By Brent Birch, contributing editor
Whether it’s suite tickets to your favorite sporting event, backstage passes to a concert, or an invite to an exclusive hunting club, the ask alone can send one into a state of euphoria. These are the kinds of experiences that will make you drop everything since who knows when, if ever, the opportunity will arise again.
This is especially true in duck hunting. Every duck hunting region has clubs that are the envy of all those in and around the area. In Arkansas, given we are the duck hunting capital of the world, there are numerous historic hunting clubs with rich traditions and privileged access.
I’ve had the good fortune of experiencing several classic Arkansas duck hunting camps and none has ever disappointed. And for clarity’s sake, I am not just referencing the quality of the hunt. They have off days just like everyone else, and I’ve been there for a few. To judge the experience on the number of birds harvested alone would be shortsighted and regrettable. The ability to soak up the ambiance, the camaraderie, the food, and the drink are all part of the enchantment with famed hunting clubs.
Odds are some of y’all have stumbled into a coveted invite to a celebrated duck club. Either through chance encounters, future business deals, or maybe over a game of golf, the elusive invite to be a guest at one of these remarkable duck camps may be on the horizon. If and when you get the call, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about being a guest. I’ve seen people do it both ways and surprisingly, a time or two where it went really awry. Here are some general rules that can help make sure your trip doesn’t only happen once in your lifetime.
Rule Number One: Nobody Loves Your Dog As Much As You Do
Don’t ask if you can bring your retriever and definitely don’t assume it's ok to bring the dog and beg for forgiveness later. We’ve all been on hunts where a dog has ruined the hunt one way or another: breaking on inbound birds, playing chase instead of fetching, or incessant whining when the action isn’t up to their liking. These are all ok from the host’s dog. Poor dog conduct is never ok when the guest’s dog causes issues that impact the hunt. Never put your host in an uncomfortable spot by asking if you can bring your dog unless you know that person really, really well and you are 100% confident that he will run flawlessly during the hunt, around the lodge, and whatever other situation is presented.
Rule Number Two: Don't Show Up Empty Handed
Always offer to bring something and even when the host says no, bring something anyway. A nice bottle of wine or other spirit usually works, as does some kind of homemade, out of this world appetizer or dessert. Anyone that has even been to duck camp knows leftovers are rare and those that are typically get annihilated over the following days. This is a super safe play that will never, ever be frowned upon…except maybe by the other guests who showed up with nothing.
Rule Number Three: Feel the Vibe
Duck clubs are wide ranging when it comes to how the “social” aspect actually functions. Some are wild and carefree and others are as reserved as a traditional church service. Sometimes you will have a feel for how things will be because you know the person that invited you. Others you walk into cold not knowing what to expect. My best advice: get the lay of the land for a bit before assuming it's ok to start shotgunning beers. Some clubs will welcome a “life of the party” type and others will frown on that behavior. Let someone else be the loudest and the drunkest. “Don’t be that guy” is a good rule to live by in any social situation, especially duck camp.
Rule Number Four: Leave Your Duck Call in Your Pocket
Unless you are a world champion caller or were asked by your host to go ahead and call, leave the call in your pocket until someone begs you otherwise. A majority of duck hunters that carry a call believe themselves to be much better than they actually are. Plus, how you call ducks at your favorite honey hole may not be how ducks respond and react where you are visiting. Listen and observe how your host works the ducks, even if you believe he/she is a lesser caller than you. Only pull your call out after a direct invitation from your host and/or whoever is running the hunt. Maybe even make them ask twice.
And if you do get the OK to participate, make sure your calling is on point. Cadence, timing, volume all match up with how the host works ducks. Going rogue with a duck caller as a guest will draw you the stink eye in the duck hole pretty quick.
Rule Number Five: Shoot Last
When the ducks hit the hole and seem to be in range, don’t be the one that shoots first. Especially before whoever is leading the hunt calls the shot. This may be the most common offense by a guest I have witnessed over the years. A big group of mallards are swirling above the trees and a lone duck parachutes down into the hole followed by an out of nowhere BOOM from a single shotgun with the duck sometimes falling, sometimes not. But one thing is for sure, that wad of working mallards about to cover up the decoys where the entire hunting party would partake are long gone.
Any good host is going to let his guests shoot first on the small groups or solos and will say so accordingly. “We need one more, it’s ________ shot.” Absent point blank, direct instructions like that, wait until the shot is called and never shoot the dead to rights duck fluttering over decoys out from under your host, their young kids, or an elderly hunter. Pick another duck in the group and go to work on that one. As an invited guest, you don’t have to be in full blown, bloodthirsty killer mode. Let the hunt unfold with patience and by doing so, you can soak in everything that the morning has to offer.
Avoiding the One and Done Invite
The guidance provided here won’t guarantee a return invite, but going against the grain on any of those likely will not work in your favor. Use common sense and good manners. Pitch in with decoys, gear, and blinds when needed without being in the way. The more clubs I visit, the more variance I see in the way they function. Being a gracious guest will keep you on your toes, but it is often worth the effort. The more keyed in you are, the more relaxed and enjoyable the trip will be. Before long, you are just one of the guys or gals.
About the Author
A lifelong waterfowler who cut his teeth duck hunting in the White River Bottoms at Crocketts Bluff as well as rice fields and reservoirs across Lonoke, Prairie, and Arkansas counties, Brent Birch is the publisher of The Grand Prairie: A History of Duck Hunting’s Hallowed Ground, which details the legacy of Arkansas’s rich waterfowling history. He is also co-creator and editor of Greenhead: The Arkansas Duck Hunting Magazine and co-founder of the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame located in Stuttgart, Arkansas.