The Gunning Grounds
By Tom Hennessey
You know how it is on the coast, my friend, when the weather is brittle cold, and the breaking dawn is painting the sky with colors of pink and gold. And on a shore that’s cluttered with rockweed exposed by the ebbing tide, you watch your retriever bound into a boat that’s deep and wide.
When the seaworthy craft is loaded with decoys and guns and such, you ask your partner again, as always, “Why do we bring so much?” And when all the gear is stowed so that everything’s trimmed just right, you straddle a gunnel to get aboard and shove off in the gathering light.
Now you hear the old squaws chanting in a cove across the way, and the tolling of the bell buoy at the entrance to the bay. And when the motor coughs and starts with only a couple of pulls, you listen to the skirling gulls and watch a seal scull by, then notice that the morning star has faded from the sky.
After reaching the lee of a sprawling ledge that’s glazed with frozen spray, the decoys are rigged and anchored and the boat is hid- den away. Inching along the icy rocks, then, your partner gives fair warning: “Be careful, chum; it’ll take only a slip for things to go sour this morning.”
No sooner are you hunkered down with shotgun and shells at hand than you see a raft of eiders rising beyond a point of land. And then you see the dragger that caused the ducks to fly, and watch them scatter into flocks that might come winging nigh.
And when the watchful dog beside you whines, you follow his line of sight, until you see a string of five coming low and to your right. “Watch it!” you shout to your partner huddled a few yards away; then comes the sound of safeties snapping and shots rolling across the bay.
Flock shooting, of course, is chancy stuff, so you both pick your shots with skill, and with shotguns swinging smoothly, make two clean and proper kills. Directly, then, the eager Lab charges into the churning tide, and quickly fetches the drifting ducks with more than obvious pride.
The eiders are flying steadily now and toll- ing like they should, while gusty squalls of snow and sleet rattle off your hood. At home you’d curse such weather, but here you’re moved to say, “We must be living right, by God; things couldn’t be better today.”
You could take your limits easily, there’d be nothing to it at all, but it would amount to shooting ducks only to watch them fall. So each of you settle for a couple more, which is all you really need, then unload your guns and gather your gear and leave the rest for seed.
The wind is rising when you leave the ledge behind, and though the trip back in will be cold and rough, it doesn’t cross your mind. For warmed, you are, by the salty sound of lobster boats making their rounds, and in knowing, my friend, that you’ll return again to go out to the gunning grounds.
This is an excerpt from the late Tom Hennessey's Leave Some for Seed, an illustrated celebration of the natural beauty and sporting legacy that provides the backbone of Maine’s cultural heritage.