by Keith Sutton
One of the best waterfowling stories ever written is "The Old Mallard," the story of a mallard drake migrating to Arkansas from the north country, and the story of a duck hunter who will cross paths with that old greenhead in the flooded timber of eastern Arkansas.
"Close your eyes and you can see him there in the north country, sitting on some nameless prairie pothole in southern Saskatchewan," it begins. "... This old greenhead is a veteran of several migrations already. He doesn't ‘know,' in the sense that you and I know, that fall is coming and another migration is imminent. But his instincts have been preparing him for the arduous trip ahead ..."
I published "The Old Mallard" in Arkansas Wildlife in 1999. It had already been published elsewhere, and it's been published several times since. That's because it is a classic of waterfowling literature, equal in stature to the duck hunting tales of Nash Buckingham, Gordon MacQuarrie, John Madson and other masters of the craft.
You already know the author of that story, if not personally, at least by reputation. One of his other duck-hunting stories appears elsewhere in this magazine, one of scores he penned that have graced the pages of Arkansas Sportsman during the past quarter century. His name is Jim Spencer.
Spencer stands out from the crowd of hacks writing hunting stories these days for at least two reasons. First, he is a biologist by training, a man who devoted much of his life not just to hunting wild animals, but to studying them. Second, he writes from the heart. These things show in his words.
...as the days shorten and grow cooler, my instincts spur me to action as surely as those of the old mallard on the Saskatchewan pothole. I know he's coming, and I must be ready. Part of that readiness is mental, and scouting the woods is part of it. Without several pre-season reconnaissance trips to relieve the mounting pressure of the approaching season, I'd be loony as a ...well, as a loon ... by the time Opening Day finally arrived.
Now the autumnal equinox is long gone, and the scouting is behind me ... It won't be much longer.
At age seven, Spencer moved with his family to Stuttgart, the Rice and Duck Capital of the World. At eight, he started pestering his dad to take him duck hunting.
"Dad hunted Bayou Meto WMA and the White River bottoms," Spencer recalls. "It was tough hunting, poor-boy style, with no boat and lots of walking through flooded timber. I was too little for that sort of stuff, but that didn't keep me from wanting to go. Finally Dad told me I could go when I got big enough to wear a size-five hip boot, the smallest they made. I think I grew to fit those boots when I was 10. They were still too big, but I told Dad they fit just fine. Those black gum boots didn't have any insulation, and I remember my feet would get so cold I couldn't even feel them. I rarely wanted to call it quits, though, and even when I did, I never said so because I was afraid I wouldn't get to go next time if I wimped out."
The old mallard is restless. He rides the chop of a secluded Mississippi River backwater just upstream from Alton, Illinois. He's been here since the cold fronts of mid-December pushed him this far...
But trouble rides the north wind, and the old mallard senses it. Ancient instincts are at work, instincts understood neither by the bird nor by the men who hunt him. A full eight hours before the brunt of the storm hits Alton, the old mallard and a hundred of his kin lift from the water and head south across the darkened landscape below, climbing to nearly 3,000 feet.
...They put 50 miles behind them each hour, running before the storm, flying down the valley of the Father of Waters.