Making memories in a duck blind
For a 12-year-old hunter in Alabama, connecting with family and the outdoors trumps video games
Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama – “Some of the best memories are made even if you don’t pull the trigger” is a saying that circulates among some hunters.
At 4:30 a.m., 12-year-old Lane Bowie is scrunched in the backseat of his grandpa’s truck playing a video game on his phone, one that involves frantic thumb movements and never-ending explosions on the little screen.
But not for long. The Ford 4X4 jounces over the rutted path and stops, and Lane climbs out into the chilly darkness, two hours before sunrise. Time to put the phone down and go duck hunting.
Lane, a sixth-grader at Drake Middle School in Auburn, Alabama, has been hunting since he was about seven years old with his father, John Bowie, and his grandfather, Mark Bowie. This Saturday is a special “Youth Hunt Day” at Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, where the only hunters allowed are kids aged 10-15, accompanied by a parent or other adult.
“It’s fun to be outdoors and take a break from school,” Lane says, “and I like being with my dad and grandpa.”
At the refuge check-in station, youngsters and their adults gather for a safety briefing. Three of the young hunters are girls. There’s not much small talk as the youngsters draw for the best blinds, then head to their trucks, then out to the blinds.
Lane unloads his Christmas present, a 12-gauge shotgun, completely camoed, from a bag in the truck’s bed. Mark lets their hunting dog Emmy, a black Labrador retriever, out of her kennel. Emmy whines and scampers, knowing she is headed to a great day in the outdoors.
“Things like this are about gone,” says Mark, a car auctioneer who lives in LaGrange, Georgia. “Nowadays, if it wasn’t for the government having places like this [refuge], you wouldn’t have nowhere to go huntin’.”
The temperature is a brisk 30 degrees, but at least there is no wind. That is due to change soon, and not for the better.
Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge straddles the Georgia-Alabama state line, with part of its 11,000 acres in each state. The refuge was established in 1964 through community support and in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide habitat for wintering waterfowl, and is popular with area residents.
Refuge manager John Earle says they don’t get as many waterfowl as spots in the Mississippi Flyway do, but they get a good number, and a diversity of 15 or more species. Almost 1,700 hunters apply for the lotteries that parcel out about 230 permits for the November to January season. Each lucky permittee can bring two hunters with them.
“Typically the hunters absolutely love hunting here,” he says. “It’s such an easy hunt – perfect for beginners and kids. Most every hunt we see a lot of birds. Even if they come back to the check station with just two birds, they’ve had the time of their life.”
The Bowies wade through knee-deep wetlands to get to their blind, a small platform with a hard wooden bench and railings made of 2x4s. John spreads out more than 20 duck decoys in the marsh. “I think we got more decoys than a person should have,” he jokes.
“Are you ready to get a duck?” John asks Emmy. “Are you ready to get a duck?” Emmy is indeed very ready, fussing to get to her favorite part, retrieval.
“Should I go ahead and load up?” Lane eagerly asks his dad. It’s still an hour before sunrise, so John tells him to wait. Twenty minutes later, Lane asks again if he can load, and dad again tells him to wait.
Usually when the three generations of Bowies go hunting, they all carry guns.
“I feel nekkid without my gun,” Mark offers, giving the word that famous Jeff Foxworthy pronunciation.
Dawn rolls in slowly and stunningly, little pink wisps off to the east, then more light, which gets the frogs sounding off, then the birds, until the wetlands are alive with soft morning light and animal calls. The sky is clear blue, with wispy cirrus clouds high up.
It is a day of great natural beauty, and a day in which three generations are outside together, doing something they love.
It is not, however, a good day for duck hunting at this particular spot. The total for the day, out of 10 blinds at the refuge, is just 13 ducks.
Lane waits patiently, scanning the skies, shotgun ready. John and Mark both have a variety of duck calls slung around their necks, and they valiantly call out a range of ducky sounds, from high chirrups to deeper blats. Sometimes a duck or two will fly high overhead, make a big arc, and then fly off.
“They’re staying right out of gun range,” John says.
Lane: “It’s hard to be patient.”
“It’s very quiet,” says John, who owns a used car lot in LaGrange. “Normally this early in the morning it would sound like there’s a war going on.”
Mark: “It’s hard to tell if you’re hunting them or they’re hunting you,” as an occasional duck comes just not quite close enough.
Finally, a teal lands on the water. Lane readies, and as the teal takes off, he fires twice. And misses.
Mark: “That warm you up a little bit at least?
Mark: “I’ve sat out in a blind till noon before and never pulled the trigger.”
As they wait, a breeze comes up, rippling the surface of the marsh. Instead of getting warmer, the day gets colder. Soon there is a 10 mph wind, yielding a wind chill of 16 degrees.
“The wind at least makes the decoys move, makes ‘em look good on the water,” says John, looking on the bright side.
After a few hours, they decide this is not their day to bag a duck. It’s time to head home.
Mark says he thinks the ducks have already started flying north, and that’s why they’re not seeing many. Refuge manager Earle thinks it’s because the ducks wintering on the refuge have been through an entire hunting season by the time the youth hunt is held. “They know where the blinds are, they’ve kind of wised up,” he says.
But sometimes the experience is more important than the outcome. Not every 12-year-old is mature enough to understand that; some, like Lane, are.
Despite coming back with no ducks, Lane says he’s glad he went. He recalls a hunting trip a couple of weeks previously, when he came home with two ducks he had killed with his new shotgun. He likes to eat his own kill; his favorite is when his dad grills them.
If he had stayed home instead of going out, Lane says he probably just would have played video games. But duck hunting teaches patience, which the instant gratification of video games does not.
“With duck hunting, you’ve got to wait,” he says. “It teaches patience. A lot of patience.”
All photos were taken by Phil Kloer, USFWS.
Phil Kloer, Public Affairs Specialist
Philip_kloer@fws.gov, (404) 679-7299