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

The Field - - Content - words and pho­tographs BY tar­quin Milling­ton-drake

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.

early start

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

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