BATESVILLE As a boy, Bill Couch would hear his father tell tales about his hunting trips, and Couch couldn’t wait until he was old enough to tag along.
Unfortunately, his father had quit duck hunting by the time Couch was a young adult, and while the trips had ceased, Couch’s desire to hunt never did. He tested the waters and found a lifelong passion in duck hunting, and it’s something he said he hopes to pass on to the next generation.
Couch, 62, is one of the volunteers who are active in the Independence County chapter of Ducks Unlimited, which will have its annual banquet at
6 p.m. Thursday at the Batesville Community Center and Aquatics Park, 1420 S. 20th St. Food and beverages will be provided. There will also be prizes, raffles, live and silent auctions, and more.
Tickets, available at the door, cost $40 for individuals, $60 for couples or $15 for Greenwings — ages 16 and younger. For more information, call Couch at (870) 307-9599.
Couch grew up in the small southeast Arkansas town of Altheimer, between Pine Bluff and Stuttgart, which is known as the Duck Hunting Capital of the World.
Couch said his father spent his formative years “on the prairie” in towns such as England, Lonoke and Carlisle and graduated from Lonoke High School in 1936.
“My parents were older. Dad was 40, and Mom turned 43 the year I was born,” said Couch, who has two older sisters.
His father enjoyed anything outdoors. His mom wasn’t a hunter, but more of a behind-the-scenes encourager, Couch said.
“Mom just facilitated everything. Behind every good man is a woman pushing, and that’s the only reason we got west of the Alleghenies. Otherwise, we’d all be wadded up on the East Coast talking funny,” Couch said, joking.
But on the Arkansas prairie in the 1930s and ’40s, there were not any significant duck and deer populations, Couch said.
“I can remember him telling stories about if somebody saw a deer print in the woods, they’d say ‘Where?’ and they’d all want to go see it,” Couch recalled. “That’s how scarce the deer herd had gotten.”
The pastureland was filled with lespedeza, which most deer won’t touch, he said.
“So the habitat for deer had been greatly reduced,” Couch said, “and as time went on, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission got involved and developed the deer hunting.”
Before Couch was born, the family had moved to Altheimer, and Couch’s father, who worked for Arkansas Power & Light for 41 years, met some people who invited him to go duck hunting, and he found that he dearly loved it, Couch said.
“Back in those days, duck hunting was primitive at best. … There were no gravel roads, much less paved roads,” and about the only people who had four-wheel-drive vehicles were the ones who’d brought in a Jeep from World War II, he said.
“There were no wildlife management areas, there were no boat docks — there was nothing to facilitate hunting,” Couch said. “It was man against the elements, truly, like you see on these reality TV shows. … Dad told me a story one time. They were trying to get back into this place, and they would run out the winch cable, tie it to a tree and winch the truck up to the tree and do it again, just to get to where they would go hunting.”
Those were not ideal conditions to take a young child into the woods, and Couch said that by the time he was old enough to go hunting, his dad had stopped. His dad had quit drinking cold turkey and knew he couldn’t be around it anymore, even in the duck woods, so he gave up hunting as well, Couch said. Still, he regaled his son with escapades and funny tales.
“I had a fascination with it growing up,” Couch said, but his family had no land where he could duck hunt, nor did they have appropriate hunting gear.
“There was no such thing as Neoprene waders that have 800 or 1,200 milligrams of Thinsulate in them. You had a pair of long johns, blue jeans or khakis and whatever you could get on with that. They didn’t all have chest waders — they had thigh-high hip boots that were just rubber, uninsulated. So if it were 20 degrees, you were 20 degrees.
“Contrast that with what we have now — the wildlife management areas, boat ramps, four-wheel-drive vehicles with winches on them.”
Couch went hunting a few times with his older sister’s husband, but there were a number of years when Couch didn’t have the opportunity to go, he said.
After graduating from England High School in 1975, he attended Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, joking that he majored in fraternity and minored in accounting.
It was in 1980 that the late Bob Hughes hired Couch for a job with Blue Cross Blue Shield, auditing hospitals’ Medicare reports, and it wasn’t long before Hughes moved to Batesville. A few years later, Hughes finally convinced Couch to move as well, and the two began going on hunting trips, Couch said.
“Bob introduced me to hunting,” Couch said, and whether the quest was for four-legged or winged beasts, it was love for Couch from the get-go.
Couch and Hughes would go on elk-hunting trips to Colorado, and they bought
214 acres in Independence County to build a hunting camp.
Like his dad, Couch soon found that the hunting is only half the fun, he said. The other half is “the war stories” about the difficulty getting there and battling the temperatures, etc.
For Couch, who’d grown up listening to his dad’s tales, hunting was a dream come true. Couch noted that there was a time when two hunters had “fallen in their cups” and failed to return to camp, so the state police were called to help search for the hunters until finally, the pair wandered back at midnight, assuring the others, “We weren’t lost; we just couldn’t get back.”
“That kind of thing just went on,” Couch said. “There’s story after story after story of all that stuff. The escapades never dissipated.”
Deer hunting is usually a one-man endeavor unless a blind is involved, but duck hunting lends itself to multiple hunters in an area, Couch said.
“With duck hunting, you don’t have to be quiet,” he said. “We’d hunt at Turkey Hill [hunting club], and we’d have 10 to 20 people within 30 yards of one another, and we’re yelling back and forth and talking and laughing, and ducks will land right there on top of you. Nobody’s blowing a call or anything, and ducks just show up!”
So duck hunting has more of a social aspect, and that camaraderie is what he loves the most, Couch said.
• • •
At the turn of the century, there was no conservation, and no money was put into preserving habitats. People would kill “sacks and sacks of ducks” without a thought for the future, Couch said.
That all changed when Ducks Unlimited was formed in 1937, he said.
“It became paramount to preserving duck hunting as we know it today, Couch said, adding that imposing federal guidelines on harvesting numbers was critical at that point.
In 1955, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the breeding populations of the 10 most common ducks to be 42.7 million. By 1987, that number had dropped to 30.3 million, according to agency reports.
Couch said that in the 1970s, the federal government moved away from a two-duck limit to a point system, where in one day a hunter could harvest 100 points of ducks; a hen at the time was 95 points. Conservation guidelines also limited hunters to one mallard a day, “which is the Cadillac of ducks, if you will, and is the primary duck we have here in Arkansas,” Couch said.
“Those efforts have brought us to where we are now, and we have a six-duck limit, four of which can be mallards,” he said.
According to the 2019 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s waterfowl population report, the total duck population is estimated to be 38.9 million, down 6 percent from 41.2 million
in 2018. However, the 2019 estimate is 10 percent higher than the long-term average from 1955-2018.
“Ducks Unlimited was the vehicle to promote that and to preserve duck hunting for beyond my generation, and now my grandchildren’s generation, on into the future,” Couch said. “It works out that if I can raise money for Ducks Unlimited, they’ll take those dollars and match it with other dollars that are available through different federal programs, and they can buy open prairie land, and the ducks can safely have offspring and raise them.”
Ducks Unlimited is involved in Canada and Mexico, as well as the United States, and has purchased thousands of acres to protect, restore and enhance waterfowl habitats, according to the Ducks Unlimited website, www.ducks.org.
“One of the key elements that I’m really proud of about Ducks Unlimited is its ratio of each dollar that is raised for DU — 81 cents goes back into conservation and habitat, so the administrative percentage is 19 percent,” Couch said.
The Independence County chapter is probably 40 years old, he said, and the past two years, it has been recognized as being among the top 10 chapters in the state.
The chapter has increased its donations to the national organization, Couch said, thanks to successful events like the golf tournament, which netted just under $5,000 in 2015 and $13,000 last year. The Smokin’ on the White BBQ Contest raised $3,500 in 2015; last year’s event brought in $5,500. The chapter’s largest fundraiser is the Ducks Unlimited banquet — the 2015 event total was $12,000, while last year’s total came in at $19,000, Couch said.
Couch credited the committee who organizes these events: “It’s not the Bill Couch show; it’s our show,” he said. “We work together, and we’re striving to make that top-10 list yet again this year. … It’s all about the ducks.”
Couch said another way people can help is through the license-plate program, which features two designs for Ducks Unlimited.
“That program itself pays $300,000 to our state organization to go toward the national. That’s a lot — that’s almost 100,000 vehicles running around the state of Arkansas with DU license plates. I have three vehicles; they all have Ducks Unlimited license plates on them.”
Couch has served as both an area chairman and a zone chairman for DU over the years and said he’d like to recruit more people to help with the chapter and its events so he can step back.
“I cannot describe to you the feeling of being where ducks want to be,” Couch said. “Ducks imprint, and they go to the same place year after year. They are creatures of habit, so it passes through generations with them. For you to be in the woods and to see ducks wanting to be where you are … that’s the most awesome feeling in the world.”