JONESBORO, Ark. Charles "HammerTime" Snapp drove his small Toyota truck down a gravel road outside of Walnut Ridge, Ark., which doesn't exactly narrow down the location.
"I usually don't do this, but for you to get an idea of what's in this field," Snapp said right after a full-moon versus half-moon migratory explanation in the tone of a proud father talking about his kids, explaining exactly why this certain field at this certain time should be covered in birds. "If I'm not mistaken, if you'll look out the window, you'll see several thousand birds take off."
He was absolutely correct. Just the sound of the birds taking off, mostly geese with a few ducks mixed in, was adrenaline-rushing impressive, but when all of the freshly disturbed birds simultaneously expressed their discontent, it was near deafening.
Behind the Toyota was a trailer pulling an eight-wheel drive Argo, an all-purpose, take-anywhere, go-through-anything vehicle needed to get to the duck blind. And behind the trailer was a white Dodge Ram packed with four anxious, salivating duck hunters.
Hoppy Hoffman, Bob Taylor, Scott Younge and Jeff Mullen were too far behind the Toyota to see the rise of the birds in the darkness of 5 a.m., but they certainly heard it. This wasn't the first time these guys, known as team "Shotgun Formation," had entered in the Duck Classic, a charity duck hunting competition benefiting the NEA Clinic in Jonesboro, Ark.
But it was the first time they had a chance to win it.
The random draw for location and land host conducted at a banquet the night before had not been too friendly to Shotgun Formation in the past. Their first year, the lucky ones had to sit inside an old sewage tank, while the fourth member, because of a space issue, had to lie still outside.
They did, however, cash that year, earning $35 gift certificates (to a store that soon thereafter went out of business) for coming in dead last with negative two points they were docked for their only kill because it was a hen.
They spent last year in their own blind because their host "wasn't too optimistic" as Mullen put it, so they headed to Hoffman's blind and came in with two or three birds.
But this year was different: The Duck Classic, now in its fifth year, had come a long way in choosing hosts, and Team Shotgun was reaping the benefits. Snapp is one of most well-respected guides in the area, with some of the best duck hunting land in Arkansas, and Shotgun Formation was out to prove that their past poor finishes were not a reflection of talent.
Both Mullen and Taylor work as doctors at the NEA Clinic, which offers free medical and health services to families that can't afford them; Younge provides the clinic with x-ray and radiation services and Hoffman, Mullen said with a smile, "He's the guy with the dog."
"We want four greenheads and two bonus ducks apiece," Mullen said. "That's a perfect score."
Snapp wasn't quite as optimistic, but acknowledged the possibility of scoring the max of 108. That means each team member's six-duck limit needed to include four mallard drakes or pintail drakes (both worth five points each) and two of any black, gadwall, merganser, ringneck, shoveler, teal, widgeon, wood (worth two points each). The idea is to avoid hens, because they are only worth one point.
"Hell, they're wild ducks and you're dealing with Mother Nature, and when you add migratory into that equation, it isn't any good," said Snapp, who has been unofficially guiding since junior high and guiding for a living since 1978. "But from the scouting reports yesterday, if you count geese and all, I'd be surprised if we didn't see 10,000 birds today.
"The issue is, with the way this hunt is set up, is what do they want to shoot?"
The whole system seemed to kind of annoy Snapp. Passing on ducks doesn't sound like a good idea to a guy having "HammerTime" shoved into the middle of his name.
"Personally, I'm a duck hunter, and there are a lot of ducks besides Mallard drakes, and they are all fun to shoot at," he said. "But these guys want to win, so they are almost going to have to be extremely picky on what they want to shoot."
The hunt: realizing second place... or worse
The group piled on and into the Argo eight-wheeled drive monster and Snapp rotated levers as they jerked through the better part of a rice field flooded 3 feet deep and still muddy from the waterfowl feeding there the night before.
Geese speckled the sky above, and if you couldn't see them, you could certainly hear them.
"Don't look up," Mullen joked. "You might get hit with a surprise."
Snapp corrected: "Don't look up with an open mouth. You hear that hitting the water? That ain't popcorn."
The blind, which looked like a small pile of brush in the middle of a lake, was a metal container buried into the field, and it had two grass covered flaps that folded in from the sides. Everyone helped Snapp very meticulously put out the decoys, settled into the hole and closed the back flap for cover.
It wasn't much past legal shooting time of 6:22 a.m. when the ducks started coming in. The first few groups flew by unharmed because they weren't right. Every time a duck got close, the quiet debate would start about what type of duck it was. HammerTime shed a tear for every duck that passed.
At 6:50 a.m., the day got under way with one Mallard drake and three Gadwall. Snapp was back on top.
"Feathers in the water! Good shooting, guys," he yelled as the Mallard dropped about 30 yards in front on the blind. He lowered his voice, smirked and threw an elbow into the ribs of the reporter sitting on his right and added, "far from a perfect limit."
The rest of the team wasn't far behind Snapp's realization. Unless things changed drastically, there would be no perfect score. The clouds had covered up the sun and the ducks were settling on the adjacent field. At around 7 a.m., still with only four in the bag, winning took a backseat to enjoying the moment.
"The time to hesitate is over," Mullen said as the group checked the sky beneath the bill of their hats. "Let's gets some ducks on the water. Let's get some feathers flying."
Hoffman didn't seem thrilled with the idea of giving up a shot at winning, but he was also sitting on the far end from Snapp, who moaned with real pain every time a killable duck flew past the blind.
Things remained slow for the next half hour. There were plenty of ducks in the sky, but none of them coming close enough to this blind. Around 7:25, they busted open the flaps after Snapp yelled "Take it!" and dropped a Shoveler, which Snapp described as "God's gift to the Arkansas duck guide."
Every shot started with a "Take em!" which was always followed by a "Box 'em up," meaning, get in and down before you scare off the next flock. Things picked up when Snapp moved the decoys about 5 feet east and the clouds momentarily parted around 8 a.m., which resulted in 14 more birds over the next hour, including four more Mallard drakes.
It took the next hour and a half to fill the 24-duck limit, which finished with six Mallard drake, one Pintail drake, one Mallard hen, two Teal, two Pintail hen, and "a bunch of other two-pointers." Their total, 66 points, was good enough for fifth place out of the nearly 40 teams entered.
The smiles of a limit overshadowed the disappointment of the finish as the team packed up their gear. The event raised more than $215,000 for the NEA Clinic, which, after all expenses are paid out, is more than a third of the budget needed to run the clinic for a year.
"After all," Hoffman said as they picked up the decoys, "that's why we're here. And this was not a typical day. I might shoot three or four birds, or maybe never take a shot at my place. This was unbelievable."
HammerTime seemed to sum things up during one of his adrenaline rushes late in the day, comparing the Duck Classic to the typical charity vehicle.
"This sure as hell beats golf," Snapp yelled after one of the late flurries, which almost always resulted in a duck down per shot taken. He paused for self reflection and added, "I've never played golf, but I can't imagine it being any better."
For more information on Charles "HammerTime" Snapp, visit his website at www.arkansaswaterfowl.com