Duck Hunting, A Dream Relived

Gordon Crenshaw

© Copyright 2020 by Gordon Crenshaw
Photo of a duck hunter.

For many years I have asked myself, what is the magic that makes a man leave his warm home in the wee hours of the morning in freezing conditions to endure almost unbearable conditions to get a chance to bag his limit of ducks. When you think about it you could buy a duck at the super market or shoot one on a small pond near the house out in the country with little trouble at all. What then is the lure that has such a power over a man to make him punish himself to almost unbearable odds to hunt one of the wildest and most leary creature in God’s Kingdom. Any little movement will spook them and they won’t get near you.

Image this, you have planned for this occasion for months, even as far as a year prior to his occasion. Now the day had finally arrived.

You go up into the attic to fetch your decoy’s, charcoal bucket, hip boots and insulated underwear. My mistake with your arms full you miss the rafter and your foot goes through the sheetrock ceiling by the stairs. You come crashing down and your right leg catches a group of two by fours you had stacked up and tears a big hunk out of your leg. Did that stop you, did you go get stitches, none of the above. You wiped it off, put on medicine and taped it closed. It was time to go. Joe Gordon would be there looking for you.

You are in an old 30 year old motel, formally known as a cabin, in a little farming town in North east Arkansas. You arrive about 5:30 just as it is getting dark after a very hard 11 hour drive in mixed rain, sleet and snow. You travelled from just west of St. Louis southward through Missouri into Arkansas. You left your corporate life in a big city to land up in the backwaters of Arkansas.

All the way down your listened to a tape you bought from Ducks Unlimited of the winners of the National Duck Calling contest in Stuttgart Arkansas. I would take out my old faithful Olt duck call that you had carried since you were 15 years old and hit a few highball, bring’em back, calls as your drove along. All the time trying to mock the callers on the tape you were listening too. Once you hailed that highball call for about four blast you ease into the old “comeback“call. A few minutes of that you pretended that they were circling and you started to chatter the feeding chatter. It did not take long to find out that you were out of shape lung wise. You figured it you tried and practiced long enough you could do the whole routine without losing your breath just like you used to do when you grew up duck hunting in the bottoms of West Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.

In this route to the hunting grounds you had to pass over the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. You knew that Ducks were making their way south and you slowed and searched the skies and backwaters hoping to see that big V formation winging it’s way south. You were disappointed to only spot a few coots swimming in the edges close enough to see. A flock of big Green headed Mallards was what you were looking for. No such luck. You had been reading the reports from the hunting magazines about the upcoming season. They all reported a good hatch this year and a great migration. The news reported that Canada and northern Illinois had been wiped out with a two week long blizzard. Surely the ducks were on their way down.

Joe Gordon Grumme, my first cousin, was the operations executive at Buckeye Cellulose Plant there in Memphis. It was a Proctor and Gamble company. He was supposed to be there already. He was always late for most things but never for duck hunting. Joe, myself and my brother Kent had battled the elements for years duck hunting. It was never to cold, to icy, too snowy, too far or too dangerous for us. That little aluminum John boat with a 5 horse motor loaded with 6 bags of decoys, a charcoal bucket, a big roll of camouflage, a golden retriever named Guest and all our guns and gear has battled a lot of out of control rivers trying to find the break out where the water floods the corn field. All those times were before daylight with the front person trying to hold a little flashlight to see the submerged logs and low hanging limbs. We always went up river because we knew if the motor would not start that we could float back to our car down river.

The Coca Cola’s still came in 6 ounce bottles there in Paragould Arkansas and it would take 12 of them to do justice to the quart of Jack Daniels I had brought with me. So far I was down 3 with 3 to go. The jar of dry roasted peanuts I brought was about half gone too. I knew Joe would be ready for cocktail hour when we met up. I had cleaned my double barreled Stevens 12 gauge so much I had almost worn off the bluing on the barrel. It shined so much it would flair off a coot. I had some liquid blue in my bag so I could fix it. Joe Gordon was supposed to pick up a couple of bags of decoys at my Brother Kent’s house on the way. Kent could not get out of school where he taught to come with us this time. Opening day was on a Monday this year. Kent was giving final test this week at school.

I got my Arkansas License two weeks earlier while I was working in Poplar Bluff Missouri. I had already bought a duck stamp 3 months earlier. Where is he I wondered? He is never late for a hunt. Finally a ranchero truck loaded down pulled into the drive of the motel. I could see him lumber up to the office smoking a cigarette which he flipped into the flower pot as he opened the door. I could see him jesting with Charlie the motel clerk as he registered. I know he was asking if I was there. About that time he looked out the door and saw me standing outside my motel door with a big glass in my hand. Where the Hell have you been I hollered down at him, I’m nearly drunk sitting here waiting for you. I even had to drive over twice as far as you did to get here. He said you ought to see this new caller I found at fisherman’s one stop in West Memphis. He said it’s the latest thing in Memphis and was used by the winner of this year’s duck calling contest. I said, well you can blow it all you want to here at the motel but when we get in the blind just keep it in your pocket. You see I have heard him trying to blow a duck call all my life and when he does the ducks scatter like rats in a chicken house fire. We want to get a shot tomorrow. At that he had made it to my door and I grasp his big hand and then a big hug and he said where can I park? I have this boat loaded in the back with all the stuff in it. I said I will help you bring everything inside. I know there is honor in the duck hunters world but there are also lots of folks up and down this road that don’t hunt ducks.

The motel room was little with two little beds and small bathroom. The shower had a curtain and the sink had no stopper. You could tell it had been well used with all the rust around the fittings. The room heater unit was so loud we could barely hear the one channel we could get on the little black and white TV. None of that mattered. Pour me a drink he said. I said there it is right on the dresser waiting for you. He poured a handful of peanuts on the bed beside him as he took that big first drink. In two swallows the drink was gone and he was up making another one. Those Dixie cups didn’t hold much anyway.

This reunion that takes place every year is so special. It goes back to when we were teens. Our marriages, college, the army, and our jobs had separated us over the years but when we got back together it was like we had never been apart. Those hardships we had shared in the wilderness over the years had bound us together forever. The only thing missing this trip was my brother and his cousin Kent. Kent never drank but he was always good at telling Joe and I how it was going to kill us one day. Joe said “I’m hungry, let’s eat.

We drove in my car about a quarter of a mile down the street in this little town to the Sportman’s Café. The place was bussing with duck hunters. It was opening day tomorrow and the gang was there waiting for the big event. It was funny seeing familiar faces there every year even though you didn’t know any of them. All had their own stories to tell. It was about 6:30 and the café looked like a scene from Outdoor living magazine. Most all of the crowd had on camouflage clothing and duck hats. To a man they all had duck callers hanging on a leather string around their neck. Many had special shirts with elaborate stitchery done by their wives of ducks landing in the trees or Labs with a duck in their mouth. It was show off time in Paragould Arkansas. One man called it the handy work of the widows of the marshes. Just as we stood at the door a man and his wife got up to leave. I guess they had been caught in the restaurant unexpectingly by the hunters. Joe slid into the booth almost before the lady could get out. The table had not been cleaned but that didn’t matter. As the waitress came over, Joe in his loud take charge voice, said “I want a 10 ounce T bone steak rare, just blow his nose and wipe his Butt and bring him on”. The waitress, who was use to this crowd for many year told him to hold his horses she had to clean up. Joe then said O K then, bring us two cokes on the side with a little ice in a tall glass. She looked over her glasses as if to say, I know what you’re up to. About that time Joe pulled a new pint of Jack from his belt and stuck it between his legs. In just a minute the waitress brought the cokes. Yes they were in two little 6 ounce bottles. She said, what can I do for you gentlemen tonight? Joe said again. I want a 10 ounce T-bone steak rare, a baked potato and a tossed salad with Thousand Island dressing. I said make that two of them. As she started off she turned about half way around and said, “You boys can fix your toddy’s now”.

We were both glowing with pleasure as this reunion was re enacting its yearly ritual. On the little TV over the bar the news was giving Nixon hell about Watergate or something and people were making comments. About that time 2 Game Wardens walked in the front door. Someone yelled out “Quiet boys the duck law has just arrived.” Another said let’s give them a real welcome. At that time all the patrons grabbed their duck callers and gave the loudest array of duck calling you have ever heard. It went on for what seemed like an eternity. Joe was right in the middle with his call that sounded like a constipated crow.

We enjoyed the meal and catching up on what was going on with each other’s world. Joe told me he had developed a new process for water filtration there at Buckeye which was going to save the company over $400,000 a year. I ask him if he was going to get 10% as a bonus for that good work. He told me that it was part of his job. I ask him just what did they make there at Buckeye. He said that they extract the fibers from Cotton seed hulls. I said what for. He told me that it was the most pure form of cellulose and used to make the most expensive plastic.

It was 8 pm when we finally went back to the room. There was still a lot of loud talk coming from the parking lot and a lot of duck calling you could hear both from the rooms and the parking lot. Joe was up fooling with the rabbit ears on the TV when he said screw it and turned it off. We both lay in our beds still with our clothes on talking about the upcoming hunt. I asked Joe if he had checked his hip boots for leaks. He said no that he just got them out of the box in the attic. I told him he better check them. He asked how he was going to do that when there was no water to wade in. I said let’s take a look at them. Sure enough there was a split hairline crack right on the knee of his right boot. What am I going to do now he said. I said all you need to do is to put a tire patch on it. Let’s go find a filling station and get a box of patches and some glue. Of course there was not but one filling station in town and it was closed. He said now what am I going to do. I said with a hotel full of duck hunters there must be someone with a box of patches. The process of door knocking began. It was about the 3rd door down from us that we met these two old boys from Frasier. Both were about three sheets in the wind but nice fellows. When Joe told them his problem they said come on in that they not only had a patch but it was a hot patch. They said it could be heated on and it would stay. He showed us his boots and it had 2 patches on it. I told them I was from Lucy near Woodstock just down the road from them. They said they had stopped in Daddy’s store many times.

It was after 10 pm when we got through with all that boot fixin. Joe said he was tired and so was I. He told me that he had brought his alarm clock and I told him that I left a wakeup call with the desk. He said that he wasn’t going to depend on that. When we got in the bed we talked until 12:30 before we had our nap. We must have re hunted every hunt we ever had there that night. We never mentioned the frozen decoy lines so it was hard to wind them up, the holes we snagged in our boots and they filled with ice water, the times we stepped in a stump hole and our boots filled or any other bad thing. It was all about the hundreds of ducks we killed.

The silence was broken when the big alarm clock started ringing. At the same time the phone rang. It was 4 am in the morning. Lights were popping on in every room as hunters scuffled around trying to get dressed and ready.

It was 26 degrees outside with a little breeze. I put on my long johns first then my insulated underwear. My hunting pants went over those two layers. I had 4 layers of shirts on top. Then with the regular silk socks on the bottom and a big par of wool hunting socks over them I slipped on my hip boots rolled them to the knees and snapped them tight. Joe wore army green. It was probably from his National Guard supplies. He said hurry, there won’t be a table left at the Sportsman’s Café.

Sure enough when we got there the place was already full and more coming. We took our place in line and waited. An old man brought out a card table from the back and unfolded it. Joe and I said that it would be fine but two other guys beat us to it. The nice waitress that was there the night before brought us both a cup of coffee and told us she would take care of us. I think Joe left her a $10 tip the night before which was great since the steak was only $8.

We looked up and two guys were waving us over to their table. It could seat 4 and it was only 2 of them. They were the guys that helped us fix the boot the night before. They said for us to join them and we did. We both ordered the special which was a big slice of country ham, 3 eggs, grits, and biscuits with red eye gravy. As we talked they asked us where we were hunting. We told them that we were going south on the Cash River. They said that they were going south too. Of course we lied because we always go north up river. A couple of years before about 5 miles upriver we found a place where the water broke through into a field and flooded it. We were hoping it still existed. Most of the open water places were south where the rice fields were. However that is where most of the hunter went and it was hard to find a spot where you didn’t get sky blaster all around you. It was also a big wooded swamp up river that always had water in it. From my Tennessee hunting days in Crockett bottoms around Martin Tennessee I knew that the mallards like to get the acorns from the woods. This year had been a great year for acorns. If the field was not flooded that we knew about we could hunt in the swamp. Someone pulled out their duck call and hit the old highball call. Then another guy followed with some quacking and chattering. Before long half the restaurant was calling ducks. You had to be there to believe it. I still get chills running up my spine when I think about it.

Almost like someone rang a school bell. The restaurant emptied in a flash. Trucks were starting, motors rived up and away the crowd went. We were right behind. We wanted to get to our boat launch quick so we could find a good place to park plus beat some unexpected hunter from finding our spot. Damn it was cold when we pulled off the gravel road onto the dirt road that took us to the banks of the Cash River. There are lots of places that you can put in on the Cash River because of the farms that were on either side. Most hunters had their spot picked out. Further south was a big place and lots of room for parking and boat launching. Since most of the big hunters from Memphis had big boats with built on blinds they had to put in where you could back in. We had this little aluminum john boat and we carried it from the back of the truck to the river then loaded it with our stuff.

Joe had brought his dog Guest. It was a golden retriever. It was about 5:30 am when we pushed off and started up stream. Luckily the motor started with about 5 tries. Joe ran the boat and I sat in the front with my big flashlight. It had been raining the week before and the river was swollen. It was not a wide river and there were many hazards to look for. We only ran into two trees that had fallen out across the river but we were able to make it around them fine. It seemed like forever going up that raging river before we found the cut off that we were looking for. It was jammed with brush and limbs that had washed down the river. I got out on the bank and started pulling out trees and brush so we could get the boat into the tree line that bordered the field. It was exciting because we could hear the whistling of duck wings as they flew over. Joe said hurry , hurry it’s breaking daylight. About the time I was trying to pull the boat through the shoot we heard a loud noise. Just in the misty dark you could see ducks getting up and flying away right there in our hole. It was cold and the water had a little thin coat of ice formed on it.

We got the boat pulled inside the tree line and tied off at both ends. We got out of the boat and started the process of putting out the decoys. Joe emptied one of the sacks he had picked up from Kent’s house and 6 decoys fell out he hear a couple of plunks and discovered that two of the weight that held the decoys in place had fallen into the muddy water. I told him to just tie the string off onto another decoy. It took about 30 minutes to put out the 24 decoys we had and make it back to the boat. It was about 6:45 and daylight was breaking. Two wood ducks busied us while we were trying to get seated in the boat and wrap the camouflage netting around us up to our neck so the ducks wouldn’t see us.

With all that splashing in the water it made waves and it must have attracted a flock of Mallards that we never saw. All of a sudden we heard two ducks hit the water. Joe raised his gun to shoot and I motioned to hold off and pointed to the sky behind him. There must have been 30 to 40 mallards with their wings set coming in right behind those two that landed. As the set their wings and was swooping down to the water I yelled “Takem” Joe shot the greenhead that he had been looking at sitting in front of him on the water as the duck got up. I shot two as they were trying to recover from their landing approach with my double barrel. I always used a number 6 shot load in the modified choke barrel and a number 5 shot shell in the full choke barrel for the long shots. Guest was in the water in an instant swimming toward the one of the ducks I shot. The other one was a little further out and was just wounded. I raised my gun up and shot him two more times until he turned up with his belly to the sun. I had learned that you had better keep shooting until their asshole was face up or they would go down and grab something and stay under water. Joe’s duck was still alive but had a broken wing. He was swimming down river getting away. As Guest brought the duck back to the boat Joe took it out of its mouth and motioned toward the duck that was trying to get away. Guest took off swimming after it. It had gotten a long way from the boat when both Guest and the duck disappeared. Joe got worried and said we have to go find the dog. We started untying the boat and getting ready to go when we saw a little splashing coming from the trees way down the river. It was Guest with the duck in its mouth. We were both relieved. After a few minutes rest with a mighty leap guest was back in the water. He had spotted the other duck I had killed.

The morning went on and we heard a ton of shots coming from way down the river. We had seen lots of flocks of ducks but they were high and in a hurry to go somewhere. I called and called using all my ability to get them to turn. It was cold and the wind was changing. It had been coming from the west but had now shifted to the north. When there are no ducks flying you get cold. Joe and I started a fire in our charcoal bucket. Our hands were frozen. I would start to call even though we could not see anything. Then I saw a lonely Susie off in the distance. I gave her the ole quack, quack then the feeding call. She started to work making large long circles but still looking. Joe and I were like frozen statues waiting and watching. She kept working then she disappeared behind the tree line behind us. We waited and waited but no more Susie. We had given up just when out of nowhere she and a drake popped through the tree line right over the decoys. They flew straight away from us and we thought they were gone but way out there over the field they turned. They were getting against the wind coming straight for us. As they set their wings to land in the decoys we both got up and shot. Both ducks went down. Guest was in the water right after them. There was one dead duck and another one flopping in the water. Joe finished it off with another shot.

We had seen plenty of ducks that morning but most were far away and travelling south. We had not heard much shooting down river either. I got out the sack of lunch I had bought for us. It was 2 cans of Vienna sausage, 2 moon pies, some crackers and a coke each. It was supposed to warm up into the 30’s and it did for a while. There were no ducks to speak of from about 11 am until 3 pm. Of course that is normal in a duck hunter’s life.

With the wind that had moved to more northeast we could see clouds getting thicker and darker coming our way. The wind picked up and the temps started dropping. It was miserable and we both had to put down our ear covers on our hats. I could see these dark spots way out to our northwest in the sky. Joe saw them too. He said hit that caller. I hit the old highball call with a long series of calls. From nowhere a big flock of mallards came in from the south over the trees. They started circling the blocks. One came right over the decoys and Joe almost shot but didn’t. Kent would have empted his gun. Sure enough it paid off because the whole bunch of them set their wings to sit right in the middle of our decoys. About 4 hit the water and I yelled to “takem”. Joe emptied his 12 gauge automatic and me my double barrel. We knocked down 3 ducks and I was quickly reloading. More ducks were still trying to land when I unloaded again Joe was loading but had his gloves on and kept dropping the shells. He snatched off those gloves and threw them in the boat. He made a long shot of one lonely duck that had come in as the others were leaving. We now had 5 ducks on the water. Guest was working hard bringing in the ducks. At that time the limit was one Susie and 3 greenheads. We had 5 green heads and 2 Susies. I told Joe that we could not bring in but one Susie (female duck) each.

No sooner that we got settled down from the big shootout the sky turned black with ducks again. They were everywhere. The clouds were dark and it was so windy that the field had whitecaps on it. It was getting late and we knew we had to get up the decoys and get out while we could see. With just a little chatter on the caller the ducks started dropping in like flies. Joe and I shot until our gun barrels got red hot. It was a day to remember.

We waded out and picked up the decoys. You had to wind up the string with your bare hands and boy was the water cold. We got the 4 sacks of decoys in the boat and started down river after we warmed our hands by the charcoal pot. When we reached our landing place, it was pitch black dark. We pulled the boat out and loaded it in the back of the truck then put in the rest of the stuff. We were wet and cold but still so excited we couldn’t stand ourselves. Guest was wet but sat right beside us in the truck all the way back to the motel. We relived every minute of the day all the way back to the motel.

Back at the Motel the place was alive with hunters. Most had killed their limits but there were a few who just had stories. There are always a few that just don’t know how to get it done. Most of the time they are city slickers who don’t have a clue. Joe and I got out of the truck and took in our stuff. Guest dried off and was lying in the corner of the room. Joe said I want a drink, where is that bottle. I said go ahead but I am jumping in the shower before the ton of hunters use up all the hot water at that little motel. He said that he hadn’t thought of that. I ask him if we were going to clean the ducks and he said after dinner.

Three drinks and 2 showers later we headed for the Sportman’s Café. About a third of the crowd had left and headed back to Memphis. We got a table and ordered our coke. This time we ordered a big bowl of Chili each. It really felt good after that cold day in the river bottoms. When we got up and paid our bill we could see a lot of stirring around in the parking lot in front of the motel. When we got out there we found the two Game Wardens checking everybody. They motioned to us to come over. They ask for our licenses, duck stamp and wanted to see what we killed. We had just the right amount and had no problem. I told Joe when we got back in the room that we would be checked. They are always there looking to catch someone. Sure enough the caught two guys with two susies and two greenheads each. We knew it was going to be big trouble for those guys.

We pulled up the waste basket from our room and a trash can from in front of the motel and sat on the side of our bed and picked the ducks. There were feathers all over the room. We cleaned them up the best we could before icing down the ducks. We talked for hours until we both fell asleep. Tomorrow was going to be a rough day it looked like.

The next morning we got up 30 minutes early because we had agreed to only hunt a half a day. I had to drive back to St. Louis and Joe to Memphis. I had 300 miles plus and he had a 100 miles to drive. We ate and headed for the river. It was colder that morning with temperatures around 23 degrees. It was still cloudy and a brisk wind blowing.

We put in and headed up river to our spot. It was dark and freezing. We had dried our clothes the best we could the night before but those thick clothes were hard to get dry. It was easier the second day because we knew the territory. Since the wind had changed we decided to pull our boat out to a bunch of brush in the bean field and tie up there. We would have a better view of the field and the whole surroundings. Joe was draping the camouflage netting around the boat while I put out the decoys. Boy this was much better than yesterday as far as the view went.

As daylight broke the sky was filled with ducks darting in and over the decoys. It was still too early to shoot but it was exciting to watch. Every 2 seconds Joe would ask “What time it is, Can we shoot”. About that time someone way down river shot and when they it sounded like a young war started. Everybody started to shoot. We joined in with them as two pintails came into our decoys. We got one of them and Guest hit the water. While Guest was bringing in the duck another drake came from behind the blind and I shot it as it was just about to get out of range. I said to Joe as I was reloading look to your right you have two at water level coming right for you. He raised up and missed but it was a hard shot.

That morning we had our limit plus by 9 am. I told Joe that I had a long drive and we needed to go. We agreed to stay another hour. I could see a long way over the fields and there were thousands of ducks working that morning. Everywhere you looked there were V formations of ducks flying. There is nothing more beautiful than the migration of ducks. I was nearly winded from blowing the call so much. About 9:45 I got a group of about 20 ducks working circling the decoys. They were pretty far out but they were working. I looked up and another bunch of about 20 to 30 had joined in and they were circling too. I was chattering the feeding call and doing the single quacks and they kept coming. Each swing they would drop in a little closer. Within 10 minutes we had over 150 ducks working. A sight to behold and every hunters dream. The first bunch had started to set their wings and land. I told Joe to hold on and let’s see what would happen. Then ducks began to rain out of the sky. I said,” lets tak’em” and we both got up and emptied our shotguns. We even had time to reload because so many were coming in they couldn’t get turned around quick enough. In an instant they were all gone and out of range heading south. We both shot over 3 boxes of shells each that day. This was a moment we both never forgot.

By 11 am we were back at the motel, showered and ready to go. Joe told me to take the cleaned ducks from the day before and he would take the new ones and stop off at Fisherman’s One Stop in West Memphis and have them cleaned. We said our good by’s and left. I relived those two days all the way home. It was about 8 pm that night when I pulled in the driveway at home. My wife told me that Joe had called and wanted me to call him when I got home. I called him and he told me what happened when he stopped to get the ducks cleaned. He said that there were 3 Game Wardens there waiting for hunters to come in. When they checked his ducks he had 8 rather than 4. He tried to tell them that he had been hunting with his cousin and that I took the cleaned ducks and he took the fresh killed ones for that day. They said that he had no proof. They told him that if that was the case the ducks should have been tagged with my name, license and stamp number on them and witnessed. They took his ducks and gave him a big $200 fine. That was $50 a duck for the 4 he had of mine. I told him that I would send him the money but he refused. He said the good time was worth it.

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