The forecast didn’t call for snow – but somehow we found ourselves in a blizzard. My friend Max clutched the wheel all the way through the mountains as we both questioned our decision to go duck hunting. Hell, we didn’t even know if there was enough water to hunt where we were going, let alone if there were birds there. But if we’ve learned one thing during the first two weeks of a month-long hunting spree, it’s that the worst conditions make for the best hunting. So we continued.
We drove three hours north from Denver—near the Colorado-Wyoming border—only to find that the shelter we scouted was frozen. Every hole we checked was a solid sheet of ice and the only thing in the sky was snow and lots of it. “Turn the truck around,” I told Max. “Let’s go home.”
But he insisted we check one more tank before heading back to Denver. I told him we were wasting our time, then threw the seat down and took a nap.
Wake up call
Half an hour later, I woke up to Max yelling, “They’re everywhere!”
they it was the ducks – and indeed they were everywhere, their clouds moving back and forth. The 40 mph winds had kept a larger tank open and it seemed like every duck in the county was using it. Even better, it was all public land. Max threw the truck into four-wheel drive and pulled into the snow-filled driveway. As we neared a point we kicked up a large group of ducks – mallard, gdwall, widgeon, shovelers and dabs.
This was of place.
“Maybe today is the day you get your pin…”
“Stop it,” I said, cutting him off. Not everyone knows this about me, but I am born superstitious. Just like you never mention a perfect game to a pitcher while he’s in the middle of one, you should never mention the kind of duck your friend has been chasing for 12 years—even if you know there’s a good chance he can shoot it. that. At least, that’s how I feel.
I tossed the candy over my shoulder and went to set up our spread. The snow had become heavier and harder—more like small pebbles than fluffy flakes. I waded into the mud, sinking up to my thighs at some points, and fought the wind and snow to get back to shore. We tried to hide, but it was useless. The snow-covered coastline made the worst concealment imaginable. But it didn’t matter: the birds wanted in and nothing would stop them.
I tried to hear Max through the wind, but I had a feeling a duck was coming in. I looked up from the snowfall and noticed a wall of gads jutting out. It matched perfectly as it entered the spread. I raised my gun and the bird fell. The action only got better from there. We saw bobcats, blues, redheads, canvasbacks and just about every pond duck…except one – the one whose name I wouldn’t let Max pronounce.
I was rummaging in my blind bag to find hand warmers when I heard Max yell, “Right here!”
I looked back and the two ducks were hovering over the candy. I took my gun and shot the bird on the right. It folded. Max whistled at the other duck, but he dove into chest deep water to retrieve my bird. As he turned back, he shouted that he wasn’t sure what it was. But I could see her slender neck from a distance—and right then, I knew.
Max gave me the bird and I started jumping and screaming like a kid at Christmas. “What is it,” Max asked.
“That’s a northern chicken tail!” Max gave me a big hug and we replayed the shot all over again. I couldn’t believe it happened. Some days, I still can’t.
The snow was falling even harder now, and none of us could see very far from the rogues. Then above, I heard the unmistakable whistle of the bird I had followed for a dozen years. I looked at Max and said, “Maybe it’s your turn to take the first pin…”
But he cut me off right before I almost broke my rule. I guess I’m not the only superstitious duck hunter.
Best of 2022 is a series of stories from the editors about their favorite moments of the past year on the field or on the air.