Thanksgiving dawns cold. There is no snow; the weakening storm of yesterday afternoon that once threatened has instead passed further inland on its way to New England.
In one of the marsh ponds that branch out like watery appendages from Augustine Creek, Grier Henry Wakefield throws decoys into the still waters in the wan morning light, the sound of the splashes dulled by tall grasses that ring the pond. Four reed-enclosed shooting blinds, each minimally outfitted with a camp stool and open to the sky, jut up from the muddy western edge. Hidden from sight a few hundred yards away lies the Delaware Bay, and, beyond, the red and purple skies of New Jersey.
Looking a little like a shy Channing Tatum, Wakefield gives a sheepish smile as he climbs back up the embankment. “It was a late night with friends,” he says, reponding to an unasked question from no one in particular.
The Wakefields have driven the 30 minutes or so in their Lexus SUV through the morning darkness from Centreville, down Route 1 and over the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to join scores of other unseen hunters scattered among similar ponds up and down the estuaries of the bay in hopes that migrating ducks will choose their water to alight. No matter the weather or the previous night’s activities, on this morning, nothing supplants the call of the hunt.
For generations, Delaware and Pennsylvania families have been hunting on winter holiday mornings, a tradition so strong it seems almost encoded in their DNA. Along the coast, the prey is ducks. They are mainly mallards, but also teal, wood ducks and gadwalls, and Canadian geese. Further inland, there are deer and, perhaps for hunting later in the day, rabbits and squirrels.
The elder F. Grier Wakefield Jr. grew up hunting on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day with his father in Sussex County. Now his son—enrolled in the Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island, N.Y., in hopes of becoming a pilot for ocean-going ships—hunts with him.
For both, it’s as much a passion as it is a traditional pastime. So much so that the senior Wakefield, having worked years in real estate and financial planning, decided on New Year’s Day 2011 to give up his job as a broker with A.G. Edwards. Not long afterward, he opened his own hunting store, which he named Artemis Outfitters (after the Greek goddess of the hunt), in Greenville. His wife, Andrea—part of the family that owns and manages Mrs. Robino’s, the popular restaurant in Wilmington’s Little Italy—urged him to turn his passion into a business.
“I was burned out on corporate America,” he recalls, with a mischievous grin that now looks anything but burned out. “And I said to myself, ‘If not today, when?’”
Now, somewhere to the south, there are the muffled “pops” of shotguns being fired. Young Grier scans the skies and spots a small flock of ducks flying eastward, relatively high in the lightening sky. He chooses one of three wooden calls hanging around his neck and starts a series of “quack-like” noises, followed by a trilling sound, followed by more quacks. The ducks veer toward us without losing altitude, but then continue on their voyage. “Grier has won national duck-calling championships,” his father says. The calls certainly sound convincing to me—and, for a while, to the ducks, as well.
The skies are barren again. Across the stream is the Augustine State Wildlife Management Site. To the north a few miles is Port Penn.
Hunter, a retriever owned by a neighbor who doesn’t hunt, laps at the water, enjoying his unexpected field day. Wakefield explains that we are hunting on a 100-acre farm owned by the Upham Downs Hunt Club, of which he is a member. The water flowing from Augustine Creek is fresh where we are.
“There’s an old wives’ tale that the worse the weather, the better the hunting,” he says, explaining the lack of ducks. “That’s not necessarily true, but today it could be. We had thought about hunting geese this morning.”
There’s a harvested cornfield nearby that the club owns. It has bunker-like blinds just underground for that purpose. “They’re fairly comfortable,” he says.
We talk again about Artemis and how almost every successful business strives to have something that makes it stand out from the competition. Wakefield’s business is buying and selling “unique, one-of-a-kind guns.” Artemis’ online presence has flourished, bolstered by the word-of-mouth buzz, in the Brandywine Valley and beyond, that Artemis is the place to sell heirloom weaponry. “Most of the business is not in the store,” says Wakefield. “But you do have to have a legitimate place for people to bring their guns that they want to sell. You can’t do it at a Starbucks.”
Today, Wakefield carries a Beretta 12-guage shotgun, as he always does when duck hunting. “I use it almost exclusively, including when I’m turkey hunting in the spring—although I use a heavier wad when I’m doing that,” he says.
For deer hunting—always an easy option in the Mid-Atlantic—Wakefield puts his gun away and takes out the crossbow. “We do dove hunting locally in September, mostly in the sunflower fields around Dover,” he says.
The latter is among the “most social” of his outdoor activities. When he can, he takes dove-hunting trips to Argentina. And, every year, he hunts Elk in Idaho.
Having given up on luring birds, the younger Grier joins us. “It’s great to have my son around to field dress the birds—when we get them,” Wakefield teases.
It’s all in the family. His wife, the restaurateur, enjoys cooking game. But her love of the hunt only goes so far. “She won’t let us keep a dog in the house,” Wakefield says.
Hence, the popularity of Hunter.
We give a last look at the empty, cloud-streaked skies, retrieve the decoys and walk back to the car in our waders through the knee-high water, the mud pulling at our feet. Like fishing, hunting is one of those sports that’s appreciated as much for the time spent outdoors and the camaraderie as it is for bagging game.
I ask Wakefield what he likes to drink with duck breast, on the days he brings one home. “Of course, Stag’s Leap Artemis cabernet sauvignon,” he says. “I always keep a few bottles around.”
There will be no pulling of Artemis corks today. But, in the Wakefield family, there’s always Christmas and New Year’s Day to look forward to.