Another Arkansas duck season begins today. While there were far more Arkansans (as many as 500,000 according to some estimates) who participated a week ago on the first day of modern gun deer season, duck season is more associated with Arkansas' history and culture. The state's current deer population is the crowning achievement of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in a state where the deer herd had dwindled in the decades prior to World War II.
But Arkansas has never been known as the deer hunting capital of the world. For duck hunters, this is the mecca of their sport.
I was raised in southwest Arkansas, far from the flooded timber of east Arkansas. Duck hunters in my neck of the woods were from the "if it flies, it dies" school of waterfowling. We couldn't afford to be choosy. A morning's hunt might produce a teal or two, a gadwall, a wood duck and a mallard if we were lucky. During my college days at Ouachita, a favorite hunting spot was the slough that backed up to the city of Arkadelphia's sewer ponds, which served as a rest area. You just had to hope you weren't downwind from the ponds.
I'm one of the few people in the state with a mounted spoonbill (the official name is Northern shoveler) at home. The spoonbill was a gift to my son from family friend Gene DePriest of Gene's Barbecue in Brinkley. If you hunt ducks anywhere in that part of Arkansas, you've likely eaten at Gene's. When it comes to hunting, Gene is among the best shots I know. You might have seen the bumper sticker that says, "Spoonies have green heads, too." Yes, during those southwest Arkansas hunts of my youth, we weren't beyond shooting a spoonbill to complete a limit. Thus it's fitting that I have that mount.
My father considered duck hunting and quail hunting to be gentlemen's sports. In his world, gentlemen didn't get in a hurry, gentlemen weren't greedy, and gentlemen didn't boast. He had grown up poor in Benton during the Great Depression, hunting squirrels and rabbits year-round with his older brother in order to put meat on the table. He was the best shot I knew (even better than Gene). I once asked him how he became such a good shot. He replied matter-of-factly: "If you wanted something other than biscuits and gravy on the table, you learned to shoot well."
Dad owned a successful sporting goods store and could have had his choice of the finest guns and clothing. Yet his 12-gauge Browning was an old one, dating back to his time as head football coach at Newport High School in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In those days, he would hunt quail with a fellow named Sam Walton who managed the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store in Newport and would hunt ducks with professional baseball player George Kell from Swifton. I'm a lot like him when it comes to guns and clothes. My friends like to joke that my Duxbak hunting gear is so old that the camouflage pattern has gone out of style and come back in again.
In the 1970s, my father and a group of friends formed a hunting club in the Ouachita River bottoms south of Arkadelphia at a place called Open Banks. They called it "the duck club," though there weren't many limits of ducks killed there. I would say to them, "Why don't you call this what it really is? Quit calling this a duck club. It's a supper club." The members would gather on a regular basis at their cabin overlooking the river for dinner. They might have fried crappie one month and rabbit the next.
As a teenager, I would become frustrated that they weren't more serious about duck hunting. It seemed as if the night-before dinners and the post-hunt breakfasts were their priorities. As I look back four decades later, I realize that my father, who died in 2011 at age 86, and his friends had their priorities right.
Having lived in Little Rock the past 28 years, I've had the opportunity to visit the most famous Arkansas duck clubs, the kinds of places I could only dream about when I was growing up in Clark County and watching coots land on sewer ponds. More than two decades ago, I accepted an invitation from Wiley Meacham to speak at the Brinkley Rotary Club in the back room at Gene's. We hit it off, and an invitation soon followed to hunt at Wiley's Piney Creek Duck Club, which is among the best parcels of flooded green timber in the duck hunting universe. Wiley is in his 80s now and reminds me of my father.
I can't begin to recount all of the memories from Piney Creek, a place where limits are common but folks don't take themselves too seriously. There's an outdoor kitchen in the flooded timber where I've often stood after hunts while eating slices of freshly grilled teal on crackers. During those post-hunt snacks, I contemplate the rich tradition of duck hunting in our state. Back when he still worked for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Steve "Wild Man" Wilson would film his annual Christmas television show at Piney Creek. Those watching could witness grown men standing in cold water, wearing camouflage Santa caps and singing Christmas carols.
My wife would ask: "Why would adults get up in the middle of the night and then act like that?" Unless you've experienced the mallard madness of Arkansas, you can't answer that question. It goes far beyond shooting ducks. It's watching the sun rise, listening to the owls and geese, admiring expert duck callers, watching the dogs work, exchanging stories and giving friends a hard time after errant shots. It's duck season in Arkansas.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 11/18/2017
Print Headline: Duck season dawns