Like many people living around Arkansas' Big Lake in the 1920s and '30s, Jess Horner relied on it for everything from putting food on the table to money in his pocket. He remembers selling thousands of ducks "in the rough" for 35 to 40 cents each. If there was anything to hunt, trap or fish around Big Lake, Jess Horner pursued it.
"In the 1920s, I bought my first car, a Ford," said Horner, who was 90 in 1997 at the time of this interview. "I paid $500 in cash for it. All of that money was made from trapping and hunting on Big Lake."
When asked about the most ducks he ever killed in a single day on Big Lake, Horner replied, "About a hundred, I guess. You could only carry so much ammunition.
"I've seen the times when you just got tired of shooting. You quit. You just didn't want any more."
The good old days of Big Lake are long gone, but not forgotten. Horner was one of a half-dozen men who guided "sports" from St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis and Chicago, where Big Lake's hunting reputation had spread.
"We had the ducks coming in so thick one time, they were coming in from all directions," Horner laughed. "I remember one guy stood up and said, 'Oh hell, they're sh--tting on us.'"
Horner said early laws concerning duck hunting were pretty much ignored.
"We didn't pay too much attention to the legal season, but the ducks didn't come down until it got cold," he said.
Even after Big Lake was declared a wildlife refuge, the hunters came.
"I don't remember even seeing a game warden for years," he said. "Everybody considered that a free place to go."
One time Horner did find a note in a shotgun shell hull that he'd left at a favorite Big Lake hunting hole the day before. The note was from the game warden, and it read: "Jess, you'd better quit hunting here, or I'm going to have to do something about it."
Horner was born in Manila, Ark. His father, Joe, captained steamboats that ran from Hornersville, Mo., to Marked Tree, Ark.
Jess remembers James Beckhart and Ed St. Mary, two of the best-known makers of Big Lake style duck calls. He bought calls at St. Mary's house in Manila. He finds it difficult to comprehend their value to collectors today.
"That was the caller I used, a St. Mary," Horner said. "You could buy a caller for a dollar. They got up to two dollars. I sold one for $500. Somebody paid me $500 for one of my last St. Mary callers, and it wasn't even complete."
Horner started duck hunting in the age of live decoys. He usually kept about four dozen around the farm all year. During duck season, they stayed in a pen near the Big Lake shoreline at Tim's Point.
"Before you knew it, the ducks were trained," Horner said. "You'd put a collar on the hens and just leave the drakes free. Three or four hens was all you'd ever have. When you finished hunting, you'd pick up the hens with their anchors and put them in the boat. Then you'd tap on the boat with a paddle and here'd come the drakes. They'd jump in the boat and ride all the way to shore. As you got to shore, they'd fly and go to the pen, where they'd wait on me to feed them."
After live decoys were banned in 1935, duck hunters had to rely more on their calling ability. Horner and the hunters of that era gained special insight for calling ducks because they were around so much waterfowl, both wild game and tame decoys. And they had never depended exclusively on live decoys to attract ducks. Horner's father taught him to blow a duck call.
"A lot of people don't understand duck calling," Horner said. "They think you're supposed to say, 'quack, quack, quack.' That's not it.
"You're not trying to sound like one duck, you're trying to sound like a lot of ducks. You're trying to make noise like the woods are full of ducks. And that takes a little know-how."
Jess and another frequent hunting companion, Bud Wilson, were known as two of the better duck callers on Big Lake.
"Our two callers were poison," Horner said with a smile. "We could take the ducks away from anybody."
But Horner claims nobody could blow a duck call on Big Lake as well as Henry Ashabranner.
"I've always said he could make a duck stop and back up to get in the hole," Horner laughed.