Old Man River: Duck Hunting the Arkansas Timber
For a true southern green-tree experience, head down the L'Anguille River, Arkansas, and hunt with a legend.
After a thrilling waterfowling hunt, you leave with those vivid moments seared in your brain from when it all came together. The sudden movement of shadows crossing the water through the spread, the wings tearing the silence from the air…gunfire and the smell of shotshell smoke pouring from the receiver.
Not this time. Oh, we shot the pants off the ducks, sure. McGhee, Arkansas, was where we stayed at the Delta Resort and Lodge last November, bagging pintail, gadwalls, woodies, teal, mallards and more in the timber holes. A celebration of Realtree’s new Timber pattern done right, with swamp legend Blake Burris of Ole’ South Outfitters at the helm.
But it was not the shooting that seared in my brain. It was the vibration and roar of a mud motor pushing a duck boat banking hard right and left chasing the spotlight through the blackness, ducking tree limbs as the glare hit their trunks, rushing forward so fast it appeared we would surely smash into them, while the shadows behind them raced to our sides as we drew closer.
That is most vivid, perhaps because we had to travel to get there and that was the first powerful emotion. Anticipation, as our senses took it all in. I’ve shot a lot of ducks; that boat ride never gets old.
That, and meeting the old man of the river.
Blake Burris has run this river since he was 6 with his dad, and his sons and their sons are hunting it now, four-generations of duck-killing carnage, introducing thousands of hunters to the swamp: 55 years on the river for Blake alone.
Burris is exactly the mildly outrageous, huge, charismatic personality that elevates any Deep South hunt. A boisterous, bearded, backwoods country boy who is dead serious about killing ducks but also having fun. He’ll take you into the timber, or into one of his creaky, enormous, ancient, double-decker house blinds looming over ancestral greenhead holes, and you’ll never forget it.
“The first time I met Blake Burris, I saw this 65-year-old man, white hair, big white beard, come flying up in his red Dodge dually blaring Black Sabbath at 5 a.m.,” said Andrew Murray, Realtree Creative Director, who took the terrific photos for this essay. “He jumped out of his truck wearing a string of Christmas lights around his neck and yells ‘Good morning Vietnaaaaam’ and then starts laughing. Four years later I haven’t stopped laughing around him. And the duck hunting, it’s world class.”
“There’s no dull moments when you’re hunting with Blake,” Murray says. “Zipping through the trees to get to the blind, the steady stream of action from group after group of birds diving into the masterfully placed spread, or the consistent jokes and stories from Blake that have you laughing so hard you don’t know how you haven’t scared every bird in the county. It’s a world-class experience that personifies Arkansas duck hunting.”
We asked Blake in the blind, when did he know duck hunting would ruin/dominate his life?
“Since about age 15, before I could drive, that’s when I got real serious. My older friends would drive, and we had blinds on the Mississippi. I learned to waterski at 6 here, I just jumped in, and I’ll go ski it with ya today!”
But what about the flying carp?
“Yeah, that’s a problem. A 20-pounder hit me right square in the nose yesterday. I thought it would black both my eyes. It was like a giant, slimy, oversized football coming at you and I dropped the tiller and caught it with both hands as it hit me. If I hadn’t seen it coming it would have knocked me right outta the boat. When the water is low they are bad. My wife and I, we both been hit.”
That’s how it is around Blake. Never, ever, boring. A follow-up interview with him starts out like this:
“Skip, me and the wife are sitting on the porch cooking hot dogs right now talking to you, and a danged bobcat crossed the road just now, I swear. Then another, and another, and another! Four bobcats and it’s 2’oclock. I can’t believe it, they all look the same, big, thought they were deer!”
Burris runs eight to 15 people every day for 60 days, and keeps the number low enough he can always take a few extra. “I can almost always hunt ya,” he says, “and if I don’t have ducks I’ll tell ya straight up. Some blinds are great when the water’s up, others the opposite. It’s a big swamp.”
It’s all worth it just for the morning boat ride, I tell him. Does everyone love that?
“I’ve seen some people grit their teeth pretty tight. Hitting trees is part of driving through that swamp. Some of them don’t like the five-ticket-ride,” he says with a laugh, alluding to carnival tickets. “But 80 percent of my business is repeat customers, in fact whole repeat groups. And I got these camps you can’t believe in Mexico…”
Of course he does. What is it about ducks in the timber and swamps that makes it so magical? You could write many books on this, an overwhelming question for someone who has made it a life.
The old man sighs deeply, collects his thoughts.
“It’s when you get ‘em in and finish them in front of everybody, you look like a hero,” he says. “I love to put them right in front of everybody. I’m not as much about shooting any more. I just want them in the hole. When it’s right, it’s in your blood, the trees are in your blood…once people hunt in the trees, it’s just something about a duck that halos down into the hole. I like big groups and won’t even let people shoot sometimes, we’ll let 1,000 teal light in the hole, when you can see in the sky thousands more coming…it’s mayhem.”
“And I love it when they almost finish and I let ‘em go and the guys all say, ‘oh no we shoulda shot, we shoulda shot!’” he says. “Then I get ‘em back to do it right, right in the hole. That’s the best.”
Eating wild game is a core value with Blake & Co.
“We got a timber-to-table deal. It’s our lifestyle first, and my wife has a dinner group and we cook wild meat and move it around - elk, ducks geese, pate’…”
The river keeps him young, always seeing new things.
“It’s always changing like any river. It used to be a tight river with huge timber, now there are big holes and much of the timber has faded back…you have to adapt and change with it.”