Julie S. Bettinger

Duck memories unlimited

There’s something magical about rising way before dawn, piling your gear in the truck and finding your way to a duck hole you scouted days earlier. It’s a tradition shared among friends, family members and business associates on numerous southwest Georgia lakes and ponds.

We asked a few avid waterfowlers for their most memorable duck hunting stories. This is what they told us.

Father-Daughter days

When Walter Hatchett’s daughter Audra started asking to go hunting with him, he was skeptical. “I’d say, ‘Darlin’, do you really want to go? It’s going to be cold.’ And she’d tell me, ‘Dad, I don’t care. I want to go.’”

At the time, Hatchett handled large land acquisitions for a private owner; he’s managed hunting tracts, plantation and timberland for more than 40 years. Hatchett and his wife Phyllis raised their kids on a working plantation which included flooded duck ponds. Their son, Brandon, hunted a great deal with his father, but Audra didn’t express interest until her mid-twenties.

Audra had no trouble deer and turkey hunting, but shooting ducks proved a challenge. “She missed, and she missed, and she missed,” Hatchett said. “And I could tell she was getting aggravated with herself.” He told her “Wingshooting takes time; it’s not easy. And to shoot one duck coming in and out of a hole takes experience.”

Hatchett recalled one outing when they were standing at the edge of a field shooting wood ducks and Audra was one of the guns. Her father told her, “You killed that duck.” And she said, “I don’t think I killed it; you’re just telling me that.” Later, she told her father, “I will know I have killed my first duck when no one else is shooting; when it’s just me.”

In the January 2014 duck hunting season, they were on a private pond in Decatur County, a place they’d shot several times the previous year. Audra was with her father, brother and then-boyfriend, now husband, Brett Bryan.

Hatchett and Audra were standing away from the others. Audra, now 33, remembers the details perfectly. She was dressed in camouflage, head to toe: chest waders and a big hooded jacket that was lined with fur—what she calls her “fashionable” jacket. It was cold and kind of foggy. As the sun came up, she was struck by the yellow of the sky.

“A bunch of ducks came in and we all shot at them,” she said. “More came and I watched them floating in. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a pair of drake green-winged teal.” She swung her firearm toward them. “I shot one and he fell down on the lake and I knew it was me. The [other guns] didn’t even see them fly in.” When she realized she was the only shooter, she thought, “Holy cow, I did it.” And she started to cry.

“I literally cry every time, it’s such an emotional thing, all the work you put into it. Especially my first confirmed kill.” What made it more meaningful was the species. “The green-winged teal is so beautiful,” she said. “Their color is gorgeous.”

Normally they’d wait and collect the birds after more shooting, but when that teal fell, Audra turned to her dad and said, “Please, can I go get it now?” He made an exception for that special moment.

Audra said she’s grateful to be able to share the shooting sports with people she loves. “It’s fun and competitive. I feel so privileged to be a hunter. It’s like you kind of wake up with the world, whether you’re standing in the middle of the woods or you’re on a lake. You hear the birds, or hear the ducks flying down, hear them above you. They’re the kind of moments that most people don’t get to share.”

Memory making

Hatchett grew up with a love of the outdoors and said it makes him feel good to know he was able to do the same for his kids. His father used to take him along when he shot dove and he now understands what his father must have felt. “There’s a certain degree of satisfaction. You’re proud of something they accomplish in the outdoors.”

Duck hunting is more than just the sport, he said. “It’s not about killing your limit of ducks. It’s about bonding and fellowship with friends. And enjoying what the good Lord gave us and managing it in a way that leaves an everlasting legacy to our kids and grandkids.”

Hatchett, who is a land broker with Jon Kohler & Associates, said that’s what he feels he’s helping to pass along to other families. And when he gets the chance, he’ll tell them about Audra. “She’s taken it way beyond anything I ever dreamed of, honestly. It’s really a passion of hers now, hunting and fishing.” At the Kevin’s Game Fair this past November, he pulled out his phone to show a photo of her with a mule deer she’d just harvested in Colorado while hunting with her husband the previous day. She was in perfect hunter pose with an impressive 300 pound 10-pointer (five-by-five western count). It took her six days, walking 45 miles of public countryside to harvest him, and it was a 230-yard shot. She cried on that one, too.

The weekend that almost wasn’t

It was early December, 2015. Brandon Vann, Bo Minor and twin brothers Mack and Mason Greene were getting ready for a long duck hunting weekend on Lake Seminole. They lived two hours away—in Americus, Georgia—so planned to camp overnight. They spent the week before watching duck hunting shows on TV, talking about the menu and making lists of all the gear they would need for the trip.

“One of the most fun things is all the gear,” Bo said. He had a Drake brand waterfowl jacket, LaCrosse waders, neck gaiter, beanie and gloves, plus all kinds of supplies they couldn’t wait to try out. “We had three or four bags of decoys,” he said, many they’d painted themselves. They had a machete, hatchets, coolers, chairs and Brandon was planning to buy a headlamp at the Gander Mountain shop on the trip down. “We were over supplied, for sure,” Bo said. 

Two days before departure, Brandon started feeling achy and developed a cough. He told his friends he didn’t think he was going to make it. They convinced him to tough it out, though, so Thursday afternoon, he and Bo loaded up all the gear along with his 16 ft. boat and headed south. The Greene brothers planned to join them Friday.

When Bo and Brandon arrived at Lake Seminole, they couldn’t find a spot to camp, so they decided to sleep in the boat with all the camping and hunting supplies. “It took a little strategy and positioning,” Bo said, “but we made it work.” He remembered shining the spotlight in the reeds that night and seeing small dots glowing back: Gator eyes.

The next morning, they were ready to go. “The good thing about Lake Seminole is you don’t need a duck blind,” Bo said. You just find a spot in the tall grass and throw out decoys. It took about an hour for them to make the spread. “You want them in a certain pattern. You want it to look like the lake looks. You’re trying to make a big patch of ducks like you see them in.”

By daybreak, Bo and Brandon were camouflaged by tall weeds. In no time, they saw birds: thousands of them. “They were coming right into us,” Bo said. They were used to seeing a lot of them on Lake Seminole, but this was even more than usual. Once they started killing birds, Brandon’s flu symptoms disappeared. And they hit their limit of canvasbacks and redheads by the time Mack and Mason caught up with them.

Bunkering down

The four scouted islands and found one that seemed perfect for camping. It had a lot of downed trees, so they cleared a spot and built a fire. Friday night they cooked hotdogs and hamburgers then spent the rest of the evening playing cards. “Me and Bo are
unstoppable at spades,” Brandon said. “We’re always a team. We tore them up, if I remember correctly.”

Night sounds reminded the friends they weren’t alone on the island. “We kept hearing a noise of something scratching around,” Bo said. It turned out to be an armadillo that wandered into their campsite. The rest of the night, they heard coots that sound kind of like a chicken. “They were clucking all night,” he said.

The next morning, the huntsmen were back at it and shooting was steady. Around lunchtime, Bo and Mack wanted to take a break and get some rest. Brandon and Mason took one of the boats and found a grassy patch about a half mile away. They threw out some decoys to see what would happen. “Instantaneously, birds started coming in,” Brandon said. That was unusual for the time of day. “It was a really, really fun hunt.”

Later they found a country store and bought some ribeyes to cook over the fire Saturday night. Mason couldn’t stop talking about a drake canvasback he harvested—it was his first. Right after the kill, he put it on ice in the cooler. “It was a really nice looking one, too,” Bo said. They kidded him because he kept going over to the cooler and admiring it.

The friends were hopeful for one more day of good shooting, until Mason disappeared into the tent. It was warm outside, but he had on waders, a big jacket, gloves and a beanie and was shivering uncontrollably. “We knew he was feeling pretty bad when he told us, ‘There’s no way I can do this,’” Brandon said. At one in the morning, they packed up camp, motored the boats to the landing, loaded everything in their trucks and drove two hours home. Fortunately, Mason’s illness wasn’t serious, and he recovered a few days later.

A lot has changed for the friends since that trip: All four are now married with children (Bo and his wife Lauren are expecting) and they have full time jobs. They still hunt together, but that December weekend on Lake Seminole continues to be their favorite recollection to date. All agree that there was no “one thing” that made it great, even the mix of birds in their bag. “There are so many different stories within the big story that made it memorable,” Brandon said.

Bo agreed. Everything centered around duck hunting, but it was the perfect mix. “Just playing cards and cooking and camping. Everything kind of lined up the way you want it to.”  Even the sunrises that weekend were better than Bo has ever seen. “They were orange and purple,” he said.

These days, they still kid Mason about catching “the bird flu,” and Brandon said he can’t believe he almost missed that awesome weekend for the same reason. “I’m very glad they convinced me to go.”

A retriever he’ll never forget

We caught up with Mark Atwater while he was navigating freezing temperatures and snow to photograph the National Retriever Championship in Paducah, Kentucky. He said he’s seen a lot in 30 years of training and photographing retrievers, but he’ll never forget one waterfowl story involving his red retriever, Yeti.

“We’ve always had Labrador retrievers until about eight years ago,” he said. “I bought a field bred Golden Retriever.” In slang, they’re called “swamp collies,” and he’s launched a website by the same name. The breed is known for their short, flat field coat. “They’re wildly athletic and gorgeous,” he said. “I got hooked on those and that’s what we hunt now.”

Atwater and his son, Craig, were invited on a group hunt over a private pond last January. It had been a nice shoot and they’d almost hit their limit. Seven-year-old Yeti was walking alongside them as they were leaving the blind. All of a sudden the dog jerked sideways, disappeared into the heavy grass and dove into the pond. The move was so sudden, it startled Atwater. “I thought he’d lost his mind,” he said. Yeti was completely submerged. To their surprise, he popped up holding a ringneck in his jaws.

Atwater realized the bird must have been wounded but was able to dive and that’s when Yeti spotted it. He and his son didn’t even know it was there. The dog was covered in mud and grass, but otherwise pleased with himself. Atwater did what came naturally: He captured the moment in his camera lens.

Better with a dog

Atwater and his wife Shannon live in Donalsonville and she travels with him to events and helps on commissioned assignments. She’s also a photographer and an accomplished shooter. After Atwater bought Yeti, Shannon protested claiming he wouldn’t let her play with the dog. So they bought Titan for her. “And he’s a bird finding machine,” Atwater said.

Like others we spoke to about their great duck hunting adventures, Atwater said, “You make so many memories duck hunting. And it rarely has anything to do with how many ducks you killed.”

For him, shooting ducks are just an excuse to be out there working with the dogs. “Having a dog has made it so much more enjoyable,” Atwater said. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t hunt if I didn’t have a dog, but it’s not as much fun. When you see the intensity in their eyes… they have a singleness of purpose. They know their job and you’ve just got to get out of the way and let them do it.”

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