Growing up and reading about duck hunting in Arkansas made me always want to try and make a trip there.
I had seen films of the mallard shooting in the flooded timber, and was spellbound by the vision of these birds winging just above the tree tops at less than 30 yards. But, no one shooting them until they suddenly dropped down through an opening and into the decoy spread. The sounds of the guns going off made one think they were inside a barrel, and you could hear them echoing for miles around you.
In the mid-1980s, Steve Merlo and I finally had a chance to make a trip to Arkansas. One of my skeet shooting friends in Tulsa knew a couple of guys that were going down to Stuttgart for a hunt, and invited Steve and I along.
This area of Arkansas is known as the duck hunting capital of the world. The annual World Duck Calling Championships are held there. and it is a mecca for ducks converging on the Central flyway of the U.S.
We would be hunting for three days, and met up with the guide after arriving in Little Rock and took the short drive to Stuttgart. When we got to the lodge, we were introduced to a few other hunters that were staying there for shoots that week.
I was stunned beyond belief when I found out that one of the hunters in our group would be Eli Haydel. If you're a waterfowler I'm sure you have heard that name before.
Haydel is one of the oldest makers of duck calls sold in the U.S. They are located in Bossier City, Louisiana. Eli was born and raised in 'Cajun' country, and began entering duck calling contests in 1975, where he soon became a champion caller.
According to the company website, "he was frustrated though, because when his duck or goose call got wet, the wood swelled. Eli decided to eliminate this problem by making a call from non-porous material. It was slow, hard work. But working in the garage of his home, Eli soon developed his new idea. After he handed out a few to his hunter friends, word spread quickly and the demand was tremendous. Eli's initial investment was approximately $400."
It was crude, but worked. He consigned a few to local sporting good stores for exposure, and the product really took off after "he took a fishbowl to each store. In the fishbowl, he put a rubber duck with a game call suspended from the duck's neck and submerged under water. A sign on the fishbowl said, Blows When Wet."
It was not an overnight success, but in 1985, Eli Haydel started Haydel's Game Calls. Steve and I were absolutely giddy at dinner that evening when we got to eat and chat with Haydel.
He was a real down-to-earth guy in every way. And, that next morning while standing in knee deep water under a pin oak, it was mesmerizing to watch him use his call to work the flights of mallard ducks winging overhead and dropping into our spread of decoys.
We ended up getting three great days of shooting. Plus, I managed to get Eli into giving me a great duck call demonstration in the parking lot of the lodge. I originally had it on an old Beta tape from the camera I was using at that time, but recently had it converted to a DVD. It was pure joy watching it when I played it again. Eli passed away in 2013, and I just thank God I was lucky enough to spend some blind time with him while he lived.
In closing, I can only tell you that hunt was one of my best memories ever. And, if you are a waterfowler, you should add Arkansas and the flooded pin oaks to your bucket list. Prices are very reasonable, and I guarantee you a trip of a lifetime.
KERN COUNTY SPORTSMAN'S NIGHT: California Waterfowl 67th Annual Dinner Honoring Michael & Michelle Garrison as Outdoor Sporting Family of the Year. Tuesday, Nov. 20 at Hodel's Country Dining ...5917 Knudsen Drive, Bakersfield CA 93308. Cocktails 5:30 p.m. Dinner 7 p.m. Information and Reservations ...Dan Haugh 916-871-9000 or Jim Roberts 805-5766. Don't miss a great evening featuring an outstanding raffle, auction, wildlife art, and fine sporting merchandise. You can also purchase tickets at Valley Gun, Second Amendment Sports, Bear Mountain Sports, Bobs Bait Bucket, Ammo Dump and Copes Tackle.