Story And Photos By Humberto Fontova
Dogs get this certain look when you pour their food, like cats while eyeing the squirrel at the bird feeder. Clients get it at “business meetings,” but mostly at those held at Michael’s Men’s Club or the Crazy Horse Cabaret.
Mud-splattered faces on either side of me glow with this wide-eyed mix of exhilaration, anticipation and bliss. Pelayo, Artie and I are duck hunting on an expanse of putrid muck at the very mouth of the Mississippi River, and a huge flock of ducks has just turned to our calls. We’ve been hunting together since our high school days, and can sense each other’s excitement without even looking around.
We chose this spot wisely. This is the tip of the Mississippi Flyway funnel. The River and its tributaries act as migrating thoroughfares for ducks and geese. They finally get to the mouth of this “father of all waters,” as the Indians called it, and stop. One-third of North America’s wildfowl winter here. Another third visit, then head further south.
This flock — a huge one consisting of teal — has just turned to our shrill, cacophonous beckoning. They’d been 150 yards out, over the shallow, open water. Pelayo jerked my shoulder and pointed. Then we opened up with the calls. I let it fly with a loud hail: QUACK! … Quack! … Quack! … Quack… Quack! as Pelayo tooted his whistle. “WHEW … whew … whew … WHEW … whew … whew.”
And dammed if the teal don’t turn on a dime.
Then they see the decoys. “Looks like a feast over there gang,” the lead duck probably announces. “And an orgy! Hang a left, gang! Let’s go!”
Now they are boring in, and our faces glow with rapture, except Artie’s. “Looks like shorebirds to me,” he whispers. “Man, there’s so many of ‘em!”
“They’re teal man — teal! And they’re coming! Get low! And hide your face!” Pelayo hisses as he jams down his cap.
What a sight. They are coming in, cupping their wings, swerving slightly while slowing down. Shooting — fast, frantic shooting — is seconds away. My jaw quivers. My trigger finger taps the safety spastically. Artie has the look of a leopard about to pounce. Pelayo’s eyes bulge. He pants.
But how to explain this thrill to non-hunters?
I’ll take the easy route and toss the ball back in your court: “How can you not hunt?” Hunting’s not a hobby. It’s not a pastime — it’s an instinct. “Man’s being consisted first of being a hunter,” says Jose Ortega y Gasset.
“Man evolved as a hunter,” says Chicago University anthropologist W. S. Laughlin. “He spent over 99 percent of his species’ history as a hunter, and he spread over the entire habitable globe as a hunter.”
How’d you get it out of your system so fast? How’d you shake it?
I have a theory. The instinct’s still down there somewhere, but latent. The embers have cooled after millennia of inactivity. I specialize in rekindling them in friends. I hear of the poor saps mowing the lawn on weekends, grocery shopping, vegetating in front of the TV, or, worst of all, plodding through a golf course! I hear these things and choke back the sobs. My rambunctious college buddies have mutated into slaves, drones, pansies — eunuchs!
So, I spring to the rescue. I’ll take a dedicated golfer hunting. He wallops a high-flying pintail, and his eyes light up. Next week, he’s clamoring to go again. A month later, he’s selling his clubs to buy a shotgun. Then he sells the cart to buy a boat. Fifteen patterns of camo soon cram his closet. The embers have ignited a raging inferno by now. By the end of his first season, he makes my chum Ted Nugent look like Leo DiCaprio.
Invariably, his wife, once tolerably civil, starts to loathe me. She addresses me exclusively in snarls and curses. She hangs up on me, and erases my texts. She becomes my bitter foe.
I can’t blame her. Sure, her husband used to spend time at the golf course, but it was a harmless hobby. This hunting stuff, however, is a passion — an obsession. “That’s all he talks about!” she wails “I never see him anymore! He pays more attention to that stupid shotgun than to me! We can’t go out anymore ‘cause he’s always gone on weekends! And that damned racket from that damn duck call! Night and day!”
The ducks and deer now compete seriously for her time. She resents it. But this always fades. By Christmas, she’s smiling, thanking me, “Humberto!” she beams. “So nice to see you! Can I get you a beer? Hey, aren’t ya’ll goin’ hunting this weekend again? … Wonderful! Here’s your beer, and in a nice frosty mug!”
It always happens this way. Her hubby’s new passion brings her benefits in the boudoir, you see. Conquest afield is usually followed by conquest at home. He returns from the chase — dirty, bedraggled, but always with a carnal gleam in his eye. It was so for our Paleolithic ancestors. It remains the case today. Ask around.
“Then why don’t more men hunt?” you ask.
“Lack of opportunity,” I answer. “They turn to golf for the same reason men turn to sodomy in prisons and Arabic countries.”
“What?!” you snort, thinking “This guy’s a raving loon! A complete nutcase!”
Hunting season always does this to me. It’s a serious Jones, my friends, and I’m wallowing in it right now, after six months of withdrawal. Compared to this, Keith Richards and John Belushi had it easy.
“Yes, here they come … they’re almost in range … almost … gliding a little closer … a few start dropping the landing gear — NOW!”
We rise, and the flock scatters and rockets skyward. A wild flurry of furiously flapping wings and startled quacks fill the air.
I swing left — BLAM! One folds and hits the water. I swing higher …
BLAM! Pelayo nails him before I slap the trigger. A puff of feathers, and he staggers in flight. “Sha-wuck” goes Pelayo’s pump and — BLAM! Again. The teal’s neck sags like a noodle … his wings fold. Splish! Into the decoys.
I start following another one, high overhead by now. The bead passes his beak — BLAM! My shoulder bucks, and he folds. What a pretty sight. Then … THUD! Into the mud bank on the left.
I’m startled by a final shot. Artie nails one with a gorgeous going away shot. He twirls down like that Kamikaze with one wing blasted off you always see on the History Channel. We sit there trembling, with idiot grins, looking around. Finally, we erupt in wild whoops and Rebel yells. Now some high fives. Finally, I get out to retrieve the ducks.
Our prey lay in the boat next to the six others, mangled, oozing blood. We looked down gloating. Then the high fives resumed. Then the brewskies are popped open … it don’t get no bettah!
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Humberto Fontova grew up in New Orleans, where he obtained a master’s in Latin Studies from Tulane University. He has contributed to the magazine Louisiana Sportsmen for nearly 30 years, and also contributes to such magazines as Sierra and Bowhunter. His new book — Crazy on the Bayou: Five Seasons of Louisiana Hunting, Fishing and Feasting — was recently published by Pelican Publishing (pelicanpub.com) in Gretna, La. He lives in Covington.