Tuesday, December 22, 2015

First Annual Reelfoot Duck-Blind Rodeo

More than a few skydivers have experienced a main canopy malfunction. There’s a minimum altitude required to safely cut away one’s main and deploy the reserve chute. The higher you are, the better: you have some time to assess your situation. But the longer you wait to make a decision, the closer you are to the ground and your options start to dwindle. 

The principles are similar when you’re in the middle of a 20-square-mile lake with a belly full of biscuits and gravy and you feel that first rumble that says, “Nature calling.”

It was December and we were in an open-water blind in the middle of Reelfoot Lake, 13,000 acres of duck-hunting heaven along the Mississippi flyway in northwestern Tennessee. The guides on Reelfoot keep you well fed. It’s part of the package. In between calling mallards, teals, gadwalls, and pintail ducks, they’re whipping up warm cinnamon rolls and cappuccino, sausage-egg-and-cheese biscuits, fresh catfish rolled in Nona Belle’s Golden Fry

Breading, bacon sandwiches, orange juice, Spicy V8, Allen’s wife’s banana-nut bread, and fried baloney/American cheese on Wonder Bread (don’t knock it until you try it in an open-water duck blind – it’s delicious). Good eats, but it’s a lot of food over a two-day hunt. That food needs to go somewhere, if you get my meaning.

Many of the duck blinds on Reelfoot are well appointed: battery-powered lights, propane-fueled stoves and space heaters. Some blinds even have well-worn couches where you can catch a 15-minute power nap. What’s often missing is a toilet. Or a bucket. Or a hole in the floor.

It was getting close to time to pull my reserve. I’d waited long enough to ask our guide the question: “Umm. Allen? When you’re out here and you have to… cop a squat, what do you usually do?”

“You have two options, I reckon. Y’all can hang off the front of the johnboat. Or,” he said with some reluctance, “I guess I could take you back to the lodge…”

Timmy, Cap’n, Ron, and Austin heard my question, and they had noted Allen’s response. If I picked option #2, I’d be taking Allen out of commission while he ran me back across the lake to a comfortable flush terlet. The consequence for my buddies: an hour with no guide, no duck-calling, and no biscuits with butter and strawberry jam being passed down the line.

I could feel them staring me down. It was like being eight years old again and ten miles into a vacation road trip and Dad saying, “Boy, you should have gone before we left.” I resigned myself to take one for the team – I’d try the johnboat (which in this instance was aptly named). Main chute cut away; reserve deployed.

Allen’s flat-bottom boat was tied up at the rear of the brush-covered duck blind, in something like a carport for boats. At least I’d have some privacy. Earlier that morning, as we were leaving the 

hotel at 5:00 am, something told me to go back and grab some TP. As I now crawled toward the johnboat with that roll of Charmin stuffed in my jacket, I reflected on the words of Founding Father John Hancock: “The interposition of Divine Providence in our Favour hath been most abundantly and most graciously manifested.”

The wind was from the southeast at about 7 mph, with gusts to about 20. A chop was on the lake’s surface, the duck blind was swaying, and we could hear the johnboat in its bay, banging against the pilings. My compatriots had an idea of what I was in for. They looked at me like they were the platoon and I was Forrest Gump. Lieutenant Dan had just handed me a .45 and a flashlight and told me to go crawl into that spider hole. They were glad it was me and not them.

I could tell they were on my side, though. Timmy said, “Good luck, man. You want to borrow my GoPro?”

I crawled to the back of the blind, pulled open the plywood door, and looked at the johnboat yawing and bouncing on the swells. I grabbed a rope and pulled the boat toward me and tumbled in more than stepped on, and ended up sprawled across the middle row of seats. For some reason, Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was running through my head.

The boat rocked and rolled, and I held tight to the gunwales as I tried to develop a strategy. The three green-winged teals we’d shot earlier lay in a row on the bow, and they seemed to be looking at me with their beady, judgy little duck eyes. I didn’t want any kind of audience; I turned their heads away.

As I pulled my bib suspenders off my shoulders and started working my plan, the wind seemed to pick up on cue. The boat started to pitch and bounce with more gusto, cold Tennessee lake water spraying everywhere. The water churned and I imagined that Liam Neeson had just bellowed, “Release the Kraken!”

I worked to find a position, hanging part of me over the side and trying not to fall in the drink. As I stood to reposition, the johnboat surged and swayed. I made a flailing grab for the rafters, missed, and came crashing to the aluminum deck in an undignified, bare-assed, camouflaged pile of duck hunter. I made another attempt to stand and the boat bucked again. This time my nails clawed big furrows down the plywood walls as I fought for purchase.

Duck feathers were flying. Oars were bouncing into the air. Water

was spraying. My legs were upended where you’d expect to see arms, and my arms were trying to keep my head from banging on the side of the boat. I felt like a rodeo clown in the First Annual Reelfoot Duck-Blind Rodeo.

In the interest of propriety, from here I’ll skip to the end. Bruised, wet, but successful, I crawled through the door and back into the blind, sweating, red-faced, and pulling up my suspenders. “What was going on out there?” Timmy said. “It sounded like a bar fight.”

“I probably should have taken up your offer to borrow that GoPro,” I said.

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