The gentlemen in our group would hear none of getting up at 5 a.m., so we awoke at a leisurely 6 and hit the timber hole in the Argos, deep in the inky dark green-tree swamp. Jeff Watt moved through the black water with his trademark economy of motion, efficiency that comes only with many years of doing something at an intense level. Carrying impossible amounts of gear while tending the dog, he motioned for me to hide the Argo and erect the spinners as he put out three-dozen Tanglefree flocked and foam-filled blocks, the Mojos, jerk cords and Wonder Duck slappers (paddle wheels), a wild spread I would come to call Watt's Water Park.
The boys unsheathed a brace of 20-gauge side by-sides, and Jeff pulled his Model 42 Winchester .410 out. I loaded my A400 28-gauge, a gun I was excited to try on big ducks after butchering the teal with it the year prior with lethal Hevi-Shot loads.
Zach Pedersen of Rock Road Creative, filming for Sitka, moved with efficiency similar to Watt, doing the impossible things camera guys do — capturing the morning activity while setting up to film all day with high-tech electronic gear in waste-deep swamp water...while making a plan to be invisible.
We were out to test Sitka's new Optifade Timber pattern with Watt, one of its developers, and see if we could turn a bunch of greenheads into believers. I had butterflies, my guts feeling like a million feeding mallards sound. Not just because we would be testing the new pattern, or that I was hunting with local duck-destroyer Watt. But because I hoped to see the magic, finally. Clouds and crowds always ruined my past timber hunts, which totalled three states and 20-something days of mostly fruitless tree hunkering. The curse of clouds (a deal-killer most of the time for timber hunting, because the birds see everything on overcast days) showed up but this time it didn't matter much. Wings overhead hissed through the dawn sky as we set up. Earlier reports from Jeff, and actual birds in the air, told me this time would be different.
The region was jammed with ducks that had stalled on migration due to warm conditions and flooding further south. We had none of the conditions we needed like true cold and clear skies, but it would not matter. Arkansas was starving for ducks, because they were all here, just east of Kansas City.
If there was someone born to hatch a timber pattern with RNT legend John Stephens, it is Watt. An independent sales rep and Sitka waterfowl athlete, he hunkered with Stephens for days on end, creating this pattern. They had the secret blessing of Jonathan Hart, Sitka founder, who decided a timber-specific pattern needed to be done, no matter how small the market. Hart decided to make it happen and seek forgiveness later. Stephens, who is part artist, part hunter, and full-time waterfowl mad scientist, worked with Watt and took the older Optifade patterns and moved them around on the computer and changed the colors to hues of the swamp.
My first impression? I looked over at my new buddy, cranky old Don Coffey, a founder of this duck club, as we waited for shooting light. I had just smiled at him, but now could not find him. He had vanished with the pattern. He finally turned his head and I caught his face. He had just ambled about three yards to sit on a log jam and rest his back. But he blended into the timber like tree bark.
The second impression came later, after my straps were full. I swapped the gun for a camera, and found I could move among the trees right to the edge of the spread. And stand there, and shoot photos, without the ducks noticing. With this pattern, you don't have to hump a tree, just hold still.
All suspicions about Sitka's new pattern, and my 28 gauge, were quickly confirmed. A few ducks fluttered in and it was too early to tell hens from drakes, but birds piled in from the second we got there. Three ghosted right in the hole, climbed back out, and nobody shot. I couldn't stand it and as a drake gained the treetops I pointed the little gun (it's so light, you don't really swing it ) and POP! That duck folded so hard it looked like it never had wings or a head and neck. Pa-BLOOSH into the water. Four drakes in four shots, another tree-topper and two in the hole, no cripples. Hevi-Shot is just nasty.
So this was real timber hunting. Finally. What freaked me out that first day were the outrageous lines of birds in the sky, far more than all my other timber hunts combined, sometimes four or five lines going opposite directions, and non-stop crossing singles and doubles. By no means did they all work, but enough peeled off our group tagged out by mid-morning.
Fifteen out of 16 ducks on the day were believers in the new Sitka Timber. The 16th had no idea what hit him.
The hunting for the next few days was intense, like everything in Jeff Watt's world. Sitka was founded when backcountry bad-asses Jonathan Hart and Jason Hairston got fed up that they had to throw crappy camo over high-tech gear by companies like Mountain Hardware, Patagonia and Arcteryx in order to survive the alpine extremes and do what core big game hunters do. Why was nobody building gear for the original extreme athletes, hunters?
Many brands were building clothing for mountaineering, a tiny market, but not for hunting world. Big game stuff came first with Sitka, and when they launched a pricey waterfowl line of high-tech gear, the duo forged a niche that did not exist prior. Turns out hunters like comfortable, warm, dry, breathable, clothing that moves with your body and performs under all condition.
Predictably, Nancy-boys the world over groaned how Sitka gear would never sell at such a high price point'¦and in about one year the brand became a status symbol for core waterfowlers, particularly the younger guns, and anybody who regularly hunted outside a cozy, heated blind.
"We have taken this waterfowl industry by storm and made waves," Watt says. "We are committed to the waterfowl game like no other. Timber is specifically for the oldest tiny niche of waterfowling, the flooded timber hunter, and nobody else is doing it. It will work in pits because it's darker and in river bottoms, too, sure, but the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana are our target for the pattern. We are trying to promote timber hunting and the history and the lore of it'¦you know what it means to the older guys. There is just nothing better in the world than watching mallards work down through the trees.
"It's a small market and we know it, but we don't care, because it is important."
Sound like a religious fanatic? Yeah. Guilty.
"It's a darker environment," says Jim Saubier, Sitka's waterfowl product development guru. "We did a lot of research to make sure we are meeting the 'science of concealment' promise to fool the birds, as they work in really close. Waterfowlers have un-met needs and we want to deliver on that."
'Science of concealment' is the Optifade camo pattern trademark, rooted in the idea of creating visual confusion based on how animals see, not how hunters see.
I know what I'd seen after a few days in the swamp with Watt. Finally, a proper lights-out timber hunt and all the magic involved. But what I really came to appreciate was Mr. Watt. We had been on an epic-terrible hunt together in the past, one of my many failed timber trips (some readers may remember "The Slump" editor letter) and along with all this smoking barrels and flying feathers redemption, I got a real good insight into the man.
Watt is a face for Sitka waterfowling, but will quickly tell you, "There is no single face of the company when it comes to product lines. We don't do that. Our key is authenticity. And relationships, and hard-core use in development of these products. We just wanna help build the best product and won't bring it out until it is the best, period."
So what makes the man tick? Leadership. Tightly wound, competitive, aggressive, sure, but a born leader. Riding in his monster truck on the way to duck camp, I listen to him telling his sons on the phone to get it together and rally for an upcoming Arkansas hunt, a convo that is tense at first, a bit bossy, but ending in loving laughs. Classic Jeff: He is a firebrand of intensity'¦as a father with sons who live to hunt, he stays focused on the good stuff, including a youngest son who is freaking out to hunt ducks in the trees. What a lucky kid, to have this guy for a Pa. A dad who keeps two great retrievers in his office'¦and moves a jerk cord like a Latin dance move, the marquis ensemble of Watt's Water Carnival.
When Jeff works the jerk rig, the decoys moving in sync, half-spinning, then swimming, spinning back and swimming back again, it will hypnotize you just as it does the ducks. His buddies call them The Four Tops, out there dancing in harmony. If you are old enough to get that reference and are still hunting, God bless you.
The jerk rig is a fitting metaphor for Watt, who always has his ducks in a row.
"The jerk cord is such a key to this kinda hunting," Watt says. "It sucks them in so much." When he sees the ducks coming over he pulls the Rig'Em Right cord up tight, and as they get close he lets it go so they swim slowly back, nothing jerky or fake about the motion. Murder.
The Best of MO
Born in Kansas City in 1965, Watt moved to southern California at age 2 and then back to the M-O in 1981. With his water park, jerk cord, decoy spread and a buddy behind every tree, he is in heaven in the timber. Missouri is overall underrated, he believes.
"I live in the best area for timber hunting in the country," he says. "If you hit it, it is better than anywhere."
Watt has hunted the same place since 1983, and became an owner in the early '90s. Shadow Oaks is one of the only flooded timber spots left in the Four Rivers region most years. Timber hunting was great in the area, then most of the trees died from flooding. It's between the Four Rivers refuge pools and the Four Rivers public shooting area, with the Osage River on one side and the Marais des Cygnes River on the other.
A former competitive caller, Watt is also a core big game hunter who does everything at the highest level. He has a garage full of bull elk horns and has killed four mule deer over 200 inches. He loves long range shooting and routinely tags out at 500 to 1,000 yards. Been there, shot that. Even when he fishes, it's for giant wild steelhead on the famed Dean River (like 10 times), with spey rods. The varsity stuff.
So why the timber mallard addiction? What is his deal with ducks?
"Big game hunting? I love it, but it's one shot, that's it. A 180-inch whitetail is a cool tough trophy to get, but boring as hell. Sitting in a tree waiting for one to walk by," he says. "Greenheads, well you can call ducks, and they respond and the whole thing is social. How much fun was it out there with Danny and Don today? You can bust someone's chops for shooting a hen and zing 'em for $20. And there's so much more shooting."
Driving in his giant F350, Watt's phone rings one call after the other, and I recognize the names: duck hunting dignitaries. He is non-stop advising friends like Stephens on their marketing strategies and contacts, relative to sales in stores. And hunting reports. Always hunting reports.
Broad shouldered and gray-haired with a shaved head and Fu Manchu mustache, he is an athletic sort of stocky and looks like he probably owns a Harley. He is in fact terrified of motorcycles. His brain is formidable. He finally gets off the phone and picks right up on a deep conversation we had going 20 minutes prior, right where we left off. Mine does not work that way, and he has to re-acquaint me with the subject. He must be one of the busiest fellows on earth, and the ostentatious truck is because he is always hauling tractors, boats and pro-barbecue gear.
Yes, he somehow makes time for competition barbecue "because I just like to see a lot of happy people having a good time enjoying good food..." A video of his huge booth at a cooking event shows a few hundred people drinking and dancing around his grill.
As a Sitka rep and nut-job hunter, he always loved the Optifade Marsh pattern, but recognized its shortcomings.
"It works well in timber in the sunlight, which is when you really want to be hunting timber, but when it's overcast, you stand out like an ear of corn in a bowl of fudge batter," he said.
With a black-smeared face and new Timber pattern, we felt like ninjas in the swamp. The final morning mallards tried to land on us as we put the decoys out, and we were done hunting in less time that it took to wade in. How can a 30-minute hunt be so cool? We carefully chose our shots and still, it was over so fast. I folded four greenheads in four shots with the 28 for a too-fast limit; no skillful feat, as the birds were hanging piÃ±atas at 20 yards. Some days the limits just seem cruel. We stayed a bit and watched ducks land in the big open timber hole. Not his favorite spot. Jeff prefers the tighter tree holes so the birds have to do everything they can to get down and in. The hardest way, of course.
But for all the aggressive approach to life, he's fundamentally a nice guy, always bent on taking the high road (except for jokes'¦the dirtier the better). Those two qualities — aggressive and nice — are rarely found together. Club founder Don Coffey talks about when Jeff was young, he would pull up to the duck club late at night and sleep in the cold outside in his truck rather than come in and wake up the older guys with his arrival.
From his high-tech truck that is a travelling press conference to his aspirational level of hunting to his competition barbecuing to his outrageous duck blind builds and big-time big-game hunts, all of it, anything in life that's worth doing, I don't know if I've ever seen someone outside of the Olympics who does everything at Jeff's level.
"You just don't do anything half-assed, do you Watt?" I ask him.
"You know, I'm surprised you'd even ask that," he replies, feigning hurt with a look that implies what-is-wrong-with-you. "I don't screw around. Do it right and be done with it."
His work with Optifade Timber seems to fit right in that'¦pattern.