“You do know that’s a Drake Can, right?”
Growing up, one of my favorite classes in high school was “History” taught by Mr. Bedford. In Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh, history was all around me with Civil War fields, The Erie Canal, George Washington camp sites and French Creek. I was always fascinated with how things began and the stories that could be told by them.
Even though I grew up about 45 miles south of Lake Erie, I’d never been waterfowling as a kid. My father owned a small outdoor store called “Murphy’s Rod & Gun” in Meadville, Pa. I can remember as a kid hunting deer, rabbit and squirrel, but never waterfowl. No clue why, as a half mile away from the house I grew up in was Woodcock Lake. I’d always see duck’s and geese on the lake while bass fishing as a boy during the hot humid summer’s and remember a few duck blinds along the old road that ran near it.
Maybe it was due to the cold weather that the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania had called “Lake Effect” or maybe my Dad’s dad never took him. Who knows the reason’s. Looking back, I really wish he would have. My first shotgun was an Ithaca Double Barrel SxS 16ga, although it only shot 2 3/4 shells. Hind sight is always 20-20 isn’t it?
So flash forward 25 years to January 27th, 2009. It’s the 2009-2010 waterfowl season.
I’m now living in the heart of the Pacific Flyway near the Columbia Basin in the south eastern corner of Washington State. Long ago are the days of whitetail deer, squirrels and rabbits. My hunting season days were now about upland birds and whistling wings. I’d been introduced two years prior to waterfowling from my good buddy Ben on mallards, teal, gadwalls and widgeon. Ben was a good teacher on puddlers, letting me know the difference between lead versus steel shot and building duck blinds from scratch. For the record he’s been waterfowling for 15 years or so, and just a great guy for a joke or to chat in a duck blind.
That ’09 season I’d been introduced to “Big Mike” on a puddler hunt where the SMACK DOWN was put down and a lasting brotherhood was formed. Mike had been waterfowling for the last 18 years or so and was a wealth of knowledge on puddle ducks.
On Jan 25th, I’d received a phone call from Mike, asking how I’d been doing the last couple days of the season. “Pretty good, I’ve been cutting my teeth on diver’s”, I’d told him. In the heat of the conversation I “””BELEIVE””” I used the word “Canvasback” … As it turned out, Big Mike was on his way! A few days prior I’d painted some of my old decoys I bought off Craigslist.com black and white, nothing fancy. A stack of “Duck Porn” that included about 20 issues of Wildfowl, Duck’s Unlimited and Sporting Goods catalog’s had given me the idea. With this new paint scheme, I’d been having a lot of success with the Goldeneye’s along the shore of the Columbia River. I was out targeting divers only, of which Mike and Ben had never done.
The morning of the 27th just seemed special. I had scouted the spot we will call “Can Point” a week prior and had seen a lot of diver’s in the area, including what looked like Canvasback’s. After a quick diver spread setup of about 40 decoys that included mostly Goldeneye, the 3 of us were ready for what the morning had in store from our make shift shore blind. With our limited diver knowledge, we’d lined our gear up in long line formation, even though none of our decoys were actually on long lines. A slight 5-8mph wind was coming right to left, but not enough to move the fog that had settled 50-75 yards from shore. As we waited for legal shooting time to come, the conversation was excited anticipation about Canvasback’s. Mike told of the canvasback’s deep storied waterfowl history and how they had gotten their name. How market hunter’s would use “punt” gun’s, skull up on rafts of a couple hundred to thousands and blast away killing hundreds of can’s at a time. Maryland I was told was the birth place of waterfowling “diver’s” and how canvasback’s were the “King”. Ben had told that he’d never gotten a Can in his 15 years of hunting, while Mike stated he’d never gotten one in 18 years. Mike had even gone as far to tell us about a guided hunt he had paid targeting Can’s, but didn’t even see one. Now, for the record, Mike had driven this 200+ mile round trip for this four day hunt on a wet behind the ear rookie waterfowler saying I “may have seen” some canvasback’s. To say the least, I was feeling the pressure. All of us had one question running through our minds, “Will the King of Diver’s give us a chance today, or will he even be seen from our make shift shore blind?”
The answer to that question was soon realized, 15 minutes after legal shooting time.
From the fog, coming right to left, three dark silhouettes banked 35 yards along a glass like motionless Columbia River on Big Mike’s side of the blind. After two quick shots from his Auto Mossberg, a duck folded and lay feet up just on the edge of the spread. As we all stood up for the after-shot morning stretch, Ben sent his Chocolate Lab (Reeses) out on the retrieve. Ben cursing under his breath turned to Mike and said, “You do know that’s a Drake Can, right?” Mike’s response was shock and awe with alittle priceless moment thrown in … “NO WAY!” As Reeses brought the bird back, it seemed she even knew that this bird was special, as she gently placed the drake canvasback in Ben’s hand. “RIGHT ON!”
A pair of Common Goldeneye settled into Ben’s game bag around 8:05am. The blind was electric and if another bird hadn’t been taken that day, it STILL was a huge success! The stress of the moment seemed to melt away, as my two waterfowl brothers commented over and over again about “Can Point”. It seemed as though I’d graduated from “Rookie” status, which had clung to my coat tails the last 3 years, and I was suddenly bringing something to the table of waterfowl knowledge.
Then came “Three Murph, your side … CAN’S!”
I turned my head to the right and spotted the three birds coming up the shore about 75 yards away. The three King’s were coming out of the fog that had started to creep closer to shore and were on a flight path that would put them about 20 yards above me. Given my practice rounds at the skeet range, I knew this would be a difficult shot. I’ve always had a problem with the clay pigeon coming directly at me. We all learn quickly in the field or range, what our strong suits are, and our weak. On top of that, I’m always learning lead vs. steel, what shot can be made with confidence … and shots i dread. Second’s later, with only one round through my Benelli 12ga Super Nova, the canvasback drake folded on the shore ten yards behind the blind. “RIGHT OOOOOOON!”
The morning was turning unto a huge success as four more diver’s found their way into our group’s game bag by 10am. Although, one question seemed to go through each of our minds … Would Ben get his chance at a Drake Canvasback today? Funny thing is, we all KNEW he would. As good as the morning was going; it just seemed as all the pieces of the puzzle would fall in.
At 11:40, when those four canvasback’s came in right to left at about 20 yards, a foot above the decoy’s, Ben’s Mossberg rang true and that third drake fell into the game bag capping an amazing unforgettable day.
As I sit in my living room, I find my mind drifting back to that cold calm January day often. The history of a “King” is now mounted on my wall poised coming right to left, cupped and committed, along with the pictures of my brothers holding their trophies from that day.