The Hell Ducks

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

Michelle and I had been married less than a year, and I could see traces of buyer’s remorse in her eyes. She stood in the door frame of the tiny bathroom in the 1-bedroom apartment. To her credit, she’d just gotten home from work, and the situation in the bathroom must’ve looked odd from her perspective.

Pieces of my shotgun lay scattered in the bathtub. A spring here, a trigger assembly there, a gas piston there. What wasn’t covered in sediment from the Blood River was soaked in a greasy, gritty mixture of Hoppe’s No. 9 solvent and gun oil. It’s amazing what kind of stains that stuff will make on a white bathtub.

I’d long-since sacrificed our tooth brushes for the greater gun-cleaning good, and both of them were coated with gunk. Sitting on the side of the tub wearing my white, solvent-stained briefs (I really don’t know why I was in my underwear, but I was), I held my shotgun’s receiver in one hand and Michelle’s hair dryer in the other.

“Hey,” I said. “Cleaning my shotgun. Gotta do my layout blind next. Probably best wait a bit before you start dinner. This is gonna take a while. Gun’s pretty dirty. ”

Predictably, Michelle was not pleased. I didn't think she was mad enough to leave or forgo cooking dinner, though, so I decided to put that on the backburner and focus on my shotgun. 

That the gun was "pretty dirty" is an understatement. I actually had real concern the gun was ruined, and so I continued spraying solvent and scrubbing at a furious pace. The Hell Ducks were to blame for the entire situation--ruined gun, filthy bathroom and angry spouse. The Hell Ducks were to blame for many things that season.

Finding the birds was an innocent enough process. In those days quickly following college graduation, I didn’t have a boat for hunting the open waters of Kentucky Lake, so my buddies and I were limited to spots we could access with our own two legs. We had a milk run of bays we could glass from the bank, so our best hunts always began with an evening-prior scouting expedition.

There may have been 200 ducks sitting in the Blood River Bay. Shovelers and gadwalls mostly, although there were a few scattered mallards and teal, too. Kentucky Lake isn’t an epicenter of puddle-duck shooting, so when we found the ducks, we were stoked. There were only two problems to overcome—access and concealment.  At winter pool, the water in Blood River Bay is only a few inches deep. The mud under the water is a few feet deep, but more on that later. Hunters equipped with a flat-bottom boat and mud motor would’ve had no trouble with access—but again, I was young and broke and had no such luxury. I didn’t even have a canoe.

A few subsequent scouting trips taught us that the ducks regularly sat in the middle of the bay, 150 yards offshore. We stood on the dry mud on the bank and watched them through binoculars, and even there, we sunk to our ankles. That should’ve been a hint. Once we stepped into the water, we began sinking to our shins. Despite this, hunting plans began to take shape.

We had youthful exuberance and planned to simply power through the mud and wade to the “X” in the predawn hours. It was only 150 yards, after all. Numerous stumps and beds of crappie stakes, exposed at winter pool, would provide enough cover.

My buddies Robey, Jay and I set out across the mud flat well before daylight on the morning of the first attempt. The night before, Robey pulled a hay-bale blind that he often used for goose hunting out of his garage and made the decision to pack the monstrosity with us.

The difficulty of this mud cannot be understated. I’ve since waded through rice flat mud in Louisiana and Arkansas, Mississippi River mud in Tennessee, coastal mud in Texas, cornfield mud in Illinois, tidal marsh mud in Maryland and pothole mud in Saskatchewan. I’m skinny and have pretty big feet. There is no more desirable combination for wading through mud, and I’m not too modest to say I’m freaking good at it. But the stuff in Blood River Bay is special. It alone gave the Hell Ducks their name.

We weren’t more than 30 yards from the bank when the reality of the journey to the X began to set in. Every step was a well-planned process that began with repositioning the boot of my wader back onto my foot, as it was inevitably sucked off at the end of the previous step. Jay is of a similar build to me and was experiencing the same thing with each of his strides. 

Robey, God bless him, isn’t of such a build. He’s heavier than me and has feet that might be as large as those belonging to Santa’s largest helper. At the time, he was a chain smoker. He sunk well past his knees on each step, and substantial gyrations were required to regain his footing with each stride. This would’ve been bad enough by itself, but Robey was also dragging the 30-pound hay bale blind behind him, which, once covered with a good layer of Blood River goo, weighed about 80 pounds. He slogged onward like a trooper for about 60 yards, cussing and wheezing, but then he stopped. I turned to check on him, and through my headlamp, I could see him sitting in the mud, talking on his cell phone.

“Robey,” I said. “What are you doing?” He glared. He’d called his fiancé to tell her and the kids to go on without him, because he was about to collapse and die right there.

I walked back toward him and tried to be understanding. “Robey, let’s go. We’ve got a ways to go to get to where the ducks were sitting, and it’s going to get daylight soon.”

“Brantley,” he said, “I truly hate you with every fiber of my being. If you want to hunt with me, we’re setting up right here.”

So that’s what we did. It took 20 minutes to figure out how to erect the hulking hay bale blind, and by the time we were settled, first light was just a memory. The Hell Ducks fogged in shortly afterward and lit in their preferred spot 150 yards out. “Like old men at McDonald’s,” Robey said. We never fired a shot.

I drove out to the bay to glass for the ducks again the next evening. Another buddy, Tim, was with me. Tim is a few years older than the others in our hunting circle. I met him through Robey, and was just getting to know him at the time. He had a new truck, nice house, pretty wife and a 2-year-old daughter—the very definition of a stable guy. And he’d duck hunted a lot—more than the rest of us combined—and had two or three dozen of his own nice decoys, expensive duck calls, and a new Benelli.

Tim went hunting to kill ducks; he didn’t go to waste time, and he seldom made foolish, rash decisions. But then he saw the Hell Ducks. They were feeding around on that mud flat un-harassed; mocking us, almost. A look of pure meanness entered Tim’s eyes. “I’ll come kill them,” he said. I nodded and chuckled. I had to work the next day, but just knowing Tim would find some way to teach the Hell Ducks a lesson would be satisfaction enough.

But the Hell Ducks taught Tim a lesson. I cannot repeat everything that Tim said when he called me that morning, but the gist of it was he got stuck in the mud and almost died. “That stuff was like freaking quick sand; I was up to my waist, and wasn’t 70 yards from the truck,” he said. “I thought I was a goner! I finally leaned on my decoy bag to pull myself out, and then pretty much crawled to the bank. Those ducks came in by the hundreds right after daylight and lit right out there in the middle, where they’ve been sitting. I just couldn’t get to them.”

The thought of Tim crawling to the bank with a couple hundred ducks casually feeding behind him wasn’t insignificant—Tim’s a man’s man, and a duck hunter. The Hell Ducks had reduced him to crawling around on his belly and speaking in a slurred string of profanities.

Why I again drove to the Blood River Bay a few days later to glass for the Hell Ducks is beyond me, but I did. They were sitting out there, of course, just like old men at McDonald’s. But now the lake level had actually receded another couple inches, and a mud flat had had been under water was partially exposed. I stared at the mudflat as if it were forbidden fruit. “I can hide there in a laydown blind,” I thought to myself. “Just have to get here early enough to wade out there to it.” I began making plans for the following morning.

I started across the bay at about 4 a.m. with a dozen decoys, pocket full of shotgun shells, my gun and a layout blind on my back. The going was slow, of course—same boot-sucking routine. But finally, I reached the mud flat. I hadn’t fully considered what to do if I actually made it to the mud flat, and thus had nowhere to set my gun out of the mud while tossing out decoys. I plopped my blind down onto the mud flat, and it sank an inch under its own weight. With my gun slung over my shoulder, I began untangling decoy weights.

I don’t remember if it was a drake or hen decoy I was tossing at the time; it’s really not important. Regardless, when I extended my arm, the sling of my shotgun slipped and my gun slid right off my arm and into the Blood River Bay. It made a plopping sound that no doubt delighted any Hell Ducks that were flying around in the predawn. The sling was barely visible above the mud’s surface. I pulled the shotgun out, and it was virtually unrecognizable.

The only thing I knew to do was remove the barrel and use a stick from a crappie bed to unplug the mud that had gotten stuck in it. Really, there wasn’t that much mud in the barrel—but there was plenty everywhere else in the gun. I managed to put the barrel back onto the gun, load it up, and climb back into my laydown blind, where I sunk a half foot or more. It was akin to being buried alive in wet cement.

Like clockwork, the Hell Ducks arrived at daylight and since I’d sunk down into the mud flat and was hidden, they began lighting all around me. I fired two or three shots—all misses—and all resulting in a jammed gun from the mud. On the last shot, the action slammed closed and wouldn’t open. So I sat there, having finally reached the X, but with nothing at my disposal with which to kill any of the Hell Ducks. I picked up my decoys and began wading back toward the bank in shame. The Hell Ducks continued to pour in until all 200 of them were sitting in their favorite spot. I got stuck in the mud on the way back and, like Tim, had to use my decoy bag and layout blind as leverage to work my way out. It was unpleasant beyond description.

When I got home, I feared my shotgun was ruined, and knew I would need a source of running water to get it clean. The bathtub was the only logical option, which brings us back to the beginning of the story. Eventually, I got the gun clean and firing again and convinced Michelle not to file for divorce. We decided it best to avoid scouting the Blood River Bay the rest of the season. We haven’t been back since.

(Editor's Note: This Retro Realtree article was originally published in January of 2011. The author's shotgun was ultimately ruined by the Hell Duck experience.)