When I was learning to hunt as a boy, my main desire was to shoot the gun.
No matter what the old-timers tell you, the late duck season wasn't any better in Bayou Meto WMA in the early 1970s than it is now. My dad, my uncles and I spent many a boring morning in Brushy and Government Cypress watching nothing but tweety birds. When it was unanimous that a hunt was officially a lost cause, Dad would permit me to take one shot with my Marlin bolt-action 20-gauge.
It took the sting out of the early wake-up and the wasted hours standing in freezing water in non-insulated hip boots. They didn't make insulated base layers for little kids back then, so little kids like me were expected to bear the torture without complaint, even when smug grown-ups asked whether I was warm enough, always followed by snide laughter.
Even so, I remember every duck that fluttered through the leafless timber from 1971-78. I quit hunting during my high school and early college years, but my first duck, a mallard hen, is seared in my memory, especially the approval I got from my uncle Earl Dukes. He didn't say a word. He just flashed a half smile and nodded. I've won a lot of awards and honors, but none meant more to me than that one nod from the most accomplished hunter I ever knew.
From ducks, my dad eased me into squirrel hunting. We pursued them at Bayou Meto in September and October. That's where he taught me stealth and woodcraft. He taught me to look not for squirrels, but to listen for shaking leaves and to notice limbs swaying out of time with the breeze.
He taught me to listen for the gnawing sound of squirrels cutting a hickory nut, and he taught me to look for hickory nut shavings glittering in the morning sun as they floated down from the branches.
Arkansas didn't have many deer in the 1970s, so we didn't hunt deer. Whitetails were near mythical to me. The only live deer I ever saw in the wild as a child were walking inside the reservoir fence along Reservoir Road about 1969 or 1970, and also inside the fence at what is now the University of Arkansas Cammack Campus in the late 1960s.
The first deer I ever saw up close was again at Bayou Meto, a buck that a hunter was dragging out of the woods. I touched it with a mixture of awe and disbelief. Not until November 1988, at age 25, did I kill my first deer. It was on family property near Vilonia when the Arkansas hunting regulations were printed on a tri-fold sheet that you could stuff in your pocket. I killed my second deer in 2001 on Vernon Schmitz's farm near Linn, Mo.
I killed my first turkey in 1999, in the company of a colleague at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation who took me under his wing. He also taught me how to hunt quail and how to appreciate a good bird dog.
I came up slowly on a nurturing diet of small game under the guidance of experienced men who showed me the right way to do things. They taught me not to skybust ducks, and they taught me how to safely handle firearms. Most importantly, they instilled a reverence for the game that give their lives to sustain my body and spirit.
So passionately do I love turkey hunting that I recently confided to a friend my regret for not discovering it earlier in life. Oh, how much I missed all those years! On second thought, I'm grateful I saved the joy of youthful discovery for my later years.
I rejoice with every child who takes a deer or a gobbler, but I am wistful for those who skipped the climb and helicoptered straight to the mountaintop. When you start out killing a deer, elk or turkey, there are no greater heights in Arkansas to attain, nothing left for which to aspire.
Small game should be the guidon bearer in a hunter's journey because that's how you will learn the most important skills and values of hunting. That's where you learn the lifestyle. You can hunt squirrels on any WMA and national forest in Arkansas with nothing more than a $10.50 hunting license. It's the purest form of hunting we have, and it's open to everyone.
The view from the mountaintop is breathtaking, but the stuff on the mountainside is pretty cool, too. Squirrel season is open now, and coronavirus gives many of us time to experience it.
Arkansas Outdoors: Opinion