A timber greenhead .a special waterfowling treasure
Undoubtedly, one of the most memorable and treasured rewards of waterfowl hunting is a banded bird. Many hunters never experience the awesome thrill of retrieving a bird wearing jewelry. On the other hand, some guys display so many bands on their call lanyards that they shine like a diamond in the sunlight, a testimony to their passion for waterfowling.
History relates that schoolteacher Hans Christian Mortensen of Denmark gets credit as the father of modern bird banding. In 1890, Mortensen began ringing birds with metal leg bands that bore his name and address. The captured birds included hawks, storks, starlings, pintails and teal. Other European bird enthusiasts joined in the hobby of trapping, banding and releasing, all crediting Mortensen as leader. Within a few years, the interest spread to the United States, where in 1909, the American Bird Banding Association was founded.
Recovered and reported leg bands on waterfowl began giving wildlife biologists important information on lifespans of individual birds and some indication of species habits and migration patterns. In 1920, the Bureau of Sport Fishing and Wildlife and the Canadian Wildlife Service combined to take over the banding of migratory birds in North America, resulting in a cooperative program under the joint direction of the two governments.
In 1904, Jack Miner founded his Migratory Bird Sanctuary near Kingsville, Ontario, and five years later, began capturing and banding local and migrating waterfowl. The treasured Canada goose bands sporting his name, a number and an inscribed Bible verse became the Miner trademark in 1915. The tradition continues into the 21st century thanks to the dedication of the Miner family.
Although some individuals and private organizations are licensed to trap and band waterfowl, the previously mentioned North American Bird Banding Program handles the bulk of the work, with the research center headquartered in Laurel, Md. Since 1904, an estimated 58 million birds representing hundreds of species have been banded. More than three million recovered bands have been reported to the agency, yielding volumes of information and data.
Each harvest of a banded duck or goose is etched in the hunter's memory. The event will last a lifetime, the story told over and over. Personally, that's the case for each of the 50-plus bands collected over my half-century as a waterfowler. My only regret concerning a banded bird was the first one taken at the youthful age of 15, a mallard hen killed out of a decoying bunch, shot with my dad's 20-gauge model 12 Winchester. I was so excited and proud that I didn't need a boat for transportation back to the harbor. I don't know if I could have walked on water, but that day, it would have been close. Oh, the regret. Like a dummy, I sent the band to Laurel, Md., and I have never seen it again. From that time on, a letter or a phone call to report the information has been my policy.
All of the bands on my lanyard remind me of my passion for waterfowling and special memories, but two pieces are my favorites. Oddly, they were from the same mallard drake, one band from each leg.
My son, Todd, and I, along with old friend Charlie Morgan, had accepted an invitation from Stuttgart native, Archie Prine, to hunt the second opener of the Arkansas split season. We were to meet Prine and his buddies near Claredon, Ark., for a 5:30 a.m. departure.
"Bring your boat, decoys and some shells," he instructed. "We'll be at the Lakeside ramp."
The only thing we knew about Lakeside was it was off the highway not far from Claredon, where the meandering Cache River completes the journey before joining her big sister, the White River. The Cache/White basin provides one of the largest wintering playgrounds for millions of Mississippi flyway mallards.
Fully prepared for the hunt, we had purchased our licenses and state waterfowl stamps the previous evening. That year (1985) for the Arkansas Waterfowl stamp, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission had selected wildlife artist Ken Carlson's portrait of a pair of mallard drakes taking flight from the water of a flooded green timber hardwood setting.
Hot's Hole, near Stuttgart, Ark., provided a memorable timber hunt for the author's group.
One of the greenheads wore jewelry, one band on each leg, which I thought was a unique touch.
We arrived at our destination just as Prine and party were launching a flat-bottom johnboat.
"You boys hurry up," Prine said. "We've got a ways to go before we get to Hot's Hole."
Gear loaded and motor running, we headed down a narrow chute into the dark, flooded timber of Potlatch Paper Company. The next half-hour was a journey of twists and turns down old logging roads presently two to four feet under the murky water of the flooded Cache.
In the predawn of a mild, overcast morning, the lead boat cut its outboard and drifted into a large timber opening filled with decoys and surrounded by massive live oak trees.
"Here we are boys: Hot's Hole," exclaimed one of the camo-clad warriors as he jumped from the boat into the knee-deep water.
Arkansas has long been known as a duck hunter's paradise, with Stuttgart boasting the label "Rice and Duck Capitol of the World." Rice field hunting is certainly special, but the aura, setting and magic of flooded timber hunting is beyond compare. Many spots have been passed down from generation to generation and most are given names, not only to add spice to the stories, but to let the ladies know where their men are spending way too much time. The Fireman's Hole, Zero Hole, Cotton's Hole, Tennessee Hole and the fabled 410 Hole at the Greenbriar Club (where guests were only allowed to shoot .410-gauge guns) are examples of the variety of labels given the mallard magnets.
It wasn't long after taking our assigned positions surrounding Hot's Hole that several curious mallards fell victim to our calls and blasts, becoming part of the morning bag.
But soon the action slowed to a crawl, and by 10 a.m., the Arkansas group was ready to call it a hunt and head for home.
"If you Illinois boys want to try and fill your limit, I'd suggest you follow us back to the ramp in daylight, then come back ou
t," Prine said. "Otherwise, you all will get lost in these woods."
The suggestion was well taken as the Illinois boys had nothing but time and little or no clue where the boat ramp was located in relation to our hunting spot. Todd decided to stay and hunt until our return, based on the opportunity to work some ducks and the assumption Dad and ol' Morgan could find Hot's Hole in the bright of day.
Morgan and I made mental notes as we followed the leader through the miles of forest toward the highway boat landing. Finding our way back to the hole where my son patiently waited seemed to be a simple task, until we rounded a bend that ended in a large opening overgrown in cocklebur and exploding with skyward, frightened mallards.
Seemingly, a hundred ducks flushed from their flooded timber hideout.
As Morgan and I stared in amazement, we could faintly hear the highball sound of Todd's duck call in the distance. Evidently, some of the cocklebur mallards had flown in his direction. Figuring out that we had made the wrong turn at the trail's intersection marked with the beer can nailed to a tree, we backtracked and soon arrived at Hot's Hole.
"What took you guys so long?" was Todd's first question.
"We were looking for ducks," Morgan responded, with a grin.
Todd knew better. "Yeah right, you ol' timers got lost."
We told our story and decided to load up and return to the patch where we had jumped the flock of mallards. Todd had seen few birds during our absence, thus, all agreed the new plan was worth a try.
The cocklebur hole wasn't far. Within minutes of arrival, we had scattered two-dozen decoys and selected our positions with the wind at our backs. The early afternoon sun made its first appearance of the day, which was a welcome sight, but the first half-hour at our new location produced no ducks. Then, without warning, a pair of mallards approached our hole. After several short quacks from my call, a single shot each from Todd and Morgan stoned a drake and hen.
"Four more ducks, guys, and we'll be finished," Morgan proclaimed as he fetched the two fallen mallards.
Todd spied them first -- an interested bunch of mallards circling high, checking out the decoys scattered in the 'bur patch. It appeared that the ducks had been there before.
"Let's call 'em down," I whispered to Todd as we hugged the trunk of a big oak. The birds made several passes before beginning their final descent and began backpedaling over the weed-covered hole. "Let's take 'em," I cried, and the explosions from our guns echoed throughout the flooded timber.
Four greenheads seemed to collapse simultaneously as the survivors headed skyward.
One cripple required an extra shot as we searched the cover for our kill. Todd made the longest retrieve -- on a drake he and I had both shot on its attempted escape. The broad smile on my son's face indicated something special as he exclaimed, "Dad, you're not going to believe this one."
Lifting the duck to his shoulder, I could see the shiny band on the orange leg. What I had not seen was the duck's other leg also sporting a band inscribed, "Reward $10."
While we gathered the decoys and loaded the johnboat with gear, we relived, reveled and discussed the oddity of our success. If the Arkansas guys hadn't left early, if Todd hadn't stayed at Hot's Hole, if Morgan and I hadn't gotten lost, there would not have been the cocklebur mallards, no limit and no double-banded duck. But that's hunting: sometimes luck and fate play a role. Maybe it was destiny that a father and son would share the experience of a lifetime.
Todd and I agreed that we had doubled on the bejeweled bird, and my son graciously gave Dad the reward. Close examination revealed that one was the standard Avise Bird Band, Washington D.C. with a nine-digit number stamped on the aluminum tag. The other bird band was inscribed with, "Reward $10," along with the Avise information and a seven-digit number.
Larry Reid has collected more than 50 bands in his waterfowling days, none more memorable than the aluminum rings on an Arkansas greenhead from 1985.
Later research would reveal knowledge concerning waterfowl being tagged with reward bands. In the 1950s, as an incentive for hunters to report banded birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service selected a limited number of waterfowl to wear a $2 reward band in addition to the regular tag. Over the next three decades, amounts increased to $5 and $10, and band returns continued to improve. The 21st century found some rewards up to $100, a select few rewards up to an amazing $400.
Nationally known research waterfowl biologist, Frank Bellrose, is credited with the monetary tag idea. Bellrose began the program in conjunction with the Forbes Biological Station headquartered on the Illinois River near Havana, Ill. In 1997, the Forbes Station was renamed the Frank C. Bellrose Waterfowl Research Center to honor a man who dedicated his life's work to the study of migratory birds.
Later that evening, we stopped by Prine's home in Stuttgart to give a requested report. As we replayed the adventure of the day to our Arkansas friend, with special emphasis on the banded drake, Prine's young son, Bret, came out from the house to investigate the strangers gathered in the driveway. Upon seeing the jewelry on the mallard, the youngster ran back to his front door loudly shouting, "Momma, Momma! Come quick! These boys done kilt a double-banded duck!" Of course, those present broke out in a roar of laughter as the lad ran around cradling the special duck.
Bret Prine would take his youthful waterfowl enthusiasm into his teenage years and beyond, continuing to hunt the flooded green timber and rice fields with his father and friends. As a competition duck caller, Bret reached the finals of the Junior World Duck Calling Championship in the late 1980s, and won the prestigious Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Calling Contest in 1993.
Today, nearly 25 years later, the boy who cried out for his mother to "come quick" guides hunters who come to the storied Arkansas region of prairie rice and green timber water holes. I've often wondered if Bret recalls his outburst over the long ago, double-banded drake. The story of the Lakeside hunt has been told and repeated over the years, and it always ends
with young Bret Prine's cry for his mother to "come quick!"
Our mallard was captured and banded in Louisiana, with a reward band number 33216.
He gained his fame in the flooded cocklebur patch. The reward band number on the mallard drake featured on the 1985 Arkansas state duck stamp is 31361 -- likely banded in the same group of ducks. Both mallards will long be remembered.
I have often wondered if some lucky waterfowler harvested the duck memorialized on that stamp. Perhaps the bands are proudly displayed on his lanyard, just like our double bands.
As long as waterfowlers pursue the passion there is always the thought, the hope, that when the downed bird is retrieved, maybe, just maybe, it could be wearing jewelry. Who knows, you might be like young Bret Prine and cry out, "Momma, Momma come quick!"
Larry Reid is host of "Outdoors with Larry Reid" which airs Sundays at noon on WBGZ Radio, 1570 AM, in Alton, Ill.