I'm telling myself it's for the love of the game. Why else would I be slogging fifty pounds of gear and decoys across a barely-frozen, snow-covered beaver pond on a speculative evening duck hunt that, given the way the season has been going, will in all likelihood yield little or nothing?
To get to the other side, I guess. This shortcut across the slough seemed like our best option to reach the gravel bar we're trying to hunt, but when my right foot punches through the ice and I nearly lose it as my boot stays firmly stuck in the mud, I start to question our judgment. A lone drake whistles overhead, seriously looking over the exact spot of muck we're currently floundering in, before flaring and disappearing. At least it's not -15 out anymore.
When my buddy tells me he's "not comfortable with where I'm walking," we head straight for the willows and supposedly more solid ground. My decoy bag hangs on some branches and I slip and fall on the steep snow-covered bank, but at least I'm dry. It would be a far from glorious death to be found in the spring by some dog walkers, bobbing face down in a recently-thawed beaver pond, dressed head-to-toe in camoflauge with 36 plastic ducks floating around your head.
Once set up on the gravel bar, we both agree that our decoy spread looks tempting. I think the word "irresistible" is used at one point. We even have a great place to sit and hide. This will work. I'm sweating. Why isn't it -15 out anymore?
"Now we play the waiting game," says my buddy. And wait we will.
Silence. Or, if the only thing you really want to hear is the whistling of wings or the distant honk of geese in flight, it was silence. In reality, we're just outside of city limits, and the constant whine of rush hour traffic and the occasional siren wail stretch out across the river and over our decoys like the incessant buzz of fluorescent lights in an office building. This could irritate the shit out of you if you let it.
"Did you just hear that?"
"Yeah, were those geese?"
"I think that was the ref's whistle in a soccer game."
There is another group of hunters downriver from us a ways, friends of ours. I can't decide whether it's a good thing or not that we haven't heard them shoot either.
As sunset approaches, we procrastinate picking up the decoys and making the equally treacherous walk back to the truck by feigning hardcoreness and hope, counting down the minutes until the official end of shooting light.
When there are thirty seconds left in the hunting day, my buddy belts out a series of obnoxiously loud hail calls in shear frustration, shattering the evening stillness as effectively as if one of us had pulled the trigger on our silent, frozen shotguns. A single hen, flying fast in a straight line across the tree tops, appears from up river, passes by us well out of range, and is gone.
The dekes pack up faster than expected, and with the benefit of lingering daylight, the walk back goes smoothly. I'm trudging along a two-track breaking trail, almost within sight of the truck when I hear honks: happy honks. My buddy and I stop walking and turn just in time to see eight Canadas swing and light in to the exact spot where we had just been set up.
It's hard to say why we keep going out there and sitting in the mud if the birds aren't going to come. Sure, it beats the couch, but there's more to it than that. There's hope in watching a silent sky. The beauty of hunting migrating waterfowl is that even if the birds weren't there yesterday, they could be today. So you keep hunting, and talking, and hoping, and watching an empty sky.
If you start to lose faith, just watch the dog. If this wasn't fun, and if there wasn't just the slightest hint of hope, would they keep waking up before dawn every morning to sit in a frozen swamp and stare at the sky with you? The birds will come.