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Hen’s Teeth

Hen’s Teeth

Hen’s Teeth

As a Texas “born and raised” boy, you become accustomed to the many Texas (southern) cliche’s. For instance, “They look like they sort bobcats for a living” (used to describe an unattractive person); “Dumber than a box of hair” (someone who is not very smart); or, “rarer than hen’s teeth” (an extremely rare occurence).This same Texas born and raised boy has also been raised in the brackish coastal marshes of the upper Texas Gulf Coast. These ‘blackwater’ marshes produce world class water fowling. The majority of our ducks are gadwall, or as we call them, “grays”. Both bluewing and greening teal are staples in our bags, along with wigeon, pintail, canvasbacks, and our lone native specie, mottled ducks. Rounding out the commonly found ducks in our area are the frowned upon shoveler (spoonie, booter, hollywood), scaup, ringnecks and redheads. I say, “frowned upon” because these diving ducks do not have the most savory tasting flesh. Our brackish marshes contain a high level of sulphur and this ‘swamp gas’ emits an odor that’s eerily similar to rotten eggs. We attribute the smell to the large number of petrochemical refineries in the area. This assumption is not scientifically proven, it’s just our way of rationalizing. However, this rotten egg smell is one of my most favorite aromas. It ranks right up there with the smells of my mother’s roast, rice, and gravy, bacon, fresh baked biscuits, the smell of a new labrador puppy, and the smell of a fresh brewed pot of coffee. Every time I catch the whiff of our marshes, I am transported back to my happy place. It reminds me of walking into my parents’ house after being away at college for months at a time. That pungent, sulfuric, repulsive smell reminds me that I am home.If you are so inclined to believe everything the tv meteorologists say, then you will understand a bit more about it than I do, “La Nina”, or, “El Nino”. These weather phenomena confuse me. Which one is wet? Or which one means hotter than normal? All i know is that it’s been 80+ degrees at the end of November. Blame La Nina or El Nino. One of those is responsible for us being uncomfortable by sweating buckets and producing some of the largest mosquitoes ever produced… We fear slapping these small pterodactyls in a fear of making them mad. But what really makes us mad is the lack of ducks being pushed into our area by cold fronts. Give us a break, La Nina! Or, El Nino…whatever. New arrivals are like hen’s teeth.

To say, “It’s been a strange season,” is putting it mildly. We have wood duck in ours decoys that are set less than an eighth of a mile from where breakers are crashing into the sand on the coastline. Wood ducks belong farther north in fresh water and wooded surroundings. Wood ducks are like hen’s teeth in our marshes. Rare. To say the least.

Every season, some lucky hunters walk out of the marshes with the king of all ducks: a greened. They are not common, but they do show up after that first bone chilling ‘blue northern.’ We upper coast hunters know our best chances of bagging green lies immediately before or after a strong cold front. When one hunter is so lucky enough to harvest one, the bird like a magnet in drawing hunters over look and marvel at it. For the hunter who shot it, he is considered ‘king for the day.’ Northern mallard drakes down here are like hen’s teeth.

Two weeks ago, I snuck out before class to make a weekday hunt. I was joined by my Dad and my friend who is freshly recuperating from major reconstructive knee surgery. Everybody was excited to be away from work or school, but even more excited in hopes of getting their limits. I have been blessed enough to be able to walk out with limits every hunt this season. However, today was different. There were no birds flying around while setting up decoys. There was no familiar sound of a bluewing calling out in the pre-dawn hour. There was no jumping ducks out of their slumber while boating to our pond. Ducks today were going to be like hen’s teeth. I knew it. I felt it.

Regardless, I had great company to share stories and coffee with. It’s not about how many during a hunt, it’s about sharing quality time with family and friends. After I threw out the last decoy, I walk into the make-shift blind, my Dad hands me my gun. It’s a ritual with us, he builds the blind, I throw out the spread, I hide the boat, he hands me my gun and calls. He responds before I even have to ask, “Three minutes before shooting time.” I double check my phone for the exact time. I load three shells into my gun, make sure the safety is on, and I sit back and watch the sky and decoys.

Shooting time is announced by a volley of shots in the distance. I look at the time. “Yep,” I say to myself, it’s legal shooting time. A minute goes by, no ducks. Two minutes, no ducks. Three minutes. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Nothing. Finally, mercifully, a pair emerges from the vacant sky. I give them my best, “Hi, come on over here!” call. They both respond by banking left and into our decoy spread. There do a once over pass-by and that’s when I see the tell-tale giveaway sign of the fluorescent greenhead and white ring around the base of the neck. A greenhead! As the bright orange landing gear comes down, my heart races. Then, as the pair’s bowed wings slow them down, I call the shot. Three guns roar and two birds hit the water. Then, and only then, did I realize both birds were sporting green heads.

My friend bagged the bird on the right, and I shot the one on the left. It happened to be his very first greenhead, and he was grinning ear-to-ear. I explained to him that greenheads are like hen’s teeth, and that same bird is in the freezer, awaiting the taxidermist.

I go retrieve both the birds, and get back to the make-shift blind. Finally, slowly, bird by bird, our bags increased. Seven gadwall (gray ducks) joined our two mallards. Then, it happened. The action stopped. Cold. We stopped seeing birds and hearing shots. We knew we were in a tractor pull. Unfortunately, we did not have the luxury of waiting it out for the action to pick back up. After a solid and half of nothingness, we discussed who was picking up what and how we needed to beat feet and head back to the boat ramp.

As we were about to unload (don’t you hate when it always happens like this?) My friend whispers, “Don’t. Move.” We all look out past the decoys and three birds are making their way to our decoys. I call out to them and they respond by setting their wings. As they get closer, I see two brown shapes and one with a chestnut colored breast. I tell the others to concentrate on the one in the middle. They do. The drake in the middle is removed from the flock, with no hens being harmed. Once the bird is on the water, we all look at each other and say, “THREE greenheads? In ONE hunt?!”

It was time to go home. We were three kings of the marsh that day. We had three sets of hen’s teeth. We had two hours of sheer boredom, and we had one of our best days in the smelly, brackish, black-as-night water, salt marshes of the Upper Texas Coast. Fortunately for me, any day I spend out int he field is a great day, and, a bad day for me is like hen’s teeth. Click Here…

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