By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer
The skies were the color of gunmetal and the ground bore a thin, white frost that crunched and squeaked at my boots’ passing. The last of the season’s tractors had long since come and gone and swaths of unharvested grain stood bent and brown in the field, food for birds and deer that, having passed it for sweeter fare in richer days, returned to it now as January’s cold bore down.
I walked slowly as the full decoy bag twisted and wagged across my back, a dozen foam mallards, drakes and hens, rattling and squeaking with each step. I carried my shotgun amidships, hand around the receiver, waving it outward for balance across uneven ground. Any direction away from me was safe for its pointing, because I passed this way alone.
I stood the gun against a handy tree and unlaced the top of the decoy bag in the half-dark, working against the knotted cord’s will. Each decoy sailed high in the breeze on the throw, brief silhouettes against the clouds, then disappeared into a double splash as bird and anchor finished their tandem dance with gravity at water’s surface, one bound to the other by dark nylon line – twelve floating forms to give passers-by something to look at, a place to consider, a chance for instinct to kick in.
Finally I slipped three loads of steel shot into the gun’s innards and wedged my folding stool into the mud at the base of a big oak at water’s edge.
The wind from the north increased to flank speed and I felt it push against my back, heard it turn my ears red, saw it whip my breath away as it pushed on like a river in the night. A quick, deep breath hurt to the bone it seemed, but only for a moment. Clouds high above moving at a cross current to the wind below grew brighter as they caught the first rays of the new day from the east, casting a brighter gloom on the world below. Sheltered from the blast by the levee, areas of water not torn by the breeze shone like puddles of mercury as water mirrored sky. Occasional raindrops dashed the image, only to have it smooth and settle again.
From the slough behind I could hear the occasional beat of wings as the big birds that’d rested here on their transit south began to stir. Soon the silence above was peppered by life’s sounds, the gabbling of those aloft to those still headed that way, the whistling rush of air across wings built both for distance and speed.
Thinking of those days now, I can almost feel the breeze, smell the ice and manage a shiver. When air conditioning alone isn’t enough, it’s good to have cool memories to rely on.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.