mallard duck mount

The Mallard

Sometimes you mount a bird because it is an absolute stud, like my green-winged teal. Sometimes you mount it for the story, like the gadwall that was Rex's first retrieve. And then, the greatest rarity is the beautiful bird you would have mounted on story alone. The mallard I have on my wall is one of those.

But let's back up. Maria -not yet fiancé at the time- and I arrived at the ramp to the deafening sound of the freezing wind and rain, accentuated by a few mud motors warming up on their trailers. There would certainly be fewer people out in this weather, so I might be able to find a spot up the creek. Yes, the one I'd never been to. I did give it a second thought, but no, of course we wouldn't turn back. We were going, exhorted by the support from Rex's tail beating against the inside of the kennel. After cranking on the Gator-Tail several times in the freezing temperatures, we got her warmed up, and zipping up Rex's vest, the rest of the gear was stowed as we turned to idle out into the choppy bay.

I stood on the rear hunt deck with the tiller in my left and a spotlight in my right, seeking to navigate the darkness, wind, and needling rain as we made our way across the flats. I'd never been here before, but cell service was working and the pin I'd graciously been given was fast approaching. As we left the bay and entered the tributary, the wind lessened along the tree-lined bank. I stuck as close to the windward side as I could to avoid the chop, and we made fast time on the smooth side. The cut we were looking for came up on the right in a few miles or so, and, throttling down, I examined the best way to enter before pushing the tiller away to access the maze.

We got stuck once in the shallow delta as we idled along, which should have been an omen. But I trimmed down and let the built GTR churn mud, forcing the hull through the slop covered with just an inch or so of water. An airboat passed us on the right as we came unstuck, not caring if it was in the water or not as it slid through grass, mud, and water all the same.

Moving further into the delta, I checked the wind. It was 25 mph straight out of the north and the forecast said it might lessen around 1:00 PM. Raising my arm like a gun to find the best match between the wind and where the sun would rise, I eventually settled on a little cove where I figured the rafts of divers out in the bay might want to take shelter. Maria settled into the tall grass with Rex and got our makeshift blind set up, and -after parking the boat- I trudged back through the mud to toss out decoys. The water was only 6-8 inches deep here, and there was nothing for the birds to feed on. However, my wager was not on feed, but on shelter from the north wind amid an area that appeared to have very little.

Even with the howling wind, the cove was still, with barely a disturbance on the surface. I hoped it would stay that way. Driving the Mojo poles deep enough to put the tails barely into the water, I flipped them on and was happy to see a few ripples. Along with the Mojo motion butt-up decoys, hopefully it would be enough of an invitation for shelter. Setting out the rest of the stationary spread, I slogged back through the mud and grasses to nestle in with Maria and Rex. 

The sun began to rise but the temperature didn't; every other minute we had the Stanley out to pour some coffee. In the twilight, just after shooting time, a teal zipped by, heading downwind at Mach 1. I couldn't even register it was a bird, much less identify the species, until it was long out of range. It seemed we'd really only get a shot at those who wanted to actually hit the spread.

As the sun rose higher and higher, it seemed my original thesis was incorrect and the speedy teal would be our only passing visitor. There must have been enough shelter elsewhere for the rafts of redheads I'd heard were out in the bay the day before. Perhaps there was another secluded inlet, maybe with something to feed on. I resigned myself to that theory. But I couldn't really expect anything from a spot I'd never scouted, so I was just thankful to have been able to spend time with the woman -and dog- I love. We chatted more freely while I continued to keep my head on a swivel to not miss out on a potential forgetful bluebill, but as time ticked by, the only birds we saw were at cruising altitude.

By now, the north wind had blown most of the water out of the delta, and I was pretty sure the boat was just sitting in mud. "But I have a Gator-Tail" I thought. Surely the motor would just lift me right out and back to the ramp. So we sat and chatted some more.

And that's when it happened. As I looked out over the spread, I heard the unmistakable gravely mallard drake whistle, the same one I'd been blowing intermittently on my 6-in-1. Having never heard one so close and so clear while hunting, I initially mistook it for someone nearby calling back at me. But I immediately wrote off that option as I looked out to my left to hear the bass-filled whistle again. Twice seemed enough for him, and the massive duck flushed out from the reeds beyond our spread, straight up towards the sun. Rex saw him too. Snapping my gun up, the bead was on him just as he entered the halo, and I almost squeezed off a shot at the sun. But I was disciplined and did not pull the trigger; it would just be a waste of my three attempts. So I took a breath and slowly moved the gun left, tracking the shot just as if I was getting ready to say "pull" at the skeet range. As he exited the other side, a particularly nasty gust of wind slowed his flight and he just hung there, motionless as he tried in vain to make his way upwind and upward.

At that apex, I moved the gun even slightly further to the left to account for the howling wind and fired one shot. He convulsed and turned earthward, plopping down in the mud with a thunk, blown backwards ten yards as he made his descent at what appeared to be a forty-five degree angle. It was an odd sound, and one that I still remember today, so different from the splash or soft landing on the bank that I was used to. But as Rex began to tense up, locked on to the bird feebly flapping in the mud, I moved past the interesting sound and gave the word, "Rex". He exploded through the tall grasses at the bank with eyes for nothing but his quarry. Some forty yards away, it took him awhile to get through the deep mud, and even longer to return. But as he clambered back up through the grasses holding the bird aloft, I could see what he held, and it was magnificent.


I held the bird up in disbelief and looked towards the camera Maria wielded, capturing the moment of Rex bringing me his first mallard, one only a few miles from the salt water. He was covered in mud but I could tell he was gorgeous (yes, both Rex and the bird). I dispatched the bird and then rejoined my admiration for his color and size, passing him to Maria to do the same. Rex didn't get another look at him, but he received plenty of praise and a quick treat from my blind bag.


Now, a decent story might end there. The bird had been slain and retrieved. A cutscene might show us in front of the fire -sipping hot chocolate of course- as Rex slept at the hearth to warm up from the morning endeavor.

But that would be doing the rest of the day an injustice. The very first paragraph conveyed that what followed would be an exciting story, and so far, it has just been a cold, rainy day with a trophy mallard in the bag of one. But continue on, dear reader...

If you recall, by this time there was no water left. The decoys lay cockeyed on their sides, and by all accounts, the boat was high and dry. As I stood and trudged to the next inlet, I confirmed that was the case. It sat in the mud, covered in camo netting. I checked my phone. The next high tide would be about 4:30 AM the next morning, so it was probably time to go.

Firing up the GTR, I managed to move it to a large puddle where the boat could float freely before returning to the blind to help Maria finish packing. But as we returned and loaded the boat, the weight pushed it back down. Standing on the Quack Rack for a better view, I saw nothing but mud the way we had come, 1/4 mile or so. With my heavy ribbed hull -not the true flat-bottom hulls most mud motors are on- we certainly weren't going to get on plane from a standstill in the mud. But the delta held water if we were willing to go further in, the deeper pools unable to be fully drained by the wind and receding tide. Connecting the kill-switch to my waders so the prop wouldn't get me if all went wrong, we got out and held on to the gunwales as I operated the motor. Pushing forward as it roared, we managed to move the boat further into the delta where it finally slipped into knee-height water. We were floating!

But now what? The only way out was the way we had come. I mapped it all out in my head, mustered all the confidence I could, and told Maria the plan. In the little "runway" of actual water we had (40 yards or so), we would need to get on plane to have the speed needed to run those flats. I'd need to navigate two tight turns right as the mud began while not slowing down too much, or we'd be right back where we started. But after we passed the chicane, it would be a straight shot. Taking a deep breath, I backed up to the end of the pool, trimmed down, and squeezed the throttle as the Voodoo exhaust screamed. We ploughed forward but did not gather nearly enough speed to be on plane at the end of the runway. I let off the throttle. With both of us in the boat, we were still just sitting too low.

The next phase came to me. As I had to captain the boat, she would need to get out and move to the front, holding onto the port-side gunwale. I demonstrated the technique she would need to perform, bailing into the boat as it picked up speed to not be left behind. God bless her, she didn't skip a beat and hopped out, positioning herself on the port side as near to the bow as she could while keeping a steady hold. With the stakes a bit higher now (the thought of running over my girlfriend was not a pleasant one), I made sure she knew not to wait until she was close to the stern to bail in, but about midship. Even though I had rear float pods that should protect her, if she stumbled before midship, I would have enough time to kill the engine. Rex was having a ball with all the commotion and I yelled at him to lie down in the cockpit. This was not a time for me to be distracted, and he reluctantly complied.

Backed up to the end of the runway, I trimmed down and hammered on the throttle again. With one eye on the mud flats and the other on Maria, the bow rose and she bailed into the cockpit just as it began to fall. We were on plane. Returning my second eye to the bow, I trimmed up to keep the prop from slowing us down in the thicker mud as we hit the flats, beginning our journey to freedom. We were through the first left turn with just a right turn remaining.

And then we slammed into the wall of the right turn, the motor trimmed up too much for the prop to get the purchase needed to steer to starboard. Boom. No one was hurt, we were just sitting in the mud again.

But now we had a game plan. If I could just steer through the first curves, the mud flats were a straight shot out to the creek (albeit a 1/4 mile straight shot). The prop would need to be trimmed just right to keep purchase but not slow us down coming out of the chicane or we'd end up sitting there in the middle of hundreds of yards of mud. Back on the runway, Maria performed her barrel roll again to perfection as the nose fell, and I trimmed up as we entered the turns. Pulling the tiller to me and then pushing hard away, we cleared the wall that had ended our last attempt and shot out at full speed into the straightaway. Weight perfectly distributed, mud flew in all directions as we ran flat and fast through the slop towards the creek.

It came up so fast, I never saw it coming. 50 yards from the creek's mouth, the mud dropped down a few feet in a narrow cut, water completely absent due to wind and tide. All of a sudden the boat was airborne, bouncing off the right wall then the left before the prop found the new level of mud and regained speed, spitting us out into the creek. Maria finally lifted her head and unclenched as we sped towards the bay, moving back to her seat for the ride out. I revved the motor in triumph. We were free.

That'll teach me to celebrate prematurely. While the Louisiana boys behind Gator-Tail have mastered running boats in the mud (as evidenced by this story), sand is another matter. With the tide down a foot or more since we ran up the creek in the darkness, as we came out into the bay, I forgot the words of the man who had given me the pin, "stay right". The stern began to shudder slightly and I quickly knew what it was but also knew we couldn't stop. Moving Maria to the front to flatten us out, we almost got across the football field-sized sandbar, stopping just 50 feet short of the deep water we needed to get home.

Anchoring the boat, we grabbed the expensive stuff and waded out, walking the mile or so back to the ramp, even having to swim a brief distance. But as we arrived dripping wet at the ramp with gun and dog, the folks loading up their boats immediately saw the greenhead in my hand.

"Y'all shot that here?"

"Wait, where's your boat?"

"Y'all swam the channel?"

Sure did, it's that speck over there, and sure did. An opportunistic airboat had come by with an offer of $600 to pull us the 50 feet, which was an offer I was not about to accept. A testament to Maria and being exactly the girl for me, she never batted an eye as we walked, swam, toweled off, changed, and loaded up what we had brought with us.

We spent the remainder of the day at a friend's nearby duck camp, leaving out after the sun had risen to head back to the ramp. The rig bobbed in the distance, the water easily three feet higher than the day prior. Hailing a good-sized bay boat that was being backed down the ramp, the two gentlemen looked where I pointed and obliged with a hand wave. Wouldn't be a problem, it was right on their way. Soon I was back on my palmetto and mud-covered rig, and Maria and I were on our way back to Houston.

Sometimes success takes a different guise.

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