At 7:35, Knowles quickly rises from his seat, swings his shotgun, and drops a lone gadwall that arrives unannounced. Taco, a black Lab, is sent to retrieve the morning's first bird. What will the rest of the morning bring?
"We've been seeing a lot more specks [white-fronted geese
]," Stephens says while scanning the sky. "I don't know why. Somebody said that the birds may be coming this way because of the drought in Texas. But we're seeing more and more every year."
As if on cue, five specks appear over the tree line. Stephens strikes up a short conversation with the geese, and moments later they are hovering over the decoys, wings cupped and feet down. Specks become the birds du jour. Six limits are eventually loaded into the johnboat, along with four ducks. The Blind Side has proved lethal.
Groups of ducks are conspicuous in their absence. A flock of green-winged teal
buzzes us but flies out unscathed. They caught us napping, and were here and gone in a hiccup. Single mallards
, the occasional odd pair, and a pintail
drake are among the rare visitors.
"Some people think it's real easy to hunt ducks down here," Stephens says. "But up north, hunters don't have to worry about ducks being paired up. When they do get paired up, they want to stay away from other ducks. That can make for some tough hunting because they don't want anything to do with large decoy spreads."
His point is well taken. Arkansas is clearly a duck migration destination
. But once the birds arrive here—after being shot at for at least a couple of months—their behavior can change. Pair bonds formed in early winter factor into the riddle.
Miller and I are joined the next morning by Greg Kosteck, a Winchester Ammunition executive, and T.J. Mallette, who helps out the RNT crew when he's not soaking up knowledge in an Ole Miss classroom. We are sequestered in a rice field pit blind, complete with rolling top and Mallette's black Lab, Cash. The temperature is in the 40s and the sky is gray. Wind is negligible. Snow geese are making a racket in a field behind us.
Early on, Kosteck drops a drake mallard that swings wide right before turning back over the decoys. We add another shortly thereafter. Maybe today is the day.
Three hours later, that hope is in shambles. The ducks—at least the greenheads—are just not here yet. We see scattered flocks of other species, but all are bound for parts unknown.
Timing is everything, even in Arkansas. Sometimes you hit the flights just right... and sometimes, well, you miss. Having experienced my share of hits in this rice- and duck-rich region, I'll be back.
For more information on waterfowl hunting and other attractions in the Stuttgart area, visit stuttgartarkansas.org