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You see, I’m afraid of heights. And I don’t hunt. Never have and thought I never would.

Then Andy Sansom, director of environmental strategy at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment (and former executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department), invited me to join him for what many might describe as a one-of-a-kind Texas experience — a teal hunting trip near Eagle Lake, between San Antonio and Houston.

I love to try new things. Plus, I eat poultry, normally and necessarily purchased in grocery stores. If I, as a hunter, consumed what I shot, wouldn’t it give me a new appreciation for what appears on my plate? And heck, it might even be fun to wade around in knee-deep water in rice-growing territory as the sun rose.

I decided I’d go.

Sansom booked rooms at the Bucksnag Hunting Club in Garwood, of which he is a member. He rounded up the gear I’d need — a shotgun, waders, ear protection, camouflage pants and shirt — and instructed me to purchase a hunting license and duck stamp, which I did.

On the appointed day, my husband and I drove down to the lodge, a picturesque white clapboard building that dates back to 1910, when it operated as a boarding house. (Women stayed on the second floor; men on the third. Everyone convened downstairs for meals.) The building later served as a tea house before opening in 1968 as Bucksnag.

Today, a row of rocking chairs draws visitors to the front porch, and a flock of taxidermied ducks and geese pause, midflight, on interior walls. Our group of five nibbled snacks and made plans for the following day.

Duck hunters rise early. I’d get a wakeup knock at 5 a.m. We’d roll out at 5:45 a.m., in order to settle ourselves on the edge of a pond by 6:30 a.m.

Sansom handed me a pair of gargantuan rubber waders, which I stashed on the front porch for easy retrieval. He unpacked a 28-gauge Browning shotgun in a padded case embroidered with his name and handed it to me. He told me the gun had less kick than other models.


Author Pam LeBlanc stares down some teal as they swoop down to the decoys.


WADERS AT DAWN

Before the sun, I yank on the waders and climb into the truck, discovering during the 20-minute ride that a sticky-footed frog has spent the night inside them. It shoots out of my pants and onto the windshield, then ricochets across the interior of the truck like a tiny, spring-loaded pogo stick, jolting me awake.

We park, free the frog and get our things in order. The sky still looks like black velvet as we load gear onto an ATV; the two hunting dogs in our crew dance a quick jig. Brian Center, Bucksnag manager, leads the way through a muddy field toward a private pond that has been planted around its perimeter with grass tall enough to provide cover for hunters.

Blue-winged teal migrate through Texas on their way south from breeding grounds in the northern United States and Canada each September. Depending on the population that year, teal season lasts up to 16 days. The birds feed in shallow water that’s rich in aquatic invertebrates and seeds, and they like the swampy fields around Garwood.

“They stop here because of the rice farming to fatten up and then continue on their migratory pathway,” says Center, who has been guiding duck hunters since he was 15.

He grabs three bundles of duck decoys — including one of a bird bottoms-up — and flings them out in the pond to lure in the teal. A few streaks of orange and blue rip through a sky that looks like dryer lint. Overcast conditions generally make for better hunting, Center says.

“They fly like rockets and they’re very good to eat,” Sansom adds.

Once we’re all tucked in the grass on the levee, Center gives a safety briefing, warns us to keep an eye on the dogs (Sansom’s dog Scout can hardly contain her enthusiasm) and shoot only when he makes the call.

“We start in 4 minutes,” he announces.


Five teal zip down after being called in.



Scout retrieves a downed bird.


MOMENT OF DECISION

We pull on our ear protection, and at exactly 6:45 a.m., 30 minutes before sunrise, our guns point toward a group of teal zipping across the sky.

Four shots pop off, but I can’t pull the trigger. Not yet. It’s just not programmed into my DNA to hunt.

“You’re a lover, not a fighter,” my husband always tells me. He fires off a few shots.

As a teal drops out of the sky I wrestle with my thoughts. The dogs happily splash through the water, picking up birds the other hunters have shot.

I’m blown away watching Center, the guide, at work. He uses a duck call to draw in the teal, which turn on their wing to make a pass. Besides teal, we see pintail ducks, white-faced ibis, great egrets, black-necked stilts and swallows. Center hollers when it’s safe to shoot, and the other hunters connect. Birds drop into the pond and the dogs dash out, gleefully collecting the bounty.

In time, I do fire the gun. I don’t hit anything, but I try. But that’s not why I’m here — not really. I understand pretty quickly that the experience hinges more on the social aspects of the event than on bringing in a haul. We’re sharing an experience that has been shared for generations in this part of the state.

It goes on like this for an hour and a half before clouds start lining up into bubbly gray waves. Then the skies open up, driving cold pellets of rain onto us. We dive for our rain jackets and call it a morning.


Andy Sansom encourages his dog Scout after a tiring morning of retrieving birds.



Pam and Chris LeBlanc bring in the decoys as the rain begins to fall.



Bill Montgomery and Margie Crisp clean their guns at Bucksnag after the morning hunt.


POST-HUNT RAPTURE

When the morning hunt ends, our group of five has bagged 21 birds. The limit is six per person. We string them up, pose for a few photos and slosh our way back to the trucks.

On the drive back to the lodge, a double rainbow forms overhead and we pass two bald eagles perched in a tree.

Afterward, we gather at the Bucksnag for breakfast. As I butter a biscuit, adding it to the generous heaps of potatoes, eggs and bacon on my plate, we talk about the morning.

“Hunting is about the ritual,” Sansom says. “It’s about friends. It’s about places. It’s about tradition. It’s about dogs. I don’t think there’s any other form of hunting that has quite the tradition and character.”

Margie Crisp, an Elgin-based writer, artist and conservationist who started duck hunting three seasons ago, says she’s surprised by how much she enjoys the sport. Today marked her first teal hunt, too.

Part of the appeal for her, she says, is that duck hunting helps support conservation. Hunters purchase a federal duck stamp (required to hunt teal, along with a hunting license). Ninety-eight percent of proceeds from stamp sales are used to buy and protect wetland habitat and purchase conservation easements for the national wildlife refuge system.

The talk turns to cooking. We’ve dropped the birds off at a shed across from Bucksnag, where the birds are cleaned and packed up for the hunters. I’m going home with a bag of duck breasts.

Everyone shares a recipe. Sansom likes to marinate teal breast in Italian dressing, then sauté it in olive oil with brown mushrooms and onions. I can practically smell it cooking as he describes the process.

Crisp and Bill Montgomery say they prefer to brine a whole bird, stuff it with dried apricots and apples or figs, then drop it in a slow cooker with onion, celery and a splash of wine.

Me? I’m handing over cooking duties to my husband, a Cajun from Louisiana who grew up hunting ducks. He’s a wizard in the kitchen. I’m happy knowing we worked hard for what we’re putting on the plate.


Pam LeBlanc is an Austin-based outdoor travel and adventure writer.

IF YOU GO

Duck hunters must purchase a Texas hunting license and stamps (endorsements), available online at tpwd.texas.gov/buy or by calling (800) 895-4248. A federal duck stamp costs $25; find information at fws.gov/birds/get-involved/duck-stamp.php


(L to R) Margie Crisp, Andy Sansom, Bill Montgomery and Pam LeBlanc.


Recipe for Smoked Teal with Miso, Mushrooms, Garlic and Truffle


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