Sunlight peeked over the treetops, signaling the morning flight of mallards and black ducks was about over. The pre-dawn coffee buzz had long subsided as well, and as the warming rays touched my face, my eyelids grew heavy.

I fought it initially, then gave in, letting my head and back ease comfortably into the stout limbs of a hedgerow that ran along the upper edge of the tidal marsh. And as I did, my mind wandered back, all the way back to my very first duck hunt.

I remember exactly the components of my very first duck hunting outfit. The base layer was pretty standard stuff for a young teenager: faded blue jeans, a red checked flannel shirt and a maroon sweater. It wasn’t the best choice of colors but it didn’t really matter because they would all be hidden. The rest came courtesy of my parents.

My footwear consisted of a pair of ancient rubber hip waders that my father had last used long before I was born. They were at least two sizes too big. The lower boot sections sported several patches, the same type used to patch inner tubes, back when car tires still had inner tubes. Each was peeling, revealing some hole or three-corner tear from hunts long past. The softer rubber above the knees was cracked from age and dryness, and separating from the faded cotton fabric liner. But they were olive drab and genuine duck hunting waders, and that was all that mattered to me.

I was even prouder of my coat, also a hand-me-down from Dad, also several sizes too large and at least twice as old as I was. But unlike the random gray coats or military camo jackets my friends wore, this was a genuine Brown Duck canvas coat, just like the old veteran duck hunters wore. It even had a game pouch that ran all the way around the inside, and shell loops in the pockets. It may have even been properly waxed at some point, but was now pale and faded, perfectly.

My gear was all laid out and ready to go that afternoon when I got home from school. I had made arrangements to meet my older brother’s friend out on the salt marsh, and my mom offered to drop me off and pick me up. I don’t recall the ride but I can still remember when Mom dropped me off at the big chicken barns above the salt marsh with instructions to meet her there at dark.

I was far too excited and too young to notice, but I’m sure she must have been quite anxious as I stuffed my pockets full of paper-hulled shells and pulled the shotgun from its soft case. It, too, was a relic, a 12-gauge Lefever Nitro Special. Made some time in the 1940s, the checkering on its pistol grip was nearly worn smooth and it’s once blued barrels were more of a pale gray patina. Its 30-inch, side-by-side barrels made the gun front heavy and awkward, but like the boots and the coat, it was the real deal, and also my dad’s. Walking out on the spongy Spartina pathway toward the old shack where I was instructed to meet my mentor, I might have looked, from a distance, like a small-statured but sage veteran of the duck marsh, were it not for the hat.

My mom, God bless her, always meant well. She wanted to make sure I was both safe and warm, so she bought me a new hat to go with my moth-eaten coat and ancient hip waders. It was one of those Elmer Fudd deals – vinyl exterior with the furry fold-down ear flaps you tie together on the top. Embarrassing to say the least, but that wasn’t the worst part. It was also blaze orange!

“But Mom,” I pleaded, “the ducks are gonna see me from a mile away.” My pleas fell on the deaf ears of an overprotective mother. “You’re not going out on that marsh alone without that hat on.” With a heavy sigh I donned the glowing beacon and took off with eyes lowered and locked straight forward. If anyone was watching, I sure didn’t want to know it.

I knew what was coming when I got to the blind, though the language was a bit saltier than expected. “But my mom says I gotta wear it,” I offered tentatively. That would at least give me a backup should the subject come up later. But my mentor made it very clear the hat had to go.

My head got cold that day and we didn’t shoot any ducks. It didn’t matter. In the short span of a few hours I’d become a duck hunter. Elmer Fudd was quickly replaced with a brown camo Jones cap, just like the veteran duck hunters wore. I got three black duck decoys for Christmas, and the following fall a new pair of waders. Mom didn’t want me to have cold feet, either. Over the next few years I spent many a morning or afternoon on that salt marsh. In the years since, I’ve hunted waterfowl across the country in a variety of circumstances but my roots always draw me back to the sulfurous smell of mud and the sound of whistling wings overhead, where it all began so many years ago.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer, registered Maine guide and certified wildlife biologist who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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