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Blind Man Goes on First Duck Hunt
A month prior to our annual group teal hunt this September, I seriously considered cancelling it. There was no end to the drought in Texas and half of the duck ponds we would’ve had to hunt were as dry as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. Had it not been for two special people coming from out-of-state, one of them our first blind hunter from North Dakota, I might’ve. Their flights plans had already been booked.
Carey McWilliams was coming to give me my chance to make history. Not only would he be my first blind hunter, he'd be going on his first ever duck hunt and this would be the first documented wingshooting hunt for ducks & doves for a "non-seeing" person that I'd ever heard about.
Our other non-resident hunter, Dawn Ziegler, from Wisconsin, who writes the Outdoor Rec section for my magazine, would also be trying her hand at shotgunning for the first time afield.
For years, I’d thought a lot about how you might bird hunt without the use of sight over the years, been wanting to take on that challenge for a long time. Carey gave me that chance. He would make it easy for me though. He'd hunted pheasant one time prior and shot well by following their noisy, straight-line flight paths. He could shoot them based solely on sound. Carey is also the only blind person in the world to pass the requirements for a concealed weapons permit so he’s had plenty of experience with guns and shooting. What he didn't have, however, was much knowledge about hunting, and never hunted ducks which I told him would be totally different from pheasant. I felt like we’d be able to work it out though after he showed up.
Dawn and Carey both arrived a few days before the hunt so we’d have time to practice shooting. Dawn was going to be trying out a zero-gravity rig for the first time and that would take some getting used to, and for Carey, I had a guide sit behind him to practice helping him aim and swing on moving targets. We spent all Thursday afternoon getting both of them ready.
For the second year in a row, my friend Jen Armstrong came to photograph the hunt for us. These are her shots and I think she does some incredible work (I took the very professional-looking one of her). Please go by her blog at Jen Armstrong Photographyand let her know what you thought of her pics. This is the story of our special event through her eyes and Carey's ears.
September 24th, sometime before sunrise... I hadn't realized this before, but there are oodles of things to be sensed on a teal hunt: guys sloshing around the pond setting out decoys, the unloading of gear and last minutes ideas on where to best set up, the feel of ground fog against your face as the morning breeze picks it up, frogs croaking and crickets chirping their last tones before daylight hits, the aroma of pond life mixed with the dusty pasture surrounding it, loading shells into the guns, squeaky teal calls, teal buzzing by in the dark, excited whispers whenever they set there wings to come in, shots fired, ducks falling back to the water (sometimes), a dog tearing through the water to retrieve a duck, coming back, shaking off and panting hard after a long run, even the low hum of mosquitoes is all part of the package.
"The types of things a blind hunter experiences in the field can be allot different than sighted hunters. A sighted hunter can look around and scan the area for a sign of game and appreciate the scenery. A blind hunter on the other hand, listens to the smallest changes in sound. The wind can sometimes cover up the approach of game. But as I said before, the ducks flying by overhead hiss like bicycle tires losing air and that comes over the hum of insects in my ears. I smell the gun oil in my nose, and the moist odors from the rice field rises up from my feet until I wish for a breath of wind to give me a break from it. There are voices of other hunters nearby, although nothing can distract me from that growing pain in my butt from the bucket I've been sitting on while waiting for teal to appear. In the distance, there is an intermittent thunder of gunfire that sounds like a war is going on. I can suddenly feel my heartbeat in my ears again as hear ducks pass by on the wing. (Ground animals are easy to zero in on when they approach, but with foul, I fight to follow their flight across the sky.) I hope my guide understands that I need help. I hope he's a good shot too. I don’t want to just pull the trigger. That isn’t why I came here. My guide whispers in my ear what's going on. He says those magical words, "They're coming!" We swing together. The gun’s report makes me wince and I hear a rattling splat of shot against grass or water. One time I heard the splash of a downed bird. The dog went into the water with a rush, not a splash, getting quieter with someone cheering it on. The churning sound returns to dripping water on solid ground and in your open palm drops a still warm, sometimes still twitching, batch of soft feathers and hot dog breath. In my hand, I explore the bird, noticing the size and texture of the feathers, ending with the memory of beak and feet. My fingers are sticky from the musky blood, which to me seems to always have a different odor. I feel sad and exhilarated all at once, and am contented. I killed my first duck in the air.
When it's over, I pick up my gear and I feel the warm sun on my face. The smell of the day changes as the sun bears down on the countryside. I'm exhausted, but more than ready to do it again." - Carey McWilliams
My friend Reid guided Carey on this morning. He sat behind him and helped him aim each time that we had ducks coming in. It was the first documented case of a blind hunter duck wingshooting that I have ever heard about. I told Carey going in that it wouldn't be as easy as shooting pheasant, and I was right, but he jumped right in there and did the best he could, undaunted. The true sign of a hunter, he wasn't here to kill ducks, he was here to experience the hunt.
It didn't take him long to break the ice. On one of the first small flocks to come in, Carey folded one right out over the middle of the decoys. Needless to say, he was pretty tickled. My dog Tille brought it back and Reid took it over to Carey so he could "see" his first ever duck, a green-winged teal.
He said he loved having my dog out there and listening to her work during the hunt. I told him that she had to come because she was a lot better 'duck getter' than my dad. Carey also loved to shoot. I also told him that was the only way to get better. "Keep shooting."
Later that morning, three blue-wings came in and banked high and away on Carey's side, too far for me to venture a shot. But not Carey, he shot and made a legit 45 yard shot on a flaring duck. I'd love to give Reid some credit, but I've seen him shoot. He's not that good a shot.
My dad was Dawn's guide. This is her learning how to use the zero-gravity rig which is designed for higher quads who can't swing the weight of a shotgun. It works, but it takes some getting used to. She also has what we call a U-cuff attached to the fore-end, a rudimentary trigger-pulling device, and a adaptive brace on her left hand to swing the gun with.
She also killed her first duck in the air almost right away. The morning was made before we saw the sun. After Dawn and Carey both had ducks, everything else was gravy.
We didn't have that many flocks come in, but I'm quite certain that both of my new duck hunters could've filled their limit had there been more birds.
The following morning, we moved to a flooded ricefield nearby where there were more ducks working. Both Dawn and Carey shot more teal on the wing, a testament to their determination and love of the outdoors. How many of us would fly somewhere by ourselves, blind, to a place where we didn't know anybody in order to try something that has never been done? As I write this blog, both Dawn and Carey are on separate deer hunts somewhere in the Midwest. I hope to see them both back down here next year.
I know a chocolate dog that will be ready.