Tuesday, December 22, 2015

First Annual Reelfoot Duck-Blind Rodeo

Nobody goes hungry in a Reelfoot duck blind. It’s part of the deal. Your guide works the duck calls, coaxing in mallards or teals or gadwalls. Come time for breakfast or lunch, he'll take a break and get the frying pan to sizzling.

Hunters should be prepared for plates loaded with sausage-egg biscuits, bacon sandwiches, cinnamon buns, cheeseburgers, or fresh catfish rolled in Nona Belle’s Golden Fry. A fan favorite is fried baloney with American cheese on Wonder Bread. (Don’t knock it until you try it. Everything tastes better in a duck blind.) If you're lucky, your guide's wife might have sent him out with a loaf of her banana-nut bread. 

All good eats, but it’s a lot of food over a two-day hunt. And that food needs to go somewhere.

Reelfoot Lake is a 15,000-acre land-of-plenty along the Mississippi flyway in northwestern Tennessee. Many of the duck blinds are well appointed: battery-powered lights, propane stoves and space heaters. Maybe even a comfortable couch where you can catch a combat nap -- because duck-hunting is hard work. What’s usually missing is a toilet. Or a bucket. Or even a hole in the floor.

With a belly full of biscuits, sausage gravy, and Little Debbie snack cakes, even the sturdiest of outdoorsmen will eventually feel the rumble of nature calling.

On this particular Saturday, after my third biscuit and second Nutty Bar, I put the question to our guide: "Umm. Allen? When you’re out here and you have to… cop a squat, what do you usually do?”

“Y'all have two options. Y’all can hang off the back of the jon boat. Or,” he reckoned with reluctance, “I suppose I could run you back to the lodge…”

Four heads pivoted toward me accusingly. Timmy, Cap’n, Ron, and Austin, their eyes narrowed in anticipation of the next words out of my mouth. If I picked option two, Allen would be out of commission while he ran me across the lake to a comfortable sit-down terlet. That would be an hour with no guide. Which meant no duck-calling. Which meant no biscuits with butter and strawberry jam being passed down the line.

My friends stared me down. It was like being eight years old on a vacation road trip, Dad saying, “Boy, you should have gone before we left.” Shame is a powerful motivator, and I resigned to take one for the team. I’d try my chances with the jon boat -- in this regard, aptly named.

Allen’s skiff was tied up in the rear of his brush-covered duck blind, in something like a carport. At least I’d have some privacy. As we'd left the motel earlier that morning around
 5:00 a.m., a voice spoke up and suggested I might go
back inside and grab a roll of TP. 

Now as I crawled toward the the back of the blind with that roll of Charmin stuffed in my jacket, I felt grateful for that still, small voice. 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.” 

If I were in marketing for Proctor & Gamble, I might recommend an ad campaign with John Hancock as a historical celebrity toilet-paper spokesman. It worked with Samuel Adams and Boston lager.

The wind was from the southeast at about 7 mph, with gusts to about 20. A chop on the lake had the duck blind swaying. I could hear Allen's boat banging against the pilings. The boys had some idea of what I was in for. They were now looking at me with a degree of pity, like I was Forrest Gump and they were the platoon and Lieutenant Dan had just handed me a .45 and told me to go crawl in that spider hole. They were glad it was me and not them.

It was good to know they were supportive, though. Timmy said, “Good luck, man. You want to borrow my GoPro?”

I opened the plywood door and looked at the jon boat bouncing on the swells. I pulled the skiff toward me, stepped aboard, and immediately lost my footing. I tumbled in and sprawled across the middle row of seats. An inauspicious start. The sound of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was running through my head.

The dinghy rocked and rolled, and I clung to the gunwales as I tried to develop a plan. Three green-winged teals we’d shot earlier were on the bow. They seemed to be looking at me with their beady, judgy little duck eyes. I didn’t want an audience, so I turned their heads away.

As I pulled my suspenders straps off my shoulders, the wind picked up, as if on cue. The boat started to pitch and bounce with more gusto, and cold Tennessee lake water sprayed over the stern. The water around me churned and I imagined that Liam Neeson had just bellowed, “Release the Kraken!”

I tried to find footing where I could hang my tail over the side without falling in the drink. As I stood to reposition, the jon boat 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 up in the air. Water 
was spraying.
My legs were in the air 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, I'll omit the other detail and just skip to the end. I was bruised and wet, but successful. I crawled 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 ran my sleeve over my brow. I said, “I probably should have taken up your offer to borrow that GoPro.”

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