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Duck hunting as a journey

11/11/2008

When I was a kid and wanted to go duck hunting, I was pretty much resigned to what I could scratch out for myself.

Few adults in my family duck hunted. But when you grow up in Arkansas, you have options. There were, and are, several little places within the city limits of Little Rock that at different times would house a few ducks.

Little Rock is right on the Arkansas River, which is a corridor for ducks coming down the Central Flyway from Kansas and Oklahoma, making their way to the prairie of eastern Arkansas. Even today, if you watch closely, you can see flocks of ducks hit places well within the city limits. It was even more prevalent in my youth.

Back in those days, folks didn't get too keyed up with a youngster walking down the road carrying a single shot shotgun and a pocket full of shells. I didn't own waders and the only camo was OD green from the Korean War. But I could walk out of my neighborhood and into a section of creek bottoms and call myself duck hunting.

There were always wood ducks and in the right conditions, mallards. I would sneak from creek bend to creek bend, hopefully being quiet enough to get a skillet shot on some sitting mallards.

By the time I was old enough to have friends who drove, my horizons began to broaden a bit. And when I could get in behind the wheel of my first car, it was downright hard to keep from not heading out and trying to sneak a few ducks.

One of my favorite places was Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area near Stuttgart, Ark. There is a levee system there I could walk, and in places where it wasn't too deep for my hip boots, I could slip out into the woods and get some shooting.

For all I knew, it was a fine way to hunt, and I assumed it was pretty much the same for everyone, until an older gentlemen took me on a sure-enough hunt, a throw-out-some-decoys-and-start-calling hunt, where mallards scratched their wings fighting their way to you.

That was about 30 years ago, and I knew right then I had a lot to learn about duck hunting. The learning hasn't stopped, either.

I could have been content to stay in the flooded timber of Bayou Meto (which, by the way, at times is still as good as it ever was) but I liked seeing and trying new things.

It was all part of wanting to learn more. About 12 years ago, I was the Outdoor Editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and had the bright idea to do a duck trek, hunting my way from north to south in the state, writing about it every day in the newspaper.

To be honest, it started as a way to get in as much hunting as possible — and getting paid for it. But it turned into one of the biggest learning experiences of my duck hunting life.

The trek produced comments from all over, and despite being written primarily within the borders of Arkansas, I continually heard, "I had no idea that was what the hunting was like there," or "I didn't know they did that."

I had the same thoughts myself.

Now that I'm in charge of ESPNOutdoors.com and am halfway through my 40s, I still don't want the learning to stop.

I've literally seen the best duck hunting that North America has to offer. I can't imagine any places being any better than Claypool's Reservoir, where ducks still darken out the sun, or the Chicago Hole in Northeast Arkansas, where you are pretty much encouraged to shoot your limit with a .410 shotgun and it's relatively easy, with a little patience. I've stood in Hampton's Reservoir and Bayou Meto and the White and Cache River Bottoms and seen sights that can't possibly take place any place else in the nation.

Or can they?

Then I think about being 14 again, and thinking I've got it pretty good. And I remember the feeling that maybe, just maybe, somewhere out there I'm missing something.

I don't know if I will find it in the next month, while we're smack dab in the middle of the ESPN Outdoors Duck Trek, but I don't mind looking for it.

And I can only guess that the stories and photos produced from that learning experience will enlighten more than just me.