DULUTH — I knew to look up from checking the time when the dog’s tail wag reached full alert mode.
It was the first flock of ringbills of the day (of the season, for us) coming right at us exactly 10 minutes before legal shooting time. The dog went from sitting patiently to his usual paws-on-the-gunnel, ready-to-rocket stance. But he would be disappointed for a few more minutes.
We both watched the flock make a pass, then come back around, wings cupped, feet down. They landed right in the sweet spot between pods of decoys, not 30 feet from our boat that was well hidden in the phragmites. Perfect. Even in the pre-dawn light, and still in early-autumn plumage, you could see the distinctive black heads and white markings on the drakes — blackjacks we call them. The flock milled about on the water for about five seconds, realized they had been duped, then scurried away.
The dog whined (that’s better than his usual howl when he can’t go in the water) and I took another sip of coffee.
The next 10 minutes, as the first glow of dawn started to grow on the eastern horizon behind us, seemed to take forever. Ducks and other birds were already moving, with teal, woodies and mallards dropping into a wild rice patch about 100 yards away. A few tweety birds started flittering by, driving the dog crazy. More flocks of ringies whooshed overhead, the sound of air rushing through their wings almost jet-engine like. The sound of many ringbills in flight is one of the great joys of being in a duck blind.
Finally, it was time. As if on cue, a flock of a dozen (officially called ring-necked ducks, but the ring on their bills is much more prominent than the one on their necks, so that’s what we call them) was making its final approach into my spread.
Then another flock came. And another. They were easy shots and retrieves, even for us. Then a pair of wigeon lit in among my mallard decoys. A Canada goose made the mistake of answering my call and pitching in.
And just like that, it was over. I had my daily limit of six ducks with a bonus honker.
I had missed the official Ontario duck opener for the first time in nearly 20 years. This was our opening day, the dog and me, 10 days late. Nearly 11 months of waiting to satisfy this addiction called duck hunting and the morning went almost too fast. I checked my phone; it was 6:58, just 28 minutes into the hunt. The sun wasn't quite cresting the horizon.
I didn't need to think about it much. I poured another cup of coffee, lit a cheap cigar and sat back to watch the show. It was 60 degrees, with a nearly cloudless sky and no bugs. I wasn't going anywhere for a while.
I could have argued that I was waiting for another goose to fly by; there were plenty in the area, and the rule book said I could take four more that day. Honestly, though, that’s not why I stayed. I stayed to watch the eagles soar over the bay, at one point five of them at once. A pair of trumpeter swans headed off the lake and upriver, likely looking for a wild rice breakfast. A few hawks winged by, too. Big bundles of red-winged blackbirds swarmed over the cattails and wild rice stands. Groups of grackles hugged the shoreline, where they compete with the local bears for acorns.
Many of the ash and oak and birch were already turning color, standing out against the dark green of pine and spruce in the woods.
Then I noticed blue jays, one at a time but dozens of them all-told, heading from an island to the mainland, all in the same direction. That’s odd, I thought at first. Why aren't any of them going the other way? Then it hit me. Some jays migrate for winter. I was seeing a big push of jays heading south. Then I saw dragonflies, again one at a time but many of them, also all heading the same direction, also south. Were they migrating, too? Some do.
I halfheartedly called at a few more small flocks of geese. But none paid me much mind. There were gulls and pelicans as usual flapping about. A magpie went by. Suddenly it was 8 a.m., and I hadn’t fired a shot in over an hour. We really hadn’t seen that many ducks that morning. It's just that the flocks that did come by did exactly what we wanted them to do.
It was time to pick up decoys and head back to camp. The lawn needed mowing before afternoon rains came.
There have been many days in the duck blind when watching is all we did — duckless skies when cloud formations or spectacular (sometimes red) northern lights or shooting stars or fiery sunrises or a visit from a family of otters up close were the highlights of the day. And that’s okay. The great days hunting wouldn't be special if all the days were great.
But there is something special about sitting on a limit, six ducks and a goose already on the stringer, watching the sky just for fun.
For a duck hunting addict, it doesn't get any better than that.