144,000 Dead Ducks

by Humberto Fontova

Dogs get this look when you pour their food, cats while eyeing the squirrel at the bird feeder. Clients get it at business meetings, but only those held at the Gold Club, Sammy’s or Tiffany’s.

Mud-splattered faces on either side of me glow with this wide-eyed amalgam of exhilaration, anticipation and bliss. Pelayo, Artie and I are duck-hunting on an expense of putrid muck at the very mouth of the Mississippi River and a huge flock had just turned to our calls.

We chose the spot wisely. Here’s the tip of the Mississippi Flyway funnel. The River and its tributaries act as migrating thoroughfares for ducks and geese. Then they finally get to the mouth of this "father of all waters" as the Indians called it, and stop. One third of North America’s wildfowl winter here. Another third visit, then head further south….You talk about DUCKS! Teddy Roosevelt, Black Jack Pershing and Huey Long all hunted down here in their day.

Then in the 1930′ the Feds bought the land and made it a National Wildlife Refuge — bought it with hunter’s money that is. They call it the Pittman Robertson Act, or the "Wildlife Restoration Act,"passed by Congress in 1923. Yep, 12 cents of every dollar I spend on shotguns, shells, calls, decoys — heck, any and all hunting gear — goes to the Federal Government. So do the 15 bucks for the Federal duck stamp I buy every year.

While we’re at it, let’s open my wallet and see all the other goodies I buy: Ah, here’s my Basic hunting license, $15. But don’t I hunt deer? So here’s my Big Game license, another $15. But don’t I hunt deer with a bow too? So here’s my bow license, another $10:50.

But wait! How about that muzzleloader I occasionally use for deer? Here’s my muzzleloader license, another $10.50.

Enough licenses? Don’t answer! Because here’s my State duck stamp, not to be confused with my Federal Duck Stamp I already mentioned, another $10:50. Isn’t this a terrific value! Well worth — but WAIT! There’s MORE! Don’t I also fish?!

Of course! So here’s my Basic fishing license, another $10:50. And isn’t most of my fishing in salt water? Yes! So here’s my Salt Water fishing license for another $5:50!

Almost forgot! I also hunt turkeys. So here’s my Wild Turkey Stamp, another $5:50.

It’s enough to exhaust the Ginzu knife spokesperson, I tell ya.

The Feds then use my money to buy land, make Refuges out of them for birdwatchers, canoeist and hikers — and ban hunting on it. How’s that for "blowback!"

They said it was a shrewd alliance (hunters and the Feds). That if we gave them money, they’d fight tooth and nail for our interests. Famous last words.

Do birdwatchers’ binoculars get taxed to pay for this place? Hell NO! Does their film? Do their clunky boots and baggy shorts? Hell NO!! Do their Brooks Brothers’ vests with a million stupid little pockets? Their canoes and Kayaks? Hell NO!! Do they buy any "Birdwatching licenses? "Hell NO!! Us hunters pay out the wazoo for this place!

Then back at the boat we crack open a Bud. Well, a third of what we payed for that is taxes! Do they tax those stupid little water bottles the birdwatchers carry around? That "herbal tea"junk? The "organic papaya extract" they sip? Hell No! Just my Bud! In fact to candy coat Pittman-Robertson some called it a "user-fee" rather than a "tax."

Fine. But why should we hunters pay the fee for birdwatchers, canoeists, hikers and other such dingbats? Then listen to them badmouth us? Hell, according to them there’s more birdwatchers in American than hunters. Fine! Start footing your own bill. I’m tired of picking up the tab.

Geezuz!… this stuff burns my a**, I tell ya! ….THEN(!) my dues to private groups like Ducks Unlimited go overwhelmingly to habitat restoration — buying land at market rates to propagate wildlife — wildlife all these birdwatchers and hikers can ogle and coo over.

Turn now to the Animal Rights groups. How do they spend their money? Overwhelmingly for litigation, to stop hunts and such — in other words, to stop us from reaping any return from our expenditures — extorted and voluntary! Man this stuff burns my a**!! ("Humberto!" Shirley shrieks from the Den. "What’s going on in there! My goodness…Calm down, Honey."…. "I’m fine…and listen, bring me another beer will ya.. Frosted mug’s in the freezer)

Well, finally after fifty years of us raising hell they opened a tiny sliver of this Delta National Wildlife Refuge to duck hunting so the Federal Game Wardens can have something to do, which is to say: harass us. These yo-yos are unreal.

Flunked the mental aptitude test for Floyd’s Rent-A-Cop agency? Can’t hack the obstacle course at the ATF academy? Airport Security pays too little?

No problem. Become a gen-you-wine Federal Game Warden! Swagger around packing a piece and harassing people trying to enjoy themselves on week-ends — and at their expense! Finally find yourself in a position to talk down to people! To boss them around! To scare them! In the private sector you’d be bagging groceries. Here you lord over a vast domain and harass the peasants! What fun!

You think DWI laws were designed to snare basically honest citizens? Sheeeeeeeout — you ain’t seen nothing my friends. Oughta see Federal Migratory bird laws.

Oh…I know, I know, I suppose there’s a few decent Federal agents around. I’ve just never met them — in 35 years of hunting. State game wardens can be a**holes too. But that’s the exception, at least in my experience.

But back to the hunt. That flock — a huge one of Teal — just turned to our shrill, cacophonous beckon. They’d been 150 yards out, over the shallow open water. Pelayo jerked my shoulder and pointed. Then we opened up with the calls. I let fly with a loud hail : "QUACK!…Quack!…Quack!….Quack… Quack!"

As Pelayo tooted his whistle. "WHEW -whew -whew…WHEW- whew- whew."

And dammed it the teal didn’t turn on a dime. Then they saw the decoys. "Looks like a feast over there gang!" the lead duck announces. "And on orgy! Hang a left gang! Let’s go!"

Now they’re boring in and our faces glow with rapture, except Artie’s. "Looks like shorebirds to me." He whispers. "Man there’s so many of em!"

"They’re Teal man — TEAL!" Pelayo gasps. "And they’re COMING! Get LOW! And hide your face!" as he jammed down his cap.

What a sight. They were boring in, cupping their wings, swerving slightly while slowing down. Shooting — fast frantic shooting — was seconds away. My jaw quivered. My trigger finger tapped the safety spastically. Artie had the look of a leopard about to pounce. Pelayo’s eyes bulged. He panted, like at the Gold Club……

But how to explain this thrill to non-hunter? I’ll take the easy route, and toss the ball back in your court. "How can you not hunt?" I ask. Hunting’s not a hobby. It’s not a past-time — it’s an instinct. “Man’s being consisted first of being a hunter.” Tells us Jose Ortega y Gasset.

"Man evolved as a hunter," says Chicago University anthropologist W. S. Laughlin."He spent over 99 per cent of his species’ history as a hunter, and he spread over the entire habitable globe as a hunter."

How’d you get it out of your system so fast? How’d you shake it?

I have a theory. The instinct’s still down there somewhere, but latent. The embers have cooled after millennia of inactivity. I specialize in rekindling them for friends. I hear of the poor saps mowing the lawn on weekends, grocery shopping, vegetating in front of the TV — or worst of all — plodding through a Golf Course. I hear these things and choke back the sobs. My rambunctious college buddies have mutated into slaves, drones, pansies, eunuchs!

So I spring to the rescue. I’ll take a dedicated golfer hunting. He wallops a high-flying Mallard and his eyes light up! Next week he’s clamoring to go again. A month later he’s selling his clubs for a shotgun. Then the cart for a boat. 15 patterns of Camo soon cram his closet. The embers have ignited a raging inferno by now. By the end of his first season he makes my chum Ted Nugent look like Phil Donahue.

Invariably, his wife , once tolerably civil, starts to loath me. She addresses me exclusively in snarls and curses. She hangs up on me, erases my messages. She becomes my bitter foe.

I can’t blame here. Sure, her husband used to spend time at the golf course, but it was a harmless hobby. This hunting stuff, however, is a passion an obsession. "That’s all he talks about!" She wails "I never see him anymore! He pays more attention to that stupid shotgun than to me! We can’t go out anymore cause he’s always gone on weekends!…and that damn racket from that damn duckcall! Night and day!"

The ducks and deer now compete seriously for her time. She resents it. But this always fades. By Christmas she’s smiling, thanking me, "Humberto!" She beams. "So nice to see you! Can I get you a beer? Hey, aren’t ya’ll goin hunting this week-end again?…Wonderful!…Here, and in a nice frosty mug!"

Always happens this way. Her hubbies’ new passion brings her benefits in the boudoir you see. Conquest afield is usually followed by conquest at home. He returns from the chase — dirty bedraggled — but always with a carnal gleam in his eye. It was so for our Paleolithic ancestors. It remains the case today. Ask around.

"Then why don’t more men hunt," you ask?

"Lack of opportunity," I answer. "They turn to golf for the same reason men turn to sodomy in prisons and Arabic countries."

"What?!" You snort, "This guy’s a raving loon! A complete nutcase!"

"Perhaps," I answer. "Can’t help it though. Hunting season always does this to me. It’s a serious Jones my friends, and I’m in wallowing in it right now, after six months of withdrawal. Compared to this Ketih Richards and John Belushi had it easy. "….yes, here they come…they’re almost in range….almost…gliding a little closer…a few start dropping the landing gear — NOW!

We rise and the flock scatters and rockets skyward. A wild flurry of furiously flapping wings and startled quacks fill the air…I swing left — BLAM! One folds and hits the water. I swing higher….

BLAM! Pelayo nails him before I slap the trigger. A puff of feathers and he staggers in flight. "Sha-wuck" goes Pelayo’s pump and — BLAM! Again. The Teal’s neck sags like a noodle…his wings fold…….splish! into the decoys.

I start following another one, high overhead by now…The bead passes his beak — BLAM! My shoulder bucks and he folds. What a pretty sight….then……THUD! into the mud bank on the left.

BLAM!…I’m startled by a final shot. Artie nails one with a gorgeous going away shot. He twirls down like that Kamikaze with one wing blasted off you always see on the History Channel. We sit there trembling with idiot grins, looking around. Finally we erupt in wild whoops and Rebel yells. Now the high fives. Finally I get out to retrieve them.

They lay in the boat next to six others, mangled, oozing blood. We look down and gloat. What would John James Audubon, the patron saint of birdwatchers, say at this carnage?

Why, he’d sneer. He’d call us pansies, wussies, chumps. Such a pathetic bag. Yes, Audubon was a notorious hunter himself. And I mean a serious hunter. He mowed them down like wheat, really piled u2018em up. Remember the movie Predator? The first one with Aww-nold and Jesse Ventura? Remember when they heard that little noise in the bushes and all opened up with every conceivable automatic weapon? That ten minute bombardment and fusillade that blasted and shredded a section of jungle into a putting green?

Well, when Audubon went hunting he made that crew look like Rosie O’Donnel. I have proof. It’s in a book titled " Migratory Shore and Upland Game Birds", and it’s a quote from J. J. Audubon himself, relating a hunt for plover and snipe outside of New Orleans in 1821. 200 gunners took part:

"Several times I saw flocks of a hundred or more destroyed to the exception of five or six birds." Audubon gushes on page 84. "Supposing each man to have killed thirty dozen birds that day, 144,000 must have been destroyed."

Notice how J.J. uses the word destroy. He obviously relished this avian holocaust. 144,000 bagged in one hunt, my friends! 30 dozen birds per person! Those were the DAYS! My limit’s a measely four.

Humberto Fontova [send him mail] holds an M.A. in History from Tulane University. He’s the author of Helldiver’s Rodeo described as "Highly entertaining!" by Publisher’s Weekly, as "Terrific!" by Salon.com, and as "Just what the doctor ordered!" by Ted Nugent.