Standing knee-deep in water, we huddled against trees and watched as the tempest of mallards approached.
“My God!” one of my friends whispered in disbelief.
In seconds, they were upon us. Wings cupped, feet outstretched, they tumbled into the flooded pin oaks. One landed with a splash, then another and another. The sky above us was full of them, the air saturated with their wingbeats.
I tried guessing their numbers but found it impossible. One might easier count snowflakes in a blizzard. They soon covered the shallow water before us like a warm feathered blanket.
The woods fell silent now. My companions and I froze, knowing the slightest sound or movement could destroy that magic moment. Despite our best intentions, however, the inevitable happened. Somewhere within the flock, a wary susie sensed something out of place. She flushed. Then they all flushed. Like a single entity, hundreds of mallards rose in a detonation of swamp water and feathers.
We watched them leave, a backward-played video on nature’s TV screen. As quickly as they had come, they were gone.
I have witnessed many wonderful things during 40 years of hunting, but none more memorable than that shower of mallards. Under different circumstances, some ducks never would have left that hole. In this instance, however, not a shot was fired. My friends and I had our limits. We were simply observers.
Three hours earlier, before first light, we had boated to blinds in the flooded timber. Sammy Faulk, a friend from Louisiana, had joined me for a hunt on the Poor Boy Duck Club near Stuttgart, AR. Here, mallards and flooded green timber are the basic ingredients in a decades-old duck-hunting recipe.
Our hunting spot was a small clearing amidst hundreds of acres of pin oaks inundated with shallow water. Our hosts — Vernon Baker, Bob Bendigo and George Peters — motored us to the hole in a johnboat. Wearing waders and hidden beside trees in their camouflage clothing, the three men called, cajoling the mallards to come down. Occasionally, one man swirled his foot in the water, sending ripples through our decoys. Ripples convince ducks their kinfolks are feeding below.
A small mallard flock rocketed by at treetop height, banking sharply in response to Vern’s hail call. Vern twisted and turned, trying to keep them in sight. A staccato burst of feeding notes was the final persuader. The birds blazed in through the canopy. We each killed a drake.
Hundreds of mallards traded through the timber. George called. A flock whirled our way. They circled twice, then relented to gravity. Two. Four. Ten. When the time was right, George signaled: “Get ’em!” And some got got.
By 10, we were celebrating our good fortune back at the clubhouse. Other hunters were coming in, too. All agreed it had been a fine morning for hunting green-timber greenheads.
You don’t need a boat, a dog or even decoys when timber hunting. In its simplest form, the sport can be distilled to three essentials — a man, a call and ducks.
The call is the key because decoys are hard for the mallards to see through the maze of timber. Hunters try to “read” the ducks and call when appropriate, using a combination of hail calls, feeding calls and quacks to coax the birds in.
Hard-to-see ducks in tall timber can be on top of you before you realize they are near. You must decide in a split second if they’re within range, if they’re going to drop in, or if they should be taken on the pass.
You probably would take more birds if you stuck to pass-shooting exclusively, even though it’s tricky to track, lead and shoot a bird in the scant seconds before it disappears in the jumble of overhead branches. Mallards often appear to be coming in and then vanish when they spot something out of place. But resisting pass shots holds special rewards. Few sights in hunting are as unforgettable as a flock of ducks skimming the winter-bare treetops, wings cupped in classic fashion, as they drop from the sky into a flooded forest.
My son Matt and I once accompanied our friend Jim Spencer for a timber hunt near Stuttgart. Jim has hunted here for decades, and through his generosity, Matt and I experienced a moment the two of us will never forget.
We waded into flooded timber at dawn, stood by ancient oaks in a small clearing and watched thousands of mallards flying above the woodlands. Most ducks were too high to shoot, but Jim’s expert calling convinced several to drop in. When shooting hours ended at noon, we had six greenheads for our efforts.
What happened next was astonishing. All shooting on the wildlife management area ended, and per Jim’s instructions, Matt and I unloaded our guns and sat on a log to watch what happened next.
Mallards that flew high all morning started dropping into the timber. It began as a trickle of ducks, but the trickle soon grew to a flood. Mallards were splashing down all around us. As the water became crowded with birds, those trying to land were forced to circle and look for open water. Thousands flew around us, spinning through the woods like a hurricane.
We sat, mesmerized, and enjoyed a spectacle of nature Matt and I have never forgotten.
Moments like that, after a successful hunt, embody the true green-timber experience.