ST. CHARLES, Ark. — Randy Papa, the owner of Ducks-n-Dogs Hunting Lodge, increasingly finds himself on the telephone with youngsters inquiring about a duck hunting trip.
"I’ve had kids call me as young as 12-years-old,” Papa said. “Finally, I’ll say, ‘Have you talked to your dad yet?’ They’ll say, ‘No, but I’m going to.’”
That’s not exactly how George Bachmann and his three sons found their way from Greensboro, N.C., to this area in the heart of Arkansas’ duck hunting country. Bachmann and his wife, Anita, decided this would be a Christmas present for their three sons — Cole, 19, Connor, 17, and Harrison, 15.
The number of duck hunters in the U.S. has decreased by one-third since the 1970s. But based on the hunters at Papa’s lodge on Dec. 28, there appears to be a youth movement in the sport. Four fathers were there with sons.
“He didn’t want to go on a cruise or a beach trip; he wanted a duck hunt,” said Vance Tiller of Charlotte, N.C. This was his son’s senior trip before he goes to college next fall.
Duck hunting is a family tradition for Greg Dvorak of New Prague, Minn., who was there with his adult sons, Mike, 34, and Jim, 29.
No matter what their age, Papa enjoys putting on a show for his customers. But he especially enjoys taking youngsters who are experiencing Arkansas duck hunting for the first time.
“Kids calm me down,” said, Papa, 45, who says he got hooked on hunting ducks at age nine. “I can get on their level. They’re learning. They’re all ears. They’ll listen to me better than the adults most of the time.
“They’ve heard about Arkansas being the duck capital of the world. Seeing 500 ducks is a dream to them. I want to show them something they’ve never seen before. I want them to love this like I do.
“When I show them 30,000 or 40,000 ducks, their mouths drop. Before they ever fire a shot, they say, ‘Dad, we’re coming back here.’”
Papa has long been obsessed with duck hunting. When Papa and his wife, Cindy, started dating, Papa’s mother warned her to wait at least two duck seasons before marrying him, so she’d know what she was getting into. She did. And they’re still married. Cindy helps at the Ducks-n-Dogs Lodge in addition to working as a legal secretary.
Papa has hunting access to hundreds of acres of flooded fields over a three-county area near the White River National Wildlife Refuge. In the funnel that is the Mississippi Flyway, this is the spout, where the wide-ranging flight paths from the north converge in the south. The White River National Wildlife Refuge stretches 90 miles and ends where the White River and Arkansas River drain into the Mississippi River. Part of the magic of coming to this area is simply seeing waterfowl in flight almost everywhere you look, including seemingly endless clouds of snow geese.
“There are just thousands and thousands everywhere,” said Connor Bachmann. “I wish I could stay here a month.”
But seeing waterfowl and being some place where they want to land within shotgun range are two different things. When hunting is over each morning, Papa and the other guides working for him hit the highway, scouting for the best opportunities the next day.
“I go where the birds are,” Papa said. “We do so much scouting in the afternoon. If you don’t ride every day, you don’t know where to go in the morning.
“We call it getting zone. We don’t think about what’s happening in the city. We don’t think about what’s happening nowhere but right here, and how to kill a duck.”
At shooting time on Thursday, Dec. 29, it was obvious Papa’s homework had paid off. Under a star-filled sky at 6 a.m., Papa and guide Jason Loyd had driven seven hunters in Polaris four-wheelers to a 50-foot wooden hunting blind. The blind looked like a large brush pile between two flooded sunflower fields. Papa is big on camouflaging the 14 blinds he has scattered over a 40-mile radius of White River bottomlands.
“We put new brush on them every 10 days,” Papa said.
Even with all the oak branches and cane hiding the blind, Papa further stresses camouflage. George Bachmann’s three teenagers hardly needed any encouragement to apply camouflage face paint.
“I’ve looked across a field at the blind, and the guys that don’t have it look like they’re waving a flag,” said Papa.
Papa gave a brief speech on hunter safety, concluding with, “You keep your (shotgun) safety on until you raise your gun to shoot. I don’t want to hear any safeties clicking while we’re sitting in the blind.”
Legal shooting time (30 minute before sunrise) began at 6:40 on this day, and the ducks responded on cue. Over the next 10 minutes, four ducks got within shooting range of the blind and four ducks fell – three mallards and a wigeon.
“That’s four-for-four,” said Papa, as his 2 ½-year old black Labrador retriever, Tim, brought a mallard drake back to the blind. “They don’t call me Randy Papa, “The Duck Stoppa,” for nothing.”
Over the next hour, the accuracy would diminish, but the shooting wouldn’t. There was hardly a minute when ducks weren’t in the vicinity of the 300-decoy spread in front of the blind.
When a group of green-winged teal buzzed the blind and two fell dead after a volley of shots, Connor Bachmann said, “I don’t think I’ve ever unloaded my gun that fast in my life.”
His older brother Cole responded, “My shoulder is starting to hurt.”
It helps to have more than one person blowing a duck call when you’re trying to sound like not one duck, but dozens of ducks. Papa and Loyd worked in tandem – varying the pitch and cadence of their calls – to fill the air with mallard hen music.
“Kids, we’ve been doing this so long, sometimes we think we are ducks,” Papa said. Then he and Loyd, in an obviously well-rehearsed routine, coughed into their cupped right hands and duck feathers floated down below them.
At 10:20 a.m., Papa called it a day, saying, “It’s breakfast time, fellas. I hope everybody had a good time.”
The final tally was 25 ducks: eight mallards, seven gadwalls, six green-winged teal, two shovelers, a wigeon and a beautiful long-sprigged pintail drake that Mike Dvorak had killed on the last shot of the day. During the almost four-hour hunt, there hadn’t been a period longer than 20 minutes between shots. The daily bag limit is six ducks, but no one was complaining about not reaching the maximum.
“This is the best Christmas present I’ve ever gotten,” said Connor Bachmann.
It turned out to be an expensive one for George Bachmann. Two of his sons had killed their first mallard drakes, which was only fitting on a hunt to Arkansas, where an estimated 700,000 mallards were killed last season, more than twice that of any other state. Those two greenheads and fully-plumed shoveler drake would be going to a taxidermist.
On the drive to St. Charles, Bachmann had taken his sons to Mack’s Prairie Wings, the waterfowl hunting superstore located in nearby Stuttgart, where they’d purchased a case of shotgun shells. On the way home, they repeated the stop, to replace the case of shells fired over two days of hunting.
“This trip was everything I hoped it would be,” Bachmann said. “The boys will remember this the rest of their lives.
“This is our future. It’s important to build this into our family heritage.”
On the long drive back to Greenboro, N.C., Bachmann and his sons decided to make this trip again next year.
For Randy Papa, “The Duck Stoppa,” it was all in day’s work.
“I just want to make it special for them,” Papa said.