By Gary Koehler

Jerry Cox is manning the outboard tiller as we motor into the black timber abyss before daylight. Rick Dunn is trying his best to maintain a steady hand while focusing a flashlight beam on a narrow hint of trail that snakes between trees. The rest of us dodge wayward buckbrush branches perfectly placed to sting cheeks, ears, and unprotected noses.

Hank, a slightly built black Lab, is seated to my left. Five minutes into our early morning voyage, his tail happily thumps the gunwale. Moments later, he is standing on the johnboat's front deck, presumably having assumed guide chores. Considering his Master Hunter status, he's been proven capable.

Sure enough, the trees begin thinning out, if only slightly. The faint outlines of decoys dot the murky water ahead of us. Whereabouts of the rumored 20-foot-long floating blind remain shrouded in hazy mystery.

'Hank knows exactly where he is,' says Jim Byrd, who will handle the seven-year-old dog on this crisp December morning. 'He's been here enough, that's for sure. He knows where we are headed.'

Chances are, however, Hank is still getting acclimated to the water depth in this private timber hole. In past years, Dunn and partners have sometimes hiked in. The water is typically knee-high. Not this season.

Raft Creek Bottoms began flooding during record-breaking October rains, and the water has not receded since. There is nine feet of water under the boat, making the tethered pontoon blind a necessity. Extra-long anchor lines are required to secure more than a hundred decoys.

'It's a little more work when the water is up like this,' Dunn says. 'But I don't think it bothers the ducks much.'

Puddle ducks have been wintering in this region for eons. Steve N. Wilson/Raft Creek Bottoms and Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake wildlife management areas (WMAs) are located nearby and provide thousands of acres of waterfowl wintering habitat. Raft Creek, they say, assumed that name because of the extraordinary numbers of rafting ducks recorded at this site.

'As far as I know, this area is the lowest in Arkansas, and ducks have congregated here for as long as I can remember,' says Dunn, an Arkansas native who has pursued waterfowl throughout this region for 35 years. 'Locals call the WMA the 'ocean' because it's so wide open. Ducks sit out there during the day and leave to feed at night in shallow fields.'

Our mission this morning, the opening day of Arkansas's second split season, is to intercept the ducks as they fly back from feeding to their favored loafing sites in the timber. Rounding out our quintet is Browning public relations guru Scott Grange, who is a lock to win the award for traveling the farthest-from Salt Lake City to Little Rock via Atlanta.

The temperature is a nippy 24 degrees. Cloud cover is prevalent as daylight grudgingly begins to arrive. The soft flutter of wings interrupts us as we unload the boat and move gear into the stout blind. Gadwalls are either up early or coming home late.

'With all the storms up north, we should have some new birds in,' Dunn says. 'We did okay during the first split but really didn't see all that many mallards.'

Greenheads are the bird of choice in Arkansas. Always have been, always will be. But gadwall numbers remain at near-record levels. They may not be the preferred duck, but gunning grays beats a skunk any day.

Not that we are particularly worried about a shutout. Dunn is, after all, a former world champion (1997) duck caller. After winning the title, he turned a part-time duck call making hobby into a full-time endeavor with Echo Calls. He has tutored many adults and even more youngsters. Among his former students is Tyler Merritt, who, along with Jonathan Mortin, spent the night with us at Dunn's duck camp. Merritt last November finished as runner-up in the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest in Stuttgart. If his calling prowess is not enough, Dunn is at home in the timber. He knows how the ducks think.

'In a big hole like this, which is about an acre, ducks can be really skeptical,' Dunn says. 'So, if you do a lot of calling, or try to call really loud, you will scare off more ducks than you call in. We pretty much keep the volume down in here.

'On the other hand, if you are hunting a small timber hole over at Hurricane, you can call loud to get ducks' attention,' Dunn continues. 'Ducks seem to be listening for more calling in a smaller hole. When we hunt Hurricane, there might be seven guys blowing as loud as they can blow at ducks four to five treetops high.'

Gadwalls are upon us once again. Dunn calls softly, sparingly, in short series. The three birds twice circle warily before committing. They freewheel over the decoys until shotguns are shouldered and triggers are pulled. None get out of the hole.

'With gadwalls, a lot of times, you can call them more than Mallards,' Dunn says. 'You can stay on them a little bit more. But they're funny. Some days they come right in. Other days they can be awful stubborn about it.'

Mallards are relatively scarce in the early going. We see no large flocks passing overhead. The birds that decoy arrive in groups of five or less-most providing point-blank shooting opportunities. Hank is earning his breakfast. Grange seems intent on refusing to miss. Someone should have brought a video camera because between the waves of gray and green-and there are plenty of both-a flock of no less than 50 colored-up Northern Shovelers swoops over our spread and lands in the far reaches of the hole. No calling necessary.

But what is Dunn doing to get the birds in close? 'The trick to hunting a big hole like this is recognizing that there are lsquo;spots' where you have to be ready to call,' Dunn says. 'If ducks don't show much interest at that spot and you don't call, you can lose them. You don't want to call too much, but you have to call enough to keep their attention.

'You start reading the ducks as soon as you see them,' Dunn continues. 'That's when I start calling. You can pretty much look at ducks and see if they're interested. Ducks that are interested are going to set their wings and start sailing. If they lose interest, they will get off their circle line and start flying, their wing beat will speed up, or they might turn away from you. You have to call at them right then to get them back.

'A lot of duck calling is experience and common sense,' he stresses. 'One thing that will help duck hunters more than anything is learning to read ducks, their movement. You learn that from experience, from being out there watching them.'

Five mallards, four drakes and a hen, circle wide behind the blind. Green heads glisten in the sun. Dunn reaches out with the wooden call-but not at all aggressively-and bends them back on a line to the hole. This will be all but the hen's last mistake. Hank is going to need another toweling off.

'A lot of times, when you're calling longer ducks, you open your hand to get maximum volume from the call,' Dunn says. 'When they're in close, like those were, you close your hand down partially.

'If there's such a thing as a finishing call, what I like to do is let the call whine just a little bit at the end,' he continues. 'I think the birds respond better to a soft whine rather than a hard whine. A soft whine, which you can produce by squeezing your tongue down and partially cutting off the air flow into the call, can be really effective. Just pinch it down to get that whine.'

There is little chance of human whining. The gunning has been nothing less than superb-as good as it gets. This is the type of morning that keeps you coming back again and again, an outing that provides a steady stream of ducks from beginning to end. The only dilemma we have is whether to leave the gadwalls alone and wait out the mallards, which must have slept in. We pass on a number of gray ducks in the decoys with the hopes of hosting mallards. The greenheads do not disappoint. Gadwall and mallard numbers are even. Duck straps will be straining by the time we wrap it up long before noon.

Grange, who shoots the lone banded greenhead, is beside himself with glee. The Great Salt Lake serves as his usual duck-hunting haunt. Gunning there, too, can at times be spectacular. But it is certainly different here, with the stage being framed by tall timber.

'This is unbelievable,' Grange says. 'I've hunted Arkansas timber only one other time. But this, being able to pass on ducks in order to limit on mallards, I've never seen anything quite like it. This is special.'

Indeed. On top of Dunn's calling skills and timber hunting expertise, it occurs to me that today we're sitting on that elusive 'X' that duck hunters everywhere regularly ponder. Imagine that.

DU at work in Arkansas

Recognizing Arkansas's importance as a waterfowl wintering ground, Ducks Unlimited to date has completed 67 public lands habitat conservation projects throughout the state. These efforts have included land acquisition as well as wetland restoration. Overall, DU has been involved with the conservation of nearly 344,000 acres in the Natural State. Technical assistance has been provided by DU staff for the management of more than 1.2 million habitat acres.

Included on DU's Arkansas public wetlands/waterfowl habitat conservation work résumé are projects at both Steve N. Wilson/Raft Creek Bottoms and Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake wildlife management areas (WMAs). These sites, which together encompass more than 21,000 acres, are located in White County and provide prime habitat for tens of thousands of waterfowl during migration and winter.

Steve N. Wilson/Raft Creek Bottoms WMA is open to permit-only waterfowl hunting on Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. One mobility-impaired blind is available on a permit basis. Public waterfowl hunting is also allowed on Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake WMA, which encompasses more than eight miles of White River shoreline.