Editor's Note: Duck season is over. This is just one of the many memorable hunts I experienced this year. Perhaps an idea you might want to file away for next year.
A chilling torrent of rain driven by a powerful and never-ending Northwest wind, slammed into Steve Worley's face. Yet for two days, Worley never wavered… never left his appointed post.
"He stood up there shivering like a retriever with hypothermia," exclaimed Ed McCoy. "I've never seen anybody watch for ducks so hard in my life."
McCoy, Ross Malone and yours truly had the honor of joining Worley and Jeff Archie for two days in the Ducks Deluxe blind on the Walnut Gap section of Reelfoot Lake.
Ducks Deluxe Photo Gallery
WATCHING THE WEATHER
Prior to our trip we had monitored the mid-January weather reports closely. We knew full well that at least part of our trip would be spent hunting in the rain. We didn't realize however that during the six-hour drive from Chattanooga, the approaching cold front decided to stall out directly over Walnut Gap.
Yet Worley never wavered… even when the rest of us would temporarily seek refuge from the rain in the back of the Ducks Deluxe blind. We were often lured there by the smell of Jeff frying up bacon & eggs, fried boloney and hamburgers.
We were always comforted by the fact that Worley "had the point." When he hit a highball we wasted no time hitting our assigned holes in the blind… all eyes peered at Worley to see which way he was looking, homed in like a radar on approaching ducks.
Every duck hunter in Tennessee knows how miserable it was the first two weeks of January. By miserable we mean "warm."
This was actually my fourth Reelfoot waterfowl excursion and I had learned long before that ducks can kick your butt on Reelfoot just like they can anywhere else in the world. It doesn't matter however because for this trio of East Tennessee hillbillies, it was a special treat to wind through the cypress trees and saw grass, to navigate Donaldson Ditch, skirting the lily pads and other huge spreads of decoys along the way.
For a duck hunter Reelfoot Lake is Neyland Stadium for UT fan.
DUCKS DELUXE DAY ONE
On Day One Worley's quartz halogen headlights were as bright as our hopes as we held firmly to the belief that the stalled cold front would move east, bringing chilling temperatures and active ducks.
It wasn't to be. But "skunked" is a rare word in a Worley blind. Three greenwing teal and a scaup fell to our guns. There is no need to mention what we missed.
ACORN POINT LODGE
That afternoon we returned to the warmth of Acorn Point Lodge. The warmth doesn't come from the heater… it comes from Natalie Denton.
Ms. Denton is, shall we say, "up in years." If I hadn't known better I would have thought I was at my own grandmother's house. Hot coffee was always on, and cake or cookies always laid out. Every night we heard, "now you boys just set your thermos bottles right here on the counter. I'll fill 'em with hot water tonight and hot coffee in the morning before you head for the blind."
And she did, up at 4 AM long before most hunters were stirring.
Ms. Denton grew up in Hornbeak, Tenn., just a few miles south of Reelfoot.
"We were here every day of my life until I married and left," she said.
Acorn Point sits on the same land that's been in her family since 1907. Ms. Denton has worked in the banking business, the insurance business and then went back to school at the age of 55 to become an RN. That led her to a plan to build an assisted living facility on Reelfoot in 1999. But construction delays led to additional expenses on her loan.
"I had no income coming in," she said. "But people kept stopping by, wanting to know what the place was and they all were looking to rent a room to go fishing. So I just changed it and made it a fishing & hunting lodge."
"I have a little book where folks can write things and practically everybody that writes in it says they feel like they're staying with family here."
If you want a room during crappie and bluegill fishing season, you better hurry!
From the middle of March through the middle of June, we're full every bed, every night."
Duck season isn't quite so busy, but you can always count on a few hunters gathered to swap stories in front of the huge picture window overlooking the lake. Ms. Denton knows that on Reelfoot, duck hunting is serious business.
"People stop their jobs," she said. "They work harder getting brush and building their blinds than they do any other time of year I think. People I don't see work much any other time of year get really busy working on blinds."
DUCKS DELUXE DAY TWO
Worley is one of those people and on Day Two we were back at the Kirby Pocket launching ramp, of course in the driving rain…. again. On the way to the blind Worley faced the storm full on while we hunkered backwards beneath our hoods.
Early in the morning the ringnecks were active. Every time any of them pitched toward the huge spread of decoys, Worley whistled like he was calling a dog. I was never sure if he was whistling at the ringnecks, or whistling at the hunters. He just smiled when I asked but regardless, we knew it was our cue to cut loose.
We knew the cold front had to move through sooner or later. We feared it was going to happen as we wound our way back to the hills of East Tennessee.
At 11:30 however we saw "lighter sky." A few minutes later the steady "pitter-patter" of raindrops quit hitting our hoods. The mercury in Ross Malone's cheap thermometer started to fall. And like someone had flipped a switch, flock of mallards began appearing over Black Bayou to our north.
The first greenhead was wise to us, settling to the water a bare minimum of 60 yards out… probably more. Nobody touched a gun except Worley. The big 10 gauge came to his shoulder and the greenhead got no more than 2-feet off the water before a pellet found his brain.
We finally had "color" in the blind.
Moments after Worley returned from the retrieve the next pair of mallards appeared seemingly from nowhere.
I don't know how it happens… you're on wide open water and can see 360 degrees for miles and miles. We had five pairs of eyes in the blind "on point."
Still somehow, the mallards swooped in unseen directly over our heads.
Worley just had to hit one hard, enticing highball and they turned upwind. He had seen this flight path before.
"Ya'll get ready. They're going to come in straight behind us."
I don't know if Worley said "get 'em," "take 'em," or what? And it didn't matter. I heard him speak and through tone and inflection it was always clear that it was time to "kill 'em."
Before we were forced to hit the highway home, five mallards hit the water waving at the sky… a total of 13 birds on Day Two.
IS IT STILL THERE?
Unlike Mrs. Denton, I didn't grow up on Reelfoot Lake. But you don't have to grow up there to understand that what she says is true.
"Anybody who has ever had anything to do with this lake is very affected by it," she told me, almost teary-eyed. "When I go off, when I get back and get where I can see the lake for the first time, it is always emotional. It was a joke when I came up here with my Dad every day… he always said 'I've got to go see if the lake is still there."
Trust me, as soon as I can, I'll have to go see if Reelfoot Lake "is still there."
Ducks Deluxe Photo Gallery