Mike Wilson: The high art of the low crawl

Published 5:48 pm Wednesday, December 7, 2022

killed my first duck, a hen mallard, while lying on my belly in soupy mud under buckbushes lining a creek that fed the Tennessee River. Turns out that over the years I have oddly become less accomplished at such feats, and not especially because I am girth-challenged.

My grandfather gave me a 20-gauge H&R Topper for Christmas when I had just turned 12. The Christmas before that, Santa had brought me an old bolt-action .410 that had once belonged to my other grandfather, and I had become a pretty good little wing shot. I could hit spent .410 cases thrown by my granddad and great uncle Johnny most of the time, and I must sadly say that I have never shot better. The .410 was fun for squirrels, but I needed heavier artillery to join in the duck hunts, and happily the Topper appeared.

The very next day after I had unwrapped it, we were off to the river. The plumbing at the cabin had been cut off and drained for the winter, so no running water. (Yes, the bathroom was outside, a bit of a problem when Granddaddy fed me frozen kernel corn he thought he only had to warm up a little.) We rode out in the pre-dawn and set up in a creek a few miles upriver, and before long a Susie glided into the middle of a brushy point about 75 yards off to our right. Granddaddy said, “Well, go git’er!”

I knew perfectly well how to low-crawl thanks to Sgt. Alvin York (actually, Gary Cooper). I rested the gun across my forearms and slowly moved between the bushes. The water had receded from fall draw-down a while since, so the mud was sticky and pretty smelly. I would crawl about five yards and then stop and listen. Finally, there she was, waddling between two bushes, and I shot her with a load of lead 6’s. (Let me pause to assure the reader that since then I have been better instructed in the more sportsmanlike approach of shooting them in the air. At the time, I did not care. At all.)

There is no picture of that signal moment in my life since it would have been impractical to haul the family Brownie around. As I mentally reconstruct the scene now, I see a grinning boy holding up a fat brown duck, perfectly eligible to be the “before” photo in a detergent ad. I will never forget that day nor the taste of that hen with my grandmother’s delicious sage dressing.

Fast forward, please to when I was and teaching at Hampden-Sydney College. My buddy Ken and I were walking into Briery Creek WMA for a duck hunt when we spied at the end of a logging road ending at the lakeshore a small flock of geese! After a brief huddle, we determined that the only useful strategy was to leave our decoys behind and low-crawl 200 yards down the muddy road to sneak up on them. Trying to sneak through the woods would be much too noisy. Off we went. Whenever I looked up, I saw that they had absolutely no idea of the deadly menace approaching.

They just kept floating without moving a muscle. Closer we drew, trying to gauge the range of our lead 4’s. Just as we finally reached the bank opening and nodded knowingly at each other that it was time to jump up and shoot, we heared, “Wilson! Townsend!” It’s the president of the college, himself an inveterate outdoorsman, sitting there in his neoprene waders in a brush blind about 20 yards away. We were just about to slaughter his brand new decoys.

It has taken a while to live that episode down. In fact, I am not sure we have fully done so. The last time I talked to the former president, now retired, he just had to bring it up.

Fast forward again, now 20 years more. I live in the North Carolina Piedmont, where the early resident goose season has opened with extremely liberal bag limits and regs. I have permission to shoot over a newly cut cornfield, and I have seen a nice big flock in the area — apparently headquartered in one of the now-controversial Duke ash ponds — several times. This is gold!

We — my former student Arkansas Dan and I — set up in a tree line in a spot lying right on their usual lazy flight path. They will fly right over our heads from behind us if we are favored by the gods and then drop into our decoys about 35 yards in front of us. Right on cue at 7:45 they announce their approach (this is before they adopted stealth mode, which is another story). We hold our breath as the honking grows closer and closer until there they are, their soft bellies virtual beacons right above our heads. Of course, we have agreed to wait until they all sit down to inflict maximum casualties, so you can imagine our horror when they take a long glide past our spread and drop 100 yards away…

Yet again, it seems there is nothing to do but low-crawl. The geese have begun to feed just past a slight rise in the field, so we set out to sneak up on them. It was definitely easier to do this forty years ago! We finally crest the rise and see they have moved a bit further away. We can’t wait all day to see if they happen to drift closer; my man has to get to his office by mid-morning. There is no remedy but to fire a couple of shots to speed them on their way. Even highly-touted tungsten — which is apparently also alloyed with platinum — fails to do the trick.

I am retired from low-crawling now — I hope — but you just never know what scenario you’ll face next. Waterfowling wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if everything went right all the time, would it?

Mike Wilson is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor and 13-year resident of Prince Edward County, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at jmwilson@catawba.edu.