I don’t yet number myself among the 40,000 or so Minnesota duck hunters who have abandoned the sport. But it’s increasingly obvious that duck hunting is abandoning those of us who still have the patience to hunker down in a frozen slough for hour after hour, waiting for a moment that never comes. More often than not now–on gloriously beautiful fall days as well as on those gray, stormy ones duck hunters love–the skies are empty and the whistle of wings overhead is a memory.

To be sure, on the best day any duck hunter ever had the act of pulling the trigger and taking a bird from the air was a miniscule part of the whole experience. Duck hunting is almost entirely about watching and waiting…a Zen-like activity that is only intermittently interrupted for a few seconds of actual shooting. The minutes and hours pass by and you talk to your hunting companions or to your dog or to yourself, always hoping that in the next instant you’ll be brought into action. These are the spaces that make up a duck hunter’s lot, and in recent years they’ve grown longer and longer as fewer ducks come this way.

Everyone says the flyway has moved west…or at least the ducks have moved to one further in that direction. Maybe so. Things change. And if that means I’ll soon change too, that I’ll trade days on the water for days in the field going after other birds in other places, well, I’ll miss the ducks.  But mostly I’ll miss the waiting and watching. Duck hunters see great things.

I remember one morning years ago, as my brother-in-law and I were pushing a duck boat through a vast stand of wild rice far ahead of the dawn, when a huge meteor blazed across the sky, an almost blinding streak of green-and-yellow fire so intense and so seemingly close that I half expected to hear a hiss as it fell into the lake we were on.

And I remember another morning on that same lake when we shoved off at 3 a.m. to make sure we got to our favorite hunting place ahead of some local boys who’d figured it out too. The black night was warm and close and clear. Overhead the Milky Way was bright enough to cast your shadow on the ground and the aurora borealis was shooting undulating ribbons of purple and green and red across the sky from horizon to horizon. Away from the landing we opened up the motor and slid between a series of small islands that seemed to float darkly on the water. It was dead calm and when I looked down at the perfect mirror that was the surface of the lake it reflected the whole universe above. I looked down and saw stars and the northern lights streaming by below me, and when I looked up toward the edge of the world I couldn’t tell where the earth stopped and the sky began. It was like flying through space.

When we got to where we were going to hunt as the sun came up we cut the motor well offshore and rowed silently toward the sounds of ducks dabbling and quacking among the rushes. We drifted there for a long time, with duck music heralding the imminent arrival of daybreak. I can’t remember if we got anything that day or not.

33 thoughts on “Wings

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    Yes, very, very nice. The tranquility of watching and waiting much needed. You enable us to see it, hear it, feel it. Thanks.

      1. Joe Loveland says:

        Every election season, I hear about the imminent threat of gun confiscation, so I just get concerned.

  2. Erik Peterson says:

    You get an F for coyness today as well.

    Be that as it may… that you‘re serious and everything has to be political…if you are a hunter and care about gun rights, a common displeasure was putting up with liberals who would conflate grand dads model 12 Mallard slayer with whatever double stack plastic fantastic was gracing the cover of Guns and Ammo that month. This is one subject matter where you fellows typically aren’t informed or knowledgeable enough to have a useful voice in the national conversation…. which is why the national conversation has been concluded.

    Again, about as ironicly deployed as a room clearing fart.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      Sorry about the room clearing. That was awfully rude of me to bring such crudeness into the conversation.

      I hunted a bit in my South Dakota youth. I guess ultimately the frozen toes part outweighed the zen part for me, so I haven’t hunted in years. But I hunted (and still occassionally fish) enough to appreciate what William was capturing here. Some of my friends who’ve never hunted assume the appeal is about primal level blood lust. The people I hunted with seemed to be attracted to a variety of things — partying, bonding, competitiveness, zen, escapism. But I never saw blood lusters. Anyway, thanks for the view.

    2. Jim Leinfelder says:

      Pardon? It’s been my impression that it’s the NRA and its more reflexive dues payers who conflate the doubt that anyone has a compelling need for a .50-caliber sniper rifle, or high-capacity magazines, etc. that trumps public safety and grandpa’s filigreed 12-gauge side-by-side or great grandpa’s black powder muzzle loader; not those seeking reasonable limits on individual 2nd Amendment rights.

      You know, the whole slippery slope argument.

      Personally, I see no need to politicize Bill’s reflections on duck hunting, but I was brought up short by your claim that it’s liberals who conflate basic hunting firearms and military-style weapons that or only useful for mass and rapid killing of human beings.

      1. Erik Peterson says:

        These observations are not in contradiction.

        We don’t make a distinction between defensive and sporting arms because the 2nd amendment doesn’t make that distinction. That’s not to say we conflate. And ultimately, the opposing arguments were so poor we didn’t have to give any ground, so we didn’t. Tough bananas. Crime continues to go down. It would be one thing if you fellows could unearth a meaningful correlation somewhere.

        Conflation by liberal GC advocates has been symptomatic of both ignorance and willful efforts to distort basic facts in what at one time was a real camel’s nose, slippery slope effort.

      2. Jim Leinfelder says:

        Uh-huh, well, clearly there are no Constitutional rights that are absolute. There are limits on all of them. This can’t be news to one so erudite. Try buying a full-automatic anything and you’ll be getting a visit from the ATF or FBI.

        But for political purposes, your crowd like to pretend that these, and similar, sorts of reasonable limits on your interpretation of the 2nd Amendment are a threat to ALL gun ownership, great grand dad’s lever-action Winchester included; even when that’s clearly not the intent. It’s an effective gambit, though, I’ll acknowledge. Keep ’em scared works on so many levels wen it comes to gun ownership.

        I’ll grant you, though, that our country’s violent predilections are not readily dealt with through gun control laws. It’s who we are.

      3. Erik Peterson says:

        Actually, back in the 80’s and 90’s…and I think this was Chuck Schumer… the cop killer bullet legislation was written such to ban pistol calibers capable of penetrating protective vests. Physics wise, the big thing is speed. Rifle calibers are fast(er), and rifle calibers in specialized pistol platforms had become popular. Like the .30-30 chambered in the Thompson Contender… which is undoubtedly not a tactical weapon, by the way. So the cop killer legislation, as the liberals desired it, had the potential to impart a practical ban on the Winchester model 94 .30-30. That’s Grandpa’s Winchester lever rifle.

        In the latest go round, post Giffords, the high capacity magazine ban was written such to ban weapons with 10 or more round capacities, no exceptions. Even more so than modern pistols, what this would have done is impart a practical ban on .22 rifles with under barrel tubular magazines. In the old days they called these ‘boys’ rifles’. But the McCarthy ban would have also banned the pistol caliber configuration of the Winchester lever rifle.

        This is the stupidity gun owners have had to put up with. I don’t expect you to be versant as I in all this, but smug, liberal, righteous certainty is not going to be enough to carry the argument.

  3. Joe Loveland says:

    There’s a reason this space was not dubbed Same Genteel Crowd. Just because someone gives us a lovely, peaceful post doesn’t morally bind everyone to use the identical tone and subject in the following discussions. Ranting, philosophizing, observing, subject-changing, reflecting, snarking, complimenting, critiquing and banjo-picking are all in-bounds here.

    1. Jim Leinfelder says:

      Yup, that’s why I said, “personally.” And it’s also worth noting that Bill has another book pending on the life of Rachel Carson, so, yeah, the boy knows his natural history.

  4. Joe Loveland says:

    Probably worth noting that the duck hunter knows his birds. He is the celebrated author of Under a Wild Sky : John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America, available at a bookstore near you.

  5. Dennis Lang says:

    I think we could have guessed somethng to that effect. Gorgeous passage–even if you guys, in those subtle ironies a Crowd signature– tried to politicize it.

  6. Erik Peterson says:

    I last duck hunted 5 or 6 years ago. As I’ve been making my bones in my industry and my marriage, it’s been hard to get away. The big thing is, it’s kind of expensive for the time you get to spend at it. But my hunting grounds are in NoDak, and that’s a big trip.

    I’ll go and take my 10 year old this year. We are going to get back in the swing of it.

    I always thought hitting a duck mid-flight was a fairly complex set of actions, almost akin to trying to hit a baseball.

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Ah…The sheer poetry of blasting one of God’s most eloquent creatures to smithereens. Exactly like hitting a tightly wound lifeless object. I hear you Erik. Good analogy.

  7. Dennis Lang says:

    Who would want to? Besides that would be impossible. You are a person of unique voice and profound convictions!

  8. Steve Anfang says:


    Henry Van Dyke said, “If we can only come back to nature together every year, and consider the flowers and the birds, and confess our faults and mistakes and our unbelief under the silent stars, and hear the river murmuring our absolution, we shall die young, even though we live long: we shall have a treasure of memories which will be like a twinflower, always a double blossom on a single stem, and carry with us into the unseen world something which will make it worthwhile to be immortal.”

    I can’t wait for the duck opener. See you there.

      1. When I caught the news of the dearth of duck hunters I knew … there was one man … one stalwart warrior … one armed and ready champion of sport … still prepared and eager to battle the wily and ever dangerous mallard and … whatever the other ones are called. Damn, I love the feel of blood spray across my face on a brisk autumn morn.

  9. Dennis Lang says:

    Maybe it’s just me, and Mr. Souder writes beautifully, but what is the psychology inherent in killing these graceful living things for sport? No, really, what is it?

    1. William Souder says:

      As I tried to explain in the original post, killing a duck is only one small facet of the sport of duck hunting, which offers many other rewards that are probably easier for a non-hunter to appreciate. I don’t think any special “psychology” is required to shoot ducks. Duck hunting is a culture and a tradition that is typically passed from one generation to the next and generally, you like it or you don’t

      The faint whiff of moral disapproval in you question, however, is easily answered. I eat ducks, which I kill myself, just as I eat beef, which I don’t. Hunting eliminates the slaughter house and the butcher, but raises no ethical of psychological issues for me. If it’s otherwise for you, I can respect that.

      1. Dennis Lang says:

        Thanks for your reply and yes, it was clear that the actual killing of the ducks was only a minor facet of a sublime experience. And yes, I eat beef also. You make a good point to a “catch and release” sort of guy.

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