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Paul Smith: I’m going duck hunting

Thanks for all the emails last week. I had tons of advice on salting and curing Newfoundland cod. I even received an email from a commercial fisherman in Maine, USA. He has visited our fair land eight times in the last 10 years buying commercial fishing vessels. He says he loves this place and its people. He suggested I talk to a guy in Fermeuse, on the Irish Loop, who seems to be an encyclopedia of information on salt cod. I’ll do that.

What I have so far learned is that there are varying terminologies and techniques for the salt fish-making process all across Newfoundland and Labrador. For my part, I think fish making is a critical part of our heritage and we should make every effort to keep it alive. You will hear more.

You may be wondering how I strayed from the waterfowling path when I loved it so much. As you know I also love fly fishing. Autumn is a grand time to fish for sea trout retuning from their summer’s fattening and gorging in the salt.

I’m going duck hunting this year. I haven’t been doing much birding for a few years now. I’ve just sort of slipped slowly away from one of my strongest passions in life. From age 16 to around 50 I never missed being on the country, or by the side of a pond or gulley on the first day of waterfowl season. In fact, for the first 20 years I would invariable sleep by the side of a pond on the night before the season opener. I did so year after year, akin to a sort of religious ritual.

You may be wondering how I strayed from the waterfowling path when I loved it so much. As you know I also love fly fishing. Autumn is a grand time to fish for sea trout retuning from their summer’s fattening and gorging in the salt. I began to fish more and more into September and early October. Then moose season would open right after trouting closed. Fall is also a great time to hand line, split, salt, and dry cod. There is just so much to do and only 24 hours in each day. Slowing but surely I did less duck hunting, until last year I did none at all. That is sad.

There’s a funny story floating around our family about my obsession with sleeping in the woods the night before my first duck hunt. It was in the late 1990’s and we were living in Spaniard’s Bay. I awoke with stomach flu on Friday morning and had to call in sick at work. I spent the day prone on the sofa with a bucket by my side. Goldie tended on me, serving flat ginger ale and burnt toast with no butter. She’s an angel.  It worked. By midafternoon I was feeling a bit better. The next morning was the first day of duck season and Robert and I had planned to spend the night sleeping by the side of Northern Mountain Pond. It was the same location I did my first overnighter in 1977.

The strategy was to backpack our gear in country about an hour’s walk and set up our tent about 50 yards on back of our blind. We had prepared the pond-side blind of sticks and spruce boughs a few weeks earlier. Then we could simple crawl out of our tent before daylight and slip quietly into our concealment. Rob and I had cut a clear path from the tent site to the back of the blind. We did not want to disturb the ducks and scare them off before we could get a shot. I did not want to miss all this. To me it felt like Christmas might be cancelled. 

At about 4 p.m. I figured I could muster up the strength to make it happen. The deep throes of nausea were subsiding, and my diarrhea was almost manageable. But there was still one huge problem. Goldie would not be happy. And I couldn’t blame her. But there was no alternative, I could not miss opening day. There was no delicate, evasive, or persuasive way to break the news to her. I could only just say it. “I’m going in the woods now.”

“You’re what … I’ve tended on you hand and foot all day and you’re just getting up and leaving?”

And so it went. I had no valid defence of my actions and I fully understood her anger.  Duck hunting controlled me. I’m not sure if she baked me a pot of beans that Saturday? Maybe she’ll tell me when she reads this, or throw the paper at me.

You know what? It was bloody worth it, both Goldie’s scorn and the toilet stops on the way in. Robert laughed at me a lot. He’s like that. But I would laugh at him in the same situation, so fair game. Somehow I finished the hike to Northern Mountain Pond, still alive. Robert set up the small pup tent. I crawled in the tent and lay down. The blue canvas roof was spinning. I was likely quite dehydrated. I drank water and fell asleep, lulled by a light southwest wind in the tall spruce and juniper at the head of the pond.

I awoke before daybreak feeling fit as a fiddle, flu gone. We crawled out of our sleeping bags and readied our shooting irons. Once in the blind we could see the first streaks of light in the eastern sky. The silhouettes of our plastic decoys began to appear. Robert had set them up after I keeled out in the tent. Blackness on the opposite shore morphed into trees, rocks and a lone bull moose. It was shaping up to be a fantastic day.

Just as the sun peaked above the tree line and shimmered on the still morning water, we heard the faint music of air whistling through feathers. It grew louder, followed by splashing and quacking, as eight black duck landed about 25 yards out from our spread of decoys. The game was on. I could hear my heart beating, feel my pulse I my trigger finger. They swam towards us. My father told me never to shoot at ducks on water unless you can see their eyes. It was good advice.  The guns roared and five ducks lay dead on the water. Goldie would be proud of me.

This Saturday, while you read this, I will be fishing for sea trout. I’ve already missed opening day, but soon I will be going duck hunting.   

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at  or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock

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