It’s been said the folks who shape us accompany us in spirit during every hunt. If that’s true, I have a pretty crowded and colorful boat every autumn.
The group includes some larger-than-life characters: authors, decoy carvers, skilled shooters, local legends and habitual tellers of tall tales. Some probably don’t realize I regard them as mentors or influences, as they were just buddies or associates. Others embraced the role early. All provided guidance and knowledge that forged my waterfowl hunting career and continue to direct me every time I go afield.
There’s my father, of course, who carried me along duck hunting when I was a small child and then took me on my first real hunt when I turned 12 in 1978. He taught me to shoot and identify ducks — early lessons I didn’t always ace. And as we grew older, Dad became a constant hunting buddy on the Dakota prairies and elsewhere, outwalking most of the younger guys and sweetening our spreads with his hand-carved working decoys. Shoot, he hunted his tail off this past fall in South Dakota at age 77, even enduring a windy-day death march to the back corner of a muck-lined slough.
Gordy became a friend while I was still in college, and he pretty much taught a buddy and me how to hunt big-water diving ducks from shore and open water. Every diver spread I set remains a derivative of Gordy’s fundamental approach. Later, he became a kennel owner and trainer of high-quality gun dogs, and my first retriever, Belle, came from his operation. Gordy was much more than a hunter, though. He’d lived a colorful life and had seemingly infinite knowledge on many subjects. Some of his stories might have stretched the truth a bit — or a lot — but they left permanent impressions, and friends and I still quote them today.
After graduating from college and starting work at a local newspaper, I encountered more mentors. Brian was a neighbor of my wife’s family, and he guided my future in-laws and I through many puddle-duck forays at a favorite local wildlife area. From him I learned the value of preparedness and the ins and outs of getting mallards sure-kill close. He also provided perhaps the funniest moment I’ve ever witnessed while hunting, though I can’t recount it on a family website.
Then there were Ron and Roger, renowned decoy collectors and true old-time duck hunters. I hunted with each several times and always admired their passion for ducks and duck hunting, even though they’d shot more ducks than I’d probably ever see.
Ron, an author and decoy carver, used to fill me with tales about the glory days on a famous local lake, even insisting that I hunt with one of his homemade Poygan shell boxes. One day, I rested my new shotgun on the lip of his skiff, but it slipped off and sank to the bottom of the marsh. I retrieved it, but Ron was aghast. “How’d you do that? You’re supposed to set your gun on that shell box, boy.”
Roger was a bit more reserved, but he loved duck hunting every bit as much as Ron, volunteering for years as the local Ducks Unlimited chairman and selflessly hosting many hunters at his small private island, which, when conditions were good, was a bluebill paradise. I was a bit intimidated and nervous one of the first times I hunted there, and when a drake ruddy duck streaked through the decoys, I instinctively rose and shot it without thinking. Roger smiled, saying, “You look like a ruddy duck shooter to me, Lovett.”
As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t get to hunt much with my mentors nowadays. One died several years ago. Others don’t get afield as much — if at all — because of age, infirmities or obligations. Yet their lessons remain as sharp and clear as when I absorbed them 20, 30 or even 40 years ago. Better, I can still clearly envision Dad, Gordy, Brian, Ron and Roger greeting a November dawn or admiring a freshly killed bird. That’s no small thing.
I’m not sure how much I’ve influenced other hunters through the years. If that’s true, I’ve just handed down wisdom given to me long earlier or tried to set an example like my influences did for so many years. I guess only time will reveal whether I did a good job. But considering the gifts I received, the task is more than worthwhile.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.