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.
Those early hunts began a lifelong love of waterfowling. Now 58, Spencer has hunted ducks from Saskatchewan to Mexico and from Washington State to Chesapeake Bay. "There's better teal/pintail/gadwall/wigeon hunting in south Louisiana, and it's going to be hard to forget hunts I've had on the Platte in Nebraska, on the upper Mississippi near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and in the Lake Erie marshes," he says. "But when you're talking about mallards, the best hunting is here in Arkansas. We've had substandard seasons here the past several years, but Arkansas still leads in mallard harvest. Even when it's bad here, it's still pretty good."
The sky is still clear at 4 a.m., but the wind raises goose bumps on your neck as it flirts with your collar. You can smell the front coming. We all went back to our closets and cedar chests for extra clothing before meeting at the café for the ritual pre-hunt breakfast. You'd expect grim faces in the face of such weather, but there are smiles around the table this morning as we gulp strong coffee and gobble greasy eggs.
We know what's coming, and we expect it to be memorable.
Spencer's duck hunting stories have appeared in dozens of magazines. He's also written a Ducks Unlimited book, A Young Hunter's Guide to Waterfowling and Conservation. (Copies are available for $15.95 by writing Spencer at P.O. Box 758, Calico Rock, AR 72519.)
The tips one can glean from his stories, tips based on half a century of waterfowling experience, are invaluable.
How to pick a site for a blind: "In timber, look for openings where there's a blowdown to let the ducks into the canopy, and look for open flight lanes, especially downwind, that let you track ducks as they swing and approach. In more open situations, like on big lakes or open-water rivers, play the wind. Look for pockets of still water in the lee of a bank or stand of trees, and use magnum decoys."
How to call: "Learn to call as well as you can. You're going to be competing with some world-class callers in Arkansas public hunting, some of the best you'll ever hear. Let the ducks be the teacher. Try something, and if they don't respond favorably, try something else. Sometimes they're call-shy and will flare from loud, frequent calling. Other times you have to talk them all the way to the water or you'll lose them."
How to hunt public land: "Be willing to go the extra mile. Lots of hunters won't go very far past where they can get to in a boat. You can find good hunting even in a crowded area if you're willing to go to the trouble to get to tough places."
The old mallard is tired. The new day is two hours old, and the flock has crossed the Missouri border into Arkansas air space at first light. They sense they are far enough ahead of the heart of the storm to stop for a rest, and they start losing altitude somewhere above the confluence of the White and Cache rivers near Clarendon.
When asked to pick his favorite public-hunting areas in Arkansas, Spencer lists four.
"First, Bayou Meto WMA, mostly because that was where I learned to hunt ducks but also because even with the crowding, it's still one of the world's best public areas. Second, the Maddox Bay area of what is now the North Unit of the White River National Wildlife Refuge. My family had a cabin at Crockett's Bluff when I was a kid, and I hunted Maddox Bay a lot. Third, Dagmar WMA when it's flooded, because it lies right where the White/Cache/DeView drainages all converge and is therefore under a tremendous flyway junction. Finally, the Arkansas River when cold fronts freeze everything else. Hunting conditions can be brutal, but there's a wide variety of ducks and lots of them."
In the end, however, it's not so much where you hunt or how you hunt or how many ducks you kill. According to Spencer, memorable hunts are the result of more esoteric things, things that sometimes are hard to explain. In his own inimitable way, though, Spencer always seems to find the words to explain them.
...the waves of ducks we hoped would be riding the front haven't materialized, and the best our party of four has been able to do is scratch down a lone greenhead and a pair of wood ducks ... We take a vote: another half-hour, and we'll call it a day.
Wait, though. There's a good-sized flock, low over the woods to the northwest.
...I have my eye on one already. Even at this distance and through the trees, it's easy to see he's slightly bigger than any of the ducks around him. He'll be old, no doubt, and maybe tough, but he'll be a treat rubbed with sage and wrapped with bacon and baked on a bed of chopped celery, onions, apples and mushrooms. The taste of a Saskatchewan pothole, miraculously delivered to me here in Arkansas
My mouth waters slightly, and there's a quiver in my voice as I coach my rookies in a hoarse stage-whisper: Here they come, guys. Nobody move yet. Here they come.
It won't be much longer.