"As far as I know, this area is the lowest in Arkansas, and ducks have congregated here for as long as I can remember," says Dunn, an Arkansas native who has pursued waterfowl throughout this region for 35 years. "Locals call the WMA the 'ocean' because it's so wide open. Ducks sit out there during the day and leave to feed at night in shallow fields."
Our mission this morning, the opening day of Arkansas's second split season, is to intercept the ducks as they fly back from feeding to their favored loafing sites in the timber. Rounding out our quintet is Browning public relations guru Scott Grange, who is a lock to win the award for traveling the farthest—from Salt Lake City to Little Rock via Atlanta.
The temperature is a nippy 24 degrees. Cloud cover is prevalent as daylight grudgingly begins to arrive. The soft flutter of wings interrupts us as we unload the boat and move gear into the stout blind. Gadwalls are either up early or coming home late.
"With all the storms up north, we should have some new birds in," Dunn says. "We did okay during the first split but really didn't see all that many mallards."
Greenheads are the bird of choice in Arkansas. Always have been, always will be. But gadwall numbers remain at near-record levels. They may not be the preferred duck, but gunning grays beats a skunk any day.
Not that we are particularly worried about a shutout. Dunn is, after all, a former world champion (1997) duck caller. After winning the title, he turned a part-time duck call making hobby into a full-time endeavor with Echo Calls. He has tutored many adults and even more youngsters. Among his former students is Tyler Merritt, who, along with Jonathan Mortin, spent the night with us at Dunn's duck camp. Merritt last November finished as runner-up in the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest in Stuttgart. If his calling prowess is not enough, Dunn is at home in the timber. He knows how the ducks think.
"In a big hole like this, which is about an acre, ducks can be really skeptical," Dunn says. "So, if you do a lot of calling, or try to call really loud, you will scare off more ducks than you call in. We pretty much keep the volume down in here.
"On the other hand, if you are hunting a small timber hole over at Hurricane, you can call loud to get ducks' attention," Dunn continues. "Ducks seem to be listening for more calling in a smaller hole. When we hunt Hurricane, there might be seven guys blowing as loud as they can blow at ducks four to five treetops high."
Gadwalls are upon us once again. Dunn calls softly, sparingly, in short series. The three birds twice circle warily before committing. They freewheel over the decoys until shotguns are shouldered and triggers are pulled. None get out of the hole.
"With gadwalls, a lot of times, you can call them more than mallards," Dunn says. "You can stay on them a little bit more. But they're funny. Some days they come right in. Other days they can be awful stubborn about it."
Mallards are relatively scarce in the early going. We see no large flocks passing overhead. The birds that decoy arrive in groups of five or less—most providing point-blank shooting opportunities. Hank is earning his breakfast. Grange seems intent on refusing to miss. Someone should have brought a video camera because between the waves of gray and green—and there are plenty of both—a flock of no less than 50 colored-up northern shovelers swoops over our spread and lands in the far reaches of the hole. No calling necessary.