Duck Camp isn’t a destination. It doesn’t have an address you can load in a GPS, and it’s not the place your wife buys camouflaged curtains for. It’s a mindset, enjoyed by a few wise veterans, not yet appreciated by rookies, and never realized by the unfortunate masses.
I’ve been on all sides of Duck Camp, from a single buddy crashing at the house to an army of guys taking over a lodge. We’ve eaten gourmet duck dishes; we’ve inhaled five-dollar pizzas. Often there was beer.
This season, I again learned more of this special ritual with a trip to Arkansas. While hunting the famous woods near Bayou Meto was the intended focus, Duck Camp stole the show.
I was the guest of the Banded crew and their gracious leader Chad Belding. Belding and I have become friends through our industry involvement; often difficult for me, but incredibly easy for him. He seems to be everyone’s friend.
I asked Belding what he felt was the underlying theme of his success, and his message behind his Fowl Life television show. His answer: Duck Camp. In his view, it seemed the greatest thing about waterfowl hunting was the way it draws everyone together toward a common goal in that moment, regardless of where each member of group came from. God doesn’t care how much money you make when he puts you in knee-deep swamp muck.
My stay in Arkansas was brief, and the hunting was poor by their standards, but still memorable by mine. There’s just something about mallards falling through the trees, and hunting with a group of guys that want to do it right, putting as many on the water as possible before opening fire on those about to land.
Our crew consisted of people from many walks of life, to say the least. A country music singer from Nashville trying to earn his big break; a veteran starting pitcher in the Majors who’s already earned his.
Buddies, companions, roadies, dogs; all were there hoping for a shot at a memorable hunt, but really coming for the only guarantee: Duck Camp.
I probably shot more photos and videos around the fire pit than I did in the woods. The guitars broke out each evening, and often played longer than the hunts lasted each morning. The tunes of choice were by artists who have been present at more duck camps than any of us: Haggard, Williams and Jones.
Our camp was the world-famous Prairie Wings; it’s the place most duck hunters think heaven likely looks like. The woods are custom-made for hunting. The lodge is posh, but doesn’t make you feel bad for getting it muddy. Our hosts were the epitome of southern gentlemen.
But Duck Camp doesn’t just exist in a place built to house it. It’s also in a little cabin passed down through the generations, just on the outskirts of some public land. A poker game breaks out, as do a few unwelcome cigars. Win, lose or draw, everyone’s really just thinking about getting lucky the following morning.
It’s in the cab of an old beater pick-up, as three college kids drive eighteen hours to North Dakota. Not knowing where they’ll sleep, eat or hunt, they just know they need to get to North Dakota, because that’s where the ducks are. Tonight, they’ll drive straight through, and be just a little late setting up in the morning. But who cares.
Duck Camp finds itself quite often in my garage. As Michigan’s weather turns from autumn to winter, friends and I step out to check the winds, hoping they turn North and bring with them the powerful fronts from Canada. Never predictable or on time, with such storms come the migrators.
Duck Camp is everywhere, and, through the entire experience, one underlying theme repeats itself: every member of the camp knows what the other guy’s thinking, because he’s thinking about hunting. Whether complaining about gas prices or telling a story about girls, it’s not where his heart is. It’s at first light, the sound of a drake mallard’s guttural tone overhead. The whistling of wings. Checking watches, over and over again. One more minute, one more minute.
There’s just something about the outdoor pursuits we do with a group. Sure, a monster buck walking under a treestand will make us all short of breath, and the visual strike of a giant fish often results in an audible cry, even when alone in a boat.
But, at Duck Camp, dawn brings an entirely different feel. As a young hunter, we try to keep calm and look cool among the veterans who’ve been here before. Once middle-aged, we finally begin to appreciate how important it is to cherish such times.
But the grizzled veterans of Duck Camp seem to truly realize the unfortunate, underlying principle of our society: if we spend all of our time working to pursue happiness, by the time we reach it, we’ll be too old to enjoy it.
Once again, I’ve found that at Duck Camp, although it took me until well-after the trip to realize it. But there will be a next time, and each time thereafter, I’ll be ready for the hunt, but living for the Camp.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.