Palouse Outdoors – A Fine Morning for Waterfowl

As I neared the river, a fog bank appeared on the horizon – an impenetrable wall set along the highway corridor. It was disheartening to watch a beautiful January day disappear in the rearview as the sun-shrouding humidity swallowed me whole, but the foggy conditions were arguably better for jump-shooting waterfowl. Sunlight glinting from gun barrels and glasses betray me as I sneak through riparian grasses and timber.

Pulling onto the road shoulder, I prepared for the approximate half-mile hike into a serpentine river reach that is occupied by a healthy flock of mallards nearly every time I visit. I donned my camouflage rain jacket, evergreen wool Stetson and mittens, and strapped my camera bag to my back. It felt odd to carry the Red Label over/under without a setter leading the hunt, but the feel of the gun and the zipping sound it made when sliding from the case were comforting. A sign of good things to come.

The hike was peaceful. Juncos and sparrows flitted through the frosted kochia thickets, which stood in dark contrast to the golden cereal rye encircling them. A magpie cawed in the trees along the river. An eagle was perched in a prime location to keep watch on the water. Its large silhouette appeared raven-black through the mist. Somewhere up ahead, a single string of excited quacks caused me to pause and cock my head, like a hungry coyote listening to the scurry of a field mouse. About three hundred yards stood between me and the ducks.

The final one hundred yards was onerous. I followed a deer trail, which dipped into a frozen puddle that was flanked by crackling mats of reed canary grass. The ducks could not see me, but they would certainly hear me if I were careless, even with the ambient babble of the river at their feet.

Deliberate foot placement carried me around the icy water’s edge, avoiding downed tree limbs, and placing steps where the grass was heavily matted and unlikely to crackle. The ducks remained silent as I crept – the kind of silence that gets into my head when a gameplan nears fruition.

Maybe they already flushed, I thought. No, they didn’t. You would have heard them. Keep moving.

At the head of the long, frozen puddle, I dropped my camera bag and eased toward the river. Ten minutes passed as I tactfully stepped through common reeds that threatened to sway with the slightest bump and send a deafening “rrrriiipp” through the silence when contacted by synthetic fabrics.

Ahead was a sizable tree with low limbs, which I belly-crawled beneath the last time I tried this spot. I turned toward it, crossed behind a small willow patch, and instantly caught a glimpse of five drake mallards sitting on the backwater across the river. The sight of the ducks caused me to freeze. An act meant to avoid detection but often results in alerting game. A deer or another innocuous critter would not have stopped.

Turning toward the creek and taking two crouched steps sent at least twenty mallards skyward on a straightaway departure. They jumped about thirty yards out and quickly expanded that distance to fifty yards. I never bothered to shoulder the gun.

Cracking the breach on the Red Label, I plucked the shells while chuckling quietly and pondering what I might do differently next time. I may have blown the ducks out of the country, but at least I could forget about precariously tip-toeing my way out.

Once back across the icy expanse, I veered right toward the river again. My plan was to slip through an opening ahead and disappear into the tree cover for a still hunt. My path wound through kochia and poison hemlock that was alive with songbirds. Pausing briefly, I picked up the Nikon from where it hung against my chest and focused in on a Junco. It contrasted beautifully against the frosted weed skeletons, but my inability to remain still resulted in blurred images. Another mistake to laugh off as I moved closer to the river.

Moments later, I recognized a kingfisher perched statuesque in a tree above the water. My camera lens was only a two hundred millimeter – not nearly enough for the distance between us. How to maneuver closer?

Edging toward the river allowed me to close enough distance, but as I focused the camera, the kingfisher left its limb and vanished into thin air. Impeccable timing. Something I experience continually when trying to photograph, well, everything mobile and possessing free will.

An audible laugh erupted at the kingfisher’s timely departure. I had been so intent on snagging the photo that I paid little attention to my proximity to the river. My attention was suddenly redirected by a half dozen mallards lifting from the water, and again, I laughed out loud. A comedy of errors resulted from trying to capitalize on too many opportunities and failing at all of them for not devoting appropriate attention to a single task. One would think that after thirty years of repeating this mistake, I would have corrected my behavior by now. The definition of “insanity” comes to mind.

As the mallards departed, I turned toward the river to see a massive great blue heron lift off. My hand was on the camera when twenty more mallards blew up, but instead of the usual straight away exit over water, they flew left-to-right over land and in close proximity.

Realizing the shot opportunity triggered instinctive action to raise my gun. I singled out a drake and squeezed the trigger. While swinging on a second bird, I spied the drake drop from the flock. I engaged the safety and made haste to where the duck had fallen.

Mouthwatering recipes, namely confit, flashed through my mind as I hoisted the handsome bird and admired its plumage. The pattern and color complexity quickly captivated me – chocolate brown, emerald green, charcoal gray with black pepper flecks, and that iridescent violet flare across the wing. Simply stunning.

The foggy river scene with the contrasting shapes and gray-brown palette of weeds, grasses, and trees, provided a superb backdrop for burning the memory into immortal electrons – what would have been film in a past life. Satisfied that I had sufficiently captured the light and scene, I gathered my shotgun and bounty and strolled the river’s edge toward the truck to the melody of songbirds, and the soothing roll of water on its path to the ocean.