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Outdoors: December 2016

Daniel Felsher shows off a wood duck drake he shot while hunting in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta near Mobile, Ala. Photo by John N. Felsher

A frosty Christmas Eve duck hunt yields a ‘present’

With billions of stars shining overhead on this cold Christmas Eve, one could imagine the Star of Bethlehem illuminating the desert. However, this trip did not involve a desert journey, although we did cross some sand.

The outboard motor droning against the river current pushed the 14-foot aluminum flatboat through the swampy landscape. With only the stars lighting the way as it did two millennia ago, the twisted shapes of giant cypress trees lining the shoreline took on an eerie appearance.

Ethereal wisps of fog climbed from the dark, swirling currents like ghostly soldiers marching to one final battle. Above the fog, a shooting star plunged to its death in a brief, but brilliant blaze of glory across an ebony sky. Beyond the blackness that marked the water’s edge, unseen creatures began to stir.

A few miles upstream, we turned off the main river channel into an oxbow lake. A sandbar nearly capped the mouth of this former river channel and would eventually seal it completely. Abandoned by the mighty river eons ago, only a tiny, barely flowing ditch remained of the once powerful channel.

The motor kicked up sand in the shrinking ditch as we crossed over the bar into the oxbow. Beyond the sandbar, the ancient oxbow took on more of its former riverine shape. Rounding a couple bends, we stopped the boat at the outside edge of another bend. We broke off some brush and draped it over the green boat. Finally, we covered the motor with an old camouflaged poncho and waited.

Wood ducks generally follow the same flight patterns each morning and evening. They move at first light and after sunset between roosting and feeding areas. This predictability exposes their weakness. If hunters can position themselves in the right spot under a good flight path, they might enjoy almost continuous action as waves of ducks rush overhead — but only for a short time!

Having spent every possible hour exploring this swamp as we grew up, my friend Eric Holbrook and I knew where to find wood ducks. Every morning, woodies and an occasional green-winged teal or mallard flew across the bend of this oxbow. Woodies roosted in the cypress swamp across the river, but ate acorns dropped by oaks growing on a low ridge running through the swamp behind us. Wood ducks frequently follow river channels for navigation and flew up this oxbow on their way to breakfast at the oak ridge each morning.

The woodies always flew fast at treetop level. Sometimes, they zipped through trees, dodging trunks as if radar guided. In limited open pockets between the trees, woodies only offered quick long-range passing shots. In seconds, we needed to see, identify and fire, all under low-light conditions.

We seldom used decoys or calls, although I sometimes whistled at flying birds. Occasionally, a duck flew low down the channel between the trees, but they never landed or even slowed their momentum. They knew where they wanted to go and nothing, except a well-placed shot, could deter them from their preferred destination.

Expecting long shots, I switched the old adjustable choke on my dad’s Remington 870, already ancient even back then, to extra full. For high, fast ducks, I needed maximum range and knockdown power.

On this frosty Christmas Eve, temperatures hovered just above freezing. A ribbon of crimson barely lit the eastern sky beyond the gnarled cypress trees as we shivered in the aluminum boat. In the gloom, unseen whistling black specters already rocketed down the oxbow channel. As shooting hours arrived, several loose clusters of weaving objects burst through the low fog. We opened fire, unsuccessfully. For the next 15 minutes, we couldn’t load our shotguns fast enough as birds suddenly materialized, then vanished.

When the action died down, we warmed our hands by cupping them around the glowing shotgun barrels. A fleet of spent shell hulls bobbed in the frigid water around us. Others clattered and rolled around the bottom of the metal boat. The morning wave seemed over. We had enjoyed an exciting, although brief, hunt.

Still, we had nothing to show for it.

“Felsh, we’ve been hunting and fishing lots of times, but we never been skunked,” Eric remarked. “So far, we’ve shot more than a box of shells and didn’t touch a feather.”

“Day’s not over yet,” I replied. “Maybe we’ll get a Christmas present.”

As the morning brightened, more swamp denizens awakened with chirps, screeches and chatters. Not far away, the haunting tones of a pileated woodpecker reverberated through the swamp as I poured myself a cup of warming coffee. I barely had time to enjoy the strong, rich flavor before a lone drake wood duck materialized just below the treetops as it rocketed straight up the ancient channel.

I pulled the trigger on Ol’ Reliable. The bird splashed into the water. A single pellet of the 12-gauge magnum load had found its mark.

“That’s a beautiful bird,” Eric said. “Look at all the colors. Incredible! We still haven’t been skunked yet!”

“Yep! This one is almost undamaged,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to mount a drake wood duck. This one’s going on the wall… a little Christmas present to myself.”

John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who writes from Semmes, Ala. Contact him through his website at