Out There: Duck hunter of the finest caliber

Vernon Baker with a brace
of mallards. 

Hunting is a game of possession. But I like hunting most with men who treasure those things about hunting that can't be possessed.

Vernon Baker, 70, of North Little Rock, Ark. — my duck-hunting companion for the better part of two decades now — is one of those men.

Our meeting, back in the early 1980s, was a stroke of fate. A mutual friend invited me to hunt at the Poor Boy Duck Club near Stuttgart, Ark., where he and Baker were members.

When I arrived, Baker was at the stove cooking breakfast. He greeted me warmly, as did all the club members, and that morning we enjoyed the first of many hunts together.

The friend who first invited me to Poor Boy left the club two years later. I had been his guest there several times, and Baker and I had developed a distant but warm friendship. Before the next duck season rolled around, Baker phoned.

"I was wondering if you'd like to come back down and hunt with us on opening weekend," he said. "You've always enjoyed hunting with us so much, I thought you might want to come as my guest."

I gratefully accepted, and the same invitation has come without fail every year in the twenty since passed. In that time, Baker and I became close friends and shared dozens of hunts.

I have hunted the famed timbers around Stuttgart with scores of extraordinary hunters.

Some were outstanding with a duck call, able to produce just the right combination of notes to convince mallards to drop in for a visit. Others I remember most because of their fine wingshooting skills. Still others had a special knack for setting a good decoy spread or pinpointing the perfect hole in which to hunt.

Vernon Baker possesses all these skills. I've watched, mesmerized, as his magical calling drew hundreds of ducks down from the sky. I've seen him make near-impossible shots look easy. I've looked on as he moved a few decoys just so to turn a ho-hum hunt into an action-packed extravaganza.

These abilities, however, are only a small measure of the man.

I remember an early conversation with Baker that convinced me he was the type of hunter one wants as a friend. He phoned and suggested I meet him at Poor Boy for a midseason hunt.

"How was the hunting today?" I asked. "Any ducks?"

"Well, I killed a few, and I had a lot more circling the hole that refused to drop in," Baker replied.

"But you know, I think the ones I didn't shoot gave me just as much pleasure as those I brought home. There's only one thing you can do with a dead duck, you know — eat it."

Baker, now recently retired after working more than 30 years with a mechanical contracting firm, likes shooting mallards just as much as the next guy. That fact is indisputable when you look at the dozens of duck bands encircling the lanyards on his calls; no doubt, thousands of ducks fell to his gun before he acquired that collection.

Baker also likes watching others kill ducks. When we hunt the flooded timber together, he's happiest when I am successful because he knows how much I enjoy shooting. Nothing pleases him more than to help a guest bag a limit of greenheads, or to be in a blind with friends when the gunning is good.

I have learned, however, that for Baker, personally, the shooting is just gravy.

Certainly, like all hunters, he likes to feel the satisfaction that comes only with killing game. Hunting is, after all, a game of possession, as I've said.

For Baker, though, the killing is secondary to other pleasures.

For him, hunting is a glorious sunrise; it's a retreat into solitude; it's a special kind of companionship with men you enjoy and admire. It is the haunting call of wild geese, the wonder of brilliant mallards cupping their wings over a blind. But, most of all, it is being "out there" when Nature is at her beautiful best.

One duckless day, Baker and I stayed in woods long after other members and guests returned to the clubhouse.

An eagle soared by, high overhead. Skeins of snow geese passed like plumes of smoke in the bluebird sky. We talked very little, but, by then, our long friendship had reduced the necessity of conversation. We knew each other so well we didn't have to talk.

A nod of the head now and then represented a meeting of minds; wide grins were adequate reminders of our reasons for remaining in the flooded timber.

At one point, however, Baker spoke, and I remember well what he said, the same words I've heard from him time and time again:

"Isn't it great just to be here?"

Looking at the smile on his face, I knew, for him, that was enough. Killing ducks wasn't necessary at all. Being outdoors with a good friend made this day a total success. Nothing more was needed.

That is why I so admire this gentle man. Of the hundreds of hunters with whom I've been afield, he is one of few, very few, who exhibit such an intense passion for the full experience of hunting.

Baker also is a good teacher. He loves sharing his knowledge of green-timber duck hunting with anyone who exhibits a willingness to learn.

He grew up on the Grand Prairie of eastern Arkansas — hallowed ground for waterfowlers — and hunted many blue-ribbon wildlife management areas before they had been acquired for public use. Dagmar, Hurricane Lake and Wattensaw were favored hunting grounds for him and his father.

"We hunted green timber and creeks where water flooded the land naturally," Baker said.

"I can remember hunting when the mallard limit was eight, then it went to six and finally down to only one bird a day. I've seen duck hunting in Arkansas at its best and at its worst. Thank goodness, the ducks are doing better now."

"Learn to enjoy what's around you," he continued, "even if the ducks don't cooperate. There's more to this sport than just being a good caller or being a good shot.

"It's more than just killing ducks, much more. And the sooner you learn that, the more you'll get out of it."

I couldn't agree more, and that is why hunting with Vern Baker is always such a pleasure.

Thank you, Vern, from the bottom of my heart.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.