By Tom Fulgham, Illustrations by Gary Palmer
With rain drumming on the roof of our Arkansas duck camp, the red rocking chair on the front porch seemed an ideal place to contemplate the whereabouts of waterfowl. For days, ducks had been scarce on our club's leases. Recent rains had allowed the birds to spread out over the landscape, and T-shirt weather in mid-January was certainly not helping.
Just as I settled into the rhythm of the rocker, my cell phone rang. My old friend Jason Thompson, on his way from Alabama, was calling with a progress report.
"I'm an hour and a half away," Jason said. "Just stopped for gas next to a grocery store. We need anything?"
"Ducks," I replied emphatically. "We need ducks. Lots of them."
"Slowest stretch of the season so far," I said. "But there's hope. A cold front's coming. Maybe it will stir up the birds. With lows in the mid-20s behind the front, at least it'll feel like duck season."
"Well, I think we've clearly established over the years that we don't have to shoot limits of ducks to have a great time," he said.
"True enough," I replied. "You never know what might happen. See you soon."
Jason was right. We would have fun no matter what. But as always when a friend comes to duck camp, I hoped to send Jason home with some ducks for the freezer. And above all, I wanted the hunting to be truly memorable, especially since we had not hunted together for a few years.
Until the cold weather arrived, bringing with it the possibility of new ducks, we would hunt geese. Hunting for whitefronts in dry fields had been keeping our club in the game through the slow duck days, and that afternoon and the next morning, the specks did not disappoint.
On the morning hunt, we joined my son, Steven, and good friend Mike Checkett, both excellent speck callers. A couple of singles decoyed just after shooting time, and around sunrise one flock after another began lifting off the roost to go feed. One bunch of 30 specks responded to our calling and headed our way. An even larger group decided to follow them, and the two bunches converged while working our spread. This combined flock of at least 75 specklebellies swung around into the north wind, set their wings, and then swept the length of the decoy spread. When we rose to shoot, a third of the flock was already standing among the full-bodies while the remaining birds were pumping their wings and stretching their orange feet toward the ground. It was a stunning, once-in-a-season moment. We shot well, but the shooting seemed almost anticlimactic. After we picked up our geese, Jason said, "That was awesome. Biggest flock of specks I've ever seen decoy."
"Our friend Randy Graves would call that a ‘trip maker,'" I said. "If he's fly-fishing and lands a nice brown trout, or duck hunting and calls a pintail drake in tight over the decoys, he'll declare it a trip maker—the highlight of a day spent outdoors. That big bunch of specks was definitely a trip maker."
With a predicted overnight low of 26, we decided to duck hunt the next morning and opted for a cypress brake. In the dark, we carefully waded to my favorite spot—an opening tucked into the cypress and tupelo trees and bordered on the west by buckbrush and a cattail patch along the edge of the brake. We set two dozen mallard and gadwall decoys with 10 minutes to spare. As I waded toward a stand of buckbrush to hide my decoy sled, a half dozen gadwalls hovered over the decoys, followed seconds later by a pair of mallards.
I glanced at Jason and smiled. Maybe the cold front had worked its magic. Just before shooting time, we slipped on camo face masks and leaned against tupelo trees about 10 feet apart. I listened for ducks swinging the brake. All was quiet except for the subtle tink, tink, tink of a nearby cardinal. An hour later, we had seen no ducks and had heard little shooting in the distance. So much for the cold front's magic.
About nine o'clock, just as I was thinking we should pick up and go hunt a flooded field, three mallards—two drakes and a hen—flew behind us, headed for the other end of the brake. One of the drakes and the hen ignored my greeting call, rocked their wings, and dropped below the trees to land. The other drake followed but then broke off and headed back our way. A reinforcing five-note sealed the deal as the greenhead locked in on the call and cupped his wings.
He chose an approach through the trees and dropped fast. In an instant, he was low over the decoys and close. In another instant, he turned and began flying directly toward us, getting closer by the second.
Time seemed to slow. Jason fired, missing with what must have been a fist-sized shot pattern. Surprisingly, the greenhead kept coming. He was now about eight feet above the water and 15 yards away, flying toward the opening between my tree and Jason's. A limb from Jason's tree stretched across the opening at about the same height as the greenhead, so the bird would have to fly either over or under it. Unbelievably, he chose under, and then passed between two wide-eyed hunters. Jason reached out with his gun barrel and touched the drake's tailfeathers. The bird flew behind us and switched to a higher gear. Jason turned and shot quickly before the greenhead was out of range.
We grinned and shook our heads in disbelief. When I returned with the duck, Jason said, "That's the closest I've ever been to a duck in flight. This greenhead is going on the wall."
"Definitely one to remember," I responded, with a laugh. "Another trip maker."
Moments later, another greenhead started dropping into the hole but suddenly pulled up. I shot as the bird climbed through the trees to my left, and we had our second, and last, duck of the morning. Although we each had shot only one bird, it had been a hunt we would never forget.
That afternoon, while goose hunting, my mind drifted to other hunts that had left indelible memories for reasons beyond the number of birds on my duck strap. Some years ago, while hunting a flooded rice field in my coffin blind, several gadwalls landed 60 yards away moments after shooting time—classic gadwall behavior. When I peered through the grass bundles camouflaging the blind, I couldn't believe my eyes. One of the birds had pale white plumage. I thought it was probably somebody's lost tame duck, but as the predawn light increased, I could see that the bird had a squarish head, a narrow bill, and was the same size as the others. Without a doubt, it was a partial albino (leucistic) drake gadwall. Although I didn't fire a shot that morning, I felt fortunate to have encountered such an interesting bird. It was an amazing hunt.
An equally unforgettable hunt occurred one bitterly cold afternoon on the last day of duck season. After setting a few full-body mallard decoys at the edge of a frozen rice field, I hid in a deep ditch beside the field. The temperature had not been above freezing for days, and the ice was thick enough to walk on. Although I doubted that I would even see a duck, closing out waterfowl season watching football in an easy chair just didn't seem right. I hunkered in the ditch and blew my call occasionally to take my mind off the cold. After a half hour, I heard wings circling the decoys, but from the bottom of the steep ditch, I couldn't see the duck. When I heard wings pumping, I stood to shoot but still couldn't find the duck. As it flared behind me, I turned and fired. The greenhead flew 75 yards and folded, falling on the ice.
As I climbed out of the ditch to retrieve my prize, I was stunned by what I saw. An adult bald eagle stood over the dead greenhead, and a handful of feathers skittered across the ice. I took a few steps forward but stopped as the majestic eagle studied me. I considered backing away and letting the eagle have my last-day duck, but the powerful bird lifted off the ice and was gone. I picked up the greenhead, shot another an hour before sunset, and called it a season.
That had been a great last day and a classic reminder that time spent experiencing the outdoors is almost always more interesting than sitting in front of a television, even though the result may not always be a full limit. Harvesting game is a fundamental reason we hunt, of course, but not the only reason, or the only reward. Some days, even the empty loops on our duck straps hold memories that last a lifetime.
On the last morning of Jason's visit, we hunted a pit blind and shot a pair of wigeon. Very few ducks flew. After lunch, as Jason packed his gear to leave, he said, "You were right. You never know what might happen on a hunt. We didn't see many ducks, but as long as I live, I'll remember all those specks hanging over the decoys and that greenhead flying between us."
"Trip makers," I replied. "You doubled."