By Jonathan Bowman
Photos by Jonathan Bowman
“A vacuum of all other sounds.” That’s how Iain Slater, a good friend of mine, once described the moment when ducks fly over your head. Duck hunting is a unique experience. Normally, you get on, next to, or in water for the purpose of fishing, not hunting. But any waterfowl hunter will tell you that they look at ponds, creeks, rivers, and bays a little bit differently.
It all started with an invitation. Iain asked me to join him on a farm pond duck hunt in Harrisonburg, Virginia. My first duck hunt did not grant our hunting party any shooting opportunities. We did, however, see one or two birds flying high above our hiding spot in the pond brush. Those brief moments of hopeful exhilaration meant I drove home to Amelia, Virginia late that morning grateful for the opportunity to be out in nature with great company, knowing that I wanted to give duck hunting another try.
My next hunt, I invited the same friends from Harrisonburg to come hunt a swamp pond off of the Appomattox River in Amelia. I did not own any equipment at the time, so my friends brought their decoys and calls.
The morning could not have been more of an adventure. It was dark. It was misty. It was muddy. We drove through two feet of water along the flooded roads of the property until we arrived at our destination. As my friends donned their waders and set up the decoy spread, I stood on the bank (helplessly) learning as much as possible; I made a mental note to buy a set of waders. We settled under the trees along the bank—and then it happened.
The vacuum. It is difficult to replicate the sound with your mouth, and it is even more challenging to describe the sound in words. It’s as if you encounter a suspension of time—everything slows down for a brief moment, but then you are reminded that it’s only a moment, and moments rarely last long. Sometimes the ducks fly by and circle around to land. Sometimes the ducks have already made up their minds and dive straight down, seemingly out of nowhere, and nearly land in your lap.
When you hear the vacuum of the ducks, you forget everything else (sometimes including how to shoot) and focus all of your attention on the birds. It doesn’t matter what story you are telling or what joke you are laughing at; everything stops. Shells are flying, the barely lit morning is now fully illuminated with explosions, and hopefully the ducks are dropping. A ritual of high fives or colorful exclamations are exchanged, and any shot birds are retrieved with triumphant grins.
How could I not invite others to experience these kinds of moments? I wanted to share the thrill of a duck hunt with everyone I knew, especially my high school friends. I work with Young Life, a non-profit in Amelia County. With Young Life, we focus on lifelong relationships. These relationships often start as mentorships that sometimes develop into friendships. Naturally, hunting and fishing are fantastic vehicles for bonding and personal growth.
I knew Iain when he was in eighth grade. I was a sophomore at James Madison University. Iain was involved in our Young Life group in Dayton, Virginia. At the time, neither of us had ever gone hunting. Six years later, we both consider ourselves avid hunters. I taught Iain how to hunt deer, and Iain taught me how to hunt ducks. These years of adventure in nature formed one of my most meaningful friendships. This past winter, Amelia Young Life received a grant from the Virginia Wildlife Foundation, enabling us to introduce more high school students to the outdoors and continue building relationships like the one I have with Iain.
I drove to Lucas’s house first, then Caleb’s. Neither high school student had ever hunted waterfowl. Both had hunted deer and some small game. Both were excited. We arrived at the property of my good friend Clay Scott. Clay and I went over firearm safety, controlled movement, and the general strategy of duck hunting. We trudged through the swamp in our waders with lights shining across the reeds and brush. We set decoys, settled into position, and waited.
Then there was the vacuum… followed by a terrible day of duck hunting. Still, it didn’t matter that these ducks skunked us, because we shared an adventure.
Two weeks later I was speaking with Lucas at Young Life. I asked him if he had an “okay time” on our hunt, fearing our harvestless hunt was a disappointment. With a grin from ear to ear he looked at me and said, “Well, actually Caleb and I have been duck hunting the past two weekends. We haven’t killed any ducks yet, but we are hooked!”
You don’t have to be a professional guide to take someone duck hunting—or any kind of hunting for that matter. Just invite someone and get outdoors with them. Help them understand it’s okay to ask questions and be gracious when they make mistakes.
Hunting trips are not dissimilar from the vacuum created by ducks. Whether a few hours or a few days, a trip in the outdoors tends to garner all our attention and keep us focused on the things that matter most—purposeful life, relationships, and the creatures around us.
Jonathan Bowman lives in the county of Amelia, Virginia where he spends as much time as possible hunting, fishing, and cooking. Jonathan loves sharing his passions with others, and is determined to one day convince his wife to join him on a turkey hunt.