The light bar on the front of the overloaded boat burned through the inky darkness to illuminate the edges of the twenty-foot-wide canal enough for the driver to stay centered in the deeper water. The wind was a constant 25 with gusts to 35 or 40, but down in the timber it was relatively calm. A ten-minute boat ride through a flooded oak forest found us at our destination - the Doughnut Hole. Named as it is because of a small patch of high ground in the center of a flooded hole in the forest, from above it looks like a doughnut of water in an otherwise dense oak forest.
The boat was unloaded on a small platform built for the purpose and men, shotguns, ammunition, and other possibles were piled onto the platform and sorted as the guides hid the boat. Shotguns are uncased, ammo is dumped into coat pockets, call lanyards are adjusted and untangled, and anticipation soars as a half-dozen hunters find their way to a hide tree in preparation for the mornings hunt.
In a few minutes, everyone is settled and the surrounding black is being replaced by a deep, dull, lead grey that allows a fleeting definition of the swaying oak limbs above, but does not provide enough illumination for complete discernment of the surroundings. The voice of head guide Rusty Creasey slices through the predawn as he lays out the rules of the Coca-Cola woods duck club. “Cover your face or paint it, absolutely no calling if you are not a guide; no shooting until the shot is called, and I will call the shot; Only shoot birds that are in the air and on your side of the hole; now load up and shoot straight.”
The sky is now the color of damp gravel and the wind is constant, and stronger than the guides would like, but this is the Coca Cola Woods and ducks here are not hoped for, they are a fixture. As the official shooting time approaches, the mallards of the Coca Cola Woods appear on queue and start to filter into the opening of the doughnut hole and make a spectacle of themselves by flitting around above the flocked-head decoys looking for a place to land. Just before shooting time, there are about 25 mallards in the interior of the doughnut hole. Some have landed, some are trying to, and others have seen enough and are climbing back into the wind-whipped atmosphere to seek less crowded areas of refuge.
Shooting time arrives and hunters are glued to the backside of old-growth oak trees that have been flooded to just over knee deep to create the perfect habitat for the venerated and esteemed Mallard duck that is so highly sought after in the flooded green timber of Arkansas. Several ducks are sitting in the decoys, but all eyes are up as a small group of ducks swings wide over the timber to vector into the substantial wind for their final approach into the hole. As the small group of birds breaks the tree tops, the shot is called and all five are dumped unceremoniously into the midst of the decoys as the hunters prove themselves to be shooters as well. Add to these five three more that are taken as they lift out of the decoys and climb frantically for clean air above the canopy of oak branches encircling the doughnut hole.
A congratulatory shout is given from somewhere to my right as the harvest of the first round of shooting is assessed. All around you can hear the clicks of safeties going on, clunks of bolts slamming home on a fresh round, and the screech of magazine springs as additional shells are fed into autoloaders of every make and model in preparation for the next opportunity, which is right now. Before the reloading is completed, another group of birds has decided the doughnut hole will be todays resting place and they lock-up hard on the 4th or 5th note of the first hail call offered from the guides. Twelve birds make a solid approach and filter through the dark limbs above, like black wraiths against the tungsten sky, they drop silently on set wings. Once the timber-line is broken, the set wings fold and beat a frantic stocatto into the morning air as they rapidly slow their decent. The sound of rushing air over outstretched wing is overcome by the roar of the almost simultaneous firing of half a dozen shotguns and 10 of the 12 stay in the hole to take their place alongside of others that didn’t make it out.
The scenario repeats itself 10 minutes later as more birds seem to make a fatal mistake and descend too deeply into the interior of the doughnut hole. However, fueled by overconfidence at the close proximity of the targets, only four of the next group succumb to the barrage of steel and tungsten pellets that are hurled their way. Congratulatory shouts are replaced by disbelieving grumbling, light curses, and some well-earned ribbing by those who did not shoot on this round.
Now only two ducks shy of the six-man limit for mallards, instructions are given and two shooters are named to claim the last two birds, but just as the assignments are disseminated, the Coca Cola Woods throws a curve ball. Right on the water and screaming through the canal cut is a massive group of green-winged teal. The teal thunder into the hole as only teal can and decide to ball up on my side of the hole. 3 hunters open fire and it appears to literally rain teal for the next 2-3 seconds. The speed with which it all happened is difficult to describe, but from first sighting until the last shot could not have been more than 6 or 7 seconds. The guide calls a halt to pick-up birds and make sure that we are OK on limits. With 6 hunters, we were OK with 12 teal in addition to our limits of mallards, and we had dropped 11 of them in total.
Talk about a natural high and an adrenaline rush. The mallards were fun, exciting, and interesting, but not much of a challenge in the confines of the hole. The teal on the other hand, with their acrobatic, inconsistent, and agile flight, were a sight to behold. The twisting, turning, darting, and swiveling those birds did in the timber hole made them appear to be doing gymnastics in mid-air. And add to that the fact that they are somewhat of a rarity in the timber, and it added up to the best part of the day.
The mallard limits were completed without issue over the next ten minutes and the boats were loaded up and headed back to the lodge. Clothes were changed, breakfast was had, stories were told and nobody could be pressured into admitting a miss on the big group of birds that escaped relatively unscathed, and the hunters broke up into smaller groups to discuss whatever their topics of import were. I was among them, but I paused long enough in the revelry to offer thanks for the opportunity and the fellowship and to reflect on the what a blessing it had been to get to enjoy a day in the green timber of McCrory, Arkansas, famously known world-wide as the Coca Cola Woods.
I am humbled, grateful, and ever-thankful for an opportunity that I did not deserve and that very few others will ever realize. I owe a debt to those that made it possible. I will repay this debt the best way I know how and that is to provide someone else an opportunity that without me they might have never had. I encourage you to do the same. Take a kid hunting or fishing or just into the outdoors to enjoy nature. Somebody took you, so repay the favor and introduce someone to the outdoors and all its wonder. Thank God for putting it all there for us to enjoy.