By Ford Walpole
Riley Bradham opened the door of his Chevrolet truck and jazz crooned from the cab while his eight-year-old son Guign — short for Guignard — caught precious extra sleep in the back seat. In the predawn cool of just under 50 degrees, my old friend and I solved many of the world’s problems over the bed of my pickup.
The conversation transcended to campfires on beaches and in woods decades earlier and I recall that my friend, the artist and sportsman, now happens to be an attorney and the mayor of Rockville, a charming hamlet steeped in character and colorful characters.
That morning, Riley and Guign were hunting wood ducks in a small, natural gum pond. The Wadmalaw Island swamp beckons wood ducks and is no more than two feet deep. Most years, the depression does not hold water during breeding season.
Riley donned hip waders and dragged a small, rotting boat from the brush. “Guign and I made this awhile back,” he explained. “It’s the biggest boat you can make from a single sheet of plywood.”
The boy crawled into the boat and his father pushed him through the black water. “I usually put Guign on that little island,” he said gesturing to a mound of dirt clinging to the trunk of a gum. “The ducks have been coming in from a different direction. The pond’s not as clear as it was before Matthew,” he observed.
He helped Guign to the base of a gum tree resting horizontally several inches above the water line, his boots brushing the bark mushrooms. The upturned roots provide a natural blind.
“Get ready, Guign,” Riley encouraged. “Remember — wood ducks sound and look like witches when they come in.”
Legal shooting time is 30 minutes before a 7:19 a.m. sunrise, so our hunt officially began at 6:49 am. Minutes later, three woods lit, swimming and dabbling for a few moments. The birds got up and amid branches and snags, Riley managed to bag a drake.
Folks make many plans in life, but strategizing the plot events of an outdoor sporting adventure usually proves futile. Bringing an eight-year-old boy on a morning wood duck hunt is narrative enough; anything beyond that is serendipitous. We were just glad to be here.
A pair of woodies came in at a near-perfect angle in front of us. Guign had an ideal opportunity for the birds before him, but unfortunately experienced a mechanical malfunction with his .410 pump shotgun.
The boy’s head dipped just a bit, momentary dejection befitting of childhood resiliency, for in the adult, this very condition manifests itself as more lasting stressful frustration. “That’s okay, son. You did great! Those birds flew off before you shot, so I’ll bet they’ll come back tomorrow.”
With my essential reading glasses trapped beneath my fleece facemask, I immediately and blurredly scribbled Riley’s reassuring assessment, certain it would be ammunition for a longing conclusion to this tale.
Riley continued: “We’ve got just a few more minutes, Guign. You’re doing good. We still might see some more ducks.”
Another couple birds flew high and seemed intent on vaster waters, but Riley’s call was temptation enough. As they turned, Guign slowly swung his leg over his sweet gum perch and nimbly twisted his body around. He raised his shotgun in a creative style reminiscent of a brass musician.
“Now! Shoot!” came the whispered but enthusiastic instruction. A blast from the boy’s gun and the lighting wood duck drake fell to the water. “You did it, Guign! You shot your first duck!” The boy’s sleepy eyes quickly cleared with the sky and he smiled through the photos, the boat ride to the hill and the walk to the truck.
“It felt good!” exclaimed the young waterfowler.
Riley reflects on the small, beautiful waterfowl, known as the summer duck because of its status as permanent resident: “The wood duck is such a unique duck, especially in the way flies in to the swamp, acrobatically side-slipping as it weaves through trees to the water.”
As for the experience, “It’s an easy hunt. We are a five-minute walk to the truck and it’s a fast, short hunt. Once you’re in the water, you have 20 minutes of flight time. The hunting action is sudden. Birds are in your kill zone in a hurry,” Riley notes.
The brevity is hardly anticlimactic. “You don’t see any other people along the walk from the truck. In a swamp like this, you might as well be on two million acres. It’s wonderful, simple, but exciting.”
Riley contrasts the swamp hunt to other forms of duck hunting. “This is different from seeing big ducks on an open marsh, which is impressive. This is just different.” Marsh hunts require an earlier morning with the added responsibility of a boat, outboard motor and decoys. “This is a duck hunt, as opposed to plantation rice fields that proffer a duck shoot,” he muses.
“And anyway, getting your first wood duck is a rite of passage,” Riley says. “I don’t need to shoot any more wood ducks. This is about Guign. Watching him shoot his first duck was delightfully exciting.” The proud father attributes the adversity of the hunt to the sweetness of its success. “Seeing Guign experience a dud shell, as we all have, was terrible. But he overcame it. He hung in there for that extra few minutes and having birds show up was wonderful.”
“It is a blessing to experience and ultimately, there’s also an anxiety because the land is for sale. You saw a whole ecosystem that might not exist this time next year,” Riley laments, echoing the all-too-familiar story of precious Lowcountry hunting lands.
Two days before Christmas, Guignard Bradham earned an early present beneath towering and nearly bare sweet gum trees. Although the boy likely won’t remember my tagging along in leaky waders, I hope this soon-yellowing salmon account might enrich the experience in some small way.