If there’s one built-in synchronicity between politics and duck season, it’s that a candidate can wrap up his campaign, grit his teeth through Election Day, and hit the blinds on Opening Day without worrying about an upcoming vote, one way or another.
So it happened that Mark Pryor got out duck hunting with a few friends in 2003, not long after being sworn in as Arkansas’ junior senator, a single term removed from his father David Pryor’s 28-year stint in that seat. Hunting had long been a respite for the younger Pryor — at least since the late 1970s, when he and his father, then governor, would hunt on the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion.
But there’s only so far from work a man can get when he has just assumed national office, even with a few friends on a January weekend in Arkansas.
“We were all in the duck blind,” Mark Pryor said, “and here come the ducks. They come in and boom-boom-boom, everybody shoots.
“Those guys were like, ‘Good shot, Senator. Good shot, Senator.’ I hadn’t even taken my gun off safety. And I was like, ‘Oh, no, I hope this isn’t what being a senator is like.’ ”
During his two terms, it turns out, Pryor, now the state’s senior senator, has found plenty of time for duck hunts. The path to a third term promises to be a grueling one: He’s the last Democrat of the six lawmakers representing Arkansas, and with a Senate majority potentially at stake, the 2014 race between Pryor and Republican Tom Cotton promises a fray like few in the country.
Taking grief from his buddies in the duck blind — that’s the easy part for Pryor.
As Pryor courts Arkansans’ votes next year, he’ll surely point to his record on the outdoors to make his case.
Informally he can attest that anyone who knows the winter drill at Mack’s Prairie Wings in Stuttgart, where the aisles become the site for an impromptu reunion, understands the rituals of east Arkansas. Or that having hunted ducks, deer, raccoons, quail, squirrels and doves in Arkansas is part of the prerequisite to representing this hunting-mad state.
“It’s funny,” Pryor said. “Hunting is very diverse. You do something like turkey hunting. Sometimes those guys, once they turkey hunt, that’s all they want to do. There’s just something about it.”
And deer season may be even more feverous.
“They still close school in some areas,” Pryor said. “A friend of mine in Camden says he won’t get out on the highway on the first day of deer season unless he paints his car orange.”
Beyond the state’s traditions, there’s the very real business of managing the resources and leveraging his position to do so. From the time he arrived in Washington, Pryor announced himself as part of the hook-and-bullet delegation by joining the Congressional Sportsman’s Caucus, a group of representatives and senators who connect over issues of hunting, fishing and conservation.
“That ulterior motive,” he said, “of having a chance to interact with people about something that we can all agree on.”
The common ground of blasting birds has been a way for him to mingle with members of the House chamber and with Republicans — a rarity in a polarized town like Washington, from where elected officials rush home to raise money in every spare moment.
“There are some people around the country maybe who try to stereotype it, but [hunting] is very nonpartisan,” Pryor said.
“I hunt all the time with Republicans and we enjoy that. Sometimes we talk politics, but usually not. It’s certainly something we can all agree on and all work on together. Certainly there’s a commonality of interest there.”
One former head of that caucus was Mike Ross, the six-term representative from Arkansas’ 4th District and a 2014 gubernatorial candidate whom Pryor cites as a model marksman.
Ross has hunted with Pryor, and points out that duck hunting is the consummate politician’s sport. Unlike deer hunting — in which silence is the first, second and third rule — a duck hunt is as social as you want it.
“When you’re duck hunting, you can carry on a conversation,” Ross said. “I’ve always enjoyed duck hunting. It’s not only good hunting, it’s a fellowship.”
Since 2011, Pryor has served as one of the two senators on the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service board made up of legislators, Cabinet members and environmental administrators. The commission buys and rents lands with an aim to protect bird habitats, which will be an issue until ducks can afford to buy up wetlands themselves.
According to the commission’s 2011 annual report, Arkansas is home to nine national migratory bird refuges. But then, that’s among 370 nationwide.
“When you hunt, you feel like you know a lot,” Pryor said. “Then when you get a different experience, like serving on the Migratory Bird Commission, you get more into the science. We think of everything being very Arkansas-centric, but there’s duck hunting on the east coast, on the west coast, in this flyway and that flyway.
“You realize how important Canada is to our hunting here, and you start to think gosh, we need to protect that habitat up there, too, to help us.”
Ease of access has also been a priority. Pryor was in front on a pilot program to offer federal duck stamps electronically, moving the sometimes balky process online for the benefit of spontaneous hunters and procrastinators alike.
He is now one of three Senate co-sponsors for a bill that would make electronic duck stamps a permanent feature nationally.
And for what it’s worth, because it’s a point of contention as to whether such bills would materially affect someone who hunts animals, Pryor has voted steadily against gun-control laws, recently voting against bans on high-capacity magazines and assault rifles.
“On the gun issue, this is something I tell people in Washington — they don’t always get it — here we probably in Arkansas have more guns than we do people,” Pryor said. “But here we’re into responsible gun ownership and gun safety. We’re OK with that. We don’t see guns as this mysterious, foreign — it’s just part of what we are and what we do, and that’s OK.”
When Pryor goes hunting — often with his son, Adams, and his daughter, Porter — they’re at the mercy of locals. They don’t have a hunting spot of their own, so they find themselves with friends or colleagues, observing a cross-section of what makes hunters tick, who’s talky in the blind, who overnights, who spends the morning cooking biscuits.
This is the social side of the duck hunt, and it tells you who likes to talk a little smack, who might get a big head. On that last point, at least, Pryor strives to make himself a small target.
“Either you’re a good shot and you don’t talk about it, or you’re a bad shot and you don’t talk about it,” he said. “I don’t know how I’d categorize myself in terms of being a good shot or not, but I enjoy it.”
Ross laughed when told of Pryor’s deference.
“I think he’s being modest,” Ross said. “He’s a pretty good shot. I’ve been in a blind with him. He knows how to kill a duck.”
Mark Pryor never had trouble finding a hunt.
As a teen, when his father was governor and appointing members of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, a hunt was never far away. But one in particular made an impression.
It would have been around 1975, by Pryor’s recollection, when he was 12-13 years old.
“I remember one of the first times I ever went duck hunting,” he said. “We were down around Stuttgart — I don’t remember where we were, down in Arkansas County somewhere — and the people we were hunting with took us out that night before the hunt. We drove out real quietly out in some of the fields, on the levies, rolled the windows down, and you could hear the ducks in the water, eating and talking.
“It was very noisy; it was pitch black. It was incredibly noisy out there. The next morning when we shot ducks, you’d shoot ‘em and you’d get ‘em, and they still had rice coming out of their mouths. They’d just been out there feeding the night before.”