‘Bear’ly a Deer Hunter

My weekly column from The Stone County Leader:

“Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning, and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.”

-Bill Bryson
A Walk in the Woods

There it was.

Unmistakable, though I’d never seen one in that context before.

Eyes don’t lie. And with a few buttons pushed here, and a few arrows pressed there, the number four slide on my partner’s game camera jumped out, commanding immediate attention.

She was on all four, big, black, with a massive and burly form that just looked onery. Must have been 400 pounds, and right there not more than a few yards from my hunting spot for this year. The one I’ve been so excited about as I take an all-new adventure into the world of deer hunting.

Immediately, my thoughts turned to the potential headline, likely one my boss would bury on page 5B of next week’s Leader.

Bear Eats News Reporter: Good While it Lasted, the inglorious news likely lining someone’s bird cage a week later.

Ah, the adventures of the great outdoors.

With most of my years spent in the heart of the Mississippi River Flyway, I’ve logged many more hours in a St. Francis River duck blind than in the deer woods. It’s an exciting prospect as opening day approaches this Saturday – my first major investment in pursuing the elusive giant buck. Those days growing up on the St. Francis produced some of the richest experiences a young boy can know, and some of the fondest memories I had with a father who wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver. Here’s an excerpt from a recent writing about those good times:

•••

When he wasn’t in the duck blind, my dad would sit at a bedroom window for hours, binoculars pointed to the river just a mile and a half west. Duck hunters dream of that magical day when there are so many ducks you can’t keep them off your pond, and the steel of your gun barrel stays hot, no time between rounds.

In those days, you’d find dozens of pickup trucks scattered about Highbanks Landing and the more northerly Jackson’s Landing, hunters having gathered for boat launches oftentimes long before there was enough light to maneuver the tricky river runs. Most could navigate by memory, jumping one log after another and dodging brush along the way. Shooting hours began precisely at sun up, and mallards move early for the day’s first feeding. Run a boat to your blind late between prime shooting hours of six and nine in the morning and you might just find it unplugged and half sunk at the landing tomorrow morning. One of the first rules on the St. Francis River is respect for the other guy.

If you’ve never been there, if you’ve never felt the adrenaline rush that overpowers you when 25 mallard ducks decide they’re coming into your pond, it goes something like this:

Three hundred yards out, a spotter first sees them headed due north. The blind’s designated chief caller, oftentimes an old river veteran in his fifties or sixties, makes his way to the shooting window as he reaches into a camouflaged vest pocket for his long caller. The call, maybe a black P.S. Olt, or a smooth, synthetic Rich-N-Tone, is doubly secured around the caller’s neck with a lengthy cord adorned with duck bands from past hunts. These bands, likely placed around the bird’s leg in the northern nesting grounds, are a research and reporting tool effective only when the hunter harvests the duck and returns the band to the research organization. Many prefer wearing the bands like an Indian bead necklace, each representing the memories of a past hunt and signifying their place within the tribe.

The chief caller takes a deep breath bringing the mouthpiece to his lips and the hopeful long call begins. The long call has a rhythm. A series of loud duck-like calls that grow shorter and closer together as the caller manages his breath with as much perfection as a first- chair trombonist. Almost like a plea of sorts, the long call is loud and imprecise, designed only to get the attention of ducks moving at a distance. Get their attention, and maybe they’ll like what they see. They’ll assess the wind, the pond configuration, decoy pattern, water clarity, and other factors before moving on or breaking for a descent. If he gets their attention, the caller then has a “working” bunch of ducks. Things are serious now, and the beauty of a seasoned caller unfolds.

Instinctively, the mood changes. Hunters give a quick check to their Brownings, Winchesters, and Remingtons. Safety on. Chamber full. Locked and loaded.

There is anticipation in this critical moment when it’s important to read what’s happening outside the blind. It takes years to get really good at this. The chief caller and the spotters now work together watching the ducks work the pond, their necks twisting and turning out the shooting window. The calling changes, now more intentional, more precise, as the ducks assess everything around them and make a final decision about a water landing. This is the moment a seasoned duck caller shows his skill alternating between working calls. There are calls to get the ducks’ attention, others that lure them in, feeding chatters, and a “come back” call for those that want to move on. The pros give the ducks exactly what they want to hear. This can go on thirty minutes or more, and callers frequently become so short on breath they find themselves light-headed.

There is not a memory from childhood more vivid than the clarity of my father’s eyes as he worked a bunch of mallard ducks on a freezing cold St. Francis River day. In those moments, all self-consciousness, issues of self-worth, all his imperfections vanished. Fluid, at ease, and seasoned with experience, he demonstrated complete control, perfect peace.

The call is reduced to the occasional soft chatter now. This is what separates the great duck callers from the good ones. A great duck caller knows when to call, and when to be quiet. Then, it’s in that quiet moment you first hear it. They’re coming in right over the blind. If Dad said it once in that thrilled whisper, he said it a million times. Grab your guns, boys. Get ’em on three …
You hear them before you see them, and the sound is unmistakable. Once a four-pound mallard duck commits to landing on water there is no turning back. With feet extended, body bowed, and wings cupped, the ducks flap wings violently for a soft landing. As they do, the wind whistles across long feathers in increasingly quick repetition. Shew-shew-shew-shew-shew. All movement in the blind ceases and you can hear a pin drop. Guns up. One, two, three!

The purest sportsmen will set their gun sights and pull triggers just before the ducks hit the water. Some prefer allowing the ducks to land, giving them even more time and accuracy for a maximum harvest. Either way, there’s not a moment more thrilling than the sound of wind over wings. It’s rare, but on the good days this scenario may play out six or seven times. They are the days you recount to your grandchildren.

•••

I’m hoping to share a few fireside chats with my own grandchildren from this deer hunting thing.

Here’s hoping not to be a mid-morning snack before a long, winter’s nap.

See you in next week’s newspaper.

(Steve Watkins is a reporter for The Stone County Leader. He is the author of two books, Pilgrim Strong, and The King of Highbanks Road.)

What Arkansas’ First Congressional District Needs Again

Four things, I submit.

1. Someone who has a passion for public service, not the perks of the job.

2. Someone who speaks as an independent voice, a representative of the people, not a manipulated party puppet.

3. Someone who bridges the gap between black, white, Hispanic, rich and poor. Someone who embraces diversity.

4. Someone who “gets” that the background of the First Congressional District is rooted in the forward thinking of entrepreneurial farmers, under-paid, under-valued teachers, and senior citizens who’ve given us all a legacy of hope and opportunity.

***

Full Disclosure:

Former U.S. Rep. Marion Berry (D-AR)

I spent nearly four years working alongside Congressman Marion Berry as a press secretary, and later as a district director. In the years leading up to that privilege, I was a newspaper reporter with a love for following those invested in public service, Blanche Lincoln among them.

And I’ll tell you what Arkansas‘ First Congressional District needs again. We need a public servant, a representative in Congress who follows the example set forth by Marion Berry and Blanche Lincoln.

***

Three weeks ago today, Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington (D-AR) ended his bid to recapture the traditionally Democratic held seat representing nearly a million people. I voted for Ellington, not that I know him personally. We’ve met a few times and I gauged him to be one who fit the mold of Berry and Lincoln. Whether it was an inadequately run campaign, or just bad timing, we may never know, but I think we missed a good opportunity to get the First District going again.

***

Berry and Lincoln were quite different, yet very much alike.

To each of those one million constituents, she was Blanche. He was Marion.

That’s what I loved the most about them.

Over the years, Lincoln developed a strong skill set in constituent relations.

Former U.S. Rep. and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)

People loved her. But she was more than just a pretty face. Blanche Lincoln was an effective public servant. She got things done.

Berry, on the other hand, was never a slick, tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear kind of guy. What you saw was what you got. I quit, early on, trying to morph him into something he was not. It couldn’t be done, and no one should have ever tried.  Berry got the job done. His advocacy for all of us built roads and overpasses, put clean, running water in rural towns, beat down every ridiculous regulation he could that would aggravate the already lopsided odds against farmers everywhere. Not a great politician was Berry, (and it was never his aspiration) but a magnificent and tireless public servant.

Can we say that’s what we enjoy today in the First Congressional District? A warrior who stands in the gap, and on our behalf?

If not, who?

And, when?

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Another Day Trip in Arkansas

(Blogger’s Note: If you enjoy this post, please come back tomorrow, and I’ll show you (in pictures) why the cost of your cheeseburger is about to double, and that’s no joke.)

***

Sophie stopping for a pose in Oil Trough, Arkansas. If you’re not familiar with Arkansas, this little town is in the middle of what we call Tornado Alley, and it’s been wiped out several times.

arkansas

Dana cooling down after the float trip.

dana watkins

Lunch at Mikey’s Deli in Mountain View. Note the dead animal in the background.

stevenwwatkins

Self-portrait before launching on our White River float trip.

White River Float

…and we’re off for a 2-hour float.

arkansas white river

Hummingbirds in action feeding at the home of my friends Cindy and Danny Smith.

hummingbird feeder

An Arkansas cliche’. You must have your photo made in the Big Rockin’ Chair.

Mountain View Arkansas

An old Church of Christ building (still active) on the road home.

church of christ

If you go to this church, this is where you go to the bathroom, and that’s no joke. We kidded that it was full of holy crap … (no disrespect intended.)

outhouse

An old barber shop (one seater) near Batesville, AR.

barber shop

A bit of local Olympic history… this is the home and training grounds for Earl Bell, 1984 bronze medalist in the pole vault. Bell lives in this facility near my home and trains world-class athletes here every day.

earl bell pole vaulter

Some Things That Used to Be

I don’t get back to my hometown very often. It’s Monette,  Arkansas – population 1,000 and change.

Old friends have scattered but a few remain. I still pass through occasionally to check on our family’s farm land.

My education came to pass at Monette High School. Because of consolidation, the school no longer exists. It used to be the Home of the Buffalos. Any time I pass through Monette, it reminds me of a lot of things that used to be.

This used to be my high school letterman’s jacket. At least I wore one just like it. It now hangs on the wall at a local restaurant in a nearby town. The restaurant is called Big Butt’s BBQ. That’s right.

This site used to be the farm headquarters for a man named Aubrey Crump. It used to be the most pristine farmsite in the country. Now, it’s practically desolate. The Crumps used to be the closest thing we had to next-door neighbors. They once shared their stormhouse with us during a tornado outbreak in 1984.

This used to be the land Mr. Crump farmed. It used to be beautifully farmed land without a weed in sight. It makes me sad now.

This used to be the pickup truck of a man named Lavelle Spikes. I’m not sure, but it must have been at least 20 years since Lavelle died. The truck, a Chevy Silverado, probably a late 70s model, still sits where he last parked it before his death. I doubt it’s ever moved.

This used to be the biggest employer in town. It was called Frolic Footwear, but it now sits vacant. Many days I would drive by and see the workers having lunch on this bench, and as a kid I’d wonder what it was like to work there.

This used to be the place where my daddy loafed, had coffee, and traded tall tales with other farmers. It was called Ball-Hout Implement. We used to have some really good times there.

This used to be the home of my seventh-grade social studies teacher, Delores Miller. I loved that woman. Might have even had a childhood crush on her. A few weeks before going into the seventh grade, Mrs. Miller lost a young son in a tragic accident. She was strong, but she did cry the first day in class and I hurt for her so much.

It’s an Honor: An Open Letter to WordPress Bloggers and Those Who Read My Blog

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” ~ Ben Franklin

On any given day, there are at least half a million blog posts on wordpress.com

It’s a dose of reality reminding me that my work is just another grain of sand on a long stretch of beach.

When it comes to writing, I’m a purist. I don’t do “musings,” or “ramblings.” Poetry’s not my bag, and I won’t be sharing recipes with you any time soon. There’s a place in the blogging world for all those things, I suppose. It’s just not particular cup of tea.

There’s an irony to my blogging posts. By day, I’m a private, guarded person with a close circle of only a few friends to whom the guard comes down. But at the keyboard, something magnificent happens because it allows transparency to flow.

I will share with you, the blogging world, my shortcomings, my failures, and more importantly the lessons learned. And I say a prayer before hitting the “publish” button that it will make a difference in someone’s life on any given day. It’s a powerful thing and an honor to be able to share.

Every writer’s greatest honor is to be read.

It’s a rush to sit in a rural corner of northeast Arkansas, USA, and see that someone in Gibraltar or the Netherlands, New Zealand or Indonesia has taken time out of his or her day to read your work.

It brightens my day when someone takes time to read and “like” the blog post of the day.

And whether they agree or disagree, it’s a thrill when a reader comments and gives feedback to the words you typed earlier in the morning.

I’m thankful to have a creative outlet to share an experience, thought or opinion.

And so know this: When you read my blog, you do me the highest honor, you make my day and you reinforce the purpose within me.

For that, I am thankful.

(Blogger‘s note: For the next two weeks, I’ll be blogging from Puerto Cayo, Ecuador with my wife where we’ll be sharing experiences from our own “Amazing Race.” See you on the equator.)

The Language of Coachspeak

A quick follow-up from yesterday’s post: Here in Arkansas – It’s the Perfect Storm. http://wp.me/p2bjEC-8j

Quotes (and interpretations) from Coach Gus Malzan regarding his possible candidacy to become the next head coach for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Malzahn Quote: “I’m the head coach of the Arkansas State Red  Wolves.”

Interpretation: That’s what I am today. For the moment I’m avoiding what tomorrow may bring, and you know I’m not gonna say anything about this, anyway.

Malzahn Quote: “I’m sticking to ‘I’m the head coach here (ASU) and I’m not worried about anything else.'”

Interpretation: I’ve had no DIRECT conversation with UA, but our representatives are talking. I’m not worried about anything. Hey, I come out a winner either way!

Malzahn Quote: “I’m committed to being here.”

Interpretation: Just as much as I was yesterday, but hey, a dream job is a dream job, and I could be committed there too.

Dr. Dean Lee (ASU Athletic  Director)  Quote: “We feel good about who we are and what we have to offer…”

Interpretation: I’m worried.

ASU Quarterback Ryan Aplin Quote: “It’s just something we’re going to have to try to deal with as a team and try to look over it and stay focused on practice.”

Interpretation: I’m doing my best to keep my team in good spirits (because that’s part of my job) but the whole team is really worried. This could be bad.

The Perfect Storm in Arkansas continues to brew. Lightning’s gonna strike somewhere.

Your thoughts?

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Blogging Outside Your Comfort Zone: 7 Tips

(Blogger’s Note: If you’re a blogger or writer, I’d love to hear your own experiences about writing outside your comfort zone. Please share away!)

Traditional tips you’ll read about effective blogging will typically tell you to write about the things you know, choose a niche and pitch yourself as an expert and an authority.

It’s good advice. Everyone’s an expert in something, and there’s definitely something to be said for consistency in your blogging topics. It’s the best way to build a strong platform and a loyal audience. Your readers should come to expect a certain style in your work.

But the adventuresome blogger, will, from time to time, will make a gutsy move and go outside his comfort zone for the sake of curiosity, and just to see what happens. That’s exactly what I did yesterday.

My brand of writing is designed to make people think. Not necessarily to change their minds, but to think differently with new perspectives about certain things. Mostly, I enjoy using Biblical metaphors and writing about the application they have in our present lives. But every so often, I’ll jump outside my writer’s comfort zone to experiment, and yesterday’s blog, titled Here in Arkansas – It’s the Perfect Storm http://wp.me/p2bjEC-8j …. was just that. An experiment that proved interesting.

The blog’s topic was the national attention that’s been drawn to the University of Arkansas’ football program and the subsequent firing of head coach Bobby Petrino. Moreover, it speculated the Razorbacks would attempt to lure Arkansas State University coach Gus Malzahn (just 300 miles down the road) as his replacement.

It’s a topic ripe for speculation and controversy, and so I ventured into the unknown to see what attention might be drawn to my theory of how the scenario might play over the next few days.

The results: A record number of hits for a single post with readers in seven countries.

In thinking about writing outside our comfort zones, I wanted to offer seven tips, lessons learned, if you will, for how this post generated record traffic. Consider these tips in a future venture outside your own blogging comfort zone.

  • LOOK FOR A HOT TOPIC – Even if you’re not an expert, it’s okay to jump in the middle of something. Sports, especially college football, is a big deal. In the SEC, some call it Saturday Down South. Take advantage of writing directly to a well-defined audience. SEC football fans are pretty well-defined.
  • SPECULATE – That you are not an expert – it matters not. Opinion piece writing generates more opinions, and more hits on your blog. It creates conversation and back-and-forth dialogue. Everyone has an opinion. Share yours.
  • TAG TAG TAGHere in Arkansas – It’s the Perfect Storm http://wp.me/p2bjEC-8j had some 50 tags attached, and the search engine results showed the tags worked.

  • USE POWERFUL VISUALS – It was an easy choice for this particular post. Choose an image of a Razorback and one of an Arkansas State University Redwolf, and the collective blood pressure of football fans across the state skyrockets.

  • GO PLACES YOU’VE NEVER GONE BEFORE – I placed this post on Facebook pages everywhere … official pages of both universities, football blogs across the South, media outlet blogs, and it worked.
  • USE POWERFUL METAPHORS – The Perfect Storm perfectly described the possible scenario for the outcome of this unique situation. All the elements are perfectly lined up for a monumental fight if UA even breathes on Malzahn.
  • BE INTENTIONAL IN LOOKING FOR RIVALRIES – For your post it may be politics, education, religion or whatever. College football in the South is ripe with rivalries and putting yesterday’s post in the middle of it all just added a small bit of flame to the fire. That’s what writers love, right?

Niche, consistency, expertise – yes – it’s the best way to blog. But stretch yourself sometimes and get in the thick of something wild.

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