Russell Gardner is up way before the crack of yawn when it’s time to hunt ducks at Beaver Lake.
It’s zero-dark-30 when Gardner drives to the ramp and backs his boat into the icy water. It’ll be an hour or more before night turns to day and legal shooting time arrives 30 minutes before sunrise.
Calling the shots
Gardner uses duck and goose calls and a teal whistle during duck season at Beaver Lake.
He shoots a 12 gauge shotgun and prefers shells with size 2 steel shot. The barrel is fitted with a choke.
He uses 34 decoys on two long lines. The decoy spread includes eight Canada geese and 26 ducks.
Waterfowl hunting is allowed along Beaver Lake shoreline in season, except in the developed parks.
— Staff report
By then, Gardner will have a spread of 34 decoys bobbing on chop. His boat, which is set up for waterfowl hunting, is snuggled parallel to shore and anchored. Gardner, 24, pours a cup of hot coffee. He and his four-legged tail-wagging buddy, Gunner, settle back in the roomy boat and watch the sky.
Gardner knows the routine well, hunting as much as he can during Arkansas’ duck season, which ended Jan. 29. Gardner had four precious days left to hunt when he set out Jan. 26, a frigid Thursday morning.
Sipping his java, Gardner flipped through photos on his phone of his pals and him with ducks they’ve bagged this season. The pictures show a mixed bag of mallards, teal, scaup, even some coots.
“It’s been a different duck season with the lake being so low and the temperatures going up and down so much,” he said, reflecting on the 2016-2017 season.
Hunting is best after a cold front, Gardner said, and there were a couple of wicked ones this season.
“The coldest morning was four degrees. With the wind chill it was below zero,” he said, but the hunting was hot.
That morning, the group’s 12 gauge shotguns sent more than one duck cartwheeling from the sky and splashing down near the decoys. “Gunner jumped right in there and retrieved every one. He was an icicle, but I brought a blanket and heater for him,” Gardner said. Gunner also wears a neoprene dog life jacket for safety and insulation.
“I don’t care how tough a dog is, on a morning like that you’ve got to take measures to keep ’em warm.”
Gardner, who lives at Prairie Creek near Rogers, started duck hunting at Beaver Lake about eight years ago. He’s developed his own system over the years for hunting the lake’s deep water.
First there’s the boat.
Gardner uses a roomy aluminum boat with a 50 horsepower outboard. He’s turned the rig into duck hunting machine by building a boat blind out of metal tubing, camouflage fabric and the stems of cat tail plants that Gardner cut himself.
He positions the boat parallel to shore and secures it with two anchors. He closes the blind by pulling a fabric roof overhead. There’s enough opening for Gardner and Gunner to watch for incoming ducks.
Then the decoys.
Gardner rigs several on a single long line, sort of like a clothesline of duck decoys. He anchors each end of the line to the bottom with a brick. On the water, the ducks bob in a single line. Gardner uses one line of 26 duck decoys and another line of eight Canada goose decoys.
It takes about 20 minutes to set his decoys and position the boat.
“Sometimes the water I’m hunting might be 90 feet deep,” he said. The system lets Gardner hunt out in the middle of the lake if he chooses, by anchoring his boat and decoys to the bottom.
This late-season dawn was in the mid 20s with a low, gray sky. As shooting hours arrived shortly after 7 a.m., a single mallard drake appeared out of the mist and buzzed the decoys about 30 feet overhead.
” I should have shot at him,” Gardner said, but the duck was gone before he could say gumbo.
Beaver Lake isn’t a duck hunting destination like the swamps and flooded timber in east Arkansas. There are few ducks here compared to the Delta. They use Beaver Lake mostly as a resting place. They’re often gone a day or two after they arrive, he said.
One day a hunter might bag a limit. The next he or she might not see any ducks.
Gardner enjoys those duckless days, too. Bald eagles, and his dog, Gunner, are fine entertainment.
“He’s more of a best friend than anything, and that’s what I want,” he said of Gunner.
He’s seen bald eagles swoop down, thinking a decoy might be an easy meal. On one hunt, an eagle caught a fish.
“Pretty soon there were six bald eagles fighting over that fish. It was like having a front row seat to the planet Earth.”
Gardner likes the social aspect of duck hunting. His boat is big enough for four. His dad, brothers and friends are willing hunting companions. There’s the camaraderie, Gardner said. Plus, hunting with others is safer.
When he’s not chasing waterfowl, Gardner works as a dental assistant in Rogers and does volunteer work. He’s been accepted to start dental school in June at The University of Oklahoma.
He’s looking forward to his dental training, but also to November and another duck season at Beaver Lake.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWAFlip
Sports on 02/14/2017