“Pee Dee River Ducks”
By: The Buckman
The night was dark. The stars shone bright and a Carolina moon hung over the river swamp. It was cold, the kind of cold that seeps through the body and into the bones, so cold that there were no calls from the insects of the night. Only the warble of a distant owl and the slow cackle of the dying embers of a camp fire broke the cold dead silence of the winter night.
The Buckman was stretched out with his boots off, feet warmed by the dying fire, wrapped in an old quilt, hunting coat balled under his head for a pillow, dead to the world breathing in, absorbing the swamp around him, oblivious to the cold, one with the world around him that most would find so hostile. At three-thirty his eyes popped open and the fire of life blazed through them and it would have been obvious if there were anyone there to see him that this was indeed a man of the wild.
If there were time to waste this was not it, and upon awaking, I immediately shook off the cold and set about the tasks at hand. I expertly stoked the fire and added the wood needed to break the chill of the night for those less adapted to the extremes of nature than I. I scooped fresh coffee in the pot and swung it over the fire. I tied on my boots and began loading the boat with the tried tools of the endeavor at hand. I placed the two shotguns under the seat, swung the decoy bag full of our blocks in the front of the boat and tossed in the blind bags with everything else we needed inside the console.
By this time the coffee was boiling and I had let Lil’ Joe sleep long enough. I burst through the door of his tent where I was nearly knocked over by the heat of a propane heater and Lil’ Joe slept soundly on an extra wide padded cot wrapped in a mummy bag from the tip of his nose to his toes and I have yet to figure out why he didn’t wash off that cot in the night and douse that heater with sweat, but still he slept there so deeply that had I been a bear I could have eat him. “Rise and shine,” I yelled, “You’re burning daylight.”
The startled screech he emitted was somewhat alarming, and he bolted upright to see what had abruptly ended the solid slumber on his cozy cot. Seeing it was only me, he laid back down with a sigh. “It’s nearly time to go” said I. “You can sleep your life away, but the ducks will still fly. Now I’m gonna get out of this tent before I start to melt and my arms get so weak I can’t hold a bead on a bird.”
I left the tent and went to the fire where I poured myself a strong cup of black coffee. It wasn’t long before Lil’ Joe stood beside me sipping on a hot cup sweetened with sugar and tempered with creamer. We stood together silently by the fire drinking coffee and listening to the sounds of the swamp and the night.
The two men stood by the fire. The Buckman, with his five foot six frame, broad and thick, muscled from head to toe with the disposition of a hickory stump. Then there was all six foot two inches of Lil’ Joe, who would have been like a willow whipping in the wind had it not been for his paunchy gut. Quite a Mutt and Jeff pair they made. No one who knew the Buckman understood why he took to Lil’ Joe, maybe Lil’ Joe didn’t expect him to shoulder the weight of the world like everyone else did, maybe the Buckman just felt sorry for him, and though they did not understand why, they knew without a doubt that these two were best of friends.
Lil’ Joe and I finished our coffee and doused the fire with what was left in the pot. By the time I got behind the console of the skiff, Lil’ Joe had cast the line off and was sitting in the front ready to roll. With a twist of the ignition switch the engine purred to life, and though she sounded so soft, I knew that when I threw balls to the wall she would roar like a tigress and eat the river under her. I expected no less, I had rebuilt her bow to aft, port to stern, bottom to top, with a little help from Lil’ Joe of course. When I got her there weren’t much to her. A busted up hull and a putt-putt old engine, she was scary, but she was cheap, and I wanted a challenge. I covered holes and cracks, rebuilt the busted nose and running rails, then re-glassed the busted bottom and cracked floor. I give her a custom camo paint job and completely re-wired her. All of that was simple but a little time consuming, the outboard engine was a little more difficult. Although she would run, she just would not perform up to my standards, so I had to tear her apart and bring her literally up to speed.
I started with the cylinders, which I re-bored and coated with a silicone-amandium compound I devised myself, it made them slick beyond slick and indestructible to boot. Of course I had to cast cylinders match. The problem with this was that it forced me to completely re-build the carb which improved to keep up with the performance of the block. I built within it a micro scram fuel injector to decrease fuel use while at the same time giving the block the exact amount of combustible vapor and oxygen needed for the vastly improved block. Of course this completely threw of the timing and I had to design a timing chain to decrease the timing of the fire to the plugs thereby increasing the rpms. This worked much better than I had hoped and the first time I put her in the water I wrung the blades of the prop. I had to cast a vibranium prop that could withstand the improved performance. All-in-all there is no boat on the river that can match my girl. Even though all this was somewhat of a challenge, it was not nearly so complex as the effort that was put forth to try to keep Lil’ Joe feeling as though he were a useful asset to the process.
The line was cast and the motor was purring. Lil’ Joe is buckling his life vest and stand behind the console backing the boat into the river. I flip the switch to the light bar that will illuminate the river before us and open the throttle wide. The boat leaps onto plane and we’re flying upriver. Lil’ Joe is balled up in the front seat acting as though he is about to freeze to death, but I find the crisp morning air refreshing. Water starts to freeze at the corners of my lips and eyes, the air cuts underneath my coat onto my chest and I really feel alive!
We round the second curve from the past the landing and I see Conway in front of us. Pushing his boat as fast as he dares in the darkness of the river, I know he is trying to beat us to the spot where we hammered the widgeons last week, but there is no way he can stay in me. My tigress is roaring and we’re eating river at an alarming rate. Besides, even if his boat could run with me, he doesn’t know this stretch of the river as well as I do so he wouldn’t be able to keep it between the cypress trees. I throttle back going into a bend for not even I can hold this beast into the turns well enough to handle a wake jump. We clear the bend into a straightaway and I throttle wide again. Conway’s little boat isn’t throwing that much wake, but it doesn’t take much wake to throw you airborne when my tigress is accelerating the way she does. I angle into the wake on the port perfectly. I knew it would throw us airborne. We literally fly past Conway and touchdown left rail first throwing an invigorating spray starboard across Conway’s boat, just as I had planned. I knew Conway would be grateful, so I wasn’t surprised to hear him shouting his four lettered praises as we glided past him into the darkness of the river.
I started howling with laughter, which startled Lil’ Joe. “What in the world has gotten into you?” “Conway is going to be pleasantly surprised when he gets to our spot and finds it vacant.” I inform him. “Vacant, what do you mean vacant? We hammered ‘em there last week.” “Ah Lil’ Joe” say I, “That was last week, didn’t you notice the shifting winds of a new front last night? Nothing will be there this week, besides I know where there are a few flocks of freshly migrated mallards, and we are going to smoke ’em.” “OK.”
I saw the log in the river as time as soon as it entered my lights, but Lil’ Joe hadn’t noticed it yet. Boy, am I going to have fun with this. Throttling wide open on a collision course with the floating boat killer I wait for a scream that was certain to emanate shortly from Lil’ Joe’s throat. Now I’m waiting and it doesn’t look like he will ever notice, but at just the right time, like on que, I hear the fearful yelp, “LOG!!!” I immediately cut power, so abrupt that Lil’ Joe is nearly unseated. The nose of the boat drops exceptionally fast and it appears that we are about to dip river, when I throttle to full power. The prop digs a hole in the river and forward motion throws the nose of the boat up and out of the river. The rear of the boat falls into the hole and the prop catches clean water, sling-shotting us forward, out of the river and over the log, the foot of the motor missing by mere fractions of an inch. We splash down opposite the log, Lil’ Joe is white as a sheet, eyes large as saucers, “What the devil!” Eyes bright with glee, grin from ear to ear, and teeth shining as bright as the moon above, “Lil’ Joe, don’t forget whose piloting this boat!” “You got the pilot part right, I think you’ld just as soon fly as float!”
I throttle down and cut left into a large lake before throttling back up to get to the split at the headwaters, where I slow to a creep and thread my way through a cypress swamp to a small opening. I cut power and move to the front of the boat where Lil’ Joe is already pealing open a decoy bag. I pull a greenhead block from the bag and marvel at its perfection. These decoys were handmade by myself and Lil’ Joe, well, mostly by myself, I had to keep Lil’ Joe doing menial tasks on them to make him feel like he was involved. They were a design of my very own, to my knowledge there are no others like them. They were hand formed from a foam block with a solid cypress base and keel. I then glassed them solid and attached a hand carved cypress head. They were then hand-painted to perfection. From a distance, it took a trained eye to distinguish them from the real thing. We cast the flotilla of hand-made blocks perfectly around us. We had different species of course, around the core of mallards we cast a few woodies and some widgeons, a few teal, and a pair of blacks and pintails just in case. I would say that it’s a splendid little spread, but to be honest it’s not all that little. To be certain, I can say without a doubt that I have never seen a spread to match it. Oh, there may be larger spreads, but there are no spreads out there that contain the quality of blocks in our spread.
We pull the boat into the edge of a slough and blind up. We still have plenty of time before shooting time, so I pull out my call and test it out. It is a new call that I have never used and I knew I would really need to acclimate it to the current conditions and tune it before I began calling ducks. I really need to make my own call, but with time limitations one can only accomplish so much in one off season. I blow out a high powered hi-ball and settle into a feeding call. Lil’ Joe just sits there in astonishment. I break the call down and start making my adjustments. He can take it no longer, “What in the world are you doin’?” “Tuning my call, it ain’t quite right.” “Ain’t quite right, I’m startin’ to believe you ain’t quite right. That call was a personal gift from the Duck Master, Phil Bushman himself, he personally tuned that call for you himself before he gave it to you. Ain’t quite right, I know what ain’t quite right, and I’m pretty sure it ain’t the call.” “Now Lil’Joe, you and I both know he tuned this call for Mississippi flyway ducks, and we’re hunting Atlantic Flyway ducks, our ducks here don’t have as much wabble in their call as the ducks further west, therefore….” “Oh, aright.”
Lil’ Joe, while I’m finishing this up, why don’t you pull the guns out the box. Lil’ Joe handed me my Shelby-Webly Super Trick about the time I had the call tuned to my satisfaction. As shotguns go I guess it was OK. Sure it has the fastest action you can buy. But if it would cycle faster I could shoot faster. From time to time Lil’ Joe would cut my third bird out from under me with his first shot. I don’t like that, when he does that he gives me some kind of twisted got-ya grin, and if that gun would cycle just a little faster that wouldn’t happen. I’m pretty sure I can speed it up, I just have to have the time. I need to sleeve the gas piston tin the forearm to increase the cycling pressure and loosen the kisser spring in the bolt. That will wipe that stink eatin’ grin right off of Lil’ Joe’s face. Of course I will have to pass up shots for Lil’ Joe then, but I’ll be able to pick that ducks, and that is OK with me.
Lil’ Joe reminds me that it’s about shootin’ time. That’s what Lil’ Joe does. He pulls my mind out of the constant thoughts of improvements to all those things around me, I mean the only things around me that I can’t improve are the things I have improved, he puts me back in the here and now and sets me about the important business of killing ducks. We let a few flights of woodies pass us and wait for the big birds that are to follow. We hear the mallards in the swamp and we know they will be on the way shortly. I see a flock cuttin’ out and start calling. I see the lead bird turn its head and I know it’s a done deal now they’ve seen our blocks and there’s nothing that will stop them now. Wings cup and toes drop. Cut’em, my bead flies to the first greenhead on the left…..
“Bucky! Bucky! Wake up, you going to sleep all afternoon?” Buckman cracks his eyes to see the end credits of Waterfowl Adventures rolling down the TV screen. “Bo needs help with his homework, and I need someone to cook supper while I’m washing and folding clothes.” Yes dear, I’m coming….