“Well, that’s about enough of this BS,” I said as I wrapped the magnum bluebill decoys and shot-put them towards the shore.
It’s not like I’ve not been skunked before. Even the recurring headaches from the rowdy night before and a pair of waders that let saltwater flow in and out like a bait bucket didn’t damper my spirits. Hell, it was a fun morning drawing into a beautiful evening, standing near a mangrove island staring out into the Gulf.
And we saw ducks – bluebills, mergansers, buffleheads, redheads, and scores of Distant Black Dot Ducks, but none wanted to work the decoys, and none happened by on accident. With sea duck hunting, it’s not all that much of a surprise. It’s often a crapshoot in every sense of the term.
No, what was more troubling were the boats to the South blasting away that led to the head-shaking. For the third straight year I was on the losing end of our Annual Sea Duck Tournament, the Booze & Blast. Got half of it right - other half pretty lame. I had visions of cupping redheads and the other boys high-fiving while my BPS gathered rust, cold barreled and fully shelved with ammo. It was too much to bear.
Cole’s party dusted the hooded mergansers in some secluded area he pointed us far away from. Sawyer’s team had a pretty stout lead after the morning hunt, and it sounded like he was padding his lead, as well. It’s the luck of the draw and all of that, but God is it frustrating to hear the reports echo across the bay while you try to will even one duck to err on the side of a trigger.
We gather every year off the Nature Coast for this event. Silly as it sounds, we were in far more productive locations earlier in the season hunting serious ducks and talking about this late-season gamut that leads to a bag heavy with mergansers. The lure of redheads is enticing, and a few died this trip - just not by my hand. The friends, the wives, partying the night before, the uniqueness of the hunt – it’s an annual draw.
The morning started well, though not without its share of difficulties. Drew captained his mudboat out the mouth of the Little Homosassa River. The tide was terribly low, even for the winter. If you’ve never launched out of this area, I wouldn’t in the dark. It’s treacherous, with oyster and limestone islands and their arms of bars and rocks ready to claim their next lower unit, prop or skeg even without the extreme winter tides. We scraped and banged, luckily without totally chewing up the vessel, out to Fun Island, a location eat up last year with waterfowl.
One redbreasted merganser quickly complied with the setup, PJ dumping him in the spread. And then the guns fell silent. As the morning wore on and dreams of country-fried steaks started taking hold, we lifted our gear and proceeded back to port. Unfortunately, there was not enough water to return that way. We pointed towards the Gulf to circle back into the Big River.
That ride was revealing. One, not a whole lot of ducks were rafted in the open water per usual for this time of year. With a mild, mild winter, it just didn’t seem many ducks got down here, or perhaps kept pushing farther south, as we’d heard good reports of bluebills towards Tampa. But, we’d also heard tales of non-mergie divers towards Crystal River.
That afternoon we towed the boats north. A man at the ramp said there were a few redheads around but not in any large groups. But I didn’t pay much attention to him – I was more focused on the two chaps wanting to launch their 24-foot wooden outboard into this maze of rocks and crags. They reminded me of the two fellows from “Jaws” who used a wife’s roast to try and catch the shark – they had an inkling of a plan, but no solid idea of what they were getting into, and just may have to swim back to safety if things went wrong.
So Cole and Sawyer hunted south, and we elected to hunt near Crystal River. If there’s one tip I can offer about this style of hunting it is this: Don’t sea duck hunt with me. I am an albatross. White pelicans hooted and grunted behind our island, and cormorants were steadily pouring over. But the ducks gave us nothing to work with. With about an 1 ½ of daylight remaining, we picked up to try another island, scattering a couple healthy flocks of bluebills and mergansers.
I expected the bluebills to return, as they are wont to do. But, a fishing boat rode in and whooped and hollered as the sounds of distant gun blasts tore at my nerves. Enough was enough. And we couldn't wait out last shooting light with the tide now steadily rushing west. Sawyer’s team gathered the championship for the weekend, actually getting out of bed to hunt Sunday while the rest of us slept in. And duck season was over for me.
As always, we’re planning for next year. We were late with a logo for the tournament shirts but should have that ready for 2013. And we’ve commissioned a trophy to be fashioned with a redbreasted merganser standing on an Evan Williams bottle to pass around to the winner in the years to come like the Stanley Cup. It’s gonna be cool. Hope to win it one year and cover myself in glory.
If anyone lets me board their boat again.