By Gary Koehler
Photography by John Hoffman
Located in the heart of the lower Mississippi Flyway, Memphis is only a short drive away from some of the nation's most celebrated waterfowling areas. Just across the Mississippi River are the rice fields and flooded timber of eastern Arkansas, which have attracted multitudes of mallards—and scores of duck hunters—for generations. To the north is legendary Reelfoot Lake, where inventive market hunters helped refine the modern duck call. And to the south is the Mississippi Delta, home to Beaver Dam Lake, the storied hunting grounds of famed outdoor writer and Memphis native Nash Buckingham.
The Bluff City's reputation as a waterfowling mecca played a major role in Ducks Unlimited's decision to relocate its national headquarters here in 1992. As we celebrate DU's 80th anniversary this year, now is the perfect time to pay a visit to the organization's home office and take a tour of the building. But any trip to Memphis, or to the mid-South in general, would be incomplete without visiting DU's Waterfowling Heritage Center, located on the second floor of the Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid. No one leaves this facility disappointed.
The Waterfowling Heritage Center's mission is to chronicle the remarkable story of American waterfowl hunting and conservation. But you don't have to be a history buff to appreciate the story that unfolds throughout this 4,600-square-foot interactive museum. The regularly updated exhibits are all about ducks, duck hunting, and the crucial role Ducks Unlimited and its partners have played in conserving North America's wetlands and waterfowl. Located on the riverfront in downtown Memphis and designed unlike any other retail megastore in the world, the Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid is a marvel in itself. Together, these attractions provide an exhilarating experience for outdoor enthusiasts.
Stop by and see for yourself. There is no admission fee. There is plenty of parking. To whet your appetite, take a look at some of the featured attractions at the Waterfowling Heritage Center. And start packing.
Firearms aficionados will marvel at the impressive variety of guns used over the years to pursue waterfowl. Market hunters in days long past commonly used big-bore firearms. The Waterfowling Heritage Center collection includes a punt gun with a 70-inch barrel, a W. Perkin Fowler with a 51-inch barrel, a Holland & Holland 4-gauge, and many other relics from that bygone era. Also included are a number of more contemporary classics, which serve to illustrate the evolution of the modern duck gun. Buckingham's memory is honored here, too, via his Winchester Model 21 side-by-side shotgun and his duck hunting skiff—a remarkably well-preserved Alumacraft Ducker. The shotgun was a gift given to Buckingham by John Olin, then president of Olin Industries, manufacturer of Winchester ammunition and firearms.
Among the most popular exhibits in the Waterfowling Heritage Center is an array of highly collectible decoys made by some of the nation's premier carvers. There is an outstanding display of contemporary decorative decoys from the Ellen and Doug Miller collection, which features the work of world champions Pat Godin and Jett Brunet as well as others. Collectible factory decoys are also front and center. Currently appearing at the Waterfowling Heritage Center is an exciting exhibit celebrating Detroit's original "Big Three": decoy makers George Petersen, Jasper N. Dodge, and William J. Mason. This pioneering trio of early decoy manufacturers produced thousands of working waterfowl decoys from the late 1800s to the mid-1920s. James Goodman's collection highlights the gradual evolution of Detroit's commercial decoys, from the earliest models to the later mass-produced Masons. This exhibit captures the profound impact that these three factories had not only on one another, but also on other decoy makers throughout North America.
Vintage Duck Calls
Game-call historian, author, and collector Howard Harlan of Nashville, Tennessee, has graciously loaned a portion of his world-renowned game-call collection for display at the Waterfowling Heritage Center. Most of these duck calls originated in the Mississippi Flyway—from Michigan to Louisiana and several states in between. This exhibit, which features 125 pieces, includes the finest work of a veritable who's who of the call-making world. J.T. Beckhart is represented, as are Tom Turpin, Alvin Taylor, Chick Major, Charles Perdew, C.W. Grubbs, Claude Stone, John Morrow, John "Sundown" Cochran, and Elam Fisher. As with decoys, the majority of these calls were made to serve as waterfowling tools. But there is more than a little artistry involved as well. Many were handmade by accomplished craftsmen, and each has its own unique style. Large public displays of this nature are extremely rare, which is yet another reason to make time for a visit.
Wildlife Art and Taxidermy
Wildlife artists have supported Ducks Unlimited from its inception. Pioneers in the field such as Frank Benson, Richard Bishop, and Lynn Bogue Hunt all made significant contributions to DU during the late 1930s and into the 1940s. DU's Artist of the Year program was launched in 1972, and since that time millions of dollars have been raised on behalf of DU's mission through the sale of wildlife art. It is only fitting that DU artwork is prominently displayed at the Waterfowling Heritage Center. The collection includes original DU Artist of the Year paintings by Scot Storm (Right Place, Wrong Time) and David Maass (Mission Accomplished—Canvasbacks), along with other classic works. In addition, the artistry of award-winning taxidermist Shane Smith is showcased in a series of stunningly lifelike waterfowl mounts. Flying teal, resting wood ducks, mallards, American black ducks, and other waterfowl are displayed throughout the center. Look for your favorite species, or perhaps a bird that you have never seen before.
Ducks Unlimited Memorabilia
Long before the current DU event system was initiated to raise funds for wetlands and waterfowl conservation, most of the money collected to support the cause came from the sale of individual memberships. That began to change as early as 1940, when DU's first national fundraising promotion was kicked off. Members of California's Greenhead Duck Club originated the fundraiser when they placed a slotted can in their clubhouse. The Duk-A-Nikel program required members to drop a nickel in the kitty for every duck and goose they bagged. In addition, 10 percent of all club poker winnings were deposited in the can. Soon the colorful containers, which featured the iconic Jake the Drake, were distributed throughout the country. In the program's first year, 2,500 Duk-A-Nikel cans were circulated nationwide, netting $7,000 for the ducks. An original Duk-A-Nikel can as well as vintage photographs, membership certificates, and other DU-related artifacts are displayed at the Waterfowling Heritage Center. This exhibit also includes a complete collection of bronze DU medallions designed by celebrated wildlife artists Larry Toschik and Angus Shortt.
Take a Tour of DU National Headquarters
Ducks Unlimited's national headquarters in Memphis boasts its own unique collection of waterfowling treasures. Firearms enthusiasts in particular will relish the opportunity to see Bo Whoop, legendary author Nash Buckingham's favorite fowling piece and one of the most famous shotguns in American history. This custom HE-grade Super Fox was believed to have been lost for more than 60 years before it resurfaced in the possession of a private seller in 2010. Bo Whoop was subsequently purchased at auction and generously donated to DU by Buckingham's godson, Memphis native Hal B. Howard Jr., whose father was a regularly occurring character in many of the author's most popular waterfowl hunting stories. Another Fox side-by-side, Bo Whoop II, which Buckingham received from friends in 1950, is also on display, courtesy of William B. Dunavant Jr.
If that is not enough, visitors can view a complete collection of Ducks Unlimited "dinner guns" dating back to 1973. This outstanding collection of shotguns was donated to DU by Louisiana native Tony Palermo. More than 100,000 dinner guns have been sold at DU events since the program's inception. In addition to firearms, a host of other items are on display, including wildlife art, bronzes, and a complete set of federal duck stamps and prints from 1934 to the present. Tours of DU national headquarters are available during business hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays) at One Waterfowl Way, near Agricenter International. Advance reservations can be made by phone at 901-758-3825.