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The Carter boys

12/13/2010

BALD KNOB, Ark. -- The flock of gadwalls circled and banked in a gadwall kind of way: They were neither committed nor spooked. They just moseyed around before finally dropping in and fluttering over the decoys.

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Carter Boys

A chorus of three shotguns jumped to attention. Three rounds each blasted through the sky and the gadwalls lifted out and went about moseying somewhere else without a single feather missing.

After the incredulous looks that followed the chorus of shotgun blasts, laughter broke out from the duck hunters sitting in the pit.

There were six of us: Three adults and three youth hunters. The misses weren't really expected, although this was the first duck hunt of the year for the teenagers. Equally unexpected was the flood of memories they brought.

This stop of the Duck Trek, sitting within a few hundred yards of the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, is more about memories than anything else.


Todd Carter was my best friend. Since first grade we were close, growing up together in church. We did all the things that young boys do together, from camping to hunting, fishing and even chasing girls.

As teenagers, as soon as one of us could drive, we would sleep in the parking lot of Arkansas' renowned Bayou Meto, then slip out into the woods at sunrise, staying all day with nothing more than some crackers and a Thermos of chicken soup.

We only had hip boots, borrowed ones at that, so where we could go was limited to the very shallowest of water. I can remember sticking to the levees and still shooting ducks. At times they would fall into deeper water and we would have to wave down passing boaters to ask them to retrieve our ducks.

In high school after our graduation, while our classmates partied all night, we spent the night frog gigging.

We grew up with a passion for hunting, and it was never better or more fun than when we were together.

He was the best man in my wedding and I in his. In life you meet people who are truly special. For me, and so many others who knew him, Todd Carter was that man. To this day, I've never met another man as fine as him.

In 2000, after a five-year up-and-down battle with cancer, Carter passed away leaving three sons; Tyler 3, Matthew 4 and Jacob 6.

Jacob, who is now 16, was old enough at the time to understand that his dad was gone, and cried to his mother "Now, I won't have anyone to take me duck hunting."

My response, then and now: "You don't need to worry about that."

Every season, and not nearly as much as they or I would like, I spend some part of duck, deer and on occasion turkey season hosting these boys on a hunt.

That's where the memories started flooding back.

I can remember sitting on the edge of a reservoir with those boys, their cousins and my daughters, seven in all, hiding behind bushes, all armed with a Red Ryder BB gun. Every time a duck flew by, there was a seven-gun salute as it passed.

On the way to this year's hunt, I asked them to recall some of their favorite memories. They of course see things differently than I do. Tyler still remembers getting pushed out of the top bunk by his brother and my nephew.

I still laugh at an exchange between my nephew Alex Segalla and Matthew on a trip where I was taking them on a hunt.

They were chattering like young boys do, oblivious to the adult in the truck when Alex froze, looked at Matthew from the front seat of the truck and somberly said, "Can I tell you something?"

I was all ears, even worried to a point, thinking about what could be so serious all of the sudden.

"What do you think of SpongeBob SquarePants?" he asked, while I literally almost choked.

"He's cool,'' Matthew said.

"Good,'' Alex countered. "Because my Mom packed my SpongeBob SquarePants sleep pants."

It was made all the better when Matthew replied, "Mine too."

Their memories center on other things.

Jacob and Matthew (7 and 5 respectively at the time) remember sitting on my lap as a longbeard gobbled and pranced in front of us. When I pulled the trigger they were standing on the turkey's head before I could get up.

Jacob still remembers missing his first deer last year as both of us came unglued then recovered enough to get another shot. He hit it the second time. He and Tyler both got their first deer that morning.

These were my hunting partners, along with Dave Greene and James Overstreet. It was an unplanned hunt that just happened.

The Carter Boys, as they are known in our circle, always want to go hunting. At church the Sunday before, they let me know that they were out of school for a week. My original plan was to work, mainly because it was too dry and too warm for it to be worth the time.

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Then the weather started changing. A cold front was promised by the end of the week. The field where my pit sits was finally flooded and a few ducks were around.

I called the Carter Boys on Monday evening, telling them that we should plan on hunting Wednesday morning. The plan included picking them up that morning and driving the hour to my club.

Tuesday morning, my wife called me at work to let me know "The Carter Boys are here raking your leaves."

My heart skipped a beat. That's the kind of young men these boys are growing up to be. We changed our plans to an overnight trip, complete with the stories of being pushed off the top bunk and dinner at the cabin.

There wasn't much hope for a great hunt in terms of a lot of ducks. But we had been in that situation before.

Two weeks after Todd passed away, the 2000 Youth Waterfowl Hunt was taking place. It was brutally cold and the regular season had ended in Arkansas. The odds weren't good for an exceptional hunt, but that didn't matter.

Tyler was too young at the time, but Matthew (at 4 and probably too young) and Jacob were going anyway, even if for no other reason than to spend the night at camp and sit in a blind at sunrise.

I can remember sitting in the pit gathering up the boys, bundled in layers of too-big clothes, sitting there with good friend Stan Gray and praying out loud for "the blessing of that day and the fact that these kids would get to be a part of something their father loved so dearly."

By the time the sun had cleared the horizon, we were literally covered up in mallards, pintails and widgeons.

Jacob, looking like the Michelin Man, struggled with a youth-model 20-gauge on one end of the pit, while Matthew set on my lap, holding a single shot .410 with my help. He giggled constantly and laughed out loud every time a duck passed and they missed it.

We did shoot ducks that day and enjoyed one of those special times waterfowlers dream about when ducks answer every call and work perfectly despite all the misses.

On our latest hunt, they didn't work as perfectly. But the Carter Boys, after almost two boxes of shells burned into the air, were able to take two mallard drakes and a shoveler: One for each of them.

But the best part of the day was remembering all that had come before that and in some ways thinking about all that will come for them in the future.