by Keith Sutton
Hunting is a sport of possession, but I like hunting most with men who treasure those things about hunting that can't be possessed. Vernon Baker, who has been my duck hunting companion for close to 25 years now, is one of those men.
Vern lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas, recently retired after working more than three decades with a mechanical contracting firm. He'll celebrate his 73rd birthday on December 16th (2005). Our meeting, back in the early 1980s, was a stroke of fate. A mutual friend invited me to hunt at the Poor Boy Duck Club near Stuttgart, where he and Vern were members. When I arrived, Vern was at the stove cooking breakfast. He greeted me warmly, as did all the club members, and that morning we enjoyed the first of many hunts together.
The friend who first invited me to Poor Boy left the club two years later. I had been his guest there several times, and Vern and I had developed a distant but warm friendship. Before the next duck season rolled around, Vern phoned. "I was wondering if you'd like to come back down and hunt with us on opening weekend," he said. "You've always enjoyed hunting with us so much, I thought you might want to come as my guest." I gratefully accepted, and the same invitation came without fail every year after that. Vern and I became close friends, and shared dozens of hunts.
I have hunted the famed timbers around Stuttgart with scores of extraordinary hunters. Some were outstanding with a duck call, able to produce just the right combination of notes to convince mallards to drop in for a visit. Others I remember most because of their fine wingshooting skills. Still others had a special knack for setting a good decoy spread or pinpointing the perfect hole in which to hunt.
Vernon Baker possesses all these skills. I've watched, mesmerized, as his magical calling drew hundreds of ducks down from the sky. I've seen him make near-impossible shots, and make it look easy. I've looked on as he moved a few decoys just so to turn a ho-hum hunt into an action-packed extravaganza. These abilities, however, are only a small measure of the man.
I remember an early conversation with Vern that convinced me he was the type of hunter one wants as a friend. He phoned and suggested I meet him at Poor Boy for a mid-season hunt.
"How was the hunting today?" I asked. "Any ducks?"
"Well, I killed a few, and I had a lot more circling the hole that refused to drop in," he replied. "But you know, I think the ones I didn't shoot gave me just as much pleasure as those I brought home. There's only one thing you can do with a dead duck, you know—eat it."
Vern likes shooting mallards just as much as the next guy. That fact is indisputable when you look at the dozens of duck bands encircling the lanyards on his calls; no doubt, thousands of ducks fell to his gun before he acquired that collection.