SO EARLY, everything was shade and shadows. There were grays, every color of it, that were the sky, the water, the mud underfoot. The treeline was a line of bristles. It was romantic and peaceful as everyone had said it would be, and in that moment, despite the chill of below-freezing temps on that December morning, there was no place I would have rather been.
A loud belch filled the silence.
“Good morning, sunshine,” came a second voice.
Spread in three clusters along the rim of the pond’s waterline were a dozen hunters hunkered down in the shadows of the pond, waiting for the sun. They were men, mostly middle-aged, all of them seasoned hunters. I couldn’t see them, but I knew their faces and their stories, having broken bread (read: some of the best steak I’ve ever had; also, moonshine) with them the previous night at The Grove Hunting Club in Pine Bluff.
It was quiet for a time, but as the sun rose, light and life arrived in tandem. Half past 6, the guide, a man named Taylor Grayson, stepped out into the water, explaining to the men on the bank that they’d be using one dog that morning, that he’d be calling the shots. Time went by. Geese flew overhead. A few ducks came through, barely visible. A round of shots rang out. The ducks kept flying. (“I must have cataracts.” “We suck.” “I didn’t shoot. Y’all suck.” “Did anyone bring the moonshine?”)
As I brought the gun to my shoulder, I thought back to that day when I’d first fired a gun. I didn’t have to think back very far. It was yesterday.
“IT’S WHAT MOST of this hobby is about,” Wilson Ward had told me the night before as he stood in The Grove’s kitchen, shelling pistachios. “The camaraderie. The stories you get to pass down. Every hunt is better when you’re telling your buddies about it.” He turned to Nathan Garner, who was standing in the doorway of the pantry. “Isn’t that right?”
“And the food,” Nathan said over his shoulder, eyeing a box of Cap’n Crunch. “They probably should’ve locked this.”
For the past several hours, those points had been made clear. The men who’d gathered at the lodge had started the evening as strangers but quickly bonded over common interests: the Saints-Falcons game that was on television, the small-world stories that are especially common in Arkansas circles. But more than anything, the stories they shared that evening—both the true-to-life and those that felt a little overly rose-colored—about past hunts, their children, their dogs, were undoubtedly the crux of that connection.
It all seemed very natural, very effortless, and even as an outsider, it was not difficult for me to imagine why. Just about all of them had grown up with this. Their familiarity with the sport allowed for it; the commonalities between stories meant one account segued seamlessly into the next. There were a few occasions when, undoubtedly for my benefit, some basic mechanics were described: how ducks come wheeling down from above, how looking up was a sure way of driving the birds. But inevitably, they returned to the stories.
As the hour grew later and the brown stuff drained from the bottles, the stories grew longer, and the men started to disappear into their rooms.
BY 8 A.M., the day had gotten lighter, the trees were made gold, the skies blue. Overhead, tiny geese filled the void between the trees as they headed for nearby rice fields. But there had been ducks. Sometimes they’d come down fast, avoiding the shots. Other times, they’d slowed themselves, their feet outriggered, wings up like parachutes. I never heard the sound of their wings cutting the air as it’d been described to me, but presumably, it was there. It was often idyllic, the way the men had described it the previous evening. But more often than not, in those moments between the ones that would make for future stories, it was real. It was imperfect.
In the murk at my feet, there were two shells from the two times that I’d fired, and missed. I have to admit that I’d all but resigned myself to not getting one—and, what’s more, I was OK with that. Then just after 8:30 a.m., a duck flew low, right in front of the barrel of my gun. I pulled the trigger. It is a strange thing to be done so quickly with something that feels so life-altering. But I suppose that’s just part of the story.
Ready to hunker down at the Grove (or at least come for some of the ridiculous chef-prepared fare)? Visit thegrovehuntingclub.com.
WORTH A SHOT
Between the newly rebuilt 15-room, 10,000-square-foot lodge, 7,000 acres of various Delta landscapes and, oh goodness, that food, the seasoned hunter will find few accommodations more luxe than The Grove Hunting Lodge. But for those who need a little more practice …
If You’re More About Rest Than Recreation
Delta Resort & Spa
… On second thought, this is pretty luxe. In addition to offering guided hunts and clay-shooting courses from Olympic Medalist and World Champion Dan Carlisle, this 130-room McGehee resort offers professional massage. Also, duck nachos and steak courtesy of the onsite restaurant, 43 Grill and Bar. (8624 Bucksducks Road, Tillar; deltaconferencecenter.com)
If You Want to Get Out on the Range
Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Shooting Sports Complex
With 14 trap fields, three skeet overlays, and voice-activated controls, it should come as no surprise that this state-of-the-art complex is something special. Even better? It periodically offers trap-shooting 101 classes frohikesm Arkansas Trapshooting Hall of Famer Doyle Gaskin. (2800 Graham Road, Jacksonville; jacksonvilleshootingcomplex.com)
If You’re Still on the Fence About Getting Your Feet Wet
Hunter Education Classes
Not quite ready to don those waders? The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission offers 10-hour courses that combine classroom and “hands-on” instruction from dedicated volunteers and AGFC employees. (Locations vary; a list of classes can be found at register-ed.com/programs/arkansas)