March 29, 2023
By Chris Ingram
What do you think of when someone mentions “duck hunting?” The phrase generates a certain mental picture depending on where you're from or how you've been chasing the migration. Before I had any reason for my mind to paint the canvas any other way, duck hunting to me meant strings of mallards cascading down through a flooded timber hole in Arkansas, as cadences of quacks and chuckles echoed through the trees. For as long as I could remember, at least until my first duck hunt in Vermont, this distinctive scene was synonymous with all I knew about this timeless tradition. To me, greenheads in the green timber was simply duck hunting in its purest form.
I chased a few whitetails in Wisconsin with my father as a kid, but finally had my first taste of the fowl factor later in life, after moving to Vermont and becoming a “reactivated” or “adult-onset” waterfowl hunter, whatever they're calling us nowadays—I'm running with the “late to the hunt” description I recently saw on social media. We certainly don't have the iconic flooded timber conditions here in New England, nothing near the likes of which were ingrained in my mind, so duck hunting became rewritten in a new form that now included stunning sunrises and open water gunning for Lake Champlain divers, skinny, creek wood duck shoots, and marsh madness in the cattails for mallards, black ducks, and teal. My personal narrative of duck hunting thus began and is something I will forever cherish, but I would always retain that romantic vision of wading knee-deep in cold, dark water to hug the base of a towering oak to stare up into the canopy for rapidly descending greenheads.
Gushing For Green
My yearning for the flooded woods would eventually come to fruition last January when I was able to make the trek down to the Natural State for an unforgettable hunt. I made camp with the Bill Byers Hunter Club near Hunter, Arkansas, an operation that is as steeped in the tradition of duck hunting as are hand-me-down shotguns, leaky waders, and wet dogs. Time-worn photos, mounted birds, and antiqued hunting memorabilia of yesteryear adorn the walls and filled my mind with nostalgia as a “those were the good old days” adage echoed through my mind. Third generation club owner, Cason Short, gave us a tour and showed a strong sense of pride for the history of not only the club itself, but for honoring the age-old pastime that is duck hunting. I had arrived, and I was in exactly the right place.
The following morning, I climbed into the boat but somehow stepped back in time. We rode away without lights, under the thick veil of darkness, with only the faint glint of starlight to lead our way. We slowly motored up a well-worn channel in the woods that I can only imagine has seen equally as many miles travelled by its hunters as the generations of ducks that have visited this timber hole stopover. My excitement built as we arrived at our location and the motor quit to reveal the first full sensory glimpse of this alluring mallard mecca.
Our garrison for this greenhead mission was along the edge of a flooded timber stand that gives way to a millet field. I disembarked from the boat and plunged knee-deep into the dark, murky water that felt only slighter colder than the brisk, wintry air that hit my face. The dim glow of the morning sun peeked through the trees and shimmered across the water to provide just enough illumination to navigate calculated footwork through the submerged entanglement below to claim the perfect tree for the morning. I precariously hung my blind bag around my arboreal watch post, and I couldn't help but feel like I was about to experience the epitome of duck hunting.
There's an inarguable and almost haunting mystique being in this mystical venue. An enchanting symphony started up as wing flaps whirled around me to set the rhythm. A nearby feed of thousands of snow geese gabbled into a wall of sound. An overture of overhead chattering cued our guides to join this avian anthem with gritty cutdown barks and synchronized leg-twirling splashes. I joined in this perfect harmony as my childlike chuckles indicated complete captivation.
Big Green Is Back
The hypnotic hymn was soon interrupted when Cason uttered “take ‘em!” and the first shots of the day rang out. We emptied our guns on greenheads sending our green-hulled, feather-folding shotshells to make the deadly demise of many a mallard. When the clamor quieted and the gun smoke cleared, Tug, the resident black Labrador retriever was dispatched for clean-up duty. We kept our four-legged friend busy as he eagerly retrieved our ducks after each volley, and we laughed when he proudly presented a stud shoveler—that other esteemed greenhead.
The rub of the green trifecta was completed with a box of “Big Green Ammo” at my side. You know what I mean. Those legendary, green-hulled, beak-busting payloads that have been longstanding staples in duck blinds and goose pits across North America for what seems like forever. Whether you've only spent a single season in the swamp or a lifetime in the blind, you've surely cycled several boxes through your own shotgun. And just like us diehard waterfowlers that weather the storm to pursue the ducks who are born and bred to adapt and thrive amidst a changing climate and shifting migrations, Remington Ammunition has stood the test of time. Big Green Ammo is back and better than ever, with their Lonoke, Arkansas factory cranking out shells to meet hunter demands. Old classics like Sportsman Hi-Speed Steel, newer favorites such as Hypersonic Steel and Nitro Steel, as well as brand-new offerings like their Premier Bismuth are being manufactured and distributed as fast as possible.
There were so many ways in which this hunt was unlike any others I had ever been on. Back in the north country, many mornings are met with a single stream of birds or a short flight time before all the birds in the area seem to get scarce. But here in Arkansas, in the heart of the Mississippi flyway, we worked smaller bunches of ducks all morning. I was wildly out of the know in this classic southern shindig, so I began to pry at Cason as to what makes this style of hunting so special.
“It's just such an intimate style of hunting,” he grinned. “You're poorly hidden standing next to a tree, but it makes you feel so close and personal as ducks are flying all around you and landing in front of you with their ripples on the water hitting your boots—you just don't get the same experience when you're covered up and hidden in a blind.”
I smiled and chuckled in agreement. I now know full well just exactly what he means. “We're all hunters, because our ancestors were,” he added, “There's got to be something passed down in our DNA. I wonder if because the mallard ducks have been in the flooded woodlands of the Mississippi flyway for forever, if there's just something about us as mankind realizing this is just the most natural way of hunting ducks—at least in this part of the world.”
I nodded my head to concur with his testimony just as the next group of gregarious ducks made their presence known. Their friendly quacks and chatters gave us ample time to acquire our targets above the treetops before they willfully dropped down in hopes of finding a safe place to rest among our decoys.
With another break in the action, I continued to question Cason, asking about mallard behavior and what compels them to drop from the skies to investigate our ploy of decoys in steady streams throughout the morning. “These birds will take to the woods during the day for various reasons. There's lots of food for them here, but later in the day the woods also provide a lot of natural cover from hunting pressure and predation,” as he pointed up toward a nearby bald eagle nest. “And there is a lot of variation day-to-day and throughout the season. Our woods hunting really picks up when the bulk of the birds are here by early- to mid-December and into January, but usually by Christmas. The acorn production is pretty strong throughout the season and when it gets cold, they might be driven to store up fat reserves, but one often overlooked aspect, is that the woods are great for invertebrates. When a mallard's need for protein increases later in the season, the woods are a great source of bugs.” With all things factored in, this fowl formula has surely proven to be a recipe for success on my hunt.
The warm sun burned brightly, making it much easier to pick out the iridescent greenheads amongst the flocks of incoming ducks. Our group was able to take turns picking off the prized drakes and now I finally understand the need for a sturdy game strap as I secured my bag limit. Feeling complete, I leaned back against my tree and reflected upon my time as a duck hunter. The journey to the timber and a smash-up morning of mallards validated every ounce of motivation I ever had and will certainly continue to fuel the fire moving forward.
Honoring the Timeless Tradition
My neck ached from hours of skyward arching and my face felt permanently strained from a simpered smile. As I stepped back into the boat to leave the flooded woods, I couldn't help but think about all of the hunters who came before me in this very timber stand to spend their mornings to meet migrating mallards. As I rested contentedly in my soft, breathable waders and warm, fleece-lined jacket, I thought about them in their buffalo-plaid flannels, waxed cotton coats, and rubber waders. While they'd assuredly scoff at my contemporary comfort, I acknowledged that we do indeed share the same desire for the flooded woods, fellowship among friends, and a full strap of greenheads.
Although I'd never been there before, it somehow felt intimately familiar, as if I'd already experienced it, maybe even a hundred times or more. Perhaps it's part of that primordial pull that's embedded in our DNA that my woods-wise guide alluded to. That siren song of quacks and whistling wings that beckons us to the marshes and timber holes to stand for endless hours to brave the barely-above-freezing water at the mere chance to test our ability to outwit—or maybe just outlast—the smartest and hardiest of birds in the migration. Whatever it is, I felt like I was right where I needed to be at the right time. And although this was a high-caliber hunt of a lifetime, I'm already looking forward to the next hunt on my home turf in the Green Mountains of Vermont. I guess that's why we keep going back. We never know if the next hunt could be the best one, the worst one, or God forbid, the last one. So, whatever duck hunting means to you, I hope you do it, and I hope you do it as much as you can, because I fully believe that we're living in our very own “good old days” of duck hunting right now.