Sep 10, 2018

Mallard Memories

Early days of duck hunting on Stuckey’s Pond bring back warm remembrances of family and faithful labs

By Mike McCoy 

My eyes were locked onto a thick patch of wild rice at the north end of the duck pond. Our black lab was hidden by the reeds, but I could hear Ol’ Tar plopping about, the top tassels of the rice bowing left and right.

There was a quick lunge, and seconds later, Tar’s gray snout emerged from the reeds, and in his mouth was a blue wing teal. As Tar waded back through Stuckey’s Pond, my dad smiled at me and said, “Mike, looks like you just shot your first duck.”

Growing up in the Mississippi and Wisconsin River valleys of Crawford County, I have been fortunate to catch various fish and successfully hunt turkey, deer, geese and grouse – even with my less-than- average abilities. That alone is testament to the abundance of wildlife in this area.  

Many of those memories and milestones are captured on film, but oddly not that first duck. No matter. Although almost 50 years ago, it’s a lasting scene in my mind’s photo album. That was the day I became not just a hunter, but a member of the Houseboat Duck Hunting Crew.

 

The Houseboat

In the late 1950s my Uncle Bill bought an old boat house that once was owned by the Corps of Engineers. Originally the pontoons were on the outer edge, and it was used for repairing and storing workboats. Eventually the pontoons were moved in a few feet, and planks were added around the outside.

On the inside, bunks were built, and a gas stove, refrigerator, and heat stove were brought on board. Essentially, The Houseboat transformed into a cabin on pontoons. Since the early 1970s, it has floated in the backwaters of the Wisconsin River and has been the home base for our duck hunting crew.

I am the youngest male in the McCoy generation of the Baby Boomers, so by the time I weaseled my way into the crew, my brother, John, and cousin, Dave, were almost like veterans in my eyes. As a young teenager, the five- to six-year difference in our age was vast. I tried my best to fit in, but always seemed to be the butt of whispered jokes and comments. Even so, I was included in the chores which are part of any camp, ranging from plucking ducks to dishwashing.

There were also jobs that required a strong back. Whenever those arose, which was often, my Uncle Bill would say something like, “You flat bellies need to get those gas tanks out of the boat and up on the planks of The Houseboat.”

For that first year, my dad and I would return to Stuckey’s Pond. It was a perfect place for a young hunter. There was plenty of cover, yet open enough to get a good view of the marsh.

I learned early the different flights of ducks, like the wood duck’s bobbing and weaving while peeping out their unique call. I knew to keep my head down when mallards warily circled as dad coaxed them with his call. I was amazed as teal flashed by and actually sounded like small jets.

In the early morning, I even began to recognize the silhouettes of different species. This was especially important in those days, because Wisconsin used a point system. Each type of duck and some of the sexes were assigned a point value. When a hunter shot a duck that put him at or over 100 points, his day was done. For example, drake mallards were assigned 25 points, so you could shoot four. Hen mallards were 90 points and wood ducks (both hen and drakes) were worth 70. The old boys at The Houseboat grumbled about the new system, but since I didn’t know any better, it was an interesting game mixed with a little strategy.

Yes, Stuckey’s Pond was considered the prime hunting spot, and I was thrilled to be there each morning. However, John and Dave were old enough to venture out on their own and I was envious. I suppose I thought the “greenheads were always greener on the other side of the pond.”

They would return with stories of exotic hunts in places called The Rice Point, The Woodduck Hole, and my favorite, The Little Lily Pad Pond. Of course, in a few years I, too, would hunt these same places and still do to this day.

At night after a customary dinner of roast duck stuffed with sauerkraut, heartburn salad, and mashed potatoes and gravy, the table would be cleared for the adults to play Euchre. After dishes were done, we youngsters tried our hand at Euchre and usually embarrassed ourselves.

Eventually I would wander to bed but would lie awake and listen to the adults. I would hear stories that dated back to the 1930s and 40s when my father and uncle were my age. I was beginning to understand the deep duck hunting roots in our family.

 

Ol’ Tar

Naturally, time passed and we all tacked on a few years, and we young bucks moved into adulthood. Much to my surprise – and delight – I now felt like an equal with John and Dave. Brother John had started a family, so he would often park his car next to the marsh and walk in and hunt early Saturday morning.

By this time, dad had a young lab named Bo, so Johnny would bring Ol’ Tar with him. Once a couple of guests were hunting a big pond where we had put up a duck blind with a pallet floor. The guests had been shooting a few ducks and their field trial labs were retrieving via whistles and hand signals.

John and Tar stopped to visit as they made their way to The Houseboat after his morning hunt. Moments later, a mallard swung over, was shot, and sailed to the far end of the pond. One of the field trial labs was sent out and put right on top of where the duck had lit. Many whistles and hand signals later, the lab returned with no duck. All the while, Tar sat next to John, his eyes fixed on the mark. Johnny asked the guests if they cared if Tar gave it a try.

Now, Tar was never a physically strong dog. In fact, he had hip dysplasia, but his shoulders were round like a bear’s since his front quarters essentially had to pull his weight. What he lacked in strength, he compensated with a great nose and experience.

Ol’ Tar was sent out and waded through the muck, and eventually went out of sight. Quite some time later, he once again emerged, but this time he held a greenhead in his mouth. Johnny had to help Tar back into the blind. He made him sit and took the duck from his mouth. In a bit of showmanship, John tossed the duck at the guest’s feet and said, “There’s your duck.”

The following year, Tar stayed back at The Houseboat because he just couldn’t hunt. I know it pained my dad to leave him behind because the old lab’s heart still longed for the marsh.

We returned from hunting one early fall day, and I decided to take Tar for a walk on the island next to The Houseboat. This land was high and dry, and easy for him to plod along.

Before leaving, I decided to grab my shotgun just to make it seem more like a hunt. A while later, we came to a small pond. There was a stump sitting out in the sun, so I sat down and Tar laid his head on my lap like he always did. He loved being petted and having his ears scratched.

What happened next was a small miracle followed by a large one. A wood duck drifted over the pond. I pulled up, shot once and it plopped dead only a few feet into the water. Tar waded out and grabbed a beautiful drake, came back and sat by my side like he had done so many times before with my dad and other hunters.

You’ll have a hard time convincing me that things like this just happen. Some things are meant to be.

 

The new crew

I hesitate to call those years “the good ol’ days,” because that makes me feel old. But they were. Ol’ Tar and Bo are gone and other labs have tried to live up to their predecessors. Dad and Uncle Bill have left us, but their stories and spirit live on.

Now John, Dave and I are the old fellas, and we leave it up to the youngsters to hoot and holler long into the night. Usually.

A few years back, my own sons, Tom and Kyle, shot their first ducks over Stuckey’s Pond. Each time, I smiled at them and purposely said, “Looks like you just shot your first duck.”

 

Mike McCoy grew up in Prairie du Chien, Wis. and returned to his hometown to teach English for more than 30 years. He and his wife, Dawn, have three children, Tom, Kyle and Caitlin.  Mike retired in 2016 but still teaches part-time for Southwest Tech in Fennimore.