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Under the big top

12/3/2009

LA DUE, Mo. — Hunting had taken a turn for the worse. The third day of the season in Henry County, Mo., wasn't the kind of day that ducks fly much. It was warm, cloudy and calm, and the few ducks in the area had been shot at for two days. Opportunities came infrequently. And when they did, they were mostly bum prospects.

A pair of teal snuck in right after shooting time and landed in the decoys, making themselves known with a shrill descent and splashing. When they flushed, one started its escape low over the water down a narrow boat lane off the far left corner of the hole. A single shot rang out from the right end of the blind, followed by another splash.

Since then the faucet had dwindled to a trickle. An errant gadwall and another teal were the only ducks to show for the four guns in the blind, and there wasn't much wrong with the shooting. With 9 a.m. approaching fast, it was anyone's guess who'd be the first to call it.

So when, much to our amazement, a group of mallards suddenly showed interest in our hole, everyone perked up.

No one more than Scott Bailey.

This group had the potential to move the needle to the good in a hurry. They dropped down as soon as they saw the little hole in the sparse willows and flooded millet, responding well to the first notes of a greeting call and skirting the far side of the hole.

They stayed high for the second pass, inching closer but maintaining a safe altitude. They swung behind the blind on the right, and the next notes of a comeback call turned them like they were doing the tango.

The ducks crossed over the top of the blind from the backside, flying directly over the hole. Still hovering on the high side of a good shot, they banked 100 yards off the left front and set up for an incoming approach and another look.

It was the last look they'd want.

Bailey jumped up on the left end of the blind and unloaded. Besides John Schuh's lone shot out of desperation, or maybe frustration, nobody else pulled a trigger.

PHOTO GALLERY

Duck Trek photos

There aren't too many heated arguments in duck blinds, but I'd wager most break out over the difficult decision on how many times you let a group of wary ducks work your hole at the far edge of reasonable pass shooting. Sometimes they'll finally commit or make a pass that's too close to deny. But more often than not they stay in a vertical demilitarized zone, an area between safety and danger for them, and a place of ballistic uncertainty for the hunter.

There would be no argument over Bailey's interpretation of the rules of engagement.

After watching the mallards painfully disappear into the gray morning, Bailey turned and looked down the length of the blind, finding three of the longest, blankest, bewildered faces in the recent history of waterfowling.

Without saying a word, he heaved his pump gun over the front of the blind. The ripples hadn't even subsided when a barely used box of Winchester No. 2s made another set of little waves.

Black Dog Circus

I met Scott Bailey when the Duck Trek landed in western Missouri, and I liked him immediately. The shotgun bath in the flooded South Grand River bottoms only confirmed what I learned about Bailey during three days at the Black Dog Circus.

He's one of the good guys. And he's hilarious.

Duck Trek photographer James Overstreet had briefed me on Bailey. They've hunted together for nearly a decade, and it turns out most of the stories are true.

We met in a grocery store parking lot in Clinton, Mo., in the middle of a power outage. Bailey and two more members of the Black Dog Circus duck club, Chris Gebhardt and Jeff Hirschbach, had just emerged from the dark store, finding their groceries by flashlight and barely making it through the check-out line before the cash registers systematically shut down.

"It's chaos," Bailey said. "It's anarchy around here."

We made haste for the welcoming atmosphere of La Due.

The Black Dog Circus is the provenance of Richard Mendenhall and Ron Kaiser, both of Columbia, Mo. Mendenhall, a past president of the National Association of Realtors and a fifth-generation real estate man, took a look at the place on a tip from a fellow realtor. The Circus includes nearly 300 acres in three parcels, plus three acres where the camp sits across the highway from a green road sign that reads "La Due, Pop. 39."

La Due (pronounced LAY-do by most locals) has never been a big place. Agriculture lay at the core of the town's economy since its inception, but based on census figures, La Due's heyday was 1950-1987, when population stayed steady at about 175 residents. The Peabody Coal Co. moved its Power Mine operation to the area in the 1950s and began supplying coal to the Kansas City Power and Light's nearby coal-fired power plant. Construction of Truman Dam started in 1964, and agriculture continued to play a central role in the little town's existence.

Farming, dam-building and coal mining can make a community thirsty, and according to local lore, a woman named Gladys Bixler slaked that thirst by opening the Circus Bar, a small concrete block building where she hand-painted circus animals on the inside walls.

By all accounts, it was a successful little watering hole until Peabody closed the mine in 1987. While Truman Lake and the reclaimed strip pits are still important parts of the landscape, The Circus Bar is not.

But the spirit of The Circus Bar lives on in the Black Dog Circus. The club's metal storage shed for ATVs and other sundry gear stands on the site of the old tavern, its concrete floor still serving as a section of the foundation.

The Deck House, a house trailer that served as the Duck Trek's home away from home for three days, stands a few steps past the shed. Across a gravel parking area, there's the Circus House, another house trailer that serves as the main lodge.

The membership of the Black Dog Circus was understandably fired up for the opening weekend of Missouri's middle zone, and the celebration lasted all weekend.

Let the good times roll

The purpose of duck hunting is killing ducks, but if that's all it was about, the world wouldn't have nearly as many duck hunters.

One reason many people hunt ducks is the social nature of the endeavor, the occasion for camaraderie and fellowship with equally obsessed brethren. At the Black Dog Circus, duck hunting's social appeal took the center ring.

"We all keep score when we're hunting, but that has never been the deal with me," Mendenhall said. "Being out here with other people who understand that and have the same appreciation for the natural world, that's what it's all about."

Mendenhall and Kaiser didn't exactly have the Black Dog Circus in mind when they initially bought the property. But keeping the place to themselves didn't seem like the right thing to do, so they decided to sell eight annual memberships.

"We enjoy bumming around here all year long," Mendenhall said. "But if it's just Ronnie and I down here, it's just not as much fun."

Bailey and Hirschbach are the Circus' newest attractions, joining the crew just this year, but they played a central role in the celebration. Bailey provided unending comedy, and Hirschbach's culinary skills kept the gourmands happy.

There were two-inch ribeyes on Friday night, fried crappie fillets and all the fixings on Saturday, and Sunday's main course included fruits of the weekend's hunting — fried and grilled teal breasts with a main course of more medium-rare steak.

In between flashes of gastronomic bliss, spirited conversation and copious amounts of college and professional football filled the mild night air. By the time we finally crashed in the wee hours of Monday morning, Bailey and John Schuh and I had solved most of the world's problems.

"We got all the way to world hunger and had to stop so we could still hunt in the morning," he said. "There's only so much three people can do in one night."

Western Missouri waypoint

Most of the Black Dog Circus' 274 acres of hunting land are situated in the Deepwater Creek bottoms on the west end of Truman Reservoir. There's also a small leased parcel in the South Grand River bottoms.

Truman, a 55,600-acre flood control lake, provides a reliable source of water most years; another nearby benefit is the state's La Due Bottoms Conservation Area.

"We knew there'd be water because of Truman," Mendenhall said. "But what really appealed to me was having that state land on two sides of it."

Numerous private hunting clubs like the Black Dog Circus are scattered around this part of west-central Missouri. Privately managed wetlands are complemented by several thousand acres of public land. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Missouri Department of Conservation manage land around Truman, and the state also has several conservation areas in the region, including Four Rivers, Schell-Osage and Montrose.

The area is part of the Osage Plains, historically a prairie landscape characterized by gently rolling hills and plains. The area's streams typically have shallow valleys and broad floodplains with numerous sloughs and marshes.

The Missouri River is roughly 80 miles to the north, traversing the state from west to east before it empties into the Mississippi River near St. Louis. Ducks leaving the northern plains follow the river to this part of Missouri before cold weather and hunting pressure send them on to points south.

"That area around Truman is a very important wetland area that's extremely attractive to ducks," said Andy Raedeke, a waterfowl biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "What a lot of people don't realize is that Missouri and some of the other mid-latitude states have lost a greater percentage of their original wetlands than just about anywhere else. The restoration of wetlands over the past 20 years has been an amazing success story. And it's made for some outstanding hunting, too."

That's entertainment

Hunting had been spectacular the first day of Missouri's middle zone season. But it progressively turned worse with each day. By the third day, it was abysmal.

Plentiful water and fair weather had kept the vast majority of Central and Mississippi Flyway ducks far north in places like the Dakotas and Minnesota. Some flights were starting to show up in northern Missouri, and there were numerous teal, shovelers and gadwalls in supply when the season opened.

And just like that, it was over.

That's when good company makes a difference.

The skies were empty, but the duck blind dialogue wasn't. Bailey and Schuh insisted they were "hole killers" nonpareil. They told a story of how they headed south last year when Arkansas' famous Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area was covered with mallards. By the time they left a week later, it was a duck desert.

"We have that affect on ducks," Bailey said.

It wasn't their presence that had the ducks shut down, but there was plenty of idle time, and Bailey filled it by sharing his thoughts on shotgun maintenance, a philosophy that includes a dishwasher, camouflage duct tape and Krylon spray paint.

"I've had this gun for years," he said, "and it hasn't failed me yet."

Bailey told one joke that centered on former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and soup. It's unsuitable for publication, and besides, it wouldn't make sense outside the confines of the duck blind.

His self-inflicted coup de grace was the impersonation of a javelin thrower, except with a Krylon-coated, duct-taped Remington 870.

Our stay in Missouri couldn't have ended on a higher note.

(The next Duck Trek stop is in Kansas, and will be featured Friday, Dec. 4)