Many years ago, when I was young and lost, I lived in a one-room dump and wondered if I’d ever get out and see the world; I worried that I’d never have the kind of adventures Ernest Hemingway had had. One night, encouraged greatly by a potent potable, I picked up the phone and ordered a replica of the larger-than-life author’s hunting jacket. When it arrived – with sheaths above the left breast to hold shotgun cartridges and a padded right shoulder to dampen a weapon’s recoil – the tan Willis & Geiger product made me certain that the kinds of outdoor adventures Papa was famous for were now just around the corner. But if along the way, I found neither life-defining excitement nor a sense of direction … well, at least I’d look snazzy while searching.
Ah, the misguided hopefulness of youth. I spent year after year in jobs that provided plenty of stress but not a lick of outdoor adventure. I taught in a school district that doubled as a war zone, yet I never accessorized my jacket with a 12-gauge. I worked at a magazine that deserved to be dragged behind the woodshed and put out of its misery, yet my jacket saw no real action. I killed a couple business ventures without firing a shot and at night, if I listened closely, I could hear Hemingway’s untested hunting jacket rummaging around in the closet, looking for the mothballs. It seemed as though my one experience firing a weapon – in college, shooting skeet, without any kind of jacket – would be my last. But Louisiana saved me.
An opportunity presented itself to visit a sportsman’s paradise, as the state is known – to fish, canoe, bird-watch, cruise the bayous and hunt for specklebelly geese. I packed my jacket, then headed for a land where thousands of sporting RVers comfortably spend the winter, there to indulge in the mild weather and the myriad recreational opportunities. Although the other outdoor activities went well, I was there to make Hemingway proud, to venture out into the wild and do what he had done and what his forebears had done, and those before them – bring home dinner. The big-city folks to whom I had mentioned that I was going hunting told me the practice was barbaric. “Why would you kill a poor defenseless bird?” rang the consensus. Apparently, the poultry, beef and seafood these people buy at the store have far greater defense mechanisms than I had imagined. Or these people simply prefer to eat animals others have killed, it appears.
I admit that I had some reservations about how I’d feel if I felled a bird, but since catching, cleaning and eating a fish posed no dilemma for me, I figured I’d be OK. What was far more than OK, what in fact proved to be adrenaline-pumping, was the still-dark ramble on four-wheelers with headlights off down a dirt road near Monroe, Louisiana, in the northeast part of the state. Three of us hunters climbed aboard the specially outfitted vehicles of Mallard Crossing Guide Service as Allen Ritter and Van Ditta revved through a flooded field, with Allen’s golden lab, Boss, bounding enthusiastically alongside. Mud spewed and my anticipation soared. Van pointed to a band of undulating blackness in the distance, where thousands of birds, alarmed by our approach, set out for a quieter field in this 15,000-acre expanse of private land that is used by Mallard Crossing, mostly for duck hunting.
I couldn’t imagine, with such a large flock feeding in the field we were about to hunt, that filling our two-bird-per-hunter specklebelly limit would be much of a task. Ah, the misguided hopefulness of the novice. The blind appeared out of nowhere, sunk as it is deep within the dirt levee that separates the fields, surrounded by duck and geese decoys of various species. The guides opened the blind’s hatches, we hunters popped into the metal cocoon and I started to feel nervous. I had fired a shotgun 19 years before at an outdoor range, where only one gun was in use at a time. Here, as the sky lightened and Van instructed me on how to use the borrowed Browning Gold Hunter, how to engage and disengage the safety, how to load three of the three-inch shells filled with steel BBs into the camouflaged 12-gauge, I decided that for safety’s sake I should watch the other hunters in action, see how they negotiated the space and pay attention to the blind’s protocols. Wham!
The foliage-covered gate that runs the length of the blind and keeps the hunters and the dog out of sight sprang open, and within a second the morning was filled with movement and sound. As I left my gun resting in the notch in the blind in front of me, the others whirled to their left and ka-boom, ka-boom, ka-boom went the shotguns as four birds flew directly above us, made a turn, then headed south, back the way they’d come. From my know-nothing perspective, I wondered how it was possible that birds could stop, linger and hover so close, then wander off leisurely above men emptying weapons in their direction without so much as getting a feather ruffled. I’m certain that I could have hit one with a fastball. Based on the curses emanating from my cohorts, I may have succeeded with a knuckleball. By leaving my gun in its figurative holster, I felt like I’d let my team – and Hemingway – down. And downtime is what we then had.
Three hours passed before more geese approached close enough to raise our weapons. This time I participated, emptying my three shells, hitting nothing. Boss, the dog who’d begun to question whether we were qualified to be out there, finally bounded into action, however, and retrieved a bird someone had downed. Another three hours. Allen and Van worked their magic with the specklebelly calls, then wham went the gate. I rotated left and looked up. Five birds were within range.
Everything felt right. I raised the gun, looked down the sight, selected the bird I wanted, panned through it, led it by half a foot, squeezed the trigger and watched the bird fall. Hemingway and his jacket made the shot; I just looked good taking it. Later, Allen showed me how to remove the feathers and clean the bird. It was a messy, tedious process that made me appreciate the dirty work that someone else must perform with every kind of meat we buy. A slathering of butter, a generous dose of lemon-pepper, a few dashes of Cajun seasoning and a 50-minute roast at 425 degrees F confirmed why specklebelly geese are known in Louisiana as “flying filet mignon.”