When fall means passing the pigskin for a last-second touchdown and a watery waterfowl hunt the next morning.

By Gary Lewis

St. Helens is in the playoffs – and we are taking eight veterans out to the duck blinds the next morning,” Scott Sneer said.

Friday night under the lights and a Saturday in the duck blind? To do anything else would be un-American! When Scott Sneer and Spencer Waite invited me to a duck hunt on Deer Island and a football game in St. Helens, Oregon, a little town on the lower Columbia River, I couldn’t turn it down.

The atmosphere was electric. The St. Helens Lions were ranked seventh in the state. In all the stores people were decked out in the school’s black and yellow.

For a lot of people, fall means football and hunting. I once hunted ducks and deer with a former Denver Broncos player, Jason Elam, on his first fall without football. Elam said he started playing when he was 13 and for the next 29 years, he juggled his schedule to try to get into the field as much as he could. I thought about him when I handed over my ticket and walked into the stadium.

My wife, Merrilee and I found a spot on the bleachers near the 50-yard line.

Spencer Waite, a coach for the Lions, was on the sidelines. At halftime, the visiting team, the Hermiston Bulldogs, had a 7-0 lead. They looked like they had the game in their teeth.

Early in the fourth quarter, the St. Helens Lions scored and that put the game at 7-6, but they couldn’t convert on the extra point.

In front of us, a gray-haired teacher shook his noggin with every blunder. At one point, he held his head in his hands. Then, with 16 seconds left, Levi Norton fired a cross-field pass to Ben Eldred in the corner. Eldred, with a Hermiston player draped around his body, pulled the ball in tight and careened into the end zone. St. Helens won the game.

Every hunter was paired with a high school football player, duck caller, of which there is no shortage along the banks of the lower Columbia.

Duck Hunting with the Duct Tape Patriots
Over the last dozen years, all over this land, grassroots organizations have sprung up to serve the community of veterans who have served our country – in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. Duct Tape Patriots is Sneer’s and Spencer Waite’s effort to show local veterans they’re appreciated.

“Spencer and I wanted to honor our grandfathers. My grandfathers used duct tape to fix everything and they were patriots,” Sneer said. “We honor our grandfathers by serving our veterans.”

Sneer and Waite organized teenaged athletes to take the veterans into the field. Several of the athletes had been on the gridiron the night before.

Those St. Helens football players can call ducks like crazy. When you get 43-inches of rain a year and you live in the middle of the best waterfowl habitat in the Pacific Flyway, you’d better learn to call ducks.

Coach Waite watches a flock of teal, Drake by his side.

The downpour started at dawn. We caught almost 2-1/2 percent of the annual rainfall between daylight and dark.

The home team started slow. We were in a blind on the west end of a flooded field of corn. Waite knew the ground and knew where the birds would come from. Sixteen-year-old Cole Sherertz sat between us. Drake, the black Labrador, watched the sky and our body language.

Around the swamp, the rest of our team – the athletes and veterans – crouched in blinds while ducks swept in and out and circled high. We fumbled, we made bad calls and we drank coffee and told stories because that’s all part of duck hunting. It was so much fun we decided to go for biscuits and gravy at the Deer Island store.

Spencer Waite (foreground) and Cole Sherertz, of Battleground, Wash., watch a pair of ducks circling high above the decoys.

Dressed in our camouflage, wearing waders and rubber boots, we took over the place. No one bragged about the good shots they’d made. We talked about everything else except the hunting. But everyone knew the second half was coming. We still had a chance for redemption.

It was late in the third quarter when coach Waite put me back in the game, this time in a different position. Waite, Sherertz, Sneer and I squeezed into a blind on the north side of the corn with Drake and my pudelpointer, Liesl, who we had moved up to play varsity.

When the opposing squad, a dozen teal, wheeled in off the Columbia, we huddled in the blind.

“One more turn,” Waite said. We spun 360-degrees, trying not to show our faces. The birds circled wide and we spun one more time with them while they tightened. “One more turn,” Waite whispered a third time.

An inch of rain in one day made for a wet one in the duck blind. But in Oregon, duck hunting is better when it’s wetter.

Then the birds set their wings, committed.

“Take ‘em!”

Sneer’s trigger clicked. Waite couldn’t get his feet set, but his gun spoke first. Sherertz and I picked the same two birds on the right side of the cloud of teal. It was a team effort. Two teal folded and splashed down.

Drake and Liesl crashed into the corn stalks in the hip-high water. Drake, the experienced senior, brought the first bird to hand. Liesl, the freshman, found the second bird and retrieved it like a quarterback crossing the finish line.

She dances around too much in the end zone, but she’ll grow out of it.

Gary Lewis is the host of Frontier Unlimited, a TV show on Pursuit Channel and Hunt Channel.