In a state full of hunters dominated by buck fever, high-powered rifles, high-tech compound bows, food plots, rubs, scrapes, proprietary brands of camouflage, family deer camps, Bad Boy Buggies and big-buck bragging rights, would a group of young guns forego all that tradition to take up duck hunting? It makes one wonder just what they were thinking. And when I say, “Take up,” I don’t mean to imply merely hunting with Dad, Uncle Pete or even a seasoned waterfowl guide. I mean starting from scratch with virtually no help, or little veteran adult duck-hunting guidance, but with a huge decoy bag full of gusto.
Could be one or more of the group of buddies dubbed the Rat Pack had done some occasional duck hunting in the past and found the sport much more challenging than sitting in a deer stand for hours on end not seeing anything. Could be they found in waterfowl hunting what they had not found in deer hunting.
After all, when the ducks cooperate the action can be a whole lot more intriguing and exciting than the 30-second buzz a buck walking out of the woods can give a deer hunter.
From the standpoint of a young hunter, we old guys can certainly understand the higher level of active participation that duck hunting can offer.
But the fact is that duck hunting is a lot of work. In many ways it is a young man’s sport: Gathering gear that is heavy, wet and dirty, and getting it to the right spot to set up is a real chore. Just toting a shoulder bag with two dozen "Greenie and Suzy" decoys in it can be an ordeal in the mud and muck usually associated with duck hunting.
Try all that in chest waders while adding to the mix a shotgun, shells, a heavy coat, gloves, cooler and whatever else.
Or you might be dragging a johnboat across a slough or motoring it across a lake or pond with all that gear loaded in it.
Duck hunting is definitely for strong wills and strong backs tempered with a sense of anticipated excitement.
But one mallard quack and you’re hooked.
There are at least two common denominators between some of the guys comprising the Rat Pack. Several of them — Jay Harper of Vicksburg, Joseph Veazey of Brandon, and Carey Taylor from Brandon — played baseball for Hinds Community College in Raymond.
Other Rat Packers include Hinds college student Patrick McGuffie, Warren Central High Schoolers Austin Watkins, and Ben Harper, all of Vicksburg.
Oh, yeah, the other common link between these young duck gunners is that they love duck hunting way more than deer hunting. In Mississippi, that fact alone is pretty unique among young hunters.
But knowing each other like they do means they work better together and hunt better together.
Remember when you were a student in high school or college how much expendable cash you had in your pocket? Yeah, I had to work at Burger King to pay for rent, food, and textbooks. I had zip dollars for hunting gear until I graduated and got a real job. Even then budgets were tight.
The hunters of the Rat Pack had the same issues. "We had to beg, borrow and slip stuff out of our garages in order to have enough gear to duck hunt," Jay Harper said. "All together, we assembled enough loaner gear from parents and other contacts. We managed to put our hands on a good boat with a small motor and a couple ATVs to use.
"We hinted heavily at getting early Christmas presents, and my parents delivered with new first-class neoprene chest waders."
Gun-wise, the crew put together a mix of weaponry.
"Several of us had classic Remington 870 pump guns in 12 gauge," Veazey said. "One hunter had just gotten outfitted with a new Remington 887 in a 3 1/2-inch chamber, also 12 gauge so it got a good breaking in. Another hunter had a standard 1100, but it did the job, too.
"We had to skim on gas money to buy boxes of steel shot waterfowl shotgun shells."
And their dekes? The thought made McGuffie laugh.
"You should have seen the mix of decoys we had," he said. "Some were in pretty good shape, but others should have scared away any respectable duck. We put on new anchors and strings, cleaned them up and bought mess bags to drag them in.
"We had to learn by trial, error and doing some studying about how to set up a duck decoy layout. It was fun figuring out for ourselves what worked each day we hunted. We actually got good enough at it to take some ducks."
Plan of Attack
"Once the Rat Pack officially came together, we started talking about places to hunt," Jay Harper said. "Some of us had done some duck hunting, so we had a couple ideas. We knew that public areas close to Vicksburg included the Howard Miller, Shipland, Mahannah, Twin Oaks, Sunflower and a couple others. We knew that Mahannah and Sunflower usually had a lot more duck hunters, so we focused on Howard Miller and Shipland WMAs," said high school buddies Ben Harper and Austin Watkins.
"Before the season opened, we made a couple dry runs up to Shipland and Howard Miller to learn the layout. We found one isolated little pond on Shipland that was holding water.
"Later on it turned out to a real good spot for attracting ducks. We hunted that area several times during the Christmas break."
The team would gather several days during the week they were off from school throughout the open duck season. Slipping out of their houses well before daylight, they planned their hunts ahead of time in terms of where to meet up, which area they were going to hunt and what gear to bring each day.
"Keeping up with each other was made a lot easier with the technology we have today with iPods, iPhones, computers, texting and other social media sources," Taylor said. "We could coordinate everything the night before to get all the details lined up.
"Each of us contributed to supplies we needed in terms of shells, waders, snacks, coffee, water or whatever. We had to work it out a couple times, but by the end of the season we had our daily routine down pretty darn good.
"It was a ton of fun."
Setting up was a team affair, as well.
"We would park in the general hunting area in designated areas, then load up our gear and trek out to the water we were going to hunt over," Veazey said. "Some would get a makeshift ground blind set up or rebuild one from a previous trip while others got the decoys tossed out. Sometimes we just hunkered down the reeds, cattails or tall grass, doing some pop-up jump shooting when ducks came to our calls."
Well, "calling" might have been a bit of stretch, he said. Not that it mattered.
"No doubt our duck calling could use a little work in the offseason, but truth is some of it seemed to work pretty well," Veazey said. "We think we picked good areas to hunt, too, with open water and food nearby.
"Ducks didn’t fly or come in for us to the decoys every day we hunted, but (they did) enough of the time to really make the hunting trips a great experience."
The Rat Pack talked about their duck hunting exploits most of the summer and into the fall. They gathered up several times to make new plans, craft new hunting strategies, and amass the necessary gear and supplies to get ready for this year’s duck season.
Chances are that, right now, they are getting ready to duck hunt, are out in the field hunting or maybe just coming in hoping their moms cooked them some dinner.
Just so they can hit the bed and go out again tomorrow.