It was 5:30 on a cold morning in the Owens Valley, CA, and duck season was in full swing. I pulled on my camo pants and rubber boots and headed to the clubhouse to meet up with the rest of the hunters.
It was quiet out, aside from the occasional big rig making its way up the nearby highway, and the muffled, excited whines from the dogs in their kennels. I could barely make out a sky full of clouds in the early morning light.
“Good duck weather,” a hunter said as he passed by. It didn’t make sense to me. I shrugged and followed him into the house. Amidst the coffee mugs and quiet laughter, I felt a little out of place. I was the only kid there, and the hand-me-down, mismatched gear I had on only made me feel more ostracized from the professional hunters surrounding me.
After coffee, Dad loaded me up with shells, handed me my over/under, then tended to our Lab, Bodhi. He stepped right into his wet suit, routine. Great, my dog was more experienced than I was. I went to give him a pet, but he would have none of it. My family dog who just the night before was aching to climb in my lap, was all business. This was his Super Bowl.
The three-minute walk felt like forever in those heavy boots. The weight of the shells in my belt and the constant zig zagging of hunting dogs under me didn’t help. Rays of morning sunlight were just coming over the cliffs to the east, and I could start to make out the lake continuing past the dock.
“There go the locals.” I heard someone whisper. I looked to my Dad and he pointed up. My mouth dropped open as what looked like a hundred canvasbacks flew overhead.
I’d learn from later hunts that that first flight was hit or miss. Everyone had a different theory on how to be ready, in position, after sunrise to get them. They ranged from types of boots worn and limiting the number of hunters to extending the shooting time by an hour or even later.
It was at that moment I noticed the continuous shaking of our rowboat. Bodhi had seen them, too, and he was aching to dive in the cold water. Shortly after we got in position, shots starting going off all around me and the birds started to drop.
“On the right,” Dad yelled. I was too late, but he nailed it. The boat spun 180 degrees as Bodhi jumped off the back step like a rocket. My eyes returned to the sky as I started to pick out the ducks. Among the clumsy, slow-flying coots I’d catch a glimpse of something more graceful, more aerodynamic, fighter jets in a sky full of gliders, swooping in and out, flaring up. It was amazing. I caught one early, shouldered my gun, fired and missed.
“Behind it,” shouted my dad; something I’d have to get used to hearing. Despite my rocky start, the morning ended strong. I shot two canvasbacks, a couple ruddys and a tired puppy worth of coots. I attributed the haul to beginners luck and smile das the other hunters complimented me on my nice set of cans. My dad congratulated me on a good hunt.
Ten years later and I’m still behind them, only now I don’t need my father to tell me. Bodhi has retired and his apprentice, Jackman, has filled his very large shoes. Everything in this world has grown up, changed or moved on. One constant I can always count on is a morning on the lake where the birds always fly. I cherish the days I get to spend out on the lake with my dad, my dog and the ducks. There’s nothing like it in the world.