Snow geese over the prairie guns
Following a mammoth decoying session, 10 guns settled down in the duck-hunting capital and waited for the skeins
Tarquin Millington-drake enjoys a memorable day in Arkansas
Iwas standing in President Clinton’s Oval Office when I first met Miles. He had been pointed out to me across the room and I knew from his manner that I was going to like the man. I was actually at the Clinton Library in Arkansas. Every President gets to build his own library when he leaves office. It houses his executive orders and paperwork as well as a history of his Presidency and often offers some form of community use as well. The Clinton Library took three years to build and opened in November of 2004. It contains a duplicate Oval Office. I was attending a travel event in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Miles had kindly agreed to take this British stranger out goose shooting (sadly, duck had closed) before the serious event began. Softly spoken, Arkansas aristocracy and a successful businessman, this man has no need for duck club memberships: he shoots as many days a year as he pleases as a guest. And there was nothing he did not know about duck and goose shooting in this famous area.
The alarm went at 3am. I wondered if Miles had made a mistake about the time he was picking me up from my hotel. A 3.30am departure to shoot snow geese an hour out of town? What time did it get light here in February? Sadly, no mistake. Soon someone was knocking on the door with black tea and honey (from my winter days in Murmansk) and I had to get myself together and downstairs to meet Miles. I had arranged for some pastries from the hotel to share with him, he had done the same so at least we were not going to starve on this expedition. We headed out of Little Rock and actually managed to have a conversation about how the duck hunting works in this area. The prices for either buying or leasing land have increased way beyond the normal rates and it can now be half to a million dollars to join one of the famous clubs. Some shoot
every day, others on certain days or weekends only. Some devote part of their property to “rest areas” in order to hold ducks on their land, thus yielding more consistent shooting. They also vary on when they shoot, some mornings only, others evening. Some are simple club buildings, others are ritzy, grand affairs. Both varieties have deep traditions, many of which are based around how the ducks are prepared and cooked after shooting. Dishes such as duck gumbo, pot-roast duck, marinated duck breast wrapped in bacon or duck with wild rice casserole are famous in these parts and each club will have its own variation. The key to good duck-hunting land is the oxbow lakes formed by the Arkansas River. When flying into Little Rock, I noticed they were everywhere, with tall, bare trees growing up out of them. These areas are prime for decoying ducks. It does often involve wading and lots of slopping about in mud but that is just the way here.
We drove through England and passed its eponymous bank, then Stuttgart, the centre of the world when is comes to duck hunting in the USA and also camo headquarters. Stuttgart is home to the Duck Calling World Championships as part of the annual Wings Over The Prairie Festival, held every year since 1935, the weekend after Thanksgiving. It is also the rice capital of the USA and we drove past some huge rice processing plants. Riceland Foods is the largest rice milling and marketing company in the world. Arkansas leads US production with 49% of the rice grown in the country. This equates to 1.3 million acres of rice annually worth approximately $2 billion. Riceland Foods processes and markets the vast majority. The amount of water around explains the rice, which explains the number of ducks, too. This is Duck and Goose City.
setting up the decoys
At 4.30am we pulled up behind a few other trucks and waited briefly before driving on a short distance along fields. I was introduced to Miles’s son, Miles Junior, and his friends, John, Ethan and Thomas. These boys were decked out in some serious camo and I felt rather underdressed, partly because I had no camo and partly because there was a biting wind blowing. Our guide for the day, Johnny “Hoot” Gibson of Goose Busters Outfitters, was soon inviting us to sit on one of the trailers attached to a big quad bike with all our gear. There were four other camo-clad guys joining the team, which made 10 of us plus two guides. The other guide was Leah Holloway; we fell in love… with each other’s
We spread out groups of birds around the main pattern – up to 1,500 decoys
accents. We drove out into the middle of a big field and Gibson laid out 10 bed-like deckchairs spaced 2ft apart. He then pulled out a couple of silk-sock decoys and lectured us on how to stick them in the ground at the correct angle. We started to place them tightly around our deckchairs. These decoys were to be our main cover. He then said we would go on to spread out groups of birds around the main pattern – up to 1,500 decoys. Now I understood why I’d had to get up so early – that was 150 snow goose decoys per person. Once we had finished packing them around our seats, we got another little lecture about how he was going to place individual decoys around the field and we were to build a pattern of 10 to 15 birds around each one. By the time we had finished we had covered about 10 acres with white decoys. Finally, it was 6.30am and time to hunker down in our beds and wait.
Again, Gibson explained that we needed to let the geese come in and he would tell us when to shoot. We were only to shoot snow geese, not the speckled bellies. When he gave the signal we could all sit up and shoot as long as we did not swing the gun past about 120 degrees, thus avoiding shooting our neighbour. It took a while but in the distance appeared several massive skeins of geese filling the sky. Then more and more, wave after wave began to appear, slowly making their way towards us against the wind. What nobody had explained to me was how to tell the silhouette of the snow goose from the other geese. Some skeins were dropping into the decoys but no signal and no shooting. Then, suddenly, up everyone sat, bang, bang, bang and several geese were nailed. I had not even heard the signal, what with my headphones on and the electronic duck calling controlled by Gibson’s iphone. (There were several speakers amongst the decoys.)
watching the wings
I needed to up my game. I heard the next signal and sat up but still the geese were silhouettes so I hesitated and did not fire my 12g Benelli Super Black Eagle with its Black Cloud No 2 cartridges. More geese rained down. These guys were not hanging about and they were good. Miles was on the end of the row directly to my left. Our view of the geese was improving and he told me to look for the wings that were part white and part grey. The next lot of geese decoyed and this time I was ready for the signal and was quicker to sit up. I picked my bird, hit it but then so did Miles’s son, his three mates and probably Miles, too. But there was a bird going away and I was determined to contribute to the bag. It was miles away but I swung onto it anyhow and fired, flinging the gun through the bird. There was a delay but to my delight and disbelief, the goose folded and down it came to lots of oohs and ahhs from my new friends. The birds kept coming but were more and more diluted by the speckled bellies. I managed to contribute further with a nice shot out to my left after Miles had emptied his gun and another goose came in late after the initial open firing and I took that, too. As time went on, the supply of snow geese petered out. The odd bird would come in or flirt with the decoys and one was clearly turned by our digital calling system and was nailed. At 11am it was time to pick up and pack away the 1,500 decoys. We had shot 31 snow geese, many, I am sure, were double, triple or even quadruple shots but I knew I had contributed at least three. Some photographs, a major pastry breakfast back at the cars and it was time to head back to Little Rock, but not before a big shop at Mack’s Prairie Wings, camo-central in Stuttgart. They even stocked camo bras and thongs.
Miles was a little upset that it was not just the six of us shooting; 10 guns were too many for what came in. The five of us, especially with the boys being as good as they were, could have handled the 31 geese ourselves and maybe more. It had been a great experience and interesting to see how it was done, being a part of the decoy team and how that all worked. Miles and his crew are as devoted to their style of shooting as we are to ours and their way of doing it has evolved over decades, just as ours has. I hope that the opportunity to host Miles back in the UK arises soon and I look forward to it. Though he will have to do better with his tweeds than I did with my camo.
The next lot of geese decoyed and this time I was ready for the signal
Guns lay back until the skeins were close enough to identify (left) before sitting up at the signal (above)
Above: guns placed silk-sock decoys tightly around their bed-like deckchairs and then settled back to wait. Below left: individual decoys were placed and surrounded by 1,500 others to establish a pattern
Left: Miles and Miles Junior with the bag of 31 snow geeseTop: not quite home from home – this England in Arkansas is the duck-hunting capitalAbove: the writer’s 12g Benelli Super Black Eagle with Black Cloud No 2 cartridges