Magical duck hunt in the swamp

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Hunting in the Ouachita River bottoms was a way of life for the McKinnies. From my earliest memories, the anticipation of tomorrow’s hunt led to little sleep. Dad’s favorite saying, “Boy, if you are not up when I’m ready to go, I’m leaving you behind” was enough for me to check the wind-up alarm clock every hour, all night long.

Breakfast was always the beginning of the adventure. One Saturday morning Tubby Warren, one of Dad’s bosses, had driven up from Monroe to join Dad on a duck hunt in the river bottom. Mom as usual had cooked a huge meal since we wouldn’t eat another hot meal for 16 hours. By 4 a.m., she had fried chicken, pork chops, fried eggs, grits, biscuits, Reppo gravy and strong chicory coffee ready to eat.

Tubby had never seen a feast like this before daylight! It all led to an overstuffed stomach and a large burp. Just as Dad was loading the hunting gear in the Jeep, Tubby announced, “Hell, I’m too full to hunt. I’m going home and getting back in bed.”

Daddy was stunned. Never had anyone turned down the opportunity of a hunt with him, much less due to overeating. Dad quipped as he watched Tubby drive away, “Well, son, you want to go hunting this morning??” Wow, after what seemed like forever (I was only 8), I was finally going to hunt like the big boys!!!

A quick finish to loading the rest of the decoys, guns, shells and left-over chicken and biscuits into the Jeep, and we were off. Standing water, mud and deep ruts were no match for my dad and his Jeep. He knew every cut through the thickets to shorten the route to our wooden johnboat and our ultimate destination, the “Point of the Ridge.” True to its name, the ridge ran deep into the pin oak flats, narrowing as it settled into the Ouachita River swamp. The backwater had flooded the pin oak flats and was heavy with floating acorns, a sheer Mecca for mallards. If there is baptismal water for a new duck hunter, this was it.

Quickly we scattered the wooden decoys (yeah, they were handcarved and painted back then). Then Dad opened a damp burlap sack and pulled out one of two live, ringnecked mallard hens. He tied a string around one of her legs and tied the other end to a rotting tree stump. He placed the sack with the other live duck a short distance away. Every time the one in the sack clucked, the little hen on the stump flapped her wings and frantically called the other.

With everything in place, we settled against the trunk of a huge, virgin pin oak tree, waiting for the sun to make its entrance. As quiet set in, my 8-yearold imagination took over. Spirits moved among the pin oaks, cypress, tupelo and elbow bushes back in the dark wet places beyond the watery edge of the flooded river bottom. Panthers, bears, bobcats - could they really be just beyond view?

Surely, I caught a glimpse of them always in the murky half-light of a coming dawn under a bright moon when winter wind shook the draped clumps of Spanish moss on the near-bare branches of cypress.

Sometimes, it was a slight movement that caught my eye – a brief shimmer of something in the woods or high among the trees. Often it was a sound – a whispering overhead or a muted splash in the knee-deep water near the flat-bottomed johnboat hidden among a bell-bottomed picket line of cypress trees.

Dressed in layers of hunting clothes and hip boots, I stood alongside my dad in cold water as dark yielded to dawn. Shivering from excitement and childhood fear, shoulder against the trunk of a pin oak, cradling my trusty .410, we watched, waited and listened for movement above the trees. It is such a vivid memory, just me and my Dad, hunting like the big boys.

Hunting in flooded timber is rich in the little things – the sights, sounds, and smells. There is no sound like a “Squealer,” a wood duck, squealing from somewhere beyond the screen of trees. The drawn-out squeal is unique in hunting the timber. It is invariably given by a flying bird and makes any experienced hunter grip the shotgun a little tighter, step away from the tree trunk, hoping to see the duck coming his way.

Pairs of wood ducks came twisting and dodging through the flooded timber, flying more like bats than ducks, their eerie, squealing calls echoing through the shadowy world of the swamp.

Here is the thing about wood ducks: Don’t expect them to decoy. Squealers can be strange that way; they tend to ignore decoys. Most often, these aerobatic ducks will skirt the edge of an opening and seldom fly across open water.

Daddy whispered, “Let’s wait, son. Wait for the mallards, the big ducks.” Soon we heard the whistle of wings and murmur of the mallards above the trees. It is the sound all duck hunters want to hear. But we still could not see the birds.

The little ring-neck, mallard decoy hen suddenly stood tall on the old stump, flapping her wings, pleading for her kind to drop-in. There is no duck call manufactured that can duplicate the true tone of a lonely, desperate mallard hen, beckoning to others.

Back in the ‘50s there was very little hunting pressure. Gosh, Dad had the only four-wheel-drive, Army-type Jeep around. Thus the ducks were less leery, and who could doubt the live “come hither” plea of the hen? And did they come!

Flights of mallards streamed overhead, the white undersides of their wings flashing against the early morning sky. Groups of 20, 50, 100 had seemingly formed a tornado of wings circling barely above the tree tops, each taking his turn, diving through the trees recklessly, wings locked, bright orange feet reaching for the water, the drakes easily identified by their emerald heads and chestnut breasts.

My single shot .410 with its tiny shot pattern was no match for the passing mallards, but I held my own when Dad refrained from shooting for a second and let the mallards light on the water. I knew it was my signal to shoot, and shoot I did!

Later in the morning, after seemingly hours of shooting, we called it a day. What typically took all day was accomplished in relatively few hours, a hunt for the ages. Looking back, this was one of those moments when a person realizes just how special and magical hunting ducks in flooded timber can be.

Years later, I asked Dad what he would have done if a game warden had confronted us with an illegal, live duck decoy. He quipped, “Shoot the decoy.”

Many years later, I introduced Jimmy Brossette, my friend from Shreveport, and his father Dobbie to the Point of the Ridge. When asked afterwards what he thought, Dobbie said it best, “Like shooting up a chimney.”