The weather shifted overnight: A plummeting thermometer followed a cold rain and blustery afternoon breeze. The north wind that has been howling since midnight has not relented.
It is brittle cold, a dozen degrees below freezing and sharpened by the icy mist skimming off the water. Bibs, coats, hats and gloves are zipped or drawn snug. Shotguns, shell bags, thermoses filled with coffee, and other gear fill the front half of the boat. One guy brought two guns. Everyone brings too much stuff.
Billy, our guide, is in the stern seat talking on his cell phone with a fellow guide. Bare headed and without gloves, he pours coffee from his thermos and tells a foul joke that is ridiculously funny. Everyone laughs.
He clicks on his hand-held spotlight, glances at his watch, and then scans the wide-beamed War Eagle boat.
He directs me to sit on the bow and puts the other two hunters side by side in the middle seat, instructing us to face the stern. Billy has been guiding duck hunters since high school. He’s the best on the lake: Captain of the Boat and Lord of the Blind. Like most of his hunters, he is now middle-age and a little overweight. He never wears a full beard but is rarely clean-shaven. He is polite and friendly but no-nonsense. He is responsible for his hunters’ safety. He knows his hunters, and they know him. Two of the three men in the boat have hunted with Billy for years. He also guides fishermen but lives for duck season.
“Ready?” he asks.
At Billy’s command, his young Lab, Jake, jumps on board and curls up on the floor between the middle seat and bow along with the guns and bags. The dog—sleek, coal black and wearing a camouflage-patterned neoprene dog vest for protection against the icy water—is nearly invisible in the pre-dawn darkness. I speak to Jake, and he wags his tail. A well-trained duck dog is a joy. Like their owners, they are friendly and efficient but generally all business and not openly enthusiastic. They enjoy their work.
The boat ride to the blind will take about 10 minutes. Billy pulls on his cap and gloves and checks his watch: 6:50. Sunrise is at 7:51. Shooting hours begin 30 minutes before sunrise. He throttles up the Mercury and a small wave breaks over the bow, splashing me from the waist down. My bibs are waterproof, mostly.
Billy throttles down the motor and yells so he can be heard over the wind. “Better move back to that front seat.” Guides sometimes have a curved sense of humor.
Waterfowl hunting seasons are set by individual states within guidelines outlined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This year, Kentucky duck hunters have a 60-day season and a six-bird daily limit, the most generous offered. Kentucky’s duck and goose seasons opened Thanksgiving Day. Duck season runs through Jan. 25. Goose hunting extends to the 31st. There is a conservation order season for snow geese that includes most of February and March, and an early February weekend is reserved for youth hunters. But December and January are a waterfowler’s bailiwick.
What this season will bring is anyone’s guess. Duck numbers are strong, but bird movement is driven largely by weather, which, mercifully, still operates only on nature’s terms.
The duck blind is a floating plywood contraption designed to double as a miniature boat garage. It’s been covered with brush so that, hopefully, to a duck, it resembles something that belongs there. About two-dozen decoys bob in the wind-driven waves.
The boat is quickly unloaded. Billy and Jake move to the left end of the blind. Billy pulls and ties off a rope that opens a small door to a platform that’s about a foot off the water. Without instruction, Jake moves into position and lies down, half in, half out of the blind. Hunters take our spots, uncase and load guns. Everyone checks the time. Two mallard drakes and a hen circle the blind.
Billy glances at his watch: 7:18. Three minutes until legal shooting time. The echo from two shotgun blasts is heard. Billy shakes his head. “I hope the [game] warden is out this morning,” he says to no one in particular. More birds appear. Billy reminds everyone that he will do the calling, and he will call the shot, which means no one pulls a trigger until he says so. This is for safety. It’s a rule rarely broken.
“Ever have anyone shoot before you tell them to?” I ask Billy.
“Not more than once.”
I can hear ducks but can’t see them. Billy selects one of the half-dozen calls hanging from the lanyard around his neck.
“Get ready,” he says in a choked whisper.
I glance at my watch: 7:21. Thirty minutes before sunrise.