I never understood the “fever” my grandfather experienced in the nights leading up to duck season. The night before opening day was always the worst with the constant complaint of stomach aches amongst him and the other hunters at “Dub’s Duck Club” in northeast Arkansas. For many hunters this is routine, but it was the most bizarre happening to an 8-year-old.
That was until I killed my first duck.
After three years of going out to “hunt” with only a BB gun and shooting the eyes off nearly every decoy in our patch of flooded timber, I finally got to put my newly acquired single-shot .410 gauge to use. Most of the hunters that November day had killed their limit and went back to the cabin to indulge in Bloody Marys and college football. But my grandfather and a few others stuck around to help make the magic happen.
We waited nearly 30 minutes before we saw some workable birds. I sat aside and let the grownups do the calling. I had my own duck call, but it was merely an accessory more than a tool. After watching the calls hook a flight of ducks and then watching the birds circle, seemingly hell-bent on landing in the hole, I knew it was my time to create my legacy in the great Arkansas duck-hunting tradition.
The group of mallards fluttered into the water, and I could hardly hold the gun steady, giddy with excitement before my fingertip was even on the trigger. With my left eye looking down the barrel, I picked out a gorgeous greenhead and was awestruck by the glistening colors of its feathers reflecting in the late-morning sun. My heart was pounding and my stomach was queasy, but I still didn’t understand what my body was experiencing.
With my grandfather whispering loudly to pull the trigger, I aimed and closed my eyes as the boom of the shotgun echoed throughout the flooded timber. I watched in fascination as all of the ducks scattered into the sky — except one. I waded out to retrieve my kill and from the second I picked up the drake I knew I wanted more.
The next night I couldn’t sleep and it was finally clear to me: I had a disease that couldn’t be cured.
Deer hunters rant about “buck fever,” but “greenhead fever” is something that I caught at an early age and has never left me since that day I nailed my first mallard. I was hooked at 8 years old and the only treatment was going back to the woods for more.
From that point on, duck season has been synonymous with the other seasons. There is spring, summer, fall and duck season. When that third weekend of November rolls around, I can hardly stomach the days leading up to it. Attending school the Friday before opening day is about as worthless as a blank shell, because there is no way I can focus on math, science or any other petty class.
The clock always seemed to melt as I waited to hop in the truck and ride up to “the woods.” With so much anticipation built up for this one part of the year, there tends to be some excitement. There’s only one stomach ache in the world that’s pleasing, and that comes from shooting time being less than 24 hours away.
The beginning of duck season became my new Christmas Eve, as I could hardly sleep with all of the anticipation oozing through my veins. Opening day is a little different than that late December morning, but it still carries the same effect. Except with duck hunting, you’re waiting under the tree for the “presents” to come to you. And when that first boat ride down the canal happens, everything leading up to it just seems to make life worth living.
Now a college student, I have come to not only appreciate, but also embrace the rite of passage that is engrained in Arkansas duck-hunting culture. I’ve moved up from a BB gun to a 12-gauge, from size 1 boots to full-bodied waders, and from a boy into a man.
I’ve been one of the luckiest kids in the world, being able to start hunting at an early age and having a hunting spot that I can call my own. At times I’ve felt like a minor-league baseball player working my way to the pros as I upgraded in shotguns, waders and, most importantly, responsibilities. I never thought it’d be an honor to wash the dishes, but duck hunting provides age-old traditions that any other rite of passage would have a hard time matching.
Being able to duck hunt has helped me to become a good man, as there are life lessons that just can’t be taught anywhere else other than a duck blind. My experiences as a youth hunter have been so empowering that I wrote my college essay on duck hunting.
And, you know what? I was accepted into some pretty good schools.
Max Farrell is a Little Rock resident who will be starting his junior year at Grinnell College in Iowa this fall.