Thrill of the Hunt

In pursuit of ducks

By: Spencer Griffith   Photography: Grant Harkreader/Spencer Griffith

Hunter Spencer Griffith has built a lifetime’s worth of friendships chasing ducks across Arkansas, from the Delta all the way up to this boat trip on Lake Dardanelle.

Hunter Spencer Griffith has built a lifetime’s worth of friendships chasing ducks across Arkansas, from the Delta all the way up to this boat trip on Lake Dardanelle.

 
 

It’s 4 in the morning, and Jackson, my wire-haired black lab, skirts under the slowly lifting garage door of a quiet cul-de-sac house in Little Rock as soon as his belly allows. I follow, walking out to the truck with gear over my shoulder and a cup of warm coffee in hand. There’s frost on my breath as I holler “load up!” to Jackson, and once he bounds into the truck, we head to the duck blind.

About an hour’s drive later, I pull off onto an old gravel road just north of Stuttgart. Reaching over to spin the dial on the radio, I roll my window down to listen to the waterfowl in the fields. I lean over to Jackson and tell him the “susies” (mallard hens) are up in force and talking to him this morning. He looks at me, dancing back and forth as he shifts his weight on his front paws. He knows where he is and what’s in store if we do our job right.

Just as I buckle my waders, my great-uncle Bill (who bought me my first duck call), and two close friends have pulled in next to me, and soon we’re ready for the short trek to our pit blind. We quickly set our decoys, and as Bill reviews our work, he inevitably finds one out of place by a few feet. We reset it to his liking, and I sit down on the top lip of the blind to enjoy my favorite part of the hunt: the first cigar of the season. I sip on my second cup of coffee, and watch the cherry glow of the burning tip, which by now matches the first stitches of light coming across the horizon. The birds roosting in the field are starting to come to life with an orchestra of whistling wings all around the blind. My oldest friend in the world, Grant, looks over at me and nods, as if to say it’s going to be a good morning — but we don’t dare utter those words. Guns start rumbling off in the distance a few minutes before shooting hours. The final seconds tick down to the opening of duck season. We all pick out a target, and I call out “cut ’em!”

A full limit of ducks brings a smile to the face of Spencer Griffith and Nick Johnston.

A full limit of ducks brings a smile to the face of Spencer Griffith and Nick Johnston.

Black lab Jackson sits proud after a day’s work fetching ducks.

Black lab Jackson sits proud after a day’s work fetching ducks.

There’s more to the atmosphere of the blind than just the birds themselves, though. As morning goes on, we catch up on life and tell old hunting tales between working groups of ducks and adding to the stringers. John recalls a hunt the previous year where we capsized a boat running an old ditch outside Clarendon. The quarter-mile walk back to the blind required us to break thigh-deep ice the whole way back—making the heater in our blind even more welcoming than usual. We all walked away unscathed, save for the loss of a ditty bag and some calls. To this day, we still call the boat driver that day “Poseidon” due to his knack for sinking boats.

Arkansas Waterfowl Stamp sales rose to an all-time high of 104,629 in 2015.

As we all laugh at John’s account of water coming over the bow and hitting his back, Grant whispers “on your right.” I throw out some faint feeder calls and chuckles as he works the lead susie and the dozen mallards behind her. Bill notices two drake pintails that drop into the group from the left. After a few passes they cup into gun range, we slide back the rolling lid tops on the pit and I raise my Beretta A400. After three quick concussions from all of our guns, we have bagged the two pintails and a couple of mallard drakes from the bunch, and there are high-fives all around. I send Jackson after a crippled mallard drake, watching with pride as he repeatedly marks and fetches the downed ducks from the volley. He makes sure to shake off as much water into the pit upon each return as possible. I guess I still need to work on that command.

We sit around for another hour to finish up our limits, but we don’t mind. Breaks in the action to watch the birds and our dogs work is what we love about duck hunting in the first place. I often get asked why I come out to an old metal box in the cold and wet to shoot ducks. My answer: Have you ever shared a sunrise from a duck blind, watched the drive and passion of a retriever you’ve trained, listened to wings cup at your call and told stories of old hunts with lifelong friends as you ate duck poppers? If not, you wouldn’t understand — but you can. Hop in the truck opening day and I’ll show you.