Duck hunting, to the outsider looking in, appears to be as simple as finding a puddle of water, throwing out a couple of decoys and blasting away at whatever comes into shotgun range. Cold, wet, miserable, potentially boring … who in their right mind would be subjected to the torture? Who would spend an entire weekend away from the contemporary comforts of their suburban home to eat and sleep in the backwoods equivalent of a fraternity house?
Easy answer. Regardless of age or experience, waterfowlers will beg, borrow and steal for an opportunity to be at duck camp. We can justify just about any reason to make a trip down to camp. When the season is open, there is a have-to-be-there-if-at-all-possible effort. Ducks or no ducks, waterfowlers will find a way and an excuse. The off-season even generates a few visits. From the simple, mundane tasks to the large camp projects that require all helpful hands to be in attendance, any chance a duck hunter can have to load up the truck and head that way brings a smile to the face.
Admittedly, I’ve struggled to explain the duck camp to my wife. She didn’t grow up with a dad who hunted beyond a random, business related trip or two. The wife has even been down there a few times; spent the night believe it or not. Has even twice tagged along on a hunt, both of which were outstanding. And she still doesn’t get the attraction.
I am quite confident the inability to convey just what it means to be at duck camp isn’t unique to my household. So this offseason I felt the need to document the duck camp experience to help explain, for myself and others, what’s so special.
A Getaway Retreat
There is something about bolting out of the city headed east and leaving the urban life in the rear view mirror. Everyone is extremely accessible in today’s world but duck camp offers the chance to disconnect from the everyday world and let one recharge his batteries, so to speak.
Time seems to move a little slower at duck camp. The schedule is typically less regimented. Other than when to start and stop shooting, the day can go by at whatever pace you want.
Rustic, Ritzy or Ramshackle
Duck camps come in all shapes and sizes, all with unique characteristics ranging from palatial to poverty. Grand, elaborate new construction down to trailers held together with bailing wire and duct tape. I’ve spent time in them all and truly appreciated what each offered in its own special way.
My favorites tend to be the camps that have stood the test of time and haven’t changed much other than having a few modern conveniences added here and there. It’s so easy to close your eyes and imagine yourself stepping back in time to 40-50 years ago and wonder what it must have been like before robo-ducks, neoprene waders and four-wheelers.
Learning the history of those places and the evolution of the camp over time is typically beyond fascinating.
Cast of Characters
Every camp has “that guy.” Whether it’s the sleep in/never hunt guy, the duck caller who sounds like a kazoo guy, the adult beverages too early/too often guy, the guy with the obnoxious dog, the no gear/can I borrow a _______ guy, the guest that never leaves guy and so on. If your camp doesn’t attract these type folks, you aren’t doing it right.
On the flip side, there are the must have camp components such as the Mr. Fix Anything guy, the gourmet cook guy, the camp maid guy or the work his rear off just to get invited back guy. These are the members or guests whose truck you like to see in the driveway at the clubhouse when you arrive. Their mere presence and capabilities tend to increase the rest and relaxation factor.
Duck camp characters bring a little life to the party. They seem to take the edge off the couple of members that are of the eat, sleep, kill, repeat variety. Often times these guys are not hardcore duck hunters. But they do appreciate the camaraderie and cannot wait to make their way to duck camp to do their thing.
Entertaining. Annoying. Essential. Duck camp wouldn’t be the same without them.
Fear the Gear
Duck hunting is a gear game. Make no mistake, the amount of “toys” required to be an effective, or at least a prepared, waterfowler from November to January is expansive. A hunter has to be ready regardless of conditions because they can turn on a dime. Big stuff, little stuff … it all matters because one day you may hunt with no water in 75 degrees and the next day it’s pouring rain and 28.
I try really hard to be a minimalist but it’s nearly impossible. Yes, I know I have more decoys than I would ever drag out to hunt. Yes, I realize some are for shallow water, some are for deep water and some are for no water. No, it’s not weird to have warm weather waders and another set for cold weather.
Believe it or not, at our camp we have an entire job site trailer full of gear that at some point during each and every season finds its way onto the four-wheeler for a hunt. Might be only once a year but if it’s needed to make that particular hunt special, odds are we have it.
That being said, all this equipment requires the duck hunter to be at camp to tinker with it before, during and after the season. There is/are the preseason work day(s) to drag all the stuff you hastily threw into storage at the end of last season out to see what is salvageable and what is dumpster material.
Then you head to camp early before opening weekend to get all the everyday gear working and to put together any of the latest and greatest gadgets. Maybe we need to get that new boat in the water or put a little mud on a new four-wheeler. All perfectly logical, necessary needs that require us to be at duck camp.
Bond That is Tough to Break
In most cases, the assembly of men at duck camp creates an instant connection, regardless of age or association. Each person there is driven by the common goal for the following morning. Get ducks. Whether it’s telling tales of past hunts over cocktails or laying out tomorrow’s plan over dinner, a duck camp brings together, friends, family and often new acquaintances with equal anticipation of tomorrow’s sunrise.
Sure we have lively discussions about football, the stock market, work and other typical small talk subjects. But in reality, that is just filler to pass time until that clock sounds the alarm that it’s time start working toward the blind for the morning hunt. Strategic sessions are planned as if by military generals assembling gear with tactical precision, then heading out with great hope that the day’s hunt will be special.
These efforts create a level of excitement saved for only a few events in a man’s life. I’ve experienced it. I’ve seen it. The feeling is indescribable to a non-hunter but it’s very real. Remarkably, waterfowlers don’t get that rush about mowing the yard or shopping at the yarn mart.
The time I appreciate more than any is time spent with my dad and two sons at duck camp. Distractions are few and far between, which is definitely not the norm for an active family nowadays. This past year my younger son graduated from a tag along bystander into a full-fledged duck hunter. The bug caught him big time and I’m not sure he missed a weekend.
Experiencing those days afield with fathers and sons somehow work their way into life lessons and memories that last a lifetime. Duck camp is one of the few places that unites us chasing a common goal.
Sense of Community
Duck camps can bring total strangers together to seem like old friends within a matter of minutes. Guests of camp members are a very integral factor of the duck camp community. Some come every year, some randomly, some for their first time. Regardless of the camp I have been to, it seems within minutes after the initial introductions are made, men who have never met before are conversing like long lost college buddies.
Everyone there can typically talk a little duck hunting and everything flows from there. I’ve seen numerous strong relationships, professional and personal, built at duck camp.
The Place To Be
Hopefully I’ve articulated completely valid and justifiable reasons why waterfowlers relish the opportunity to be at duck camp.
I’ve tried to be mindful of not running off to duck camp when the honey do list has grown long or there is still Christmas shopping to be done. But, and my wife will attest, if the ducks are there, I will figure out a way to get there. Or if it’s been a especially stressful or busy week and the duck forecast is less than ideal, I may still need a visit. I’ve left immediately after Thanksgiving meals and even celebrated Christmas and New Year’s at duck camp.
My wife has learned it’s better off to let me go so I don’t wear a hole pacing the floor at home, wondering what I am missing.
Duck camp isn’t a necessarily a place. It extends past a physical structure and becomes a state of mind that overtakes a waterfowler from the time he pulls into camp until the truck is loaded up to head home. I think it’s because duck season is only available a fraction of the year. Unlike golf or other pursuits, there is a finite window to be at duck camp.
This season, slow down and soak it all in whether at your own camp or as a guest. Get past the how many, how fast mentality and cherish those days at camp doing what waterfowlers do.