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Alabama Outdoors

One memorable day in the marsh

By John N. Felsher
Small ducks, blue-winged teal migrate earlier than other ducks
Small ducks, blue-winged teal migrate earlier than other ducks

Bagging game doesn’t necessarily define a successful hunt. Some hunts create memories that live forever — for better or worse – because of the experiences in the natural beauty of the wilderness.

For me, one such memorable hunt occurred many Septembers ago during teal season. Small ducks, blue-winged teal migrate earlier than other ducks. They begin arriving on the Gulf Coast in late summer and may disappear when the first cold front hits. Therefore, the state allows sportsmen to hunt teal in September.

One balmy September afternoon, I paddled through a narrow marsh channel to reach my hunting spot. As I rounded a bend, the boat nearly bumped into two alligators sunning themselves on the muddy bank, barely a few feet away. One quickly disappeared, but the larger one stayed put until the boat began to pass it. Then, it plopped into the channel, resting on the bottom as the boat glided over it.

With water barely two feet deep, I could easily see it and decided to give it a less than subtle nudge with the paddle — perhaps not my best decision! Nearly upsetting the tippy craft, the very surprised alligator sloshed an Olympic 100-yard thrash through the marsh to get away from this crazy teenager!

Feel rather cocky after fighting my way through alligators, I finally reached the pond where I wanted to hunt. As I stepped from the boat, I tripped on a root and fell face first into the muck – quite literally bringing me back down to earth!

Upon opening my eyes, I stared into the face of a large venomous cottonmouth coiled not more than a foot away. Positive the “big moment” had arrived, I closed my eyes tightly and braced for the inevitable strike. “Lord, make a place for me. I’m coming soon,” I prayed, asking forgiveness for all sins real and imagined including some I hadn’t even thought of doing yet.

After several years, or at least what felt like years in that position, I slightly cracked open one eye. Yes, the enormous coiled black snake was still poised, ready to strike at my nose, but no fangs pierced my flesh. Mustering some courage, I peeked with both eyes and noticed something odd. The snake didn’t move. Curious, I rose and picked up a stick to poke it. Nothing happened. I don’t know what caused the snake’s death. Perhaps it suffered a massive heart attack as I nearly fell on top of it, but better it than me!

Lifelong memories

Getting back to business, I placed the duck decoys, fashioned a blind from native vegetation and waited for waves of teal to whistle into range. I waited and waited and waited. Multitudes of other birds including pelicans, egrets, herons and diverse shorebirds flew overhead, but no teal.

As I waited, six otters merrily swam into the pond and played among the decoys. Plastic fake birds did not impress them as they snatched fat crabs from the bottom. Floating on their backs, they held each crab with their two front hand-like paws and ate it as if eating a sandwich.

Aware of my presence, they took turns watching me. One would approach within a few feet to observe me squatting in the weeds while the others concentrated on catching dinner. Then, another one would relieve the sentry at the observation post so it could eat. For a long time, we just studied each other until they ate their fill of crabs or simply grew tired of staring at a soggy, muddy, camouflaged teen-ager trying to sit still in marsh grass while being slowly devoured alive by mosquitoes. As quickly as they had arrived, they disappeared when they lost interest.

About an hour before dark, a pair of mottled ducks landed in the decoys. Not legal during the September season, I simply watched them for a while. Eventually, a small flock of teal darted over the pond in waning daylight. I splashed one blue-wing and let it float in the pond as legal shooting hours wound down.

The dead duck floated undisturbed for several minutes. All of a sudden, the pond surface erupted in a huge commotion as if a bass annihilated a surface lure. In a flash, the teal vanished, swallowed whole by an alligator, perhaps even my earlier reptilian nemesis seeking its revenge. All creatures must eat.

The day ended in a spectacular cosmic kaleidoscope of color as another early autumn day ended. Dying sunlight captured the radiant colors of a strikingly handsome drake wood duck flashing over the decoys as shooting hours ended.

I returned home with an empty game bag, but lifelong memories of a day that would never return. Similar days may occur, perhaps even better ones, but never another one just like this one. An old proverb says that a man can never put his hand in a river twice in exactly the same spot. Time, place and exact conditions change and never repeat.

John N. Felsher is a professional freelance writer and photographer who lives in Semmes, Ala. He’s written more than 1,700 articles for more than 117 magazines. He co-hosts a weekly outdoors radio show. Contact him through his website at www.JohnNFelsher.com.