As the shower drew near, a hush swept through the flooded timber—the calm before the storm. We watched the tempest take shape as one might watch a rain squall on the horizon, and knew, in seconds, we'd be caught in the deluge.
"My God!" one of the hunters whispered.
Then the birds began to fall.
They plummeted into the flooded trees from a single point of the compass, wings cupped, feet splayed, the emerald heads of the drakes glistening in sharp contrast to the vivid crimson and orange of the autumn-colored oaks. One landed with a splash, then another and another. In seconds, the air was full of them. The soft whistling of their wings filled our ears.
I tried guessing their numbers but it was useless. One might easier count snowflakes in a blizzard. One hundred? Five hundred? I could not determine, but in less time than it takes to tell it, they covered the shallow water before us like a warm feathered blanket. The sky, dark with their forms just seconds before, shone bluebird-blue again.
All was silent now. My hunting companions and I were afraid to move, afraid even to breath, for fear of destroying that magic moment. But despite our best intentions, the inevitable happened. Somewhere within the flock, a wary susie flushed. Something in her tiny brain told her something wasn't quite right, and she shot from the water like a stone from a catapult. The entire flock followed in an explosion of swamp water and feathers.
We watched them leave, a backward-played video on nature's TV screen. As quickly as they had come, they were gone.
I have witnessed many wonderful things during 40 years of hunting, but none more memorable than that shower of mallards, which fell last fall. Under different circumstances, some ducks never would have left that hole. In this instance, however, not a shot was fired. My friends and I had our limits. We were simply observers.
Three hours earlier, before first light, we had boated to brush-covered blinds in the flooded timber. Sammy Faulk, a friend from Louisiana, had joined me for a hunt on the Poor Boy Duck Club just outside Stuttgart, Arkansas, the Rice and Duck Capital of the World. Here, mallards and flooded green timber are the basic ingredients in a decades-old duck-hunting recipe.
Our hunting spot, "The South Hole," was a small clearing amidst hundreds of acres of pin oaks flooded with shallow water. When we reached it, after navigating a maze of narrow woodland boat trails with a small spotlight, Sammy and I climbed into a blind. Our hosts, Vernon Baker, Bob Bendigo and George Peters remained outside. Wearing waders and standing close beside trees in the almost-knee-deep water, the three men, almost invisible in their tree-bark garb, made the sounds of a mallards feeding, gabbing, cajoling their friends in the sky to come down. Occasionally, one man swirled his foot in the water, sending ripples through a small block of decoys. Ripples in the water convince flying ducks that their kind are feeding below.
Weather conditions were ideal for a timber hunt. The sky was robin's-egg blue with wisps of white clouds. No ice was on the water, so the birds were flying. A cold front passed the night before, and with it came a new wave of flight ducks. The sky at first light was alive with mallards.