Duck hunters under the age of 30 don’t know how good they have it in 2010.
These days, the daily bag limit is six birds, including four mallards. And, if a hunter can manage to schedule vacation days just right, he might be able to hunt more days in one season than any Arkansan could hunt total in 1989-90, 1990-91 or 1991-92, a period when I was probably as excited about the sport as anytime in my life.
We hunted 30 days each of those seasons. I mean, we could legally hunt up to 30 days, but in that 1991-92 season in particular, I only got in 25 days of hunting.
Let me explain that thanks to Gannett Co. folding the Arkansas Gazette and the Democrat’s Boo Hussman paying all of us Gazette employees an eight-week severance, I was able to take an extended duck-hunting vacation that year. I put the gun away for the last time on the edge of an Arkansas County rice field as a beautiful sun was hiding behind trees and dusk was arriving, having killed my first pintail (a small hen, barely worth cleaning, but definitely not worth mounting) and suddenly realized I had to find a job again.
These days a hunter is sure to see more ducks on a typical day than we were seeing in flooded timber off an Arkansas County bayou in 1982, when the limit that season was ONE mallard.
There were no “robo” ducks then, and I don’t recall any Gore-Tex, neoprene, double-lined Columbia camo jackets or any of the newfangled hunting gear you find at Gene Lockwood’s or Mack’s Prairie Wings.
My Red Ball waders smelled like a tire and were a chore to repair. We wore fatigues purchased at an Army-Navy store.
It didn’t matter much in 1982 if we were camo’d up or even if the blind was brushed. If we saw a V formation of ducks a half-mile high, it was cause for celebration.
That season – 1982-83 – was significant for me because, though I didn’t know it then, it would be the last time I hunted ducks with my dad.
A few years earlier, he had finally realized his dream and bought membership into a prestigious Arkansas County duck club. His best friend from Pine Bluff had grown up around that club and was a member. The club, featured in the late 1950s in Sports Illustrated, had nine members total, mostly from Pine Bluff. Two bayous converged on the acreage, flooding the towering oaks and providing a hunter’s paradise. What the old club members did not realize at the time, however, was that leaving the land flooded for too much of the year eventually killed much of the hardwood.
My father would only get to enjoy that club for six seasons before he took ill with brain cancer, and none of those seasons were very good by Arkansas hunting standards. The consensus among many hunters was that the glory days of duck hunting were past, never to return.
However, bad hunts aside, my father and I, and often with my younger brother, were able to laugh away many days in the duck blind at our bad shooting, Dad’s squawky calling, and my constantly moving around and then shining my big moonface up to look at the rare mallards who wandered by. To this day, I hear the admonishment of “Be still!” and chuckle.
When the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission decided this year that the second of the three seasons would include hunting through Christmas, I was glad, reminded of a Christmas Eve hunt years ago with my dad, his best friend and his friend’s son-in-law. The limit at the time was probably two ducks, which tells you that the birds were none too plentiful.
The hunt itself, if we even killed any birds or just time, is a faded memory. What I recall is the calm, clear, crisp day, the sun beginning to set orange-yellow over the tree line, long shadows over the water and the decoys. My father was thrilled simply to be in this setting, Schlite in hand, perched on a bench in the blind talking, or standing up, all 5-foot-6 of him, scanning the skies for any wings. I was thrilled to be there.
We didn’t have these official AGFC “Youth Hunts” in the late 1970s. Your father just took you hunting as soon as mom probably thought it was safe for the both of you, and he perhaps put a .410 first and later a .20 gauge in your little hands, hoping he’d taught you enough that you didn’t swing the barrel around wildly and maim or kill anyone.
If you happened to point your gun up in the air, pull your trigger, and some-how a duck ran into the pellets and then hit the water, he’d give you a knowing, proud smile. Then he might surprise you a few weeks later by presenting you with that duck, now mounted in eternal cupped flight. At least, that’s how it happened with my first mount.
Today, dads and boys have so much more at their disposal, and plentiful numbers of ducks making their way through Arkansas, and youth hunts and more hunting days than anyone rightly deserves.
Make the most of every one of them.