I am also hoping she has many more stories she will share with us in the future!
Many years ago, during that time of year when the marsh grass made its seasonal color change from bright green to gold and fall slowly returned to the Lowcountry, I was often stirred from slumber by the sound of shotgun pellets falling on our roof. Our home sat on the edge of the marsh and my upstairs bedroom faced the water. Either the duck hunters in their boats didn’t know our house was occupied year-round or they didn’t realize how far their shells could reach. These early morning wake-up calls signaled the start of hunting season and in time I became accustomed to the strange sound over my head.
Pawleys’ marsh, with its saltwater creek, was host to thousands of ducks in the fall, making it one of the most popular local hunting sites. We are lucky now to see a handful of water-fowl and most of these are not of the bring-home-for-supper variety. I can’t help but wonder if the actual number of birds has diminished or if their flyways have changed due to development and loss of wetlands along the coast. For whatever reason, we are missing one of the things that made Pawleys popular from pre-rice planting days to the late 1960’s. Duck hunting was a favored past time for males (and a few females) ranging in age from 8-80, with grandfathers, fathers, and sons enjoying the sport together.
My brother spent many cold autumn mornings in his duck blind, waiting for the birds to come in close enough to shoot. It was no coincidence that rainy days produced the most successful hunt. The limited visibility forced the ducks to fly lower, as they sought to locate those areas where they could rest or feed from the waters for awhile. If one paid attention and went often enough he would eventually know, by the flight patterns, speed, and sounds they made as they chatted back and forth to each other, the type of duck within range. My brother knew and would quiz me with pictures and questions to make sure I knew them as well. That was the extent of my involvement. Getting up at in the morning to sit in a boat or duck blind in the cold, and often wet, weather didn’t sound like my idea of fun. Maybe I’d just never been hungry enough or it could have been that my spirit of adventure leaned more toward more climate-friendly pursuits. In any case, I never pestered him about wanting to go along. If there were ever any qualms about him shooting the beautifully colored mallards, teals, or pintails, they quickly vanished as the aroma of roast duck permeated our home and our mother presented us with a meal that the memory of still causes my mouth to water, even though crunching down on an occasional piece of shot embedded in a thigh or breast was not unusual.
I suspected that the preliminary planning and anticipation of these hunting trips was as important as the hunt itself. His best friend would often join him on these early morning excursions and many hours were spent beforehand discussing time, tide, and the best location that would result in the most rewarding hunt. Agreeing to arrive at our house at an arranged time, his friend couldn’t always be sure, as he climbed the outside stairs, that my brother would be awake, or if he would have to stand on the cold wind-whipped porch, tapping on the window frame in hopes of being heard. More often than not, though, he was met at the door and they walked quietly down the long dock that led to the creek and our boat. Since I was not privy to their conversations on the water, whispered in the pre-dawn air, I could only speculate on the topics of their discussions. If the duck hunting was less than productive, they may have made plans to go marsh hen hunting later on in the day, as long as the tide was high enough to prevent those birds from hiding in the tall marsh grasses. That would have been one way of increasing their chances of bringing home some type of feathered game. Or maybe a successful squirrel or deer hunt occupied their thoughts, reinforcing the image in their families’ eyes of someone capable of putting meat on the table. On the other hand, they could have sat in complete silence, the type with which only two good friends who had spent many hours together would be comfortable.
More than likely, though, they recounted the numerous secret (they thought), not to mention productive, visits to a nearby fresh water pond that was secluded behind tall sand dunes and scrub forest in an area inaccessible to duck hunters (supposedly). Surrounding property was isolated from outsiders back then so it wasn’t difficult to wander unseen (they hoped) into forbidden territory, especially under the guise of camping on the beach. After a short trek over the dunes, following a trail made by wildlife which led to the pond, they “discovered” hundreds of unsuspecting waterfowl. I’m sure they felt safe enough, being as far off the beaten track as they were. Keeping one step ahead of the long arm of the law was tricky business and soon became a challenge that unfortunately, as time went on, made one cocky. Eventually, and of no surprise to any of us, one of those clandestine visits resulted in a trip to the local magistrate, a call to our father, a fine being paid (by my brother), and a stern reprimand given; a small price to pay (they thought) for the adventure and a feast of wild duck.
When their time spent in the creek came to an end, usually after the sun had risen sufficiently, the number of game birds on the wing had dwindled, or their feet had frozen, they would return to our house and divide the ducks between themselves. Plucking and gutting the birds was the unquestioned end of a successful hunt. Our mother was always willing to cook whatever they brought home, as long as they offered it to her without feathers, fur, or scales. Settling down by the warmth of the fireplace hearth, they would prepare to clean their guns and talk about the pluses and minuses of the hunt, hoping to soon repeat the one while choosing to forget the other.
Now when those chilly northeast winds begin to blow across the salt marsh and cold rains beat down upon the water that has turned from green to gray, I think about duck hunting on
and a way of life we now relive only in our memories. Pawleys Island
.....first printed in "The Coastal Observer"