistaking the big, white sail on the drake’s head.  I blinked my eyes, hoping that they were just playing tricks.  This had to be a wood duck.  I really wanted it to be a wood duck.  I needed it to be a wood duck.

But it was still a hooded merganser, as were the two hens sailing along behind him.

They put on a show for me, paddling around in the decoys, ducking and dodging.  The drake stretched his neck and lifted his boldly striped breast up out of the water, showing off his full glory.  It was a display that any wildlife artist would give an eyetooth to capture in oils or watercolors.  But all I could think was, “why can’t you be a wood duck?”

The plastic ducks floating still on the water must have become boring, and the three mergansers paddled on upstream a bit.  About 40 or 50 yards away, where the little cut opened into a pond, they idled away the morning.  The sun rolled up over the cypress trees, painting the sky with that magical palette that rewards the early-morning outdoorsman.  For a moment or two, I really wished I’d brought the camera.

But then I caught a glimpse of the mergansers at the edge of the swamp, and forgot about the scenery playing out along the treeline.  I squinted my eyes, peering through the tangled cat claw vines and hanging cypress branches.  Was that a white-feathered head, or was that the topknot of a wood duck?  I knew the answer before the question, but that didn’t dim the wistful thoughts.

If that were a wood duck, how would I get the shot?  I could slip over the side of the canoe into the shallow water.  I could sneak along the edge of the cat claws, up to the trunk of that big cypress.  Then I could step out, and as the duck launched himself into the air, I would give him a few feet and then, “BANG!”  I’d let the little 20 gauge speak death.

But it wasn’t a wood duck.  It would never be a wood duck.  I do not possess the magic to turn a hooded merganser into a wood duck.  So it remained a hooded merganser.

Finally, the three birds decided it was time to find something else to do… maybe go find some fish to eat or something… and they took off in that low, skipping, diving duck way.  They came across the opening in front of my hiding place, streaking by in a telltale flash of black and white that tells the experienced waterfowler, “fish duck, don’t shoot.”

It would have been a beautiful shot, if they had been wood ducks.  I’m pretty sure I could have made the single, and probably could have taken a hen too.  But I don’t eat mergansers, so I don’t shoot mergansers.

If only they had been wood ducks.


3 Responses to “Morning In The Swamp”

  1. Morning In The Swamp | on January 12th, 2016 11:53

    […] Morning In The Swamp […]

  2. David on January 12th, 2016 18:28

    I love the part where you said, ” I needed it to be a wood duck.”

    I completely feel your pain. I think every duck hunter has.

    For several years when my daughter was a bit younger we would often get drawn for the disabled blind at Grizzly Island Wildlife Area in California. This particular blind sits in the back of the wildlife area not far from the San Joquine river and many adjacent duck clubs. It is a rather large pond and late in the season it often fills up with divers. It should be noted that I love to shoot and eat diving ducks like Scaup, Goldeneyes, Ruddy Ducks and Buffleheads. I try to shy away from the latter two since there isn’t a lot of meat but hey, sometimes that is all you have in that pond. Many a time, I have been the guy who gets laughed at while checking out with a limit of divers. Many times the guys laughing are the guys who had nothing on their strap. What they don’t know (more likely they don’t care to know) is that I throw most of my divers into a pile of meat and at the end of the season which gets made into some of the best sausage ever. I do save some of the Scaup if the fat is of normal coloration and not orange from eating tons of fish and shell fish. I find they aren’t that gamey or fishy when their fat is not orange and taste great when prepared medium rare.

    Let me get back on track…

    For a few of those years, a hooded merganser and his harem would come into the decoys just as you described and they would swim all over the pond till just out of site in a connecting pond. The irony is, I shoot all those other divers but always passed on the mergansers. So did my daughter which is a lot of restraint when you are a new hunter and getting ducks is more important to you than the quality of the table fare. I don’t know what it was about those hooded divers and their majestic look but we always just sat there in silence and watched them fly in and paddle all around. Heck, I even missed a Pintail coming in hot to our spread one time because we were watching the mergansers. A drake hooded merganser always seemed to just mesmerize us. Like you, I would often wish for it to be something different. Something my daughter or I wanted to shoot but, just like you, we fail to possess that superpower. If I did have that power, I would not have shot that coot when it was “coming in hot” to our diver decoy spread on a San Francisco Bay hunt last month. I was just positive it was a hen scaup. I will save that story for another day though.

  3. Phillip on January 12th, 2016 19:35

    Thanks, David, and I enjoyed your story.

    In all honesty, in my younger years my buddy and I racked up a ridiculous tally of hooded mergansers. I’ve probably told the tale before, by my buddy’s step-dad had us convinced that these were actually good ducks, and we’d bring them home for him to cook. He made some phenomenal duck dinners… but it was only years later that I learned he wasn’t making them from our mergansers. Still, the salt marsh and Inland Waterway where we hunted were loaded with hooded mergansers, and the damned birds are SOOOO stupid when it comes to decoys.

    Those days are behind me.

    At any rate, I’m not a fan of diving ducks. Not that I knock people who like them, because I understand different tastes. Kat actually likes scaup, but I don’t. One of those things. Just not my thing, so any time I’m hunting and I see a black and white bird coming in, the safety doesn’t even come off. Usually. Sometimes I slip.