DYERSBURG, Tenn. – Timing is everything in life, especially if you are a duck hunter. It is, however, hard to coordinate good timing when forced to plan years in advance.
I have been entering the lottery-style computer drawing for the opportunity to duck hunt on TWRA’s Thorny Cypress Wildlife Management Area for four years. Years ago friends told me, “It’s an awesome place to hunt but you’ve got to build up priority points before you can ever hope to get drawn.”
When you enter the lottery-style drawing for special TWRA hunts and don’t get selected you accumulate a “Priority Point.” The computer reviews the applications with the highest number of priority points first when it doles out hunts each year.
This year I had finally accumulated enough points to get selected for an opening weekend hunt on Thorny Cypress. To say my expectations were high would be a gross understatement.
That was my first mistake. I have been on far too many duck hunts in super-duper popular, high demand locales with lackluster results. I should have better anticipated the potential Thorny Cypress outcome.
But my hopes were bolstered as we drove in to our assigned hunting place Saturday morning and flushed hundreds of mallards from the flooded corn. Fifteen minutes before legal shooting time several mallards returned, pitching into our decoys with seeming abandon. I fully expected the scenario to continue once legal shooting time arrived.
At 6:13 am (CST) I waited, my finger poised on the gun safety.
Not long after shooting time a pair of wood ducks buzzed our decoys. In duck hunting circles, compared to mallards, wood ducks are basically “a consolation prize.” But my trigger finger was very itchy so I used it.
The first shot was a miss and the wood duck continued like a speeding bullet. I spun my body to touch off a second shot however I neglected to move my feet that were mired in the mud. When I touched off the second shot the 3-inch magnum shotgun blast pounded my shoulder. Off balance in the mud I quickly found myself sprawled flat on my back in the water.
I came up as if I had landed on a hot stove, but not before a couple of gallons of 53-degree water poured into my waders. As the wood duck kept flying and I kept dripping, my partner, Charlie Duggan, tried to keep from laughing out loud. He failed miserably.
My long-awaited Thorny Cypress duck hunt was off to a fine, very wet start. It went downhill from there.
Charlie and I, along with friends Stanley and Kiva Walker continued waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more. A thousand feet overhead we watched a few flocks of ducks and snow geese heading to parts unknown. In the next two hours, two or three lone mallards circle once or twice high above our decoys before turning tail back toward the adjoining waterfowl refuge. Then the skies emptied of clouds and of ducks. A soft warm southern breeze blew.
My dreams of the Thorny Cypress duck hunting mecca — a hunt I had anticipated for years – had been thoroughly crushed by Mother Nature, and poor timing.
Here is the deal. Like most wild creatures the mood of a duck is driven by two things – food and sex. The sex part doesn’t really come into play so much this time of year. The food part is critical. I must say the TWRA folks at Thorny Cypress had set the table nicely.
We were hunting in ten acres of reasonably healthy standing corn flooded with a foot-and-a-half of water – absolutely perfect for feeding mallards. Based upon what we saw driving in under the cover of darkness, they were feeding heavily overnight.
But the wary ways of wild mallards, passed down in DNA finely-honed by eons of instinctive survival traits, never go away – at least until they become desperately hungry.
Unfortunately such desperation never occurs until extreme cold, miserable conditions prevail. Miserable weather forces wild creatures to feed more heavily. It is the only means they have to add fuel to their internal fire. The hungrier they are, the less attention they pay to those genetic instincts.
A balmy south wind with high temperatures in the 60’s, however, is like a vacation day for ducks. They bask in the sun like a fat man with a margarita sprawled on Daytona Beach. He, nor the ducks, has the need or desire to move about.
So there I was, on a 2-day hunt four years in the making, with not much to look forward to but a suntan.
Day two was almost a repeat of day one except for a final nail hammered into my coffin of disappointment.
At daybreak Charlie did scrape down a greenwing teal, at least saving us from the dreaded “skunk.” Then, about an hour into the morning, a lone greenhead appeared high overhead.
The duck made a high circle and then winged its way beyond a treeline. Two minutes later he returned. I called loudly and was shocked when the duck responded, cupping his wings and dropping.
Charlie, sipping coffee and eating a sandwich he didn’t want to drop in the water, said, “He’s all yours.” The lone mallard came as if sliding down a zip line. I was almost delirious with anticipation and excitement over the coming opportunity to turn this hunt around.
I will forego the minute details of each of my three shots. Any duck hunter worth his or her salt has been where I went that day. And it is not a pretty place.
We watched as the lone greenhead disappeared back toward the refuge. I silently reloaded my gun, my stomach churning with my own primal instincts of failure to put food on the table.
Beside me Charlie just grunted an exclamation. Translated it meant, “How the (expletive deleted) did you miss that duck?”
In the coming hours I silently prayed for the opportunity for redemption. It never came.
We returned to Chattanooga with our tails tucked between our legs. However based on the other hunters we spoke to and reports we heard, we were not alone. It was generally a very poor opening weekend for lots of West Tennessee waterfowlers.
My friends, Charlie, Stanley and Kiva have been to Thorny Cypress several times in recent years. One other hunt was as poor as this one, however they have also experienced some amazing days when apparently their timing was perfect.
FYI, if one person is drawn for a Thorny Cypress hunt, he or she can take four friends whether they were actually drawn or not. My friends say they won’t give up on Thorny Cypress and will continue to collect priority points for the future with high hopes their timing will be right.
As for me, the jury is still out.
Click here to learn about hunting Thorny Cypress or other TWRA waterfowl management areas.