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The Season: Ducks

The Season, by Steve Bowman

The memories are very clear of early duck hunts, when as a kid, you were constantly reminded to keep your head down.

"Keep that head down boy! Or they'll see the whites of your eyes."

At a tender age, that was a very strong statement: It made you almost too scared to move. There was no way in the world I would be the one to flare a flock of ducks with the whites of my eyes. Those little slivers of white surrounding my irises stayed tucked well away. I think I even learned to shoot a shotgun peeking out from behind the bill of my cap, the camouflage one with the white stitching around the John Deere logo. Read more

— Steve Bowman


Ducks for Dinner

This week is "Wild Game Cookery Week" at Catfish Gumbo, and to start things off, we'll continue with last week's waterfowl theme and share some recipes for the ducks you're hopefully bagging right now.

I started hunting ducks late in life, but they occasionally showed up on the dinner table when I was a boy, gifts from hunting relatives. I did not like the ducks my mother and grandmother prepared. Both women were wonderful cooks, but ducks weren't common fare in our household, and apparently my mom and granny had no proper experience in their preparation. The birds they served were roasted for long periods with no enhancements. They tasted like liver and were dry and tough. Read more.

— Keith "Catfish" Sutton

12-Point question

The question, "Do you want to go hunting in the morning?" is nothing like the question, "Do you want to go shoot hoops?" or even "Do you want to throw the football?"

It's clearly a loaded question.

Even if I were asked "Do you want to shoot hoops in the morning?" the question wouldn't have nearly so much at stake. The only reason people do go shoot hoops in the morning is because at some point, when one person's exhausted or someone gets injured, the game stops and everyone then heads to work.

So, if that's the case, the earliest one might want to get under a basket is 6 a.m. — as nobody wants to hit the court bad enough to be there a second earlier than 6 a.m.

Nobody. Ever.

So, back to the question, "Do you want to go hunting in the morning?"

At first mention, it sounds like a fantastic idea. Hunting is fun — there's no doubt — but once the initial euphoria of daydreaming has passed, other factors begin to seep in, like the more unpleasant, though necessary details, such as:

    • Do you want to skip some much-needed sleep and get up well before the sun?
    • Do you want to spend 30 minutes layering only to be beaten by the cold?
    • Do you want to lose all feeling in your hands and feet?
    • Do you want to wish you didn't have that fourth beer?

And then there are plenty more situational questions, like "Do you want to drive an hour to the camp?" or "Do you want to be tired at work all day, or better yet, miss a day altogether?"

Best of all, though, is "Do you want to come home to an angry wife?"

At my latest outing, a charity hunt at the Duck Classic (read story here), I was told to meet up with the guys at 4 a.m. for breakfast at a lodge that was a half an hour away.

I was given this information at around 10:30 p.m., which meant if I passed out on the spot (which I actually almost did) and slept like a log, even then I wasn't going to get more than four and a half hours of sleep.

Instead, my mind shut down at around 11:45 p.m., and three and a half hours later I was washing my hair with the hand lotion so graciously provided by the Hampton Inn (the little bottles were so similar and besides, who can read at 3:30 a.m.?) — but it was the lack of lather that confused me.

But that's the thing I've learned about hunters: They don't mind the early hours, the loss of sleep, or even the cold. Most seem to enjoy getting up early and freezing — it's all part of hunting.

Hunting is not the act of shooting an animal. Hunting, I've come to realize, is an experience.

And I can say, even with the lotion in my hair, that the Duck Classic was a great experience.

— Kyle Carter

Bands aid biologists

Known as "bling'' jewelry for the duck hunter, bird bands are worn proudly on lanyards of many duck hunters.
A necklace of them is a symbol of a devout and successful hunter, but they have another purpose — research.
Birds of all sorts can carry a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
band. If reported to the service, these bands can provide essential
and interesting information on the origins of the bird.
But they must be reported to be useful. Past reporting procedures required writing in with the information, but the procedure got much easier 10 years ago with the establishment of band recovery toll-free hotline:

1-800-327-BAND.

With this change, the USFWS staff believes reporting rates improved dramatically over the estimated 33 percent report rate before the number. This year, a new website, reportband.gov, was established to provide another easy method for reporting bands.

"Banding is one of the oldest and most important migratory bird
monitoring programs in North America,'' said B.H. Powell of the
U.S. Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) in Laurel, Md. "In order to
effectively analyze banding and recovery data, it is necessary to
know the rate that encountered bands are reported to the BBL. Low
reporting rates increase the cost to state agencies by increasing
the sample size needed for meaningful data analysis. But our
toll-free number has been an extremely effective method that allows
hunters and other persons encountering banded birds to report the
bands.''

This season, those who experience the excitement of harvesting
a banded bird can find out quickly where the bird
came from, how old it is, and other information on the bird.

It's free, and it's as simple as phoning 1-800-327-BAND or
logging on to reportband.gov.

And, yes, you get to keep the band.

— Associated Press

Waterfowl Banding Trivia

For waterfowl hunters, duck and goose bands are among the most treasured mementos of the hunt. Killing a banded bird is a special thrill, and wearing a lanyard of bands around your neck is a symbol of status.

The value and importance of waterfowl bands far exceeds that of mere jewelry, however. The hunters who harvest birds and report their bands play a vital role in the conservation of North America's waterfowl populations. And the reports not only provide interesting insight into the lives of waterfowl, but also hopefully foster a much greater appreciation for our quarry.

Read more.

— Keith "Catfish" Sutton

Waterfowling Words

Duck hunting apparently is good in Arkansas this year. In recent days, I've received hunting invitations from members of at least five Natural State duck clubs, all of whom indicated the waterfowling is better than it's been in years.

Unfortunately, I'm tied up at my computer this week, writing and editing, and won't have an opportunity to go hunting. That being the case, I figure I'll do the next best thing—write about duck hunting. So this week will be Waterfowling Week on Catfish Gumbo.

For the first course of this waterfowling banquet, here are some wonderful passages by great writers that describe what it truly means to be a duck hunter.

Read more.

— Keith "Catfish" Sutton

Two hunts and I'm hooked

My first duck hunt was certainly special. My friend, Angie, took great photos, which I've used in my dating profile (they didn't render any keepers), but there were definitely some nerves involved, considering it was the first time I fired a shotgun.

That was fun, but it was this recent, second hunting adventure that just may have me hooked.

The adventure began with a 6 a.m. flight out of Connecticut (cold and rainy), where my New England-suburban-type girlfriends were puzzled by my weekend trip to Arkansas, which wasn't a work requirement.

US Airways added (for no extra charge) to my adventure with a little fun of their own. On our final approach to Little Rock airport, with gear down, just when you think you're about to touch down and say a quick thanks, there was a fast, powerful thrust of the engines and we blasted back up for a go 'round — "No biggy," said the pilot, "just an air traffic control adjustment" — thanks for that. That was Adrenaline Rush No. 1.

I arrived safely in Little Rock and was greeted by my friend, colleague and favorite guide, Steve Bowman. We headed straight to Stuttgart for the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest, with one pit-stop along the way to meet up with Steve's friend, Grant, and deep-fried gizzards. I'll spend hours in the gym recovering from this trip.

I'd surmise the entire population of Stuttgart looks forward to and gets behind this unique and traditional event and I'm starting to understand why. Thousands of friendly people surrounded the stage, creating a sea of camouflage laden fans cheering their favorite caller. The duck calling went on all day and good blowing is likened to playing a musical instrument. The contestants practice their composition for months in preparation for the performance. And I'm sure they're not in it for the prize money: they're in it because they love it.

The competition is just one piece of the Wings on the Prairie Festival. For some revelers it's all about the Gumbo. ESPN Outdoors writer, Sam Eifling, and photographer, James Overstreet, describe that best, so I won't even try: check it out here.

But I will say it was one of the best parties I've been to in a while and I got lots of stickers on my butt. I think I'll go every year.

Although we were working that day (the Outdoors editorial crew is thinking "we?") covering this event, I was beginning to unwind. It's hard not to do when you're surrounded by laid-back, friendly people doing what they love. So after a long but enjoyable day in Stuttgart, we headed up to Brinkley to be in position for our Sunday morning duck hunt. We (Bowman and myself) didn't realize at the time we'd "hunt" along the way.

With a bag of Doritos and our brilliant philosophical work-related confabulations (this is when we do our best thinking), we motored along a quiet, flat road with Grant following behind. Enter doe from left woods. Steve nimbly managed the vehicle in an attempt to miss her but to no avail. We pulled over and Grant informed us that she skidded on her head a few yards then picked up and took off. Steve's big-ass truck was okay and apparently so was the doe. That was Adrenaline Rush #2.

When you're in the outdoors, the weather can foil the best laid plans. My alarm clock went off at 4:40 a.m. on Sunday morning and I peeked out the window to see torrential downpour — heck I didn't even have to peek, I could hear it. We knew this might be the case so we were prepared to re-chart our course and sleeping a couple more hours wasn't a bad idea.

A couple more hours turned into 9 a.m. (gee, we must've been tired from our hard work at the Gumbo), and it was still raining. So we contemplated our next move over breakfast at a local restaurant buffet. We decided to head up to a town called Bald Knob and assess the weather from what Steve calls his "camp." It's really a house in the woods with all the accoutrements an Arkansan duck hunter could wish for, including a giant Sony flat screen where we watched the Bengals trounce the Titans. I'm still learning the game of football — Steve and Grant were great guides for that too.

Around 2 p.m., we decided to gear up and head out to the "Taj Mahal." It's very nice as blinds go, and even has artwork on the wall in the form of a vacated watermelon-sized hornets' nest. I understand that pre-sunrise is the best time to hunt ducks because they're moving around a lot. I also now understand that late afternoon on a rainy day with a fickle light wind isn't. I was thrilled just to get out there. I got to know Grant a little bit, Steve and I solved more business problems, and I drove a four-wheeler. And now, I was really unwinding. You can't get this kind of relaxation from a spa — take note New England suburban-type ladies. And we still had Monday ahead of us.

After two warm biscuits with muscadine jelly and a quick cup of coffee, we were on our way to the Taj Monday pre-dawn. The cloud cover was low, gray and swirling, and the water was high. I hardly ever spend time watching the sky. It is a peaceful and grounding experience. I'm learning the ins and outs of duck hunting and I'll take my time. I can now tell the difference between a duck and a bird in flight, and I can now recognize the sound of a goose. I can now load and unload a shotgun.

And I can now begin to understand why so many people have such passion and respect for hunting.

We're known to be a little bit tightly wound up here in the Northeast. I can recommend one way that can be undone, or loosened, at least for a weekend. It's a bit of an addiction and I can't wait for the next time.

— Alex Roman

Duck for Thanksgiving

Father and son have special tradition

It wasn't really that cold, like so many other Thanksgiving mornings on the Currituck Sound in northeast North Carolina.

The ducks hadn't really shown up in numbers we had hoped for, but the wind had shifted and, for the first time all week, the decoys bobbed and shifted back and forth as the wind picked up.

The reeds from the back of the blind were drumming lightly on my hat as I crouched down to hide my face from the glare of the sunrise. I had that feeling in my chest, you know the one, that "Christmas Eve" feeling of anticipation where your heart beats faster, your senses are on high alert, and you just can't wait.

I was peering through the reeds at the knot of teal that was dodging and swirling its way toward the decoys. If you duck hunt long enough, you can tell when the ducks have made up their minds to commit — they're coming all the way, no matter what.

Read more

— John Merriwether

Yankees welcome if they follow rules

It's duck season in my home state of Arkansas, the self-anointed duck hunting capital of the world.

It used to be that this time of the year was every southern boy's Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. Lately, it's become pretty much the same for our northern brethren (That's Yankees for most of you).

I say this from experience. Duck hunting is so good here that people from virtually every state in the Union and the Confederacy visits our flooded timber and rice fields to take part in what we've been doing since Daddy replaced our pacifiers with duck calls.

With the help from a whole slew of e-mail from all those Internet junkies who love to send me redneck jokes, here's a primer for Yankee sportsmen visiting the South during its best outdoor season.

Read more

— Steve Bowman