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.
Vern also likes watching others kill ducks. When we hunt the flooded timber together, he's happiest when I am successful because he knows how much I enjoy shooting. Nothing pleases him more than to help a guest bag a limit of greenheads, or to be in a blind with friends when the gunning is good.
I have learned, however, that for Vernon personally, the shooting is just gravy. Certainly, like all hunters, he likes to feel the satisfaction that comes only with killing game. Hunting is, after all, a sport of possession, as I've said. For Vernon, though, the killing is secondary to other pleasures. For him, hunting is a glorious sunrise; it's a retreat into solitude; it's a special kind of companionship with men you enjoy and admire. It is the haunting call of wild geese, the wonder of brilliant mallards cupping their wings over a blind. But, most of all, it is being "out there" when Nature is at her beautiful best.
One duckless day, Vern and I stayed in the woods long after other members and guests returned to the clubhouse. An eagle soared by, high overhead. Skeins of snow geese passed like plumes of smoke in the bluebird sky. We talked very little, but by then, our long friendship had reduced the necessity of conversation. We knew each other so well we didn't have to talk. A nod of the head now and then effected a meeting of minds; wide grins were adequate reminders of our reasons for remaining in the flooded timber.
At one point, however, Vern spoke, and I remember well what he said, the same words I've heard from him time and time again: "Isn't it great just to be here?" Looking at the smile on his face, I knew, for him, that was enough. Killing ducks wasn't neccessary at all. Being outdoors with a good friend made this day a total success. Nothing more was needed.
That is why I so admire this gentle man. Of the hundreds of hunters with whom I've been afield, he is one of few—very few—who exhibit such an intense passion for the full experience of hunting.
Vern also is a good teacher. He loves sharing his knowledge of green-timber duck hunting with anyone who exhibits a willingness to learn. He grew up on the Grand Prairie of eastern Arkansas, hallowed ground for waterfowlers, and hunted many blue-ribbon wildlife management areas before they had been acquired for public use. Dagmar, Hurricane Lake and Wattensaw, three beautiful bottomland areas, were favored hunting grounds for him and his father.
"We hunted green timber and creeks where water flooded the land naturally," he says. "I can remember hunting when the mallard limit was eight, then it went to six, and finally down to only one bird a day. I've seen duck hunting in Arkansas at its best and at its worst. Thank goodness, the ducks are doing better now."
Sunny days with little wind are the best timber days, Vern says. "Ducks can't see you as well then because you can hide in the shadows. They're more likely to come to the woods on clear days than to head for the fields."
Few decoys are needed. "A couple dozen is plenty, and if they can see them well, two or three are really enough to draw the birds in," Vern notes. Decoys entice the birds, he says, making them feel more secure. He recommends placing them around edges of the hole, taking care to put them where ducks can see them when landing into the wind. Leave an open space in the center where the ducks can land.
In recent years, Vern has experimented with several styles of "robo-duck" decoys, which use battery power to twirl plastic wings that garner the attention of ducks passing overhead. "I like these," he says, "but they're most effective early in the season. Late in the season, they don't seem to make as much difference, and at times they actually seem to spook the birds. I use one now with a remote control, and late in the season, when the ducks see the decoy and start circling the hole, I turn the decoy off. That seems to help. You should also place the decoy with its nose into the wind, just like a real duck will land, then put two or three regular decoys behind it, like the decoy flew over them and is about to land."
Decoys have a place in green-timber hunting, but Vern believes "calling is what tells the tale." Vern taught himself to call, practicing in the woods while hunting alone, watching closely to see what calls the birds responded to best. He is, without doubt, the best caller I know, and I know plenty.
"Most people tend to overcall," he says. "They want to call the birds right into the hole. I quack at the birds, give them a hail call, when they're circling. Then if they respond, I give a feeding call, and use a call my cousin taught me, the White River cluck. When the birds start coming into the hole, then it's time to shut up.
"To learn all this," he says, "get a tape made by a good caller, listen to it and get the rhythm. You have to get the rhythm just right, and never break that rhythm. Watch what the ducks do, and do what they respond to. Learn to read the birds.
"Most of all," he continues, "learn to enjoy what's around you, even if the ducks don't cooperate. There's more to this sport than just being a good caller or being a good shot. It's more than just killing ducks, much more. And the sooner you learn that, the more you'll get out of it."
I couldn't agree more, and that is why, hunting with Vern is always such a pleasure.
Thank you, Vern, from the bottom of my heart.