Nov/Dec 2017The Eve of EveBy Philip Hunt, Photos by Joey Frazier
Traditions ingrained through decades of winter hunts create unforgettable memories and treasured camaraderie.
The sound of decoys rattling in a bag breaks the silence of a cold morning as a group of boys makes their way through an overgrown pasture en route to a beaver swamp. Except for the occasional call to a dog, no words are spoken during this short hike. The hike is not long enough to make your legs tired, but enough to work up a sweat under layers of fleece and wool. Decoys are set. Makeshift blinds are built and brushed. Dog stands are assembled, and the next few anxious minutes are filled with dreams of cupped wings and heavy game straps. Most duck hunters are picturing an exact place and time in their mind right now, and for me it is a small farm pond on the morning of December 23rd.
Some fifteen years ago, I saw this farm pond for the first time, and like most duck hunters, the anticipation of watching the sunrise on a new piece of water was exciting. I was showing my friend, whose family owned the pond, what duck hunting was all about. I think I succeeded in my mission. We were set up in the wrong place, didn’t fire a single shot and I filled up my waders. But at the end of the hunt we tried to jump shoot a back cove and surprised a large group of mallards. As they flew off just out of range I saw the excitement and hope in my friend’s eyes.
Hope has led many duck hunters to places they regret going. That secret lead to a public timber hole in Arkansas that wound up empty, and a trip to North Dakota where the number of birds taken was less than the hours of driving time. There’s also that promising duck club near you that turns out to be a weekly amateur hour, but occasionally, hope pays off. A year later we went back to the same pond but set up where the mallards had been. At shooting light, dozens of wood ducks buzzed and landed in our decoys. A limit of wood ducks and two bonus geese had us all smiles and eager to continue this tradition.
We had little idea then that each December 23rd we came to hunt further entrenched this particular tradition in our lives. We learned techniques from my older brother and his hunting partners, but mainly through trial and error — mostly error. Don’t slide in a canoe down a hill into water on a cold December morning because it can flip with you in it. Walk carefully in a beaver swamp or you will puncture your waders. And most importantly, don’t sleep through your alarm on December 23rd. Our learning curve was gradual, but we were doing this together, which taught us another valuable lesson of duck hunting, camaraderie.
As time passed, life got busier for us. College, jobs, wives and children made it more difficult to continue our December 23rd ritual, but continue we did and with little interruption. Sometimes, on December 22nd we would sleep in a one-room cabin next to the pond under the false assumption that we would get more sleep if we cut out the drive. Then late into the night, after talking about life and solving the world’s problems, we discuss the game plan for the next morning. Each year it is tweaked, but it basically stays the same. The next morning we drag ourselves out of bed and walk through the overgrown cow pasture to our cove we have hunted many times before.
Since this hunt is the day before Christmas Eve, we began to call it the “Eve of Eve.” That morning will always serve as the epicenter of my duck hunting story. It’s just a farm pond in rural South Carolina with a few decoys set with the hope of ducks to follow. There is a mutual understanding that we could finish the hunt with empty game straps. Most importantly, there is the camaraderie of hunting together on this date for more years than we haven’t. Whether I am hunting a cut corn field for mallards in the Central Flyway or a Chesapeake marsh for black ducks, at shooting light I will be thinking of the “Eve of Eve.”