As I grow older, I sometimes think back upon the days of my youth. It is easy now to realize just how good I had it. At the time, I often thought that life was hard. In some ways things were difficult, but definitely not unbearable. I may have moaned over having to work after school and on Saturdays, but I now realize how carefree most of those times were. Sometimes I wish for those days to return, knowing all the time they cannot.
Some of the most enjoyable times of those long ago years were the winter months spent hunting and enjoying time with my family. When I was in my teens, mid-winter Saturdays were big days around our house. All during the week, my brothers and I anticipated the weekly duck hunt on Bogue Homa Lake near our home in Jones County. On Saturday morning, we were up no later than 3:30. It took us quite a while to gather up everything we would carry with us. We never seemed to have enough time on Friday to get ready, so everything had to be done the morning of the hunt. By about 4 a.m., we were usually leaving home. We never ate breakfast before leaving; that could wait until later.
During those years we normally hunted the lake in the morning and when possible, we hunted beaver ponds in the afternoon. On most mornings, our hunting party consisted of Baxter Sellers, my two brothers, Butch and David, and me. On other occasions, Baxter’s brother Bayliss, or his nephews, Clay, Jim, or Little Clay might join us. Over a 15-year period, many others hunted with us from time to time, but the West and Sellers families made up the bulk of our hunting party. We never believed in small hunting parties –– we thought, the more the merrier!
By the time we loaded two boats down with people, waders, guns, decoys, and other necessary equipment, we were definitely over the weight limit! We would then start across the lake, moving rather slowly to keep the boats from swamping due to their heavy loads. After getting out into the lake, we would then head for the “big lane” to run to the back of the lake. The “big lane” was a stump-free strip about 150 yards wide through the middle of the lake. When the lake was built back in the 1930’s, the stumps were dug out of this section of the lake. However, the remainder of the lake is for the most part covered with stumps. Most of them are well below the water line, but many are not.
After running to the end of the lane, we would turn off and head to the back side of the lake for one of our favorite hunting spots. After spreading our modest decoy collection in the pre-dawn light, we would scatter out around the spread and wait for the morning flight.
The first ducks to fly were usually the wood ducks. They would come through from their roosts in the beaver ponds and the two creeks that feed the lake. The divers would come along soon after. These were mostly ringnecks, with a few scaup, and maybe a bufflehead or two mixed in. When these ducks decided to dive toward the water, they sounded like a wave of small dive bombers heading for the target.
The mallards and gadwalls would come next. Sometimes they would spot the decoys and begin their circling pattern as they prepared to drop into the decoy spread. That was when the tension really began to build, with the anticipation that they might drop down low enough for a shot. That all depended on everyone keeping still and no one panicking and firing before they were in range. Sometimes things worked out, sometimes they did not.
From time to time we were able to get passing shots at the wood ducks before they moved out to feed for the day. Unless it was a cloudy day, the mallards would also be gone pretty early. On those overcast days, the mallards would hang around in the coves near the back of the lake. After the early flight, Baxter would usually get in his pirogue and move around and jump the ducks up from the coves. Sometimes they would cooperate and work the decoys and we would have extended shooting opportunities. At other times, they would get up and fly off, never to be seen again that day.
If the action was good, and the ducks would continue to move around the lake, we usually hunted until mid morning. Sometimes we limited out, sometimes we struck out completely. Whatever the outcome, we always enjoyed ourselves in the wet, cold weather. When we got home, we would clean our ducks, and then enjoy a late morning breakfast. Mama would serve up a man-sized meal of biscuits, tomato gravy, grits, bacon, sausage and eggs, with cold milk to wash it all down. Many of the other hunters usually stayed for breakfast, and there was always plenty to go around. I have enjoyed a lot of meals since that time, but those were always special. We would talk about the morning’s hunt, highlighting the good shots and making excuses for the bad ones. By the time we finished eating and telling all of the tall tales, the biscuits were gone, and the gravy bowl was wiped clean.
Just about the time we were ready to stretch out for a nap, Daddy would come along with other plans. We had an open fireplace in our home, and there was always a demand for wood –– and we were the firewood crew! Daddy would fire up his heavy duty David Bradley chainsaw and cut down a big water oak from the branch bottom behind our house and begin sawing it up. As Daddy sawed, David and I would start trimming and Butch would start the splitting. There were no splitting mauls back then, so we used an axe on the smaller, straight pieces. A sledge hammer and wedges were used on the large blocks and knotty pieces. With all of us working, we would have load of wood cut in a couple of hours.
If we managed to get out of the branch without bogging down the wood wagon, we would back up to the porch and unload the wood. After finishing this weekly ritual as well as our evening chores, we sometimes had time for an evening duck hunt on a beaver pond.
The beaver pond hunts were much different than the lake hunts. We carried no decoys; we just waded out into the beaver pond, looked for some fairly open water, and backed up close to a tree or some other cover. Once again, overcast days were the most productive. On cloudy afternoons, the ducks usually came in earlier. When the ducks –– mostly wood ducks –– began falling through the trees toward the water, the action was fast and furious. The limit on wood ducks in the early years was four, and it was not unusual to limit out in a few minutes. We did not shoot late, nor did we take over our limit. When it was officially sundown, we emptied our guns and headed for the truck. Back at home, we cleaned the ducks, and sat down for supper. On those cold winter nights, Mama usually served up homemade chili, soup, or beef stew. After supper would come more visiting with the family and recalling with pleasure (most of the time), the day’s events.
While growing up during those long ago days, I sometimes felt that life was hard. However, for the most part, I knew that I had a pretty good life. I had two loving parents and two brothers who loved me, most of the time. We had warm beds, good food and good friends. Looking back now over 40 years later, I can see how fortunate I really was and how great those times were. Today I still have all of those things and more. God has been better to me than I deserve, and I thank Him for His many blessings. I also still enjoy duck hunting, cutting firewood, and biscuits with tomato gravy. Life is good! MWW
About the Author – Bruce West of Laurel is MWW Field Editor for the northern Coast Region.