EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series.
From a personal standpoint, I’ve been fortunate to harvest a number of banded waterfowl during my 50 years chasing web-footed fowl. The collection of memories is endless: My first band; the only mallard killed out of a bunch of 30. (I’ve always wondered; why that particular bird?) A mallard hen taken the day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated; wood ducks trapped and tagged by a game biologist friend, and two mallards out of the same bunch. There were banded Canada geese that had logged thousands of migration miles and a blue wing teal taken on the Texas prairie, banded flightless only two weeks prior in Saskatchewan. Some bands hold higher rank in the file; a double-banded drake mallard that son Todd and I teamed up on in the Arkansas flooded timber; one band indicating cash reward. Amazingly, the day my first grandson was born, a Manitoba mallard, as if by divine intervention, came tumbling dead, wearing jewelry. Many of the “tagged” fowl were the result of a relentless Labrador retriever only performing her task.
Have you ever wondered if lost or crippled birds just may have been special? The following yarn may provide insight toward an answer.
The setting of my story is the Black River of northeast Arkansas, a perfect late-season mallard day, clear, cold and breezy. My friend, Don Jones, and I were hunting our favorite flooded green timber hole off Winchester Road. We’d had a good morning, working smaller bunches, singles and pairs of late-season mallards and to extend our pleasure, we alternated shooting; drakes only. The serenity of the day was suddenly interrupted by the purring sound of an outboard and the boat banging its way through the woods toward our decoy spread.
“Well, Don, sounds like we’re goin’ to have company,” I exclaimed, just as a nice bunch flared overhead.
Don responded, “Don’t forget you’ve got one more to kill for your limit.”
The little john boat, working its way through the timber, came into view carrying our Arkansas friends, Fred Barnes and his son, Jimmy.
“How you Yankees doin’ this beautiful mornin’?” Fred said. “No limit yet? Sure ain’t the ducks’ fault.”
“Well, ol’ timer,” I responded, “If you’d get your ugly face and leaky boat out of my decoys, we’d have a better chance.”
“Yes, sir,” Fred said, with a grin, and the good-natured exchange continued as they moved into the woods.
Minutes later, calling from nearby hunters gave us a “heads-up” and Jimmy’s whisper of “Here they come” was proof more ducks were headed our way. Three drakes and a hen passed over looking for company and a come back call “sealed the deal.” A shot from my A-5 20 gauge sent the lead greenhead falling, wing broken, toward a literal thicket of briars and vines some 40 yards away.
“He’s going to be a hard one to find,” says Don.
And Jimmy’s comment, “Got a lot of motor left in him,” was convincing.
I got plenty of heat from my camo-clad buddies for “missing a layup,” and Fred really fuels the fire by saying, “You better find him boys; he’s banded.”
We’ll never know if Fred actually saw a band or was just merely laying it on. By the time we waded to the tangle, there was ample time for the wounded drake to basically disappear and after a good half hour of searching we gave up the chase; bird lost. Our Arkansas trip came to an end later that day but plans were made to return the following week.
Heavy rains during our absence raised water levels and scattered the ducks but, true to form, we headed back to “my hole.” Ducks were few and action slow but finally a chance; a single mallard close enough to try. After a volley of shots, of all things, the bird, crippled, makes it to the dreaded thicket — memories of last week’s lost drake. Our only chance of retrieving the bird was by boat. No wading this time, we headed for the now water-covered tangle. To our surprise, we saw our crippled bird plus the bloated remains of a mallard drake, belly up, legs exposed.
You’ve probably guessed what Don and I discovered. Although a week had passed, we did find a banded bird in the thicket, a mallard drake, and Fred’s words, “He’s banded,” echoed in our minds. Was it the bird he alluded to — the Lord only knows! I’m not certain if there is a moral to my tale, but it does make one wonder. How many birds have I shot at and missed, or worse yet, crippled and lost that were wearing the “Avise” tag?
Since 1987, Larry Reid has hosted “Outdoors with Larry Reid,” WBGZ Radio, 1570 AM, Alton.