The Last Hunt
For this annual gathering of waterfowlers, life’s woes vanish on the marshes of western Manitoba
When you consider that ducks have brains the size of a pea, you wouldn’t think that it would be such a challenge to outwit them. But they’re wild and adaptable creatures, and we’re still learning new tricks. Last year, for example, Wynn formed the opinion that flushed mallards always fly upwind. As everyone knows, ducks are unpredictable, especially mallards, which never do the same thing. They might take off into the wind, but once they’re airborne, they choose a random escape route—one that never seems to have any guns under it. “That’s my point,” Wynn argued. “They pick the safest route. If they don’t see anyone upwind, they’ll choose that route every time.”
We tried it, and it seemed to work. At the end of the week, I attempted to explain the trick to Shaun Dennehy (a.k.a. Brubaker, Bushy, Whacker, Nahanni Shaunie). Having spent much of his life in the Yukon bush, Shaun knows a lot about wildlife and he sniffed in amusement when he heard the theory. This was while we were engaged in the usual difference of opinion, planning the last stalk of the last day. Shaun is dying of cancer, and this would probably be his last hunt, so we all wanted it to end perfectly. With that in mind, we crept upwind of the pothole, crawling on our hands and knees. Pete Dickson, who is a deadeye and had shot too many ducks already, circled downwind of the pothole to flush the birds.
I use a double-barrelled shotgun, so my gun was empty as I crawled. Shaun uses a pump; he had two shells in the magazine. We’d almost reached our position when Shaun muttered, “Here they come.” The ducks had flushed early and were coming right toward us. I pulled two shells out of my vest and started loading the gun. It was like one of those paralytic moments in a bad dream. The shells weren’t seated in the chambers and the gun somehow, maddeningly, wouldn’t close. Precious milliseconds ticked by as my hands moved in slow motion, fumbling with the action. Must…close…gun. I was still trying to snap it shut when the ducks swept overhead. Two shots rang out, and I heard a couple of thumps as Shaun’s two birds hit the ground. He limped over and picked them up—two big, handsome, full-plumage drake mallards—the ideal conclusion to a hunting career.
On the last night we usually have a tailgate cookout. A few of the more conscientious individuals—Paul, for example—bring wooden crates full of cookware, spices, cooking oil and so on. This year we met down in a valley, in a stubble field next to a wooded creek, and got a fire going. Somebody handed out crackers and venison pâté, and we stood drinking Scotch and watching our designated chef prepare a massive frying pan full of potatoes, onions, bacon and sharp-tailed grouse.
It was cold in the late autumn darkness, so we stood close to the fire, where the flames billowed in the wind. Wayne Alsip opened the door of his truck and put a Jann Arden tape in the stereo. As her otherworldly voice howled like a beautiful and lonesome witch in the darkness, the 14 of us fell silent, staring at the fire, knowing that this was as good as it gets.