To understand what I see you must understand who I am.
I live in a state of constant change and motion. You may say that my spirit is akin to the changing of the seasons, in that the summer sun can only be hot for so long. Soon the leaves must change and the wind shall blow from the northwest across the prairie. I am grateful; for the time being, I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to make a living sharing the outdoors with others. Drifting from place to place with the migration, the rut, and the spawn. My year consists of capturing what I hope to be inspiring and captivating photos, creating films that viewers can feel, and “guiding” those who seek, for a few precious days, the incredible moments that I live for as an outdoorsman.
I do have a home, though I’m rarely there, in the wild and demanding Flint Hills of Kansas. The way I feel about my home, is the way every good man feels about his wife, loving the unique beauty that makes her who she is. Kansas is not the universally flat, flyover state others may see. No, she has hidden treasures and colors that not every man deserves to see, and storms that can test even the calmest hand.
I’ve duck hunted for 15 years across several states and some of the most revered destinations. I’ve been a part of many “glory days” in many different places, those few precious days that are in fact, a real life dream; those days that when the story is told again, it seems to each time become more magnificent than before. They are not tall tales or fish stories, they are just truly that incredible. Like fine bourbon aging in the barrels of Kentucky, these stories gain color and taste that only those who were there can appreciate. Keep in mind; these stories aren’t about the birds in the bag, that in itself is merely a character in the biggest play.
I travel to “duck country” every year. It’s almost like it’s ingrained in my DNA that I must go, and I must leave behind potential days of duck and goose hunting on the relentless Kansas plains, which would be the hunt of a lifetime for many shotgun toting waterfowlers.
It’s such a reluctant, bittersweet feeling, but in my mind, somewhere in the mystic black timber of Arkansas, there are mornings to be had and photos to be captured that would look just like a Terry Redlin painting. The eternal hope is that one day I’ll shoot that perfect photo — mallards swooping through the bayou between the dimly lit duck camps filled with boats and campfires, whistling wings through the treetops and eerie darkness of morning.
There is something about the trip itself that seems to escalate my hopes and optimism every time. It seems that with each pine I pass traveling down Highway 10, that this is finally going to be “the trip” in which those interstate visions come to life. With every mile I start to see more boats and rickety outboards. I always chuckle when I think of how many times one of those guys has been me, stuck at the boat ramp cussing that old boat motor that seems to let me down right when I don’t have the patience to put up with it.
Soon the water begins to creep into the woods and I can hear the white devils squawking in the rice fields. I’m still headed southeast toward Mack’s Prairie Wings in Stuttgart, and it’s a tradition that my feet must hit the ground there first. Either it’s being in the truck seven hours or just familiarity, but my head hurts as I think about the migraines I’ve suffered listening to one hail call after another while working counters full of the world’s finest duck calls during shows. I sure don’t miss hearing the “redneck symphony.”
This trip is a mission for me. I will hopefully be pulling the trigger dozens of times a day, with my Canon but not my Beretta. I am to spend three days shooting photos for several multimedia projects underway and the flooded timber near Stuttgart is the place to be. After a few hours chatting with some familiar faces in Mack’s, I am a little unnerved at the morale and reports about the ducks. After all, this is the “Duck Capital of the World,” and it’s January; there are bajillions of ducks where I just came from, of course they will be here too, right?
Arkansas duck hunting is folklore gold. Let’s be real, anyone who has ever shot four greenheads knows it’s the greatest duck hunting on the planet. So after the time I spend at Mack’s, I finally ask a friend who truly “gets ‘em” and knows Arkansas duck hunting in and out what’s going on this year. He pauses and you can almost feel his thoughts bouncing off the stars in the sky. His response is chilling and crushes a little of my boyish dream.
“I don’t know Buck. You used to be able to pump water in the trees and they would come like bees,” he says. “I’ve heard all the answers to why it’s unfortunately, not what it was. Missouri this, weather that, climate change, more hunters ‘blah blah.’ Nineteen ninety-nine was the perfect storm, and maybe we are all still living in the past. Maybe everyone’s spirits are just beat from this year, the ‘El Nino’ effect.
“I know there have been some hot streaks here and there, but it just seems like they are not here anymore. The thing nobody wants to talk about is the truth to the duck number data they tell us. Duck hunting is a trendy big business now, the state depends on it, more ducks are getting killed, and we are losing habitat, but yet the duck breeding numbers keep going up? Hell, guys in Louisiana don’t even know what that mallard duck looks like anymore. Think about all that.”
I do think about that. And it turns a light on a scary thought that I don’t really want to consider. For the Arkansas duck hunters, this is real and is a way of life. This is where they are going to spend the days of their season, either waiting and wondering why the ducks aren’t here, or enjoying what duck hunting is as they fire through the trees. I don’t know whether to think that it is all a conspiracy campfire conversation or an early puff of smoke to signal what the future brings.
Two days of hunting in some of the best timber holes in the state yields about seven ducks that are borderline tree topped. As I would call them, they are great shots on a tough day. As timber hunting purists would call them, they are “a little desperate.” The habitat, the scenery, and the weather; It is all there, just like that painting in my head. The only thing that isn’t are the main characters in the play.
I’m not discouraged really, because the experience itself is so refreshing to me. I didn’t have to set out 100 dozen full bodies and rags. I didn’t hike a half-mile over a cattle pasture to a hidden creek to find it frozen with skim ice. We zip through flooded river bottoms in a tricked out boat and all I can think about is how incredible every single second of this is.
If you can’t dream and tremble with excitement like an 8-year-old looking through the crosshairs at his first buck, or a young girl catching her first brim on a skinny pole, you simply shouldn’t do this. I still feel that way every time I see my breath in the morning or when I slip on my waders. Yes, some days I get cranky when clients get a little too buzzed the night before and don’t wake up on time. But when the sun comes up I’m still the same optimistic, eager, shivering duck hunter who is always hoping to experience that moment we all have in our imagination.
I have a vision to capture, I want that group mallards floating down through the trees and my hunters in frame with guns in hand, waiting to let the thunder roll through the bottoms. It would be “pure Arkansas” in a still photo. One click of the shutter, and a million ripples of the imagination for any duck hunter that sees that moment frozen in time. That’s the kind of photo I set out to capture. I know it seems far out and a mere flicker of a duck hunter’s mind, but it would be a home run and I don’t make a living laying down sacrifice bunts.
After two days it doesn’t even come close to happening.
I firmly believe that wherever I go I’ll never come home empty handed and what I do come home with is much more understanding about the culture and spirit of the Arkansas duck hunter than I ever had before.
Times are changing, I realize. I felt this firsthand hearing the stories of the season from the locals and seeing the past heritage and new blood at the boat ramp. To experience their struggle allows me to understand their fortitude.
I watched fog drifting through the big timber while I stood in waist deep water, ears straining to hear a splash of ducks landing in the dawn, trees lined with eyes peering to the sky. I savored the warmth of a thermos pouring its contents into a cup and cut deer sausage lying on a floating log. I rode down winding roads that seemed to lead like dreams to duck holes unknown, places I could not see but only imagine.
I passed camps littered with the pieces of a duck hunter’s arsenal. War Eagle boats and old classic two-stroke Mercurys popping at the ramp. Those everlasting RNTs on lanyards and the occasional wood Olt passed down from generation to generation. The things I see are so full of heritage and soul that I simply could not come up with all the questions I wanted to ask or hear all the stories that should have been told. Most of all, I felt the unwavering optimism every duck hunter possesses when they slip on a piece of camo.
As an outsider, I saw the warning lights that told me things might be a bust. We operated on hope and a semi-educated guess. This wasn’t back home where I drift in and out of the endless countryside like a ghost, following northwest winds to places I know. There was no flying down a county road mile after mile, with the occasional six-pack drifting through the backseat with my gurus who study ducks like a science. There was no whooping and hollering “There ain’t no ducks here!” when following a handful of ducks high in the sky to 30,000 ducks hammering a milo field just before the sun goes down. There were no fingers crossed nervously, slumping in the seat while we watch one of our party on a doorstep asking farmer John for permission to hunt on his land and hoping he didn’t have this 140-acre milo field leased to some deer hunter in Texas that never sets foot on it, or to be told their uncle’s nephew’s stepdaughter’s boyfriend was goose hunting it this year (but he never showed up). There was no watching and listening to the roar of 75,000 birds using a hidden two-mile stretch of river and knowing there wasn’t another person watching anything like this for hundreds of miles, sitting there struggling to manage your senses knowing that tomorrow might be more than your eyes and heart could possibly handle on a duck hunt.
This is Arkansas, and the ducks are always-supposed to be-might be there. This is duck hunting. This is tradition, culture, and heritage. This is sweet tea and fingerlickin’, hole-in-the-wall barbecue at 10:30 a.m. This is boat races in the dark and telling the duck camp down the road it’s been tough lately when you’ve shot limits four days this week. If you haven’t lived it, you wouldn’t understand it. It felt like for a brief couple of days, I was at home with my extended duck hunting family. These people know me. I fit in here, sort of.
I just can’t tell them I shoot geese a lot.
Will I do it again? Absolutely. The people, the scenery, and the experience all have a special place in my heart. I still have hope and desire too. I know I have not yet seen Arkansas at her best, and of course that keeps me wanting more. I’ll be back every year as long as I’m able, I promise.
Yes, I must admit through my strong loyalty to the wild waterfowling opportunity in the Central Flyway, there is nothing quite like a fatback greenhead snapping around to a comeback call and fluttering through the trees.
Thank you Arkansas.
All my best.