The worse the duck calling, the better when it comes to the annual Mallard Grove Hunting Lodge Youth Hunt event.
Each year a world champion duck caller attends to lead about 30 children under the age of 15 — some as young as 4 — in a demonstration of how to properly work a duck call. What results is loud, chaotic and nothing resembling the artful sound needed to guide greenheads down into a flooded timber or rice field.
Event organizers wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a joyful noise that serves as a reminder of the mission to get kids, many of them first-time hunters, to enjoy the outdoors.
“That first year it took us all aback when the roomful all blew their calls at once,” said attorney Bob Sexton, one of the event organizers. “It’s gotten funnier over the years and that noise is something we look forward to hearing.”
Sexton and his partners in Mallard Grove Hunting Lodge, Mike Rainwater and Andy Vondran, have been hosting the youth event since 2012. It began as a way for Sexton and his oldest son Sam to spend time together with a handful of their friends, and has grown to include as many as 100 people for a fish fry the night before the hunt. Sexton’s daughter, Grace, and his youngest son Andrew are also regulars at the event.
Each year Arkansas allows two, youth-only hunting days outside the regulated, 60-day hunting season — one early in December and one in February. Youth 15 and under are the only people allowed to bag ducks on those two days in hopes of hooking younger Arkansans on duck hunting.
Featured guests for the hunt have included world champion duck callers Rick Dunn and David St. John and hunting enthusiasts/outdoor personalities Archie Mason and Bob Snell, who filmed an episode of their “BoomTime With Bob & Archie” TV show at Mallard Grove in 2018.
Each night before the hunt, a meal is catered for participants and their families.
Bill Dillard III and his son, Thomas, were among the original invitees. They’ve attended each year since, and Dillard has enjoyed watching many Arkansas youth hunting for the first time.
“It’s been a great introduction to duck hunting for kids in Arkansas,” Dillard said. “It’s important we have folks who are intentional in bringing up the next generation to hunt, and helping them appreciate the importance of being good stewards of the natural resources we have.”
Arkansas Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and his son, John, were among those who attended the youth hunt in 2019. Griffin called it a “tremendous opportunity to connect youth with God’s creation and enjoy the camaraderie of duck hunting in Arkansas.”
“Duck hunting is, for lot of Arkansans, just part of the fabric of who we are,” Griffin said. “Duck hunting is such a significant part of our heritage and culture here. It’s important to connect these kids with that. And it’s a great way to build the bonds between fathers and their kids.”
Sexton said he has found no shortage of people willing to help make those connections. From nearby landowners offering their duck hunting leases for the day to outdoor brands offering products samples for kids, the buy-in continues to grow.
Echo Duck Calls, for example, donated calls to each child who hunted at Mallard Grove in 2019.
“The plan was basically to get some dads together with some kids for a meal and a hunt and it’s gotten a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger every year,” Sexton said. “What we’ve found out is that everybody involved with duck hunting, any type of hunting, really, loves to get youth involved and exposed to hunting. There have been a lot of doors that have flown wide open to help these young boys and girls experience what Arkansas has to offer.”