A Good Hunt
Duck season has come and gone on the Grand Prairie of Arkansas and every year I am reminded of how special this time of year is to me as an avid sportsman living in Arkansas. I often relate back to an article published in the November 2000 issue of Gourmet Magazine, written by Eugenia Bone, entitled "A Good Hunt". To me her article sums up what duck hunting (and hunting in general is all about). Below is the original article for you all to enjoy.
by Scott Perry, Contributing Blogger for Wm Lamb & Son, Founder of the outdoor clothing brands Mountain Khakis® and McAlister®, Father, Sportsman, Friend
A GOOD HUNT
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN GOURMET MAGAZINE -NOVEMBER 2000
It’s not about killing or guns. For Eugenia Bone it’s all about the land, the water, and the dogs, and more than anything else, it’s about family—in all its quirky splendor—and food. Always food.
I have never experienced a duck hunt of the sort that many of my friends imagine—the drunken-bubbas-blasting-away stereotype. As most hunters will tell you, hunting is not about shooting. It’s about providing food; it’s about earning those provisions; it’s about a heightened sense of awareness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My husband, Kevin, and I usually fly to Memphis on the Friday after Thanksgiving. We get up at four the next morning to drive an hour and a half northwest to Weiner, Arkansas, with my uncle Norfleet. This part of Arkansas is rice and soybean country, and for miles in every direction the land is parallel to the horizon. It’s dark the way only deep country can be, so dark that driving along those flat roads is like floating in space. The Muzak oozing from my uncle’s car lends a Prozacky element to the surreal drive. Then ... blam! We hit the first of many potholes that announce our proximity to Claypool’s Wild Acres. Uncle Norfleet floors the accelerator, bouncing guns and gear and dogs around madly. In the joggling distance we can see the lights of the clubhouse.
Claypool’s is privately owned, by three cousins and a family friend (their daddies bought the club from Wallace Claypool, an automobile man from Memphis, in the mid-Seventies), so it is a clubhouse, but the word gives the wrong impression. It’s really a frumpy old two-story farmhouse with a semi-attached boot shed, plunked in the middle of a big gravel driveway. Norfleet grinds to a stop beside three or four other vehicles. Labrador retrievers pop up from their backseat beds to inspect the new arrivals and sniff. The vast oxygen-rich winds that blow over the fields must smell incredible to them. I can’t smell anything in particular, but in the hours before dawn the coolness feels like spirits passing overhead.
Inside, it smells like coffee. And peanuts, and gunmetal—and rubber boots, and old tobacco, and even older men. There’s a big fire burning in the living room fireplace, and a coffeepot and mismatched mugs on the table. Hunters lounge on dumpy furniture that crackles when you lean back because of all the peanut shells behind the cushions. Others are banging around upstairs in the dormitory bedrooms. There are dead wasps on the windowsills and worn issues of Ducks Unlimited, dusty taxidermied ducks, and old sepia-toned pictures of hunters and dogs and ducks and woods. And there are maps—beautiful maps depicting Claypool’s 1,370 acres of flooded woods and reservoir, and maps showing the location of blinds: Brown’s Hole, Well Island, Snowden’s Hole, Johnny’s Hot Spot, Turner’s Hole, Mystery Hole, Fifth Avenue.
It’s almost always the same cast of characters, most of them weirdly named, southern-style: my uncle Norfleet Turner, sassy and elegant, and his earnest son-in-law Mike Robbins; Skeets Boyle, vivacious and grumpy; Toof Brown and his boys; John Riley, for 32 years the gamekeeper, a giant of a man and the terror of local poachers; and my cousin Bayard Boyle Jr., a gentle loner who hunts by himself. As the sky lightens and everyone announces where they intend to hunt, the same old sparring breaks out, as it has for at least 50 years.
“I think you’ll git some ducks at Well Island, Norfleet,” says John Riley.
“He can try,”starts Skeets.
“Not if you scare my ducks I won’t,” says Norfleet.
“Did Steve make the coffee this morning? God, it’s evil.”
“I’m going to put my waders on,” says Bayard softly, and we all tromp into the boot shed.
Green rubber waders hang on pegs along one wall. Guns, primarily 12-gauge, rest on a tall rack. Masks, camouflage jackets, and boxes of neat orange and yellow shells sit on a long bench. There’s a dead mouse in the toe of one seldom-worn wader. The shed is dingy and gloriously atmospheric, smelling of leather and wet wool and dogs held in high esteem.
“Good hunt!”yell the hunters to one another as they heave their creaking, squeaking selves into their cars. Norfleet’s chocolate Lab, Claypool, is alert now, and moving into that loopy joyousness of a dog on the hunt. John Riley is with us to help call the birds, with his Lab Shiner. We drive along a dirt road through wet trees dripping with mostly imagined water moccasins and pull over near a lean-to that houses the Argo, a muddy little all-terrain vehicle that carries us, guns, and dogs out to Well Island.
Well Island is actually a grove of pin oaks in a flooded wood. “Mallards love them pin oak acorns,” says Riley. There are decoys floating in the clearing, and blinds hidden around the perimeter. Once we are settled, the Argo stashed, the dogs hushed and shivering with anticipation, and the hunters’ guns loaded and their masks on, the water stills. Everything stills. And we wait. Very quietly. So concentrated is the quiet that the slow zigzag of a leaf falling from the canopy captures everyone’s attention. This is the true character of hunting: a Zen-like state of simultaneous excitement and calm that allows for acute observation of nature. It’s why I don’t have to kill anything in order to experience a good hunt.
Overhead, ducks fly by in flocks and pairs, and higher up, geese travel in tremendous, fluttering ribbons. Riley begins calling—a wonderful, lonely quack and trill combination—and the ducks start descending into the clearing.
“Betty!”shouts Robbins, letting everyone know she’s a hen. No one shoots. And then everything is silent again. Uncle Norfleet lights up a cigarette. I can see its glowing tip and the long black barrel of his gun peeping out from the blind.
As the sky turns orange and pink, we shoot mallards and tiny, zippy teal for their sweet, tender meat. With every bird that falls like a feathery stone, the dogs leap off the blinds and lope through the water to retrieve it in soft jaws, their tails wagging fiercely. The ducks are so stuffed with rice from their nightly feed that their craws make a crunching sound like a bean bag chair when we hang them in the crook of a nearby willow bush. There’s a camaraderie that happens on a hunt that is very precious. I get great pleasure when my uncle calls out,“Good shot!” And I don’t even mind his more frequent and rather unnecessary,“You missed!”
There are a lot of ducks traveling the Mississippi flyway (the capital of American duck hunting is nearby Stuttgart, Arkansas). As a result of the nationwide ban on ddt and the efforts of conservation-minded folks—mainly hunters—who have worked to preserve breeding grounds farther north, the population has been growing. Population figures determine how many ducks hunters can shoot during the season (mid-November to late January in Arkansas). Last season the limit was six ducks per day.
Over the course of a weekend we will shoot in two locations, once in a flooded woods environment like Well Island, and once in the thick floating mats of duckweed and the tangled buck brush that surrounds the reservoir. The hunting is difficult because the birds are flying fast overhead—it’s a little like shooting a speeding shoe—but it is a great spot for watching the splashy Arkansas sunrise, with its gaudy colors and flocks of banking ducks. There are usually so many waterfowl flying overhead, they sound like traffic and look like a black storm cloud descending, but this one isn’t ominous at all. This spectacle of nature is why so many big shots have come to Claypool’s to hunt, among them Jimmy Carter, Wernher von Braun, various DuPonts, and baseball great Preacher Roe, but not Bill Clinton. (“Skeets don’t like Bill Clinton,” says John Riley.)
Two hours after dawn the hunt is over. Then the hunger starts. And, oh, what a divine hunger it is! Not a depleted hunger, or a gnawing hunger, but a hearty hunger brought on by exercise and fresh air—really, a kid’s appetite, if I remember correctly.
Outside, the dogs inhale their kibble breakfast, and inside the house Mary Minton is working on ours. Mary is a curvaceous brunette in her mid-forties. She’s got a robust laugh and a fine sense of her womanliness.
“This is my fifth year at Claypool’s and I love it,” she says while turning over thick-cut bacon that is frying in two inches of bubbling fat. She also prepares dinners when hunters spend the night—southern classics, all. “I make chicken fried in bacon grease and hot apple caramel pie and coleslaw. That’s my specialty,” she says, turning the bacon. “Last year a guest from Colorado offered to marry me for that recipe.”
Settling down to this breakfast is a true reward. The table, by a picture window that looks out on a duck-resting pond, is set with thick, diner-style ceramic, matching in spirit only. Pitchers of orange juice and milk are set out, as well as bowls of jelly, jam, and marmalade. It may be country, but nothing is ever served in its original container. Then Mary comes out with the goods: a platter of scrambled eggs and another of fried country eggs, a basket of steaming homemade biscuits, a mound of curly bacon, and a bowl of white gravy with the handle of a ladle sticking out of it. Everyone is pretty quiet for the first few minutes of furious piling on plates, and then the stories start—about the hunt, the dark water, the red sunrise.
I don’t always kill a duck, which is okay with me, despite the pitying looks of my fellow hunters. But my uncle tends to get his limit, so it’s at his house that we assemble later with the rest of the family to enjoy the fruits of this particular harvest. Game that has been shot at Claypool’s over the year makes an appearance. Because I know what’s involved in putting these birds on the table, I feel tremendous respect and appreciation for my dinner; more so than when I buy it at the supermarket. And what a dinner it is! Breasted dove wrapped in bacon, teal stewed with sauerkraut, livery mallard with turnips, goose roasted with apples, all served with baby butter beans, collard greens, and hand-formed corn pones. Norfleet always serves an airy coconut cake that he gets from a neighbor. There is bourbon drinking before dinner and wine drinking during, and there’s always teasing—lots of teasing, of both the gentle and the rough varieties. But that’s family: You’re never off the hook.
I always carry home a heavy duffel bag; one way or another, I end up with enough ducks to last the winter. As I feast on these lean fowl, I’m transported back to Arkansas, to the dogs, to the birds flying by, to the warmth of the morning kitchen, and to all the quirky charm of my southern kin.
Scott's son learning the joys of hunting early.
Classic Father and son time together .....