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Driftless, Wisconsin
photograph of trees at sunset
good hunting

I portaged my skiff through frozen maple swamp. Scant yellow leaves clung to silver branches. I was breathing hard beneath a heavy sweater in the dry cold air that had frozen the slough edge where my shotgun, decoys, and push pole lay. There was a hollowness to the day, making time seem unreal. Seeing a voyageur in a dugout canoe would not have surprised me.

I surveyed the place I'd hunted once before. The horseshoe slough rimmed with bare matchstick trees. Crude blinds of two-by-four and plywood. Muddy river smell. Chinking of ice floes. I was alone but connected to this place. I wondered why everyone wasn't here rigged out for northern birds. No matter. I launched, broke ice with the push pole head, and made for the tree-rimmed horseshoe.

The water was calm as glass, shielded from wind by the trees, as I threw out decoys--a ragtag group of plastic mallards, Herter's foam bluebills, and a sleek Jobes Brothers pintail handcarved in Havre de Grace, Maryland. As I poled the skiff into cattail and buttonbush cover, 20 wigeon twisted by at close range. White wing patches flashed in gem-blue sky. I shot and watched them disappear unscathed.

I thought of wigeon breeding on some prairie pothole surrounded by golden wheat, forced out by driving cold, and now twisting over these bare trees on their way to Central America. I longed for a drake, a swashbuckling bird with a white crown (hence the folk name "baldpate") and green eye patch. How can one love an animal, know its life cycle, yet seek to bring it to his dinner table? Maybe to participate in the divine, to pluck a feather from God.

Flocks of puddle ducks, perhaps a dozen each, continued to work the decoys--over the horseshoe, out the cut, and back. I continued to miss easy shots. I collected myself. Lay in the bottom of the skiff, said a prayer, ate canned fish, set a cup of tea on the skiff decking. Three mallards whiffled in and I took a drake, satisfying the primitive hunger, the great gulf between zero and one bridged. I poled out for him, smoothed his feathers, and felt part of the grand passage of birds and weather descending from the prairies.

The sky shifted from blue to gray. The bottom began to drop out of the temperature. Now only high singles worked the marsh. There was the lonely sound of ice chinking, wind rustling water. A bald eagle soared over the slough, like the ducks seeking food and open water. A thin moon waxed above like a slice of apple.

John Motoviloff '89

John Motoviloff, formerly John Pallitto, is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. His essay is drawn from Driftless Stories: Outdoors in Southwest Wisconsin, published this year by Trails Books.

Photo by Richard Hamilton Smith / Corbis

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