Christmas is a big deal around our house, and we look forward to it ever year. My wife, however, has accused me of being a Scrooge every so often because I don’t always seem to be in a Christmas spirit, at least not at the right time. Sometimes it hits me in July, and I’m burnt out by December. I can’t help it that I’m getting older and my clock needs new batteries. However, when December 25th finally arrives, it really is a big day for all of us. We open presents like everyone else, spend time with family that we haven’t seen in a while, and for this household, celebrate the real meaning of Christmas…the birth of Christ. For that reason, you won’t find us saying “happy holidays”. Christmas is Christmas, and although I hope I’m not offending anyone, I’m certainly not apologizing for it either. In the same way, I wouldn’t want anyone else apologizing for any special celebration that they have and I don’t. Trust me, I’m not offended. To each their own, and it doesn’t bother me that we’re different. That’s what makes this country great, or at least it did at one time. How we arrived in this age of political correctness baffles me, but it’s certainly not progress. Anyway, enough said on that.
Another thing I really look forward to about Christmas is the hunting that is always sure to follow. This year was no different. Although I usually squeeze in a considerable amount of deer-stand time during the vacation between Christmas and New Year’s, this year was all about duck hunting and getting my young dog Mallie on some birds. In that regard, I wasn’t nearly as successful as I’d hoped to be, but we gave it a valiant effort.
It started off with an unusual event for a Christmas in Arkansas, and in fact it hasn’t happened for 80 years prior – it began snowing on Christmas day and snowed all afternoon and through the night. The next morning we awoke to nearly ten inches of the white stuff on the ground. Unfortunately, with a state highway department that apparently has a total of one salt truck for the entire state, we were snowbound on the 26th and couldn’t hunt.
On the afternoon of the 27th, the roads finally cleared enough to try to find some ducks. I met a friend halfway between home and Lake Millwood in the southwest corner of the state. It’s one of the few public areas that you can actually hunt after noon in Arkansas. Luckily, we found a good number of mostly mallards in a relatively small area, and after trekking through some thick vegetation in waist deep water to get to the up wind side of the hole, we threw out some decoys and hunkered down beside some small cypress trees. Eventually, the ducks started filtering back, but most wanted to land beyond our spread. We managed to harvest seven birds and Mallie fetched them all, although with considerable exertion in the thick vegetation. I was proud of her for the effort and determination it took to fight the gnarly mess of milfoil to retrieve our birds.
The next morning found us in a totally different situation. We were hunting a slough next to the Ouachita River. It was empty of vegetation, but deep and completely swimming water. Yet another new experience for Mallie, she did very well. We harvested seven more ducks, all of which she retrieved. That afternoon, she had her first real “blind” retrieve when my wife’s nephew stopped by to see if my dog could fetch a couple of ducks that he’d shot on the pond but couldn’t get to. Long story short, she did. Though at first, she apparently mistook my hand signals for charades as she cocked her head to the side and just stared…before the inflection in my voice helped her realize I wasn’t playing.
The next morning, with the windchill in the lower teens, we were back at Lake Millwood and in the same hole that was somewhat productive two days earlier. Unfortunately, the ducks had left. We only managed to get one mallard the entire day. We couldn’t have seen more than a couple dozen ducks total, most of which were high or in the distance. So it goes with duck hunting in the Natural State – here today, gone tomorrow.
With one final hunt left before returning to work, I was far less than optimistic. We were meeting our friend James and his crew for the New Year’s at Self Creek Lodge on Lake Greeson. Although a large body of water, Lake Greeson (a reservoir in the Ouachita Mountains) is about as far from traditional Arkansas duck country as you can get. Still, it will occasionally hold some puddle ducks as they stop to take a rest on their migration south, and I had my fingers and toes crossed that this would be one of those times. We did find a group of about 50 mallards and gadwalls, but as luck would have it, they never returned to my patiently waiting dog and decoys the next morning. So, at about 10 AM on December 31st in a cold rain, we picked up and motored down lake to try to find a concentration of divers. Luckily for us, a flight of bluebills must have just arrived because they were thick…and naive. Man do they decoy well! I harvested my limit of bluebills (aka – scaup) while James watched and took some great photos.
All in all, it wasn’t stellar Christmas-break duck hunting by any means, but we still got out and enjoyed the time in the field. Mallie retrieved ducks in three completely different environments, which is great experience for a young dog. Our goal beginning the season was for her to pick up 100 ducks during her first year afield. Currently sitting at 57 and with only one weekend left that I can hunt, I doubt we’ll make it. Then again, there’s always hope.
After all, this is Arkansas – the duck hunting capitol of the world. With a little luck, a group of good shooters and some cold weather, anything is possible.