- It’s seldom the easiest, but always the best course
- Hunting Teal in the Morning Fog
- When No One is Watching, There is Friendship, Kinship, Honesty
By Jim Low
My blood ran cold. Moments earlier, Scott and I had been elated at doubling on a pair of dive-bombing teal. Now, as my retriever returned with the first bird, my worst fear came true. In her mouth was a juvenile wood duck.
The combination of shirtsleeve weather and lightning-fast gunning makes Missouri’s early teal season one of my favorites. Inherent in this season, however, is the risk of shooting a wood duck. It’s easy to mistake a woodie for a blue-wing in the heat of action. The potential for mistakes is multiplied by dim, often foggy conditions. That’s why shooting hours for the early teal season begin at sunrise, not 30 minutes before, as they do for regular duck season.
Scott and I had been talking in hushed tones as we squatted among willows in Pool 11 at the south end of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area that September morning. Our attention snapped back to hunting when two birds hurtled into view from the right. I shouldered my gun instinctively and Scott followed my lead. Imagine our astonished delight when both birds fell. But our jubilation was short-lived. With predatory autopilot disengaged, the thinking part of my brain recalled hearing the faint “weep-weep-weep!” cry of a wood duck just before the birds appeared. I realized that I hadn’t had (or hadn’t taken) time to actually look at the birds before firing. The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach became a bottomless gulf when Guinness delivered the second bird, another juvenile wood duck.
Sick-hearted and ashamed, we gathered our gear and left the marsh, leaving the two illegally killed ducks behind. We had a tough decision to make. We had committed a serious violation of Missouri’s Wildlife Code. The road to recovery for North America’s wood duck population has been long and arduous. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) underscores the importance of protecting woodies by imposing stiffer penalties on those who shoot the beautiful perching ducks out of season. Much more important to me than paying a fine was the fact that I was employed by MDC. Wildlife Code violations are potential firing offenses for conservation workers.
Worrysome as these things were, a larger concern gnawed at me as we trudged back to the parking lot. I had known Scott, who was then in his late 20s, for more than 10 years. No one in his family hunted or fished, and I had become an outdoor mentor to him. He was as fine a young man as I had ever known, and the idea of setting an example of breaking the law and then covering it up troubled me more than all the rest. After a few days of reflection and continued conversations with Scott, I called Boone County Conservation Agent Robyn Raisch and laid our cards on the table.
Raisch thanked me for coming forward, but said that, because I was an MDC employee, he had to send the case up the supervisory chain to the Director’s Office for disposition. Suddenly, the pit was back in my stomach. Who would hire a middle-aged writer who got fired from his last job? At that point, I could only trust Director John Hoskins’ to put my good intentions and my 17-year record as an employee in the balance when weighing my fate.
I never heard anything from Hoskins, but at a meeting of the Conservation Commission a few months later, Assistant Director John Smith pulled me aside. The pit returned to my stomach, but my faith had not been misplaced. Alone in a courtyard, Smith told me that he admired my handling of a bad situation, and wished that everyone who committed Wildlife Code violations acted with equal integrity. That meant more to me than he probably knew.
My experience is not unique. A guy I know once mistakenly shot a buck with fewer than four points on one side. Since Brad was hunting in a county where the antler-point restriction was in effect, he called the local conservation agent and reported himself. The agent came and inspected the deer and, recognizing that Brad had made an honest mistake and done the right thing, cautioned him to be more careful in the future and left it at that. Brad got to keep the deer, and he didn’t have to keep looking over his shoulder, wondering if someone had noticed his transgression.
Another guy I know accidentally killed a second turkey when he shot a gobbler. He turned himself in and also got a warning. I don’t know how often scenarios like this occur. But those I do know about carry two lessons. One is that doing the right thing, while seldom easy, is always the best course. The other is that mentorship benefits mentors as much or more than it does mentees. If I had been hunting alone at Eagle Bluffs that day, I probably would have taken the easy way out and never told anyone what happened. I would have saved myself a $229 fine and a good deal of worry, but what I had done and what it told Scott about us would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Being Scott’s mentor forced me to be a better man.
I’m not suggesting that we call a conservation agent every time we kill two doves on the last shot when filling a limit or when we forget to take all the lead shot shells out of a parka pocket before hunting ducks. The measure of hunting ethics is how you conduct yourself when no one is watching, not whether you commit an occasional blunder. If you know in your heart of hearts that you could and should have done better, when your conscience whispers that you have crossed a line that is important to you, don’t shy away from a voluntary mea cupla. You might or might not earn a ticket, but you certainly will earn respect from the conservation agent, not to mention yourself.