The Warden is Watching
By Spencer Como
Last January, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Armed Force Initiative held a leadership camp outside the Parker River Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. Located on Plum Island, roughly 45 minutes north of Boston. Outside the refuge are several thousands of acres of public land mixed between town, state, and federal land spread across the Great Marsh. The camp gave AFI leaders in the Northeast the knowledge to create similar events and connect with one another to start a New England AFI chapter.
Hunting the marsh outside the wildlife refuge has always been on my bucket list. I grew up in the area listening to duck hunting stories from my father and great uncle. They had both stopped hunting before I came along and never had the opportunity to introduce me to it. I eventually started hunting well in the Navy and moved to Vermont after getting out.
Going through the packing list, I made a last-minute decision to bring an old pump-action shotgun I inherited from my great uncle. My great uncle Gordan was a conservation mentor starting in high school through my time in the service to graduating college. He was an Army Veteran who had served in Korea. After being discharged, he had "clammed" the marsh to pay his bills. Learning the labyrinth of mudflats, creeks, and channels that drastically change with the tide. Eventually, becoming a police officer in town and joined the Warden service two years later. He patrolled various sections of Massachusetts, but the marsh outside Parker River refuge was where he spent most of his career. He taught some of the first hunter safety classes in the state and led the rescue team for that area.
Gordon’s house overlooks the southern point of Parker River Refuge. The view helped him catch more than one perp in his 30-plus-year career. He could hear the shots and see flashlights after shooting light over miles of marsh. Launching a boat from the end of his street he could be in most locations within minutes. His knowledge of channels and tides helps him outsmart perpetrators by cutting them off or knowing where they would exit the marsh. It's hard to think of him without thinking of the marsh and the marsh without thinking of him.
His collection of shotguns hung on the wall beside the pellet stove. One was a first anniversary present from his wife, a Browning A5 12 gauge. Another was a Beretta over-under 20 gauge straight from the Gardone Val Trompia Italy factory. But the workhorse on the wall was a model 12 Winchester. Hang on the wall for nearly 30 years before I inherited it. He bought it at a yard sale in the late 1950s, and it was his hunting gun of choice. Before his busy schedule and eventually, age left him hanging it on the wall. Initially, I had originally planned to only bring my regular hunting shotgun. But the opportunity to reunite the model 12 with its old hunting grounds was too great to pass up. It knows the marsh better than I do.
Arriving around 7 Wednesday night most everyone had already arrived and were talking about weekend hunting and classes ahead. The camp was organized so we would hunt the mornings of Thursday and Friday. Then meet with professionals at the refuge after lunch to learn about the marsh, how the staff runs the refuge and conservation issues that affect it. If there was still enough light after we would try and make it back out to hunt. Saturday we would hunt the whole day, making modifications to our hunting locations as the camp progressed. A challenge was made that the first guy in the group to get the trifecta, a diver duck, a dabbler duck, and a goose, would win a First Light jacket. I brought up my idea of using the old model 12 and how I only had a day’s worth of ammo. The last-minute decision made it difficult to find non-lead that could safely fire through the old shotgun. It was recommended that the last day would give me the best chance to kill a bird with the model 12.
Day one had me blending into the grass along the riverbank with decoys strung in front of us. Diver ducks ripped down the channel, slowing down only to glance at our decoys. My shooting was lousy at best. After two boxes and some doner shells, I had two birds. Day two was a lot better after remembering how to point. The mentors had a fantastic setup using an A-framed blind next to a salt pan, a 1- to 8-foot-deep pool on the marsh that doesn't rise or fall with the tides. We set up a spread of black ducks and geese decoys. We had a fantastic morning, with everyone hitting their limit of black ducks in the blind. The geese would get close, but we could not get them to land. Later that night, we swapped calling tips and local strategies for calling in ducks and geese.
With the final day here, our spots were dialed in after hunting for the past two days; I was ready to hunt with the model 12. I arrived late that morning due to prior obligations and met one of the mentors at the boat launch around 10. His spot was hunting diver ducks I knew I had to be smart as not to waste my limited ammo like the first day. A group of buffalo heads came ripping down the channel but stays too far away from me to attempt a shot. Soon an eider was flying down the channel, past the decoys then looped back to the decoys. I took a shot at him, and he locked up glided down the river. We didn’t move fast enough, and a seal made him lunch. Talking with the mentor I asked if there was a chance I could go back to the salt pan I was at the day prior. After shooting the eider my goal now was to get a goose to complete my trifecta. A few texts later I was in luck and the mentor running the salt pan was on his way.
I didn't have to wait long; within 30 minutes of arriving at the salt pan, black ducks were landing in the decoys. We hit our limit of black ducks within a few hours. After that, geese started flying by, each group getting closer as we honed our calls. Five geese finally flew into the decoys. One dropped like a rock, shot by another member. The one I aimed at locked its wings and glided into the river. We scrambled to the boat. The tide was going out and if we didn’t get the goose before the bend in the river it would likely be lost. Once in the boats heading downstream, we could see it died pinned to the side of the bank.
Hah, the old gun still has it. I could hear Gordon laughing with joy. It was like he was with me out on the marsh. I could hear him telling me how far to lead and when to shoot. When that shooting light ended, I looked back at his house. Though he has passed on now, I could still feel him watching. The wardens watching.