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.
The callers called. The ducks responded. The whole thing seemed choreographed.
A pod of greenheads and susies rocketed by at treetop height and banked sharply in response to Vern's hail call. Vern turned this way then that, trying to keep an eye on the mallards speeding through the maze of trees. A staccato burst of feeding notes was the final persuader. The birds circled once, cupped their wings and came in through the canopy. We each dropped a drake.
Hundreds of mallards traded through the timber. George called. A flock whirled and came our way. They circled twice, then gave to the pull of gravity, falling through the trees. Two. Four. Ten. A dozen. Two dozen. When the time was right, George signaled: "Get ‘em!" And some got got.
By 10, we were celebrating our good fortune over a welcome cup of coffee back at the clubhouse. Other hunters were coming in, too, and we swapped "How'd you dos" on the front porch. All agreed it was a fine morning for hunting green-timber greenheads.
This was just one of many successful green-timber duck hunts I've enjoyed in Arkansas. Not all were as exciting as this one, but I can say with certainty Arkansas serves up the finest timber hunting in the world. Most years, the Natural State ranks number one in mallards killed, and the focal point of this harvest is the Grand Prairie region around Stuttgart.
Field shooting and reservoir hunts figure heavily in the Arkansas duck hunting equation, but these are not the essence of Stuttgart duck hunting. What symbolizes Stuttgart is shooting in flooded green timber. Hardwoods cover the bottomlands in this region. On private clubs and many public hunting grounds, water is pumped into the woods before duck season and held there by levees and stop-log structures. Mallards, wood ducks, teal, gadwalls and other puddle ducks flock to these shallow green-tree reservoirs to feed on acorns and other favored foods. When the ducks leave in spring, the water is released. Thus it does not kill the trees.
Artificial impoundments of this sort aren't the only draw for wintering ducks. Thousands of acres of naturally flooded woodlands still stretch along the region's big rivers, despite the prevalence of rice, soybean and wheat farming. These, too, draw ducks like kids to a candy store. The largest such areas are Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, a world-renowned green-timber waterfowling hotspot covering 34,000 acres just southwest of Stuttgart, and 160,000-acre White River National Wildlife Refuge, part of the largest contiguous tract of bottomland hardwoods remaining in the United States. The allure of green-timber mallard hunting attracts thousands of visitors to these areas and to scores of commercial hunting lodges around Stuttgart each year.
Timber hunting is the purest form of duck hunting and in many ways the hardest. You don't need a boat, a dog or even decoys, though these figure into most men's hunting. Timber shooting can be distilled down to three essentials--a man, a call and ducks.
The call is the key. Flying birds must be right over 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. Mallards respond differently to calling each day. The best hunters recognize this and change their approach to be successful.
The average Stuttgart duck hunter's pacifier was replaced with a duck call at a very early age, so many hunters here are experts at the craft. Those less confident in their calling skills, and those wanting an added advantage, place a dozen or so decoys 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 would probably 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 is swallowed up in the maze of branches. Too often mallards 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.
In November 1999, my son Matt and I accompanied Jim Spencer of Little Rock for a timber hunt on Bayou Meto WMA. Jim has been hunting Bayou Meto for decades, and through his generosity, Matt and I experienced a moment the two of us will always remember.
Wading into flooded timber at first light, we took a stand in a small opening and watched thousands of mallards trading back and forth 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.
What happened next was almost too astounding to believe. All shooting ended. We unloaded our guns and sat back to watch. Mallards that flew high all morning started dropping into the timber. It began as a trickle of ducks, but the trickle soon grew to a flood, and mallards were splashing down all around us. As the water became crowded with birds, those trying to land were forced to circle and look for open water. Thousands and thousands of them flew round about us, circling through the woods like a huge feathered whirlwind. The three of us were mesmerized.
Moments like that, after a successful hunt, embody the true green-timber experience.
15601 Mountain Dr.
Alexander, AR 72002