Just east of the White River in Woodruff County, at a certain pinch point where waterfowl funnel toward the vast Arkansas Delta, hunters have gathered at Bill Byers Hunter Club for nearly seven decades now to slay birds and tell tales.
The lodge’s walls are lined with photographs of men and women who have captured their limit of ducks on the Byers farm. What can’t be chronicled on those walls, though, are the limitless stories of families and friends, and the truth that an authentic hunting experience is less about the mallards and more about the memories.
The club doesn’t lack for either one.
It’s so popular among its regular, annual guests that hunts are completely booked for the 2020-21 season, said Cason Short, who manages the 3,000-acre farm founded by his grandfather, Bill Byers, near the Hunter community in 1953.
It’s one of few clubs with an extensive written record, thanks largely to the late Henry Reynolds, the influential outdoors editor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Reynolds became a close friend of Bill Byers over the years, and the writer’s accounts of his successful hunts there brought superstar athletes and political leaders to the club.
“We’ve got a good clientele that’s really happy with us, and that’s great,” Short said. “They like coming back. We get to watch children grow up hunting and share good memories. One of the pretty cool things about this is to be able to cultivate relationships with folks.”
Short took over day-to-day operations at Hunter Club after his grandfather died in late 2009 and his father, Charlie Short, died just a few months later. With the deaths of his mentors in hunting, farming and life, Cason Short acknowledges he struggled to fill their shoes. It took him awhile to figure out what makes Bill Byers Hunter Club so successful, valuing a quality hunt experience over everything else.
“Within the course of a year, I had lost the two men who taught me everything I know about duck hunting and waterfowl management. I tried to measure success as a guiding operation in harvest numbers, even though I knew better,” said Short, who is now raising three sons of his own. “It really wasn’t until I became a father that I could fully understand what drove my mentors. They absolutely loved sharing their sport with others … It’s more about spending time sharing moments in the outdoors than it is about numbers.”
Those delightful moments on crisp winter mornings started early for Short. He recalls, as a 6-year-old, guiding four-by-four trucks through ruts first cut by Byers a few years after World War II.
Byers acquired the land in 1953 after migrating north from the Bayou Meto area where the Byers family first settled in Arkansas just after the Civil War. He bought 1,200 acres of green timber, then later acquired another 1,800 acres. Byers flooded the timber and cleared some of the land for farming.
To pay for his initial investment, Byers created Hunter Club. In the early days, he’d charge hunters $10 a day for access to the land.
“He wanted a place of his own to share with his friends and realized pretty quickly you have to pay the bills as well,” Short said.
Short’s mother, Charlotte Short, said her father’s original plan was to “invite friends to enjoy what he had,” and make Hunter Club a community gathering point during hunting season. Though the club’s client base has grown (and so has the price since that initial $10 Hunter Club experience), she said the feeling of community remains.
“A lot of people over the years have been out there, and once they come, they keep coming back,” she said. “They become your friends. You visit with them and talk with them. People enjoy sitting around and talking, and listening to the stories people tell. It’s really about that companionship.”
Charlotte Short said she was always impressed by what seemed to be a sixth sense possessed by her father, now shared by her son, about where and when to find ducks. The birds come early to Hunter Club, though she’s not sure how Byers would have known that when he purchased his land.
“I don’t know how my father knew when it was all timber that the ducks had a certain area they like, but they were so pretty to watch, and it was breathtaking to me,” she said. “I knew my dad really liked it, and I enjoyed my time with him when I went hunting. I really enjoyed it even if we didn’t kill very much.”
Cason Short said the property often has upward of 250,000 birds on the opening weekend of duck season, “an eye-opening event” for even a veteran hunter. He attributes the flourishing numbers partly to the club’s unique position in the Mississippi Flyway and partly to his management and conservation efforts.
Habitat management is vital to the club’s success, he said. The Byers farm has an expansive rest pond used by ducks and geese as “a landmark” during migration. Hunts end every day by 10 a.m., and the club only operates hunts on 20 out of 60 hunting days to relieve some pressure on the birds and ensure a quality hunt.
“The thing that sets us apart more than anything else is how extensively we try to manage hunting pressure,” Short said. “We give the birds a lot of time to rest in between hunts and turn down a lot of business because of that, but we’re trying to preserve the resource and our reputation.”
He said the hunting climate has changed even from the recent past of the 1980s and ’90s when there were shorter seasons and fewer hunters.
“People appreciate and understand what we’re trying to do,” he said. “It’s a practice that involves taking care of a wild animal, and it also improves their chances when they do make it out.”
Still, he added it’s the ambience and camaraderie of the Hunter Club experience that are as much a draw as the waterfowl.
‘A Kind Of Life’
A modern lodge was constructed around the original clubhouse built in the 1950s. It’s there where many photos taken by Reynolds and originally published in the Commercial Appeal now hang.
Gene Lehr, a long-time friend of Charlie Short’s who was a regular at Hunter Club for about 50 years, said he recalls so many stories that “I couldn’t even tell you a favorite memory.” He remembered hearing from governors and federal judges who shared the duck blind with him in the 1960s and 1970s.
Among guests during the early days of Hunter Club was Tim McCarver, a Memphis native and baseball and broadcasting legend. McCarver was an avid duck hunter who’d sometimes accompany Reynolds on hunting trips.
McCarver said he remembered Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton joining his group for one particular trip, though he mainly recalls that extraordinary feeling of spending a cold morning in the duck blind with friends.
“There’s nothing quite like the ducks flying low over your head right when the sun’s coming out and it’s a little crisp,” McCarver said. “I loved every minute of it. Telling stories and that sort of stuff, well, that’s all part of the fun of it. It’s a kind of life, and a recreation, you can’t get anywhere else.”
Father and outdoorsman Cason Short, as a young man with his father Charlie on the left, continues to manage land and duck populations in the ways he learned from his dad and his grandfather Bill Byers, founder of Bill Byers Hunter Club.