Daddy I’m cold!” came through the January pre-dawn darkness in a whisper.
Barely enough light was gathering that I could just make out little hands gripping the Stevens single-shot .410 as if it was the most valuable gun in the world. The hands looked like half-sized cloned copies of my own and the gun—although inexpensive even when new and showing nearly 40 years age now—was indeed more valuable to me than if had been made out of solid gold.
My son was eight and on his first duck hunt as a shooter. Oh, he had accompanied me on many previous hunts but always as a spectator. He had been coming out to the duck blind with me since the required equipment checklist included a sippy cup and Humpty Dumpty pillow. But this day was different. On that clear and windy winter day he would pass through that threshold every hunter must cross when drawing blood for the first time.
The shotgun in his grasp was the very same that I had once held on a similar day some 38 years earlier. My father had bought the little gun for me at a hardware store in an era when there were still hardware stores and guns for sale inside them. He let me carry the gun from the store to his truck and I remember thinking it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, only to be terrified by the kick from its recoil later on that very afternoon. Old timers say that “confidence can be found at the bottom of a box of shotgun shells” and there were plenty of number 8 shells shot for practice that summer. When duck season arrived I had to stand up on the boat seat just to be able to see over the solid-sided boat-blind hiding us among cypress trees in a south Arkansas slough. The duckweed on the water’s surface was frozen into an icy green sheet and the mallard’s body made a perfectly round hole when it broke through with a crash. Standing tippy-toed in oversized rubber boots covered by frost I was completely transformed with one shot from that little gun. I had become a real duck hunter.
Old timers say that “confidence can be found
at the bottom of a box of shotgun shells.”
With those memories in mind, I spent two months’ worth of fall Saturday afternoons working with my own son to shoot the gun and build his confidence. But by January his eyes still held a hint of doubt and the cold water seeping over the top of his low little boots didn’t contribute any enthusiasm. We had forgone the relative comfort of a permanent blind in favor of a rice field levee edge—ankle deep in ice water and our backsides buried in sticky black mud that was as cold as death. Sacrificing comfort meant gaining another 10 yards of distance closer to the ducks’ preferred landing area. I considered it to be an equitable trade-off considering the inexperience of my apprentice. He did not agree.
Teal began arriving first and by legal shooting time the air was alive with the sound of
sailing wings; ducks of all species seemed to appear from everywhere and nowhere.
Teal began arriving first and by legal shooting time the air was alive with the sound of sailing wings; ducks of all species seemed to appear from everywhere and nowhere. The boy made attempts on mallards and gadwalls and even a pintail drake without success. I knew his feet were freezing and his shoulder was bruising even as I hail called to yet another passing pair. These responded with a hard bank and instantly I could see that they were widgeons. “Get ready,” I whispered in between sing-song notes blown into a widgeon whistle. A gust of northwest headwind slowed the bald pate to a stall on final approach. The duck was low and the wind was strong and for an instant hung in mid-air as if suspended by string. It was all that an 8-year-old boy with a homely little gun needed to cross over: In an instant the old hardware store .410 had delivered a second generation into the realm of real duck hunters.
As the widgeon’s lifeless body splashed down among our decoys my arms shot up in unrestricted triumph. It was more exciting than any single hunting memory captured before or since and I was clearly much more elated than the actual shooter. Subsequent hunts delivered even more magic: The next weekend the boy knocked down a gadwall in the very same cypress as my own first successful hunt and the following year on Thanksgiving he shot a mallard drake while perched in the blind squarely between his grandfather and me. The very same man who gave me the hardware store gun. Their ages are separated by nearly 70 years, but they are forever bonded thanks to a gun worth more than its weight in gold.
Afternoon sweat ran down my forearms soaking the old hickory handle of the shovel as it bit calluses into my hands. Dinner-plate size leaves fanning out from the ancient sycamore provided shade over two quiet graves and now a fresh one in the stifling summer woods. This was a hunter’s holy ground at the edge of a cypress slough where I came to lay old friends down in cool clay.
I had gotten the call while on my way home from business in Virginia. My wife had called to tell me the vet had arrived and said there was only one thing left he could do to relieve the anguish. We had known this day was coming, but its arrival was still surprising and horrible in that way death collects the innocent. The voice on the phone was sad but calm and deliberate as I walked toward the departure gate. There was no conscious thought of what she was saying, but none was necessary: this was the end. Our Labrador Retriever—the best hunting partner I had ever known, or likely would ever know—would be dead by the time we got off the phone.
The Juice had become a part of my life just shy of 14 years earlier. She was a “finished” dog when I got her, meaning she had been completely professionally trained before I ever came into the picture. And at over a year old and raised completely in a training kennel there was little puppy left in her, or so I thought. She lacked the more classical looks of the ideal lab and being of British blood had that sort of short-legged look the variety seems to favor. Upon going to see the dog work at the trainers for the first time, I told a buddy who had made the trip with me that I was unsure—the dog was an outstanding retriever—but not much to look at.
I soon found out what The Juice lacked in beauty she made up for in ability and desire. She would chase downed birds at lightning speeds for what seemed like miles without the first thought of giving up. Her feats became the stuff of legend among my friends and hunting guests. Once while hunting a rice field she disappeared completely out of site across 200 acres of levees and water on the trail of a winged—but very much alive—pintail. Temperatures were in the mid-20s and we decided to pack it in with not the first idea where dog or duck had disappeared. Upon arriving almost an hour later at the old shack where we had parked the truck, there sat The Juice waiting on us with that perfect bull sprig securely in her mouth.
The longer we were together the closer we became and although she loved my wife, she was a clever and jealous girl. Saturday afternoon four-wheeler rides with both my wife and the dog on the back, The Juice would steadily inch her way over, creeping her way between the two humans; eventually pushing my wife nearly off the seat. On hunts she would follow hand signals only after she had given up trying to find lost birds on her on. She would turn with eyes that said, “Okay dad, I give up. Show me where it is.” But those times were rare, her nose was spectacular when it came to ducks or donuts.
When she was about 6-years-old, she was attacked by an alligator. A genuine warm-weather threat for dogs at our hunting property—The Juice had wandered too close to the canal behind the camp house late one August evening and into ambush range of a 10 footer. But somehow that baked potato body and toothpick legs squirmed their way free. Nineteen stitches and trips to two different veterinarians later, she survived and was ready for opening day of duck season by the time November rolled around. The next summer she was lost for two days, hit by a car, found under miraculous circumstances by my mother, and diagnosed partially paralyzed. An ordinary dog would certainly have been sidelined, but this was no ordinary dog. She had six more seasons of glorious retrieves before she finally retired. By that time the heart was willing, but the body just couldn’t do it anymore.
For over 13 years she was my shadow. A constant presence never more than a few feet away at home or afield. Her coat had been as black as a crow in a coal mine until just the last few years when gray whiskers started to frost that smiling square muzzle. She was the very definition of joy: A living, breathing, three-dimensional example of the word; hobbling across the yard to greet me at the gate until the very end. The tick-tick-tick of her four paws crossing our hardwood floor every morning before sunrise was just a memory now, although when our house was quiet I could close my eyes and hear it still.
The grave ready, I looked at the faded and torn tartan plaid dog bed on the ground beside me covering a motionless shell that had once quivered with anticipation and exploded with energy. We had been through it all. Alligator attacks, puppies, a newborn baby, an apartment, two houses and one very mean tomcat. We had made over 300 hunts together. Her life had been a gift: An existence completely free of complaint, or malice, or judgement of any kind. Even my absence at her death felt forgiven now. It was a gift only a dog was worthy enough to give.
When it comes to duck hunting, it goes without saying that Arkansas is uniquely positioned. Hunters from across the nation appreciate that the Natural State comprises the best part of the lower end of the Mississippi Flyway “funnel.” At this latitude the entire migration compresses, concentrating ducks over the eastern half of the state like no other place in the world.
The downside might be how the Arkansas weather pendulum can swing between steaming-jungle hot and ice-storm cold. At times we seem to endure far worse weather extremes than either our northern or southern neighbors, and no group anywhere in the state feels it more than Arkansas duck hunters.
Proper pre-season preparation usually begins in August, which happens to coincide with the peak comfort zone of mosquitoes, snakes, chiggers, ticks, wasps and even alligators; making hole clearing and blind brushing uncomfortably hot at best and downright dangerous at worst.
Extremely cold weather can be a demon in and of itself. Discovering one’s four-wheeler axle frozen solid (to the point that the running motor at full throttle will not turn it) is something only waterfowlers understand intimately. Every duck hunter has found themselves kneeling in the dark behind a trailered jon boat trying to chisel ice out of the drain plug hole; and they might be the only souls willing to brave weather cold enough to freeze an outboard motor fuel line solid. And if that doesn’t win the crazy prize, bringing that same frozen fuel line inside the camp house (yes, still containing gasoline) and attempting to thaw it by the roaring fireplace just might.
At the invitation of an old college buddy I joined him to hunt a rice field he had leased in Jefferson County. An arctic front was expected to blow in the evening before and he surmised we could likely get in a great shoot before the flooded field froze solid. The thermometer showed 17 degrees when we unloaded my (recently purchased) four wheeler at the field before daylight that morning. The showroom-new ATV effortlessly skimmed through the shin deep water of the buckshot field and in a just a few minutes we were set up and ready to go. I saddled up to take the bike and hide it on the far side of a large levee that surrounded the field. My buddy assured me the drainage ditch was on the other side of the levee from our location. But just as I got within a few yards of the levee I noticed the water getting deeper. Before any course corrections could be made, the ATV literally disappeared beneath me. Struggling to swim in waders over the faint glow of headlights still shining from the muddy depths below, I could faintly hear my buddy shout a message from across the field containing the words “…ditch…” and “…not sure…”
I shouted back my own special message which he understood most clearly despite the high wind.
Four wheelers can freeze quite solid when dunked in water and then exposed to temperatures in the teens complete with 25-mile-per-hour winds. Solid things are hard to move unless of course the desire is for them not to move. Then (for reasons unknown to modern physics) on the way home for example a completely frozen and inoperable four wheeler will easily slide out of the back of an open tailgated truckand into the middle of the highway on a very, very cold day in Jefferson County.
There is no man-made invention both so loved and hated by duck hunters as the outboard motor. It has been the single greatest asset ever invented to access the prime areas–remote or otherwise–where ducks desire to be. But this marvel of modern engineering has a dark side. If a machine can have a personality, then many outboards could be diagnosed schizophrenic. Or perhaps they are connected to some geographic phenomenon unknown to science. How else could one explain a motor that operates perfectly while cranked at home the night before a carefully planned hunt, only to refuse to start for no apparent reason mere hours later at the launch ramp? Some of these machines are possessed by calculating demons, waiting for their owners to reach the furthest and most remote destination before spitefully stranding them with failures of mysterious origin. There are no unsuperstitious duck hunters. None that own outboards anyway.
If you don’t ever stop, then you can’t get stuck!” is a favorite expression of my hunting partner. It is a delusional statement that I have heard him proclaim for 32 consecutive years now. He is the very same man that has stuck two-wheel drive trucks, four-wheel drive trucks, cars, motorcycles, ATVs of all kinds (including amphibious six wheel drives), tractors, boats, and even lawnmowers. He once called me to help pull out his wife’s SUV–which he had gotten stuck right behind their suburban home. There exists no buckshot mud farm road or wallowed out swamp ’sippi hole that he fears or finds uninviting. His propensity for the art of becoming bogged reaches zenith during duck season, when he enthusiastically accelerates head on into stretches of bottomless muck with total disregard for payload or passenger, allegedly all in the name of reaching his prey.
Anything between a duck hunter and a duck is just something to overcome and one who has never been stuck–and stuck bad–hasn’t been doing it very long (or has never met my buddy).
The beloved phrase “Mo ’Lap” among Arkansas duck hunters is one of mysterious origin. I first heard it as a teenager conjured by the old drake master of southeast Arkansas himself: the great Jimmy Baxter. “Mo ’Lap” might be best described as “achievement of the legal limits of a desired species of waterfowl by an entire hunting party in an extremely rapid and exciting way." Variations are flexible as verb, adverb or pronoun. For example a particular hunt that appropriately fits the definition could have been a “Mo ’Lappin'” waterfowl on such a hunt could have been “Mo ’Lapped”, and a particular location where such an outstanding hunt occurred might be properly referred to as “Mo ’Lap City.”
The younger generation of our sport have unfortunately begun to abuse the phrase–using it for virtually any hunt where legal limits are achieved. However, a true “Mo ’Lap” involves as much about how the limit was taken as it does actually getting the total number of ducks allowed by law. Some hunters hunt for years before actually participating in a “Mo ’Lap” but once experienced, it is something never forgotten. (Improper usage will be reported to Mr. Baxter.)