March 16, 2011
Two days looking up at fluttering gadwalls and backpedaling mallards.
Charles Snapp left no doubt about it:
The duck descending gently toward the water 15 yards in front of us was all mine.
"Paul, shoot that duck!" his hushed voice urgently instructed.
Coiled thigh-deep in water between two tupelo trees, I shifted my weight forward to shoulder my shotgun. Instinctively, the butt of the stock found the pit of my arm while my eyes tracked the backpedaling gadwall silhouette.
As my finger began to squeeze the trigger, the duck vanished. Not behind a tree -- but into the blackness of the Arkansas dawn.
I heard its belly gently splash, and the ripples of the bird's touchdown lapped toward my waders. If the duck would have landed any closer, I'm sure I'd have heard it breathing.
But I still couldn't see it. The green timber shadows had swallowed my duck. I clicked the safety back on.
No matter. Another dozen ducks whipped dizzyingly overhead, turning on cue for another pass as Snapp summoned them with enticing quacks.
READ: Making The Perfect Call
"Watch these out front," cautioned Zack Rednour, an avid waterfowler from Southern Illinois.
After the ducks whirled past, Rednour joined Snapp in duck talk. While my partners called, I swung my leg in the water to create waves to move the dozen magnum mallard decoys we'd set in a small opening in the flooded woods.
They stopped calling. I froze. And four fat gadwalls filtered through the trees, tantalizingly close. I fired first. I missed badly, but Snapp and Rednour tumbled birds. I caught a break when, amidst the confusion of wings and echoing gunfire, a fleeing duck twisted past as it reached for the treetops. This time, I had a clear sight line. A moment later, my first Arkansas duck -- a handsomely plumed drake gadwall -- rested belly up next to a wide-trunked tupelo.
Zack Rednour, right, of Flambeau Outdoors, watches ducks pass over the timber.
Although I longed to retrieve my feathered prize, I stood statuesque as more wings whistled above. Behind me, Snapp's Santa-like beard bounced as he quacked gently at the latest squadron of ducks. To my right, I saw Rednour's face tense as the birds dropped for a closer look at our stools.
Another gadwall floated gently toward the surface, with three more lowering their flaps right on its tail feathers. It would have been so simple to shoot them. But Snapp was stone still. Rednour crouched behind a tree. I twitched nervously. As the gadwalls touched down, another half-dozen bigger ducks hovered, their orange feet flailing for water.
"Now!" Snapp said. "It's hammertime!"
READ: Timber Teal
Startled mallards frantically fought for altitude. Shotguns belched. Greenheads crashed.
Deep in prime beaver habitat of Northeast Arkansas, I experienced the frenzied action of a storied style of duck hunting I'd read about for years, but never before had opportunity to try.
Migrating With the Birds
I felt like I was in another world. A day earlier, I migrated south from a frozen Wisconsin landscape largely void of waterfowl. Duck season was over up north.
I could not contain my excitement when Rednour, a marketing specialist for Flambeau Outdoors, invited me to experience the hallowed green timber of Arkansas as a guest of Snapp's Davy Crockett Guide Service in Walnut Ridge, Ark. Although Stuttgart garners most of the publicity as the premier duck-hunting destination in Arkansas, the area Snapp operates in 115 miles to the north is loaded with waterfowl. Mile after mile of flooded rice fields hold wintering mallards, pintails, gadwalls, white-fronted geese and snow geese by the tens of thousands.
A waterfowl guide and outfitter for three decades, Snapp has strategically located pit blinds on a dozen leased ric
e fields. The guides who work for him take clients afield four days a week. In between, Snapp lets the fields -- and the ducks and geese -- rest, feed and gather.
Although Rednour and I would have been more than content to man a rice field pit, as green-timber greenhorns, we were doubly enthused to tote our shotguns into the woods.
Among the Trees
The first morning, we followed Snapp down a slick gravel road to the edge of a wood lot.
In the dark, it looked just like a hardwood 40 in Wisconsin.
Calling helps ducks find the decoys.
Snapp plunged into the treeline, breaking shell ice as he waded toward a flat-bottomed boat lashed to a trunk. We stowed our gear and hopped aboard as Snapp fired up the mud motor. Soon, we wend through a scattered woodland maze, guided by reflectors that had been nailed to trees to mark the path. In the water, PVC pipes protruded from the depths to mark hidden stumps and wooden snarls. Despite the navigation aids, it was a slow, treacherous ride filled with bumps and bounces.
A troublesome fuel line dampened our progress, but a persistent Snapp negotiated the boat to our destination: a tiny clearing 75 yards from a gigantic beaver lodge. To be honest, all of the woods looked the same to me. But our guide knew where the ducks wanted to be.
READ: Duck Calling Tactics
Snapp handed a tree spike to me as I stepped carefully out of the boat into the murky water. I spun the threads deep into a tupelo, and then gingerly hung my camera pack on the hook. Convinced it was secure, I slid the sling of my shotgun on the extended peg, too.
"Find a good place to stand," Snapp said. "In here, you'll have to hide behind a tree. As it gets lighter, we'll back off a row of trees and be a little farther from the decoys so the ducks don't see us."
With the decoys set, Snapp hustled the boat away from the spread, tying it out of sight of the pocket he had chosen for our hunt. As the first rays of daylight penetrated the trees, the grunts of gadwalls and insistent quacks of mallards echoed through the forest. A nearby wood duck shrieked good morning as Rednour and I staked our spots. Waves of excitement hung in the air, soon to be joined by stretching wings.
Inside a Beehive
I trained my eyes above the highest tentacles of the trees, scanning cloud-filtered skies for the day's first ducks. A gentle whoosh of wings reached a crescendo, then faded as I rolled my eyes through the limbs in search of the source.
A pair of mallards off my right shoulder rapt my attention, but the ducks flitted beyond my view as suddenly as they entered it. A dozen more silhouettes arched deliberately behind me. A squadron of four slowed -- threatening to invade the hole we had strategically peppered with fakes.
As Rednour and Snapp quacked and chuckled, my eyeballs frantically tracked ducks every which way. Mallards on the right, gadwalls on the left and whirring blurs in the middle -- all switching and twisting, leaving my sight, then reappearing. I felt like I was at the controls of a video game on hyper mode.
"This is crazy," I muttered in disbelief to Rednour.
I knew if I was going to shoot any of the hundreds of birds that buzzed above, I needed to focus on a small area. I decided to visually patrol only the sky directly in front of me. We weren't going to fire at birds above the treetops anyway, so it made no sense to keep watch on ducks that weren't committing to our opening in the timber.
As the Arkansas swamp brightened, ducks seemed to gain confidence in the waters below. In the rare moments when no ducks were directly above, I waved my leg to send ripples toward the Flambeau UVision decoys we'd come to test.
Someone flipped the gadwall switch on, and a steady stream of gray ducks -- two, four, seven, nine in a bunch -- filtered down through the tupelo.
The gunning was quick and close. Courtesy of Rednour's shotgun, a drake gaddy crashed hard just to my right. I felt the splash. I landed another atop a decoy, and Snapp sent several ducks careening dead-on-the-wing through the trees.
We reached 15 ducks easily. Then, the wind swelled, foretelling an impending storm.
Ducks continued to circle and buzz, but those that attempted to drop into our zone aborted landing after landing. They seemed to lack the precision to get through the branches and reach the water.
READ: Tips For Shooting In A Duck Blind
Needing one more duck to fill my six-bird bag, I knew finishing was going to require trying to intercept one of the false-landing flights. Soon after, a circling drake gadwall lowered its flaps in front of me, fighting the stiff breeze as it tried feebly to find an opening. The duck corrected and climbed, but my pellets ended its flight.
"Gadwalls and greenheads in the timber," Rednour said as we picked up ducks and decoys. "Very cool."
Thunder and Lightening
For our second morning, Snapp decided we should hunt from a blind -- mostly because it offered some protection from the weather.
Thunder cracked and lightening flashed as Snapp motored us through the timber. As we had done a day earlier, we followed a path of reflectors through the trees, watching for hazard markers and navigating a bed of sunken logs in the dark.
Gadwalls and greenheads filled the strap.
We emerged from the trees to the edge of a small marsh. After shuttling our gear inside of a well-made wooden blind complete with shelves, benches, a dog door and a roof, Rednour and Snapp set a spread of mallards and green-winged teal out front.
Mallards quacked boisterously nearby as we situated our gear in the blind and loaded our shotguns. The soaking rain delayed the daylight, but wings were above before we could see.
"Right out front!" Snapp warned.
A pair of teal twisted over the marsh grass, swooping low and into the decoys. I let them land, but not on purpose. I couldn't pick them out against the dark background, so I'd have been wasting shotshells.
A lone mallard tried to land. Rednour's shotgun belched fire into the dimness, and the duck lay still on the water.
The shot awakened the wetland, and more ducks were on the wing. Teal paid a visit, and gadwalls were aplenty. Wood ducks, wigeon and a flock of Canada geese continued the parade near our air space.
Willing ducks -- again mostly gadwalls and a few mallards -- decoyed in pairs or alone.
Like the raindrops, the action was steady and unrelenting.
READ: Arkansas Duck Hunting Image Gallery
Snapp and Rednour reached limits of six in short order, but I was more deliberate. I had passed several shots on the first birds of the morning because I couldn't see well enough in the low light, so I had collected only three ducks. My partners turned into spotters and cheerleaders. Three chances later -- gadwall, mallard, gadwall -- I too, had finished.
Much to my delight, the mallard sported a band.
Over Too Quickly
After I collected my gear, I looked gratefully out over the flooded hole. Two days, two limits. But it was more than that. Green timber hunting had lured me to Arkansas. I had hunted river backwaters in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but never had I experienced mallards and gadwalls filtering gently down through limbs in front of me. The water around the tupelos definitely contains duck food, but I'm not so sure there isn't a bit of magic in those trees, too.
We returned to the lodge for a shower and lunch, then Snapp treated us to a tour of the area's rice fields. One soggy parcel held more mallards than I've ever seen in any one place. The next one was pure pintails 50 yards deep, with an assortment of species beyond that. Around the next country block, we drove past a wad of specklebellies and snows. Not hundreds of geese. Thousands. In one field.
All too soon, I was boarding a plane to return to the frozen north. My waterfowl season was over -- but what an ending!
Paul Wait is editor of Wildfowl.