By Keith Sutton
It was a hunt I'll never forget.
Two friends, Lake Lewis and Charles Proctor, met me in east Arkansas' Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, a picturesque bottomland that often has been called 'the epicenter of green-timber duck hunting in America.' We launched Lewis's big flatbottom boat amid a massive gathering of other hunters, and headed west on the woodland boat trails, following the spotlights of other hunters until we reached Brushy Creek in the heart of WMA.
From here, we waded more than a mile through the flooded timber, negotiating stump holes and ankle-grabbing brush in three feet of water. The location seemed remote, but there were plenty of other hunters around, even on this Monday morning.
We spent a couple of hours moving from one spot to another, trying to find an opening in the timber situated a decent distance from other waterfowlers. It wasn't easy. These bottoms are covered in dense stands of hardwoods with a thick understory, and there are always plenty of hunters. After several maneuvers, however, we managed to find a spot with just the right set of conditions.
Lake and Charles are excellent callers, and it didn't take them long to garner the attention of some mallards trading over the timber. The birds were wary; finesse was required to convince them to visit our hole. They circled over and around our little opening a dozen times before finally cupping their wings and dropping from the sky like big metal-flake hailstones. It was almost an anti-climax when the three of us each dropped a mallard.
Another short walk took us to another hole, where there were more ducks trading through the timber. These mallards were high but close enough to respond to the hails of the veteran callers. The birds disappeared in the trees, then reappeared, only to vanish again in the low ceiling of clouds. But the calls were convincing.
The ducks turned and and circled the hole—once, twice, three times. We followed their movements through the mosaic of timber, heads down so the ducks wouldn't spot us. The ambush was set.
The mallards cupped their wings. The woods fell silent. We could see the orange legs of the ducks outstretched to meet the blackwater bayou. Emerald heads luminesced against a gray-and-brown background. Wings whistling, the birds gave to the pull of gravity and fell through the trees. A dozen. Two dozen. Fifty. A hundred mallards dropped from the leaden sky and lit on the icy water. No one even breathed. It was too precious a moment to shatter with gunfire.
But somewhere within the flock, a wary hen flushed. Keen senses told her something was out of place. The entire flock followed in an explosion of swamp water and feathers. Hunter instincts took hold, and a volley of gunfire rang out. Lake and Charles rounded out their limits, and I dropped a drake as it circled behind me.
By noon, we were celebrating our good fortune over cups of coffee at a restaurant in Stuttgart. Other hunters were coming in, too. All agreed it had been a fine morning for hunting green-timber greenheads.
Hunters have been pursuing ducks in flooded timber for thousands of years. The ducks come to eat acorns, moist-soil plant seeds and invertebrates. The hunters await them.
Occasionally a diving duck such as a redhead or scaup may drop in, but most waterfowl in these environs are puddle ducks, or dabblers, which don't submerge their bodies to feed. They find a perfect dinner table in the shallow water that inundates hundreds of thousands of acres of woodlands each year as big delta rivers overflow their banks.
The mallard is the bird targeted by most who hunt the bottomland hardwoods, followed distantly by the wood duck and other species such as teal, gadwalls and wigeons. Interestingly, mallard hunting in timber is largely responsible for the development of the duck call. Because they evolved in these wetland hardwood forests, mallards depend on audio cues to lead them to the openings where other ducks are feeding. Hunters learned to make and use calls that imitated these cues and brought the ducks close enough to shoot.
This is the essence of timber hunting. The hunter stands beside a tree in flooded timber, blows a duck call, kicks some water and brings mallards or other ducks fluttering down through the branches. You don't require a boat, a dog or even decoys, although these figure into most people's hunting. Timber shooting can be distilled down to three essentials—a hunter, a call and ducks.
The call is the key. Flying birds must be directly above a decoy spread before they can see it. Consequently, the oversized blocks of decoys used in open water or field hunting don't work here. Sound in the form of duck talk attracts birds in green timber. Hunters try to 'read' the ducks and call when appropriate, using a combination of hail calls, feeding calls and quacks to bring birds in.
Decoys, though not necessary, can help you build confidence in your setup. You don't need many—just a dozen or so placed in a small opening to keep the birds coming those last few critical yards. Blending into the shadow of nearby trees, some hunters call while others slosh the water with enthusiastic kicking to get the decoys moving around and create the impression of mallards feeding on acorns.
Shooting can be fast and furious. Hard-to-see ducks in tall timber can be on top of you before you realize they are near. You must decide in a split second if they're within range, if they're going to drop in or if they should be taken on the pass.
You probably would take more birds if you stuck to pass shooting exclusively, even though it's tricky to track, lead and shoot a bird in the scant seconds before it's swallowed up in the maze of branches. Too often ducks that appear to be coming in will circle and circle, then disappear when they spot something out of place. But resisting pass shots holds a special reward. Few sights in the sport of hunting are as magnificent as a flock of ducks skimming the winter-bare treetops, wings cupped in classic fashion, as they drop from the sky into a flooded forest.
Several years ago, my son Matt and I accompanied Arkansas outdoor writer Jim Spencer for a timber hunt on Bayou Meto. At age seven, Spencer moved with his family to nearby 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 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.'
Those early hunts began a lifelong love of waterfowling. Now 59, 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 flooded timber hunting for mallards, the best is here in Arkansas.'
The tips one can glean from Spencer, tips based on half a century of timber-hunting 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.'
How to call
'Learn to call as well as you can. 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 the spots they can reach 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.'
Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area is Spencer's favorite public hunting spot 'because even with the crowding, it's still one of the world's best public areas.' It was here he took Matt and I to hunt.
Wading into flooded timber at first light, we took a stand in a small opening and watched thousands of mallards trading overhead. Most were too high for shooting, but Jim's expert calling convinced several to drop in. At noon, when shooting hours ended, we had six mallards for our efforts.
It wasn't the ducks we killed, however, that made this hunt so memorable. What we'll remember most is what happened after the shooting ended and we unloaded our guns. At Jim's urging, we sat on a log and watched.
'Be perfectly still and quiet,' Jim told us, 'and you'll understand why this type of hunting is so special.'
It started as nothing more than a trickle. Mallards that flew high all morning started cupping their wings and dropping onto the water beneath the tall pin oaks. Within minutes, the trickle became a flood. Mallards were splashing down all around us. The soft whistling of their wings filled our ears. They covered the shallow water like a warm feathered blanket.
At this point, a most amazing thing happened. With no place to land, the thousands of ducks still flying above us were forced to circle and look for open water. And as they circled, they became a huge feathered whirlwind. We sat there, three hunters in the eye of the storm, and watched, mesmerized, as the birds swirled round and round us.
It was one of the most incredible wildlife spectacles I have ever seen, and I still thank the Lord my son Matt was with me to see it.
Moments like that, after a successful hunt, embody the true green-timber experience.
Top Spots for the Timber
Superb timber hunting opportunities are available in many parts of the country, including these public hunting areas:
Alabama: Demopolis Wildlife Management Area (6,952 acres) in Sumter, Hale, Marengo and Greene counties near Demopolis serves up good timber hunting for wood ducks and mallards. Also good, especially for woodies, is Lowndes County WMA (10,424 acres) near White Hall.
Arkansas: Bayou Meto WMA (33,700 acres) near Stuttgart is tough to beat most years, but the Natural State encompasses dozens of hot timber-hunting areas, including Dave Donaldson/Black River WMA (23,000) near Corning, Earl Buss/Bayou de View (4,254 acres) near Weiner and Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake (10,528 acres) near Black Rock.
Georgia: Altamaha WMA near Darien encompasses more than 27,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods and cypress-tupelo swamps where timber hunting is popular.
Along the Savannah River near Sylvania, Tuckahoe WMA (15,000+ acres) is a traditionally productive wood duck hunting area.
Mississippi: Backwater flooding from the adjacent Mississippi River often creates ideal timber hunting conditions in St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge (24,445 acres) near Natchez.
Missouri: In the southeast part of the state in Dunklin County, check out Hornersville Swamp Conservation Area, just south of Caruth on Highway 164. This area has flooded ditches and almost 3,000 acres of hardwood swamp. Also good is Ben Cash Memorial CA on the St Francis River southwest of Kennett.