Justin Hodge here, content creator and photographer/videographer for Hook + Gaff. I'm really excited to share a recent experience I had the pleasure of being a part of. As a full time photographer/videographer, I am immersed in the hunting and fishing realm. Back in 2020 Gunner Kennels held their annual photo contest, and I was fortunate enough to win the Grand prize. With this recognition came an all-inclusive duck hunting trip to Oklahoma. I chose my father to tag along with me. I grew up hunting with my dad in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and I couldn’t think of anyone better to go with me than him. He loves turkey hunting and deer hunting, but ducks were really never something he got into, so being able to take my dad on his first real duck hunting experience got me jacked. After all these years, I'd finally be able to return the favor for all my great experiences hunting with him as a kid.
We were getting ready to head out on January 13th 2021, and on the 12th my father and I both came down Covid. (You've got to be kidding me!) The timing couldn't have been worse. We had to cancel our trip. I was super bummed. Thankfully we were able to get flight vouchers and reschedule with Gunner for duck season ‘22.
Fast forward a year and the time came to get ready for our trip! The big day arrived and we boarded a plane for Arkansas this time. I was very excited for this trip in particular because I'd never hunted the timber in Arkansas. I’ve had many opportunities with my job to hunt ducks around the country, but Arkansas was a state that somehow evaded my checklist. Crazy I know. Arkansas timber is one thing that is a must if you like to duck hunt and I'm just making the trek out there.
We are all packed and ready to get our trip underway. We landed in Memphis TN and then jumped in the truck with the Owner of Gunner Kennels. Addison Edmonds is the owner, and he and his marketing director Andrew Jones drove us to Black Duck Waterfowl in Stuttgart. If you know anything thing about Black Duck Waterfowl, you know there is so much timber hunting history at this place. It's the mecca of Arkansas timber hunting and we couldn’t wait to hunt the next morning. Black Duck Waterfowl is owned and operated by two great individuals, TJ & Ashton Mallette. We felt very at home and welcome to be there, and Ashton made a killer spread for all of us that evening with the main course being duck gumbo. WOW! It was incredible. After dinner we hung out by the fire before heading to bed. We had ducks to shoot in the morning.
Showtime! The morning of our first hunt is here and we are fired up! A cold front pushed in on our day of travel and it was a frosty 25 degrees this morning. We load up and head to the timber on the property. We take a short gator ride and get set up. At first light the ducks are starting to light in the decoys but, it’s not quite shooting time just yet so we hold off until we are legal. We proceed to have a couple of volleys come in and we are picking away at a few. My dad was shooting a 20 gauge and couldn’t quite get the hang of the new gun he was shooting. He’s a 12 gauge guy! The day slowed and we ended up picking up the decoys and heading in for breakfast. We had an okay hunt, but, it wasn’t anything like the timber hunting I’ve seen on tv shows. Mind you it was 75 degrees just a couple days before our trip in Arkansas, so the ducks weren't quite there in numbers. My dad didn't harvest a duck this day. I was a little discouraged, but I knew we had one more hunt the next morning to get it done. He honestly didn't care, but I really wanted it for him to see him bring a few down. He, of course, was more in awe of the experience which is certainly something I’ll cherish and take with me. It’s funny being able to do what I do, I get to experience these opportunities often, and I always share my imagery and stories with him. But this time, this whole trip was about my dad getting to enjoy a new experience, and getting to be a part of that so we can talk about it together for years is going to be special. We spent the rest of the day at the lodge eating well and telling hunting stories. Ashton fed us giant steaks with twice baked potatoes and other fixings that night and we went to bed with full stomachs, ready for our next hunt!
Last morning! It’s go time! It’s a little warmer this morning with a low of 35. I was thankful for this because I ended up getting caught in a hole in some hidden branches and my foot got caught, causing me to face plant head first into the freezing cold water. Immediate shock! Wow. So cold it knocked the breath out of me, and dang if the water didn't fill up the boots of my waders. I was embarrassed but laughed it off of course. I’m not going to let this keep me from enjoying my last hunt with my father. Thankfully, I was was wearing firstlite merino thermals and I was warm again in 10 minutes. Everyone gets into place and my dad and I are hugged up against the same massive cypress tree. We're in place before legal shooting light and the ducks start piling into our hole, landing on the water next to my father and he is beside himself, awed at seeing this for the first time. I’m trying to calm him down but his excitement is through the roof! More green heads are coming in and out before it’s legal shooting light--they just keep coming. 6:44am hits and it’s go time! Three mallards swing in right in front of us and my dad pulls the trigger. One drake falls. He pulls the trigger a second time. Another drake falls. I’m so pumped for him, just overjoyed. I just watched my dad cut his first two green heads in true double form. He’s so jacked up, and I can’t help but smile! This is what I came to Arkansas for. This is what I’ve been thinking about for two years, and he comes out and shoots a true double right out the gate. We ended up having a great hunt. I finally picked my shotgun up after watching him shoot for a little while. I wasn’t going to leave Arkansas without harvesting a drake mallard for myself. A volley of ducks fly into our hole, and I shoot once and fold one up. I ended up putting my gun right back on the tree where it stayed the rest of the hunt. By choice, this hunt wasn’t about me. I pulled out my camera and proceeded to document the rest of the hunt. My dad ended up shooting his limit of green heads, and I couldn’t have been more proud or ecstatic for him. We went out there for an experience and we certainly made one. There were a lot of congratulatory high fives all around at the end of the morning. The fellas were certainly stoked for him. We put all the ducks on straps and snapped our hero pics and then headed out of the timber. We hustled back to the lodge, said our goodbyes, gathered our things, and left to catch our flight back to South Carolina.
Man what a trip! I can’t thank my friends enough at Gunner Kennels and my new friends at Black Duck Waterfowl. It was everything I'd imagined it would be and went just how I'd hoped it would go. I was able to show my father what I get to do on a daily basis, and I know I made him proud. He certainly enjoyed the experience. We will cherish this hunt for the rest of our lives. At Hook + Gaff we often talk about “time well spent," and I'll tell you, we made that tagline come to life in that Arkansas timber.