The thought has crossed my mind a time or two as to what I would do with myself if I didn’t duck hunt.
It is impossible to recall a winter without decoys, dogs, guns and gear. Duck hunting has occupied each and every winter of my life for the past 35 years.
I consider myself beyond fortunate to have been raised in a hunting tradition that goes far beyond totaling how many ducks were killed. For that, I, like many of my duck hunting contemporaries, owe a huge debt of gratitude to my dad for dragging me along to those minnow ponds north of Keo all those years ago.
Many articles have been written about the father-and-son relationships built through shared outdoor activities. For some, the relationship is forged on the golf course. For others, it may be at deer camp or casting spinner baits at a favorite fishing hole. But in Arkansas, there is something about sharing a duck blind with your dad that creates a unique bond and fosters the desire to pass on to the next generation the significant life lessons learned there.
Maybe it’s because Arkansas is world famous for its duck hunting, and we embrace the traditions of those before us. Maybe it’s the social aspect of a duck hunt, as there tends to be plenty of time for conversation when the ducks aren’t participating. Perhaps it’s because life slows down just enough to put off answering the next email or phone call that makes duck hunting such a fertile training ground.
My dad doesn’t fish, doesn’t deer hunt; and outside of a few social dove hunts through the years, he has really only pursued ducks. Raised in Fort Smith, my dad wasn’t exposed much, if any, to duck hunting by my grandfather. He stumbled into the sport while starting his career at the original Twin City Bank in the early 1970s. If you worked at the bank, you duck hunted. As he climbed the corporate ladder, invitations to the bank’s deluxe lodge atop Crockett’s Bluff along the White River began. Like many banks in that era, customers were hosted at an upscale lodge with caretakers, guides, bartenders and a cook staff. This was country club hunting at its finest.
For a kid, the Crockett’s Bluff years provided interesting insight into how business was conducted and how community leaders interacted away from the suits and power lunches. Arkansas is one of the few places on the planet where business gets done while standing in knee-deep, freezing water at sunrise holding a firearm. Here I was, a little kid, sitting in on conversations about big business going on back in Little Rock while learning the ins and outs of chasing ducks. What a life for a young man!
We have long since moved on from the Crockett’s Bluff Hunting Lodge and things are a lot less corporate at “the farm.” My dad got an opportunity in the early 1980s to get in on a lease at the famed Hildebrand Farm, which lies between Humnoke and Stuttgart on Highway 165. This coming season will mark the 30th year we have hunted that farm, which provides some of the finest field hunting in the state.
Duck clubs are great classrooms to learn about things they just don’t teach at school. An early lesson learned is how to behave and be respectful around adults. Unruly kids at duck camp can really upset the apple cart. My brother and I learned early on that being on your best behavior and saying, “yes sir, no sir” were imperative to get a return invitation.
As funny as it sounds, those standards still exist at the duck club today and are expected of kids and adult guests. If you think about it, proper duck club behavior really applies to most social settings. Be respectful of the crowd you are in and show appreciation for the opportunity you have been provided and, odds are, you will get asked back.
Without question, hunting is more fun when it’s successful, but my dad stressed there is more to it than filling the duck strap. The social experience of duck camp is integral. Weekends are much more enjoyable when it’s spent with people who get along and enjoy each other’s company. Many good duck clubs are ruined by sorority house drama that takes away from the hunt and spoils the camaraderie.
Thinking back, I have hunted in every type of weather you can imagine with Dad. Some days we had no business going out, but we both had the optimism that day was going to be special. More times than not, it was. Torrential downpours, sideways sleet, 40-mph winds, 75-degree days, I think we have done them all. Seems when the weather is the worst, all one needs is an accomplice to say, “Yeah, let’s do it,” and away we go.
Our mantra is: You’re not going to kill them in bed.
There’s just something about fighting elements unbearable to most people while trying to fool some ducks into the decoys that brings a father and son closer together. And the experience can teach a boy that there are benefits to enduring hardship.
The most valuable thing I have come away with after 35 years of duck hunting is unforgettable memories, some old, some new. When I was in the sixth or seventh grade, I have vivid recollections of Dad taking my brother and me to Dismuke’s Grocery in Humnoke and buying a pile of bologna, a loaf of bread, a bag of chips and some Cokes. This was our clue that we were camping out all day on the levee until the ducks showed up. More times than not, they did. Little things like that don’t happen much anymore, and I regret that for my boys — the opportunity to learn that good things come to those who wait. Everyone seems to be a lot busier than we were back then. Duck camp has unfortunately become a microcosm of society, I guess, and I worry about losing some of the most important values that require time to be fully perceived.
Given a little weather and enough water, this year’s fall flight is supposed to be epic — “the greatest in our lifetime,” folks say. Who knows how long successful duck hunting, as we know it, will last; so I plan to make the most of it. Remember the 30-day seasons and a two-mallard limit? If we are not involved advocates for the sport we love, things may be headed back there.
My generation of waterfowlers is indebted to our fathers’ and grandfathers’ stewardship for waterfowling that got us to this point. Now, it’s up to us and our children to continue not only the dedication to conservation, but the deeper appreciation for the entire experience, the rich traditions of the sport and the important lessons about living that are passed from one generation to the next. In an era of the fastest boats, most decoys, loudest calls, biggest blinds with kill shots caught on video backed by speed-metal guitar, I wonder if we will live up to our responsibility for the legacy our fathers have so carefully handed to us.
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