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story.lead_photo.caption Jess Essex, nattily dressed for duck hunting with a tie and a leather vest, bagged two drake mallards Thursday with a vintage Stevens Model 311 at the first Purple Hull Duck Hunt at Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. - Photo by Bryan Hendricks

BAYOU METO WMA -- Duck hunting was traditionally a gentleman's sport, and Jess Essex of DeWitt dressed for the occasion.

Essex, an eclectic funeral director and proud alumnus of the U.S. Navy's "Silent Service," organized and hosted the first Purple Hull Duck Hunt on Thursday at Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. Participants were required to use 16-gauge shotguns, hence the name, which refers to the traditional color of 16-gauge shot shells. The group included Arkansas Democrat-Gazette senior wide editor Glen Chase, Jim Rowe and me.

Rowe used a 1960s vintage Remington 870 Wingmaster with a plain barrel and modified choke. Chase had a Browning Citori over/under, and I brought a CZ Ringneck side-by-side. The nattily attired Essex brought a Stevens Model 311, and he used it well.

Essex is the antithesis of the contemporary duck hunter. In contrast to Duck Dynasty chic, his white goatee and mustache are neatly trimmed. Instead of the latest camo pattern head to toe, he wore a pressed forest green shirt, a black vest and a pressed camo neck tie under a traditional hunting jacket. His Windsor knot was perfect, without a hint of a crease or fold.

"Duck hunters always used to dress this way in a more refined era," Essex said. "I encourage all of you fellows to find yourselves an appropriate duck hunting tie because the ducks like it if you 'fix up' nice for them."

Essex wears a vest every day, but finding a utilitarian and tasteful duck hunting vest was difficult, he said. After a long search, he discovered some some leather motorcycle vests in an online clearance sale that were marked down to $20.

"There was a great big eagle sewn on the back," Essex said "It took all day to pick out all those little threads."

Hip boots and tan slacks completed his classic ensemble.

The 16-gauge theme also was Essex's idea. Ironically, Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson inspired it. Essex recently saw an early Robertson video in which he hunted ducks with a Browning Sweet 16, and Essex was taken with the way the Browning spit out "those pretty purple hulls."

Of course, there's a non-conformist in every crowd, and that was Rowe. Essex mildly disapproved of Rowe's green Remington hulls, despite his protests about them being all he could find on short notice.

After tying Essex's WeldBuilt boat to a tree, we slogged a short distance to an opening where ducks appeared to have roosted judging by the number of feathers on the water. The spot looked good, but Essex was skeptical.

"Let's throw out half a dozen 'blocks' [decoys] and see what happens," Essex said. "If we don't do any good, we'll move a little farther back."

Each of us found a big tree to shield us from the rising sun, and we formed a loose horseshoe around the opening.

The classic motif continued as the calling commenced. Essex blew an ancient Rich-N-Tone. That particular Rich-N-Tone edition has a controversial backstory, Essex said, and it was so anathematic to Butch Richenback, the late founder of Rich-N-Tone, that it was unwise to show it in his presence.

"It has a slightly wider bore than the standard Rich-N-Tone, so it sounds more like an OLT," Essex said.

Rowe blew a classic Yentzen, a wooden design with a deep, resonant tone. My dad blew OLT and Yentzen in the 1970s, and hearing those calls evoked pleasant childhood memories.

I left my calls at home because it's impolite for a guest to blow a call in his host's duck hunting hole.

Despite temperature in the high 70s, ducks were plentiful. They worked well to Rowe's and Essex's calls, but they all landed about 150 yards deeper into the woods. We picked up the decoys and followed them.

As we approached their preferred area, about 75 mallards took to the air. They had been loafing in a small opening. Feathers were everywhere, and the water was muddy.

Ducks flew over us without showing interest for awhile, but when the sun peeked through the trees and lit up the decoys, they attracted ducks like a diner sign attracts truckers.

First, a boisterous hen and drake sailed over the spread.

Essex and Rowe turned them, and half a dozen more ducks joined them when they made their swing.

"These are probably the same ducks we jumped out of here trying to get back in," I said.

Essex nodded and continued calling.

More ducks joined the swirl from all directions until they numbered 50-60. A few cupped and flared as the unit gradually dropped lower and lower. This dance usually ends when a handful falls in, and the entire flock follows. It's a timber hunter's dream.

The ducks made one last pass about a treetop and a half high. Their orbit took them over another group of hunters a few hundred yards away. They unloaded on those birds with a seemingly endless barrage that was unlikely to have downed or even hit a single duck.

That is, unfortunately, a characteristic part of the Bayou Meto experience. It's pointless to get mad about it. You adapt.

Every other duck we worked drew fire, but we continued trying to land them until the futility became apparent.

We all gathered to chat, hoping the other group would run out of ammo or limit out. Essex sat on a log when he suddenly shouldered his Stevens. Two drakes and a hen rode the treetops directly overhead. Essex drew a lead and fired. A drake crumpled and fell almost in his lap.

Essex scored again in similar fashion shortly after. They were the only ducks we got.

On the way back to the ramp, delighted in our praise for his boat, he told us about visiting a boat dealer friend who "struck a pose" atop a practically new WeldBuilt.

"What kind of boat do you want?" the dealer asked.

"Well, I want that one you've got your foot on," Essex said.

"You can have it for $1,900," the dealer said.

Essex said he turned his head to brush away tears.

"I turned back to him and said, 'I think I'm gonna cry,'" Essex recalled. "He said, 'Cry? Whatever for?'"

"Because I have $1,900!" Essex blurted.

A mutual acquaintance had told me that Essex is a phenomenal singer. As we motored back to the ramp, he proved it when he broke into an an old Irish seafaring ballad. He sang loud to overcome the roar of his smoky old 25-horse Evinrude, but it had no effect on Rowe, who was stretched out napping atop a storage locker.

"Wake up, Jimmy, and sing harmony with me!" Essex yelled.

As we prepared to leave, Essex gazed lovingly at the collection of 16-gauges and proclaimed that a Purple Hull hunt should be a regular affair.

Not so much for the hunting, but for the sheer fun of it.

Sports on 01/15/2017

Print Headline: Purple Hull hunt

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