My hunting partner, Casey, had been shooting ducks over the flooded rice fields of O’Brien’s Ranch at Willows since his father taught him to hunt there many years before as a small boy. Never had he seen a game warden. Thus, we were quite surprised when one bright sunny Sunday morning two of them walked out of the tules of the adjacent Sacramento Wildlife Refuge. They headed directly for our duck blind.
In spite of popular misconception that hunting is a simple “walk into the woods and kill something,” it’s a much dicier proposition than that. Hunting success is rarely a sure thing and coming back totally empty handed (“skunked” in hunting parlance) is common. Chances of success are affected by many factors, including very stringent hunting regulations which dictate allowable hunting methods, times and places and weapons. However, the most important variable is often weather – especially when hunting ducks. Generally speaking, the worse the weather, the better the hunting. Or, the converse, the better the weather, the worse the hunting.
As the wardens slogged through the shallow pond surrounding our blind and drew almost within hailing distance, I noticed that the taller one, the one with the handlebar moustache, had the unmistakable circular outline of a Copenhagen snuff box visible on his shirt pocket, just below his badge. Anxious to establish Casey and me as kindred spirits, I slowly withdrew our Beechnut chewing tobacco pouch from under a little shelf and pushed into plain view where the wardens would be sure to see it.
There are many different styles of duck blinds, but the particular one we were using that day was called a stand-up blind. It was made from plywood and two x fours covered with tules and bamboo. Stand-up blinds carry that name because they “stand up” from the surrounding marsh, sometimes by as much as four or five feet. The advantage of a stand-up blind is that it affords the hunters inside an extremely good view of the entire surrounding area. Barrel blinds (so called because they are steel or concrete barrels which are sunk almost entirely in the ground) probably do a better job of concealing hunters, but because they are so close to the ground (or pond) they provide a more limited view of ducks coming from a distance.
When the wardens approached our blind on this blue bird day, no one knowledgeable about waterfowl hunting would have expected that we would have shot anything at all. There was no fog or clouds to impair the ducks’ vision or orientation. This made it less likely that they would fly over our blind, within reach of our shotguns. However, most importantly, there was absolutely no wind. Wind causes waves on ponds where the ducks like to feed and rest. Waves make it pretty uncomfortable for them. So, they fly around, often very low to the ground, looking for calmer waters – hopefully right over our duck hunting ponds, loaded with decoys. Also, it was a Sunday and because most duck hunting takes place only on weekends, the ducks were already especially nervous about having been shot at just the previous day.
As the wardens continued their approach, Casey and I reflected on the previous day’s hunting and our “over-generous success”.
Saturday morning had begun much like this one – no fog, no appreciable amount of wind, no low clouds. In short, weather tilting the odds much in favor of the ducks and against the hunters. However, for some quirky reason, the ducks just didn’t seem to be as smart (read, “suspicious”) as usual and well before the morning had ended, Casey and I had already both shot our limits of seven ducks each. The limit was seven ducks each day and 14 ducks in possession. In other words, if you hunted two or more days, you could shoot seven each day, up to a maximum of 14.
Having well in mind the fact that on most days we didn’t get as many as seven and on some days we got none at all, Casey and I held a quick conference and decided that we should shoot a few more to make up for all the times we didn’t get limits. We would shoot a few for Sunday’s limit. A couple hours later we had 24, exactly ten over the one-day limit.
Even though on Saturday afternoon as we left the blind we still hadn’t seen a game warden in more than 20 years, prudence dictated that we not carry in our limits, plus 10 extra. We left the extras in the blind and walked the mile or so to where O’Brien’s Ranch provided a refrigerated shed (the “pickin’ shed”) where we could clean and leave ducks overnight.
When we got to the pickin’ shed, lo and behold, there were two game wardens. They were checking the licenses, guns and ducks of every hunter who came in. The presence of the wardens and knowing that we had ten extras back in the blind certainly added a degree of discomfort for Casey and me. However, our licenses, guns and the ducks we produced were all in conformance with regulations and in no time at all we were on our way to town.
On Sunday morning, as the two wardens finally reached our blind, one of them greeted us with a big friendly, “Howdy! How you guys doin’?’ To chewing tobacco aficionados like Casey and me, the slight slur in his pronunciation attributable to the load of Copenhagen between his lower lip and teeth was immediately apparent. However, he didn’t seem to notice our Beechnut and my ploy for connection was for naught.
We exchanged a couple more pleasantries and then the taller one got down to business: “How many days have you guys been hunting?”
“Just two. Yesterday and today,” I warily answered.
“Did you get anything yesterday?” he followed up.
“Why, yes, we did,” Casey brightly answered. “As a matter of fact you were at the pickin’ shed yesterday afternoon and checked us. All was in order.”
“That’s right, I guess we did,” the shorter one confirmed.
Turning the conversation in a direction that we definitely didn’t want it to go, the taller one asked, “How’s it been going this morning? Shot any ducks this morning?”
“Why, yes, sir, we have,” I lied like a rug. “They’re right over there in the game box. I think we have ten.”
“Wow, ten,” the shorter one exclaimed. He then quite markedly looked at the sky where absolutely nothing was flying and then toward the screened game box at our feet where there were 10 cold dead ducks.
Casey jumped in: “Yeah, they were really flying good a little earlier. Big flocks of them were coming out of the refuge. But, it looks like they’re all sitting quietly there in the refuge now. We were about ready to call it a day and head in.”
“Yeah, I don’t blame you. Mind if we walk in with you?” Certainly we minded. We wanted those guys to be a thousand miles away. However, the only possible answer was: “No, of course not.”
Casey and I gathered our guns, ammo, and thermoses, along with the stiff ducks, and headed in. The wardens followed. If I’ve ever experienced a longer walk, I don’t know when it was. I silently knew that Casey was thinking the exact same thing I was: “How are they going to prove which ducks we shot which day? We said we shot these ten today. How are they going to prove we shot them yesterday?”
When we got to the pickin’ shed the wardens asked us to put the ducks we said we had just shot on the floor inside. Then, they asked us to lay yesterday’s 14 ducks alongside them. With what had to have been internal glee and much professional satisfaction the wardens put the last nails in our coffins:
“Now, when did you shoot these 14?” the taller one asked.
Feeling the noose beginning to tighten around his neck, Casey answered slowly, “Well, we shot them yesterday. You know we did because you checked us here at the shed last night.”
Ignoring Casey’s answer, the shorter one asked, “And when did you shoot these 10?”
My turn: “Well, like we told you a few minutes ago, we shot these 10 earlier this morning.”
“No, fellas, you didn’t shoot these 10 today,” the smaller one said in a slow, measured way, “because we went in your blind last night after you had left and if you’ll check these 10 ducks, you’ll see that we cut the tongues out of every single one of them. You shot all 24 yesterday. We’re gonna have to write you up.”
Relief. What blessed relief. The torture was over. They had us dead to rights and all we had to do was suffer the consequences. The agony of trying to win what we didn’t know at the time was a mind game we had already lost was ended and we were ever so glad.
We had stiff fines to pay, but because we were not aggravated offenders, we got to keep our guns and gear. For aggravated offenses, the wardens have the right to seize all instrumentalities of the crime, which can even include vehicles.
The wardens took the ducks. I hope they and their families enjoyed them.
A few years later, and a week following the annual Marin County Ducks Unlimited fundraising dinner in San Rafael, I was at the dinner we committee members put on just for ourselves. We had worked hard organizing the main dinner and had raised more than $50,000 for wildlife habitat. Our reward was drinks and dinner at Marin Joe’s.
Each of us had brought ducks for ourselves and our guests which the chef, Romano, a duck hunter himself, prepared. Over drinks and while we were waiting for Romano to do his culinary magic, we decided that each of the 15 or so committee members would tell a hunting story. Any hunter worth his salt can tell at least a couple and sometimes, depending on libations, as many as a whole evenings’ worth of entertaining hunting stories.
When my turn came I started on my “ducks with no tongues” story. About half-way through, the owner of the local sporting goods store, an avid hunter, began to laugh and then to snicker. The snickering continued even through the catcalls and applause at the end of my tale. I then asked him sharply, “What’s so damn funny, Johnny?”
Through tears of laughter, Johnny told us: “Those game wardens are friends of mine. After they cut the tongues out of your ducks I met them in a bar in Lambertville, next to the refuge, where we laughed our asses off getting drunk and talking about the two assholes they were going to bust the next day for having shot 10 ducks with no tongues. All these years without knowing who those “assholes” were and tonight I learn that you were one of them.”
I guess I laughed along, although somehow it suddenly didn’t seem all that funny.