The one that got away

I flunked my first try at learning to play a musical instrument. It was fourth grade, and each kid was given a six-week class in Tonette, one of those plastic whistles about the size of a carrot, that sounds like an asthmatic flute. The purpose of the class was to see if that child had any potential for band, which started the next year. The problem was that just as the Tonette class started, I had bronchitis and missed about half the classes, which were only twice a week. Maybe that's why I later learned guitar, but that's another story.

About two years after I flunked Tonette, I picked up another wind musical instrument that I still play — the duck call. After my father gave me the rudimentary instruction in how to blow it, and what the hailing call, the feeding chuckle, and the drake mallard "beep" were, he turned me over to the real instructors, the ducks.

I grew up on a cigar-shaped island, named Grosse Ile, that juts out of the south end of the Detroit River into Lake Erie. Learning to speak "duck" was probably of more value than French or Spanish.

My lessons in duck calling took place at night, when mallards and black ducks would flood into the marsh behind the house. It was "homework" of the highest order.

One cold November evening when I was a teenager, three friends and I went out after dark along the west shoreline of the island for some graduate studies in black duck language. Approaching the riverbank, we crawled through a hundred yards of willow thickets before reaching a sandy beach where waves gently swept up among the roots of willow trees.

Just offshore, thousands of ducks could be heard, feeding and talking to each other. Lights from the village of Gibraltar, a mile across the river to the west, sent reflecting beams across the water. We could see black shapes out there. Lots of 'em.

We had all been studying duck language for awhile. Imitating a mallard was not problem. The challenge of the evening was to see if we could coax some ducks to actually come up onto the shore. The standing challenge was to see if you could get one close enough to catch it with your hands.

On this particular night there was a gentle east wind blowing and we took shelter in the roots of fallen willow tree. We got out the calls and took turns trying to entice the birds closer. A flock of several dozen were only about 50 feet away when we heard the barking of the pet beagle of one of our group.

"The dog got out," he groaned.

"Shhh," we said to him, hoping the dog wouldn't follow our trail and blow our cover.

The dog was about a quarter of a mile away when his bark suddenly changed to an excited howl. He was on a rabbit. For the next five minutes, we had two dramas unfolding: the approaching flock of black ducks and the beagle chasing the rabbit through the marsh behind us. As the dog's barking got louder, the ducks began to mill around nervously.

Now the dog was less than fifty yards away and closing fast. Suddenly, another friend, Roger, fell over backward, holding his stomach, yelling, "I got him! I got him!" Ducks exploded out of the blackness, sending a shower of water on us. Then the beagle came flying into our midst, barking like an animal possessed.

Roger was now rolling around on the ground. We began to worry that the dog was attacking him, but then Roger started laughing. What he had caught, we soon found, was the rabbit!

To add an extra layer of clothing for the cold winter night, he had borrowed his father's warm hunting jacket, which had a button missing in the front. Hunching down among the willow roots, the opening in his jacket created what looked like an ideal hole for the rabbit to escape into. In the heat of the chase, that cottontail had simply mistaken Roger's jacket for the perfect hiding place.

Roger kept the rabbit inside his coat and we walked back half a mile to home. We knew no one would believe us unless we brought the rabbit along for proof. After showing him to my folks, we got into the car. The rabbit started to squirm, so we put it in the glove compartment and made the rounds to show everyone's parents. Finally, we let the rabbit go.

People think hunters go out after meat or antlers to hang on the wall. Actually, hunters these days ultimately hunt for memories as much as meat to put on the table. Memories like the night the rabbit jumped into a friend's jacket are the bricks that build a foundation of caring for nature that leads hunters to become ardent conservationists. From those precious memories spring the ultimate game that hunters seek — dreams of the future. Dreams keep the fires of the soul burning. If you lose your dreams, you lose your mind.

And if you want a real challenge, try hunting cottontails at night with an oversized hunting jacket with a button missing.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.