Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Call of the Wild

A cluster of tiny black dots streaks across the sky. The birds are too far away to see them clearly. If it wasn’t for their rapid movement and contrast against the bright sky, their presence might go undetected. The hunter grabs the duck call hanging from a lanyard around his neck, puts it to his lips, and blows softly. With his left hand wrapped around the end of the call, he carefully crafts the sound to produce the perfect greeting call. A rhythmic series of descending notes travel across the harbor, inviting his prey closer. Each squawk carries with it a small part of the hunter’s will, his hope for a successful hunt, and the passion with which he pursues the sport.

The ducks turn in his direction. In a single fluid movement, the hunter rises from his prone position, grabs his shotgun, and takes to his knees. Eyes fixed on the approaching waterfowl, his body and gun track the targets like a missile battery locked on an enemy aircraft. His finger rests on the trigger, ready to give it a squeeze, but experience keeps him from reacting prematurely. Covered in camouflage, he blends with his surroundings, and is rendered invisible to the ducks keen eyesight.

At about one-hundred yards away, the targets begin to take on a recognizable form. There are four ducks flying in a tight group. They are each approximately 25 inches long and flying about 35 miles per hour. With wings beating furiously, and heads bobbing up and down, the duck’s vibrato squawking grows louder as they prepare to land beside the plastic decoys floating in the water.

The warm orange glow from the morning sunrise faded several hours ago, and this late January morning is unseasonably warm. From his vantage point on a rock outcropping in a shoreline harbor, the hunter easily succumbs to the serenity and beauty of the outdoors. His eyes constantly scan the horizon, and his ears are attentive to distant sounds, but his mind is free to travel to other times and places. He can think about his life, his family and his friends. He can ponder the future or relive the past. His thoughts can focus on the loss of a loved one, or the joyful times they had together. It is his time, and he can spend it as he pleases.

Like other outings this hunting season, this trip was accompanied by a group of close friends. When you try to understand the rationale that motivates someone to remove himself from a cozy winter slumber, don several pairs of insulated clothing and leave the house at 4:00 a.m. on a Saturday, so he can chip ice off a frozen boat, and sit on rock surrounded by water while it is still dark, you have to believe that it is not simply for the pleasure of dining on a duck, which could have been purchased at Stop-N-Shop. To reduce the experience to the primal aspect of food gathering diminishes the dedication and commitment the hunter bestows upon the sport.

Duck hunting, like all hunting, is about so much more. Beyond the success or failure of the day, there is the comradery of those that share your passion and love for the outdoors. Some outings are successful and others are not, but each leaves you with a memory that you can take with you to your job, on your commute, and back to that very same rock next week.

The hunter’s forearm tightens ever so slightly, and his right index finger curls a fraction of an inch. Instantaneously, a chain reaction begins. The firing pin in the shotgun is released, striking the primer, and igniting the gunpowder in the shotshell. Gas from the burning powder expands rapidly, forcing the shot from the plastic shell casing.

Suddenly the tranquility of the morning is disrupted!

Pop! Pop! Pop! Three shots ring out. A barrage of steel pellets, each smaller than a pop-corn kernel, screams through the air, and smoke swirls about the tip of the gun’s barrel. Empty shotshell casings are ejected from the semi-automatic 12-gauge shotgun, and are propelled above the hunter’s head. They sizzle as they land in the water.

The ducks abort their landing and change direction without ever slowing down. They are out of sight before the smoke clears, and the ringing in the hunter’s ears subsides. The entire experience lasted just a few seconds; the memory will endure a lifetime.