My alarm clock chimed at the impossibly early hour of 3 a.m., a time best suited to vampires or pancakes at IHOP. I arose and got dressed in the living room as I endeavored to avoid waking up my peacefully sleeping wife. Wives are not amused by husbands blundering through the house switching lights on and off at o’dark’thirty as they get prepared to go hunting. I was not successful in avoiding waking my wife. She was not amused. Even the dogs refused to get up and accompany me as I brewed a cup of coffee for the road.
I left my house at 3:45 a.m. and drove 30 minutes to meet my duck hunting guide, Ike Eisenbach. We met at 4:15 a.m. and then drove another 30 minutes to our first stop at the hunting grounds where we met up with two other fellas, Brian Bolding and Joe Key. My first hint that the journey was not over was the presence of the Polaris Mule. We transferred our gear from our respective trucks to the mule and then suited up, duck hunting style.
Then I squeezed 240 lbs. of joint popping, bad knees, middle-aged man into insulated chest waders, which were apparently constructed for a 200 lbs. man in better shape and not in his 50s.
I felt somewhat underprepared as I only had my chest waders, shotgun, obligatory camouflage clothing and hat while Eisenbach, Key and Bolding all had the aforementioned items plus somewhere around 7-dozen or so duck decoys. There were big decoys, little decoys, and diving decoys that looked like a magician’s sawing illusion gone wrong. Mallards, drakes, hens, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal, blue teal and a few other representations of various species filled the 3 mesh decoy bags.
I pulled on my camouflage facemask while the guys put on black camouflage paint around their eyes and cheekbones. I was not confident of my ability to scrub any camo paint off my weathered skin so I just opted for the facemask and the natural bags hanging under my eyes. I was ready to either rob a bank or hunt ducks.
As we loaded gear the guys talked about previous hunting trips, how much water was in the area, flooded land and the best path to travel along in the Mule. Eisenbach is a professional guide that guides duck hunts from the panhandle to west Texas to east Texas. He also guides deer hunts, exotic hunts and feral hog hunts. Additionally, he runs kayak fishing trips along several Texas rivers when hunting season is over. Eisenbach, Bolding and Key have been hunting together for years and the camaraderie among them is strong.
The guys have that bond, that bond of kinship, of waking up and heading out to the hunting grounds 3 hours before the sun even thinks of peeking up over the horizon. If nothing else it convinces you that to some extent, duck hunters are a little whacky. To be a duck hunting guide and doing this day after day, while married with 3 kids at home might indicate a deeper level of clinical psychiatric issues. Eisenbach also has a day job of running his own company doing hydromulching. Apparently sleep isn’t high on his list of things to do.
That is duck hunting. The bond that duck hunters build is no less strong than that of sports teams. They share the triumphs and glories and god-forbid you miss a shot at a duck. The heckling will have you laughing so hard that your ribs will ache for days. They revel in each other’s successes and feel each other’s pain when they come up short.
Once the Mule is loaded Bolding turns on the LED lights that make the vehicle look like something out of Close Encounters as we travel down the rutted path to the hunting ground. The guys are wide awake and talking hunting while I quietly sit there trying to figure out why I thought writing a duck hunting story might be fun.
It takes us about 20 minutes of 5 mph driving to get to the location that Eisenbach has selected for our hunt. It’s a flooded area of brush and trees that just a few weeks ago was high and dry ground that abounded with cactus, tasajillo and mesquite. Actually, it still abounds with the aforementioned flora, it’s just that now it’s under water, which makes finding your footing in pitch black night all the more exciting. As we unload the guys grab their bags of decoys and head out to the cove while I stand there cursing myself for drinking all of that coffee, forgetting at the time that wearing insulated chest waders makes certain activities difficult.
It’s just now a little after 5:30 a.m., still 2 hours before sunrise and 2.5 hours since I first questioned my sanity at 3 a.m.
The adventure began as soon as we stepped into the water. We felt around gingerly at first with our feet to ensure we didn’t step into a hole concealed under the water, or trip over a mesquite sapling, or walk into a massive prickly pear that at waist high under water can cause some serious concerns if you run or fall into it. I never realized there could be so many concerns just stepping into the water. The chilled November water was enough to erase any remnants of thoughts concerning my missing out on some sleep.
I counted as the guys put their decoys out around the cove and when I got up to 60 I stopped counting, mainly because 60 is as high as I count before I’m fully awake. That was a lot of decoys yet they didn’t even put all of their decoys out. Like Rudolph’s Island of Misfit Toys, some decoys sat in the bag, waiting their turn to someday float among the flooded brush.
Key was the guinea pig who walked out a ways to see how deep the water got and thus we had the imaginary boundary line marked out in our mind, the DMZ between semi-warmth inside our insulated waters and the frigid reality of a misstep.
By the time the clock struck 6 a.m. the decoys and hunters were all in place. A few minutes later Bolding asks what time it is and I reply with, “6:18.” Eisenbach says that legal shooting hours would start at 6:50 a.m. I quickly do the math in my head and realize that we still had 30 minutes before we could even pull the trigger.
We had spread out in a line with about 5’-8’ in between each of us, 3 hardened duck hunters along with the amateur who looks like a Michelin Man in neoprene chest waders. Trying to make myself useful I give a time update every 4 minutes, like NASA mission control about to launch a rocket.
With a couple of minutes before legal shooting the guys start using their duck calls. All three of them have several calls on a lanyard around their neck, hanging there like a Voodoo priest’s bone necklace; The magic talisman that would bring in biblical flocks of ducks of all species, just waiting to be cooked in a nice red wine sauce or made into some type of wilderness sausage. They had mallard calls, teal whistles, Gadwall calls, Pintail calls and other calls I didn’t even ask about.
But it isn’t just having a call and blowing haphazardly into it hoping that you hit the right note, because duck hunting couldn’t possibly entail anything that simple. There are different types of calls for every different type of call such as the “greeting call”, the “comeback call”, the “feeding call”, the “hail call”, the “Lonesome hen”, the “pleading call” and the “whistling mallard.” The names sound like something more akin to Cajun symphony names than anything else. Oh, and there is the “basic quack.” You can blow a Gadwall feeding call or a Mallard Lonesome hen or even a Gadwall Lonesome hen or perhaps a Mallard hail call in C-minor.
Naval intelligence had an easier time breaking the Japanese codes in World War II than I had of trying to discern which call went with which species and which ducks should be coming and which ones should be going or had gone and we wanted to come back with the trusty ol’ “comeback call”.
I had a lanyard of calls around my neck but I relied on the trusty teal whistle since basically, well, it’s a whistle. I didn’t have to start forming the guttural air pressure in my diaphragm and let it creep out of my larynx into a mallard lonesome hen call. The rest of the calls draped around my neck were purely for decoration, perhaps to intimidate any ducks that might see me. Not surprisingly, our web-footed quarry was not intimidated.
When legal shooting hours commenced the guys had sporadic flocks of ducks cruising in. Key shot the first one, Bolding got the second one, Eisenbach gave Bolding an assist on a missed shot and I managed to scare the dickens out of three ducks who were obviously masters at negotiating shotgun blasts from a nearsighted hunter in the early dawn hours. I saw the panic in one duck’s eyes, or maybe it was tears of joy, or laughter. I prefer to think of it as the one duck I intimidated.
Eisenbach, Key and Bolding are masters of duck identification on the fly, which is a must when you can only have a certain number of mallard drakes, pintails, dusky ducks and whatever else makes up the 6 duck daily mixed-bag limit. Ducks were 200 yards off within a minute of legal shooting hours, which is 30 minutes before sunrise, and Eisenbach was calling out, “Mallards coming in at 11 o’clock.” I simply saw some dark shapes coming in at me at warp speed, shapes I knew that I didn’t have a chance of swinging my shotgun up to and bringing down into the stew pot. Ducks quacked off in the distance without ever being seen and Eisenbach could tell you what species it was, whether it was male or female and probably whether or not it had low self-esteem, just from the intensity of its quack.
The thousands of hours Eisenbach and the others have put in pursuing ducks and perfecting their craft is required to be successful. You can’t just go out there and be casual about it, hoping to hit something that might be flying by. Ducks come in fast, flaring at the very end like a Huey helicopter coming to land in a hot landing zone in Veitnam. They fly gracefully so much as they simply beat the air into submission with their wings. At one point 2 ducks came from behind us, sounding like jets as they passed 20’ over our heads and then gone in the blink of an eye, gaining altitude and hope with every second. Top Gun has nothing on ducks; the ducks are the true masters of maneuvering.
During the hunt 3 ducks were brought down, one for each of the guys. The vast amounts of rainfall from September through October flooded a lot of land and they have thousands of acres of additional feeding and resting locations than they’d have in a typical west Texas fall and winter. Flooded cotton fields from San Angelo to Miles are holding ducks just like the lakes, ponds and rivers are. This hunt was during the split season, with highway 277 being the boundary between the High Plains Mallard Management Unit and North Zone, so some of Eisenbach’s usual hunting sports weren’t open to hunting.
Even with the meager harvest the trip was still a resounding success. It isn’t about the number of birds you bring in or the size of the antlers, it’s about the camaraderie and times you share with those you choose to share it with. The stories retold and the new stories created represent the true quality of what the hunt is about.
Eisenbach has spent many years perfecting his craft and guides all over the state. He’s a professional, not a weekend warrior doubling as an “outfitter.” He invests the time and money to increase the chances of success for him and his hunters. Eisenbach says that many of the latch key kids who grew up in the suburbs in the 70s and 80s are getting back to hunting, “About 75% of my customers are first-time hunters and many of them bring their kids with them. There isn’t anything wrong with not knowing how to hunt and wanting to learn. I encourage people to ask questions and come out hunting and to bring their kids with them.”
Eisenbach fishes the rivers and paddles along them in his kayak, always adding information to his mental database on where to find fish, ducks, deer, Sandhill cranes and geese. His kayak trips include the Llano, Brazos, Devil’s, Guadalupe and South Concho rivers. He also rents out the kayaks and provides a shuttle service for his customers.
One of the more intriguing guided hunting trips he does is hunting feral hogs at night where he supplies everything needed for thermal night hunting.
He lives in the Miles area and owns Cut Em’ Outfitters at www.cutemoutfitters.com. He can also be reached by phone at 325-245-6285 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.