An Arkansas Duck Hunt to Remember in 1999
Field Testing Kent "Impact" Tungsten Matrix and
Federal's Tungsten-Iron Loads
by: Tom Armbrust
Hunted for ducks in Arkansas on a four day adventure with my two nephews, who were off school on Christmas break. Jim Heggeness came down from Fargo, ND to join us on the action. My brother had to do some heavy duty wrenching on his Ford diesel pickup before we left. We changed the oil and filters, packed the wheel bearings, plus a brake job. Then it took us a couple more hours to pack all their gear into the truck. Guys, I don't have to tell you all the extra gear we duck hunters take on a long trip. Let's cover the essentials: nine shotguns plus enough ammo to start a small revolution; three huge decoy bags of mallard Blocks, 72 decoys, plus a dozen Big Foot geese. The canine crew consisted of two labs "Jet" and "Percilla" plus their dog crates; and a 50 pound bag of dog food. Finally came the cold weather hunting clothes and boots. We all needed at least two pairs of heavy jackets and pants plus hip boots, waders, and walking boots. What extra gear we couldn't stuff into my brother's truck was loaded into my van for the 615 mile trip to central Arkansas. We laid over just out of St. Louis as we got a late start that day. Late the next afternoon we rolled into the rural little town of McCrory, about an hour northeast of Stuttgart, Arkansas, the duck capitol of the world, and an hour west of Memphis. We all rushed into the local hardware store to buy our hunting licenses, and then hit the road to do some bird scouting before dark. We were kind of disappointed as we saw very few snow geese working the large rice fields, just before sunset.
My brother and I made a quick run over to Johnny Kyle's duck club after dinner to find out where some mallard action could be found, as our scouting trip didn't turn up much. Johnny is a local rice farmer with many many years of duck hunting experience under his belt guiding. After a wonderful visit with Johnny and his young step daughter, he assured us that there were plenty of ducks in the area as the cold weather and snow up north had pushed many new birds down. We were given the okay to hunt his "King Lake" tank blind, right smack dab in the middle of a 100 acre rice field with plenty of water around the blind. Another bonus was the Federal Cache River refuge was located just a half mile north of the rice field. Johnny was cooking up a storm for a big New Years day feed as all of his family were coming over for the celebration. Let me tell you the smell of that ham, backstrap, and ribs was out of this world. Then we had a lengthy bull session regarding some excellent duck hunting stories about the good old days when Johnny was a young boy with mallards everywhere. My brother compared notes on various farming practices in this area vs. ours at home.
Next morning was clear and cold as the temperature had dipped to a low of 23 degrees. As we all walked out to our King Lake tank blind in the predawn darkness, we could hear much goose talk both to the north and south of our blind. Needless to say we were all excited. Some thin ice had to be broken for our decoy spred. Within about 20 minutes a lifelike spred of three dozen blocks had been put out. As shooting time fast approached we were amazed at the large numbers of snow geese that were heading out of our area to feed. Thousands of birds, both ducks and geese, were keeping the water from freezing sitting on a big ice hole, not three hundred yards north of our blind. Another much smaller concentration of geese were about the same distance south of us. All of these birds must have had come into this area well after dark the evening before under an almost full moon. Shooting was top notch as birds were trading back and forth from one open water area to the other. The first flight of snows passed behind the blind in good range. We pulled four birds out with a beautiful eagle head blue in the bag. Following that volley, Joey pulled out a very high pair of snows with his Browning BPS 10 bore and Federal Tungsten Iron BB loads. With a big grin Joey commented, "Off to a good start." My nephew Joey found out these mallards were no fools, being plenty decoy and call shy. He called his heart out on many occasions only to have the mallards make a number of passes outside of the decoys, looking our setup over just on the edge of gun range. Joe, who was acting as our guide, was reluctant to call the shot as he wanted these wise greenheads planted over the decoys with their orange feet down. Old Heggeness and I had our tongues hanging out wanting a crack at these over educated mallards. Finally Joe gave in to our pleas and we downed eight beautiful mallards with Kent's new Impact Tungsten Matrix loads. I was shooting my old 12 GA Parker VH duck gun with 32" full choke barrels. My loads consisted of Kent's Impact Tungsten Matrix 12 GA 2-3/4" 1-3/8 oz Size 3 shot loads, with a velocity of 1375 FPS. Patterns ran around 80 percent in previous tests in this Parker shotgun. This gun load combo had no trouble harvesting mallards right out to the 65 yard mark verified by my Bushnell Yardage Pro 600 laser range finder. This new Kent non-toxic shot was really a hit both with us hunters, and if you excuse the pun a hit with the ducks also! Two very long shots stick in my mind even now as I write this story. Six mallards cruised over our blind at long range and a volley of shots rang out as two ducks fell, then the ducks now flew higher and faster. Picking out a greenhead I connected with my first barrel pulling off a double with my second shot, both mallards stone dead stone dead at 63 yards with four pellet hits in the breast, on later examination.
These new Kent Impact Tungsten Matrix non-toxic shot shells have just been legalized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service on December 8, 1998 in the US. Ken Elliott, president of Kent, was kind enough to gratis a mixed case of these 12 GA wildfowl loads for pattern tests and load evaluation. On a number of previous hunting trips in my home state of IL, I harvested six large race Canada geese in the 10-12 pound class with a prototype 10 GA 3-1/2" Tungsten Matrix load, hosting 2 ounces of size 1 shot at 1300 FPS. These Tungsten Matrix pellets are very deadly on long range wildfowl. Because their pellet density is very similar to lead shot at 11.0 G/CM, plus high velocity in excess of 1350 FPS in some loads. Excellent patterns of 80 percent to 85 percent or more at 40 yards, and as dense 50 percent or better at 60 yards. In fact, Jim shot a prototype 12 GA 3-1/2 inch 1-7/8 oz Size 1 shot load that averaged 64.5 percent at 60 yards. Another big advantage of these loads is they can be used in old thin walled double shotguns with full chokes, without fear of bore or choke damage. These loads are safe in any shotgun designed for the old lead shot waterfowl loads. These 10 bore prototype goose loads were pattern tested then later put to good use in the field in my old W & C Scott 10 bore double shotgun. This fine old shotgun was nitro proofed in England at the London Proof House, for 3-1/2" shells. Now these find old double guns can again, after many years of gun rack time, come alive for the harvesting of wildfowl, with great pride and satisfaction by their owners.
My youngest nephew Nick, who is now 14 years old, was looking over my old Parker double gun with great interest that evening back at the motel. As he shouldered the gun I noticed him closing his left eye looking down the rib. I asked Nick if he always shot with one eye closed. He answered yes. I told him to put his full attention on his intended target and try to keep both eyes open. I think that little tip helped Nick a lot. The next day his shooting really picked up. He dumped four ducks dead at long range with his Remington 870 20 GA magnum full choke barrel, shooting Federals Premium 7/8 oz 3 inch Size 4 shot Tungsten-Iron load with a high velocity level of 1375 FPS. Mike Larsen at Federal was kind enough to send along these Tungsten-Iron loads for evaluation in both 10 GA and 20 GA. On two different instances after all four of us would get a volley into passing ducks with no effect, then Nick would jump into action dumping a long bird. This was somewhat of a humbling experience especially for his older brother Joe, after he had blown a number of empty holes into the sky. Remember fellows the big brother little brother rivalry in our younger days. Well, Nick was eating up brother Joe's misfortune with a spoon as he missed a number of easy shots with his 10 bore Browning BPS, better known as the big fence post to little brother Nick. Big brother always before had very much overshadowed Nick's shooting ability or lack of it. Now that morning the tables were turned. Nick was really putting the hurt on some distance ducks with his pee wee 20 GA. He was really excited about the great performance of Federal's Premium Tungsten Iron. "This stuff is dynamite!" Let me tell you guys that really burnt older brother Joe's biscuits!
We were all pleased that the weather had warmed up into the low 40's on our second day, so our fears of a complete freeze up eased in our minds. Joe's lab Jet was the most pleased of all due to the lack of ice on our second morning of shooting. We worked the dog very hard on that first morning due to the ice. She made at least a dozen retrieves sometimes breaking ice for 100 yards or more without giving up! Now that's heart. In one instance she passed right by a downed mallard much to Joe's dismay, and proceeded to retrieve a long distance bluebill. On her return making a double pickup, also grabbing the mallard she had passed by a few minutes earlier. Joe was amazed as Jet had never made a double duck pickup before. He wanted a picture of this so bad, but I could not get my camera into action fast enough.
We had quite a mixed bag on that second morning of shooting, with four snow geese, half a dozen mallards, a Canvasback, bluebills, ringbills, and a couple of spoonbills. Speaking of sholvers, I wanted a fine drake specimen for a picture with a box of Kent Impact Tungsten Matrix shells, for sort of a joke to play on Ken Elliott at Kent Cartridge.
On our third morning we had high hopes of bad weather. That materialized, with high down right nasty winds and driven sleet mixed with snow. Little did I realize we soon would get our big chance. Again we had both divers and mallards working the decoy spred. But most of the time the mallards were plenty decoy shy. Not so for the divers though. On three different occasions we dumped a couple of scaup or ringbills out over the decoys. Then they would haul ass for about 300 yards or so after the shots, then make a big sweeping turn and come back for a second barrage. Heavy damage was inflicted on one bunch of six scaup as only one bird flew on, five ringbills were dumped out of a flock of seven birds. Jet was a busy dog that morning. My brother, nephew Joe, and Reb left the blind about 11:30 that morning. Just after they left, like magic the mallards really started to work the decoys. We had a nice bunch of a dozen birds pitch in, just outside of the decoys. Then a few minutes later another flock of about fifteen greenheads made one loop and joined in at about 60 yards. Jim, Nick, and I all watched with great anticipation hoping they would swim towards the decoys. Sure enough, in they came not 45 yards out in front of our tank blind. Jim said he would scare them off the water with a shot. I told Nick to keep his cool picking out a big greenhead each time he shot. The Gods had smiled as we dropped four nice drakes and a hen. Two birds were long late falls stone dead, three hundred yards from the blind. Bad timing as the dog was cold and very tired, my brother had taken "Jet" the lab back with them. So I had to make a very long water retrieve in my chest high boots. Old Jim had to make the other long retrieve. All of a sudden the value of a good dog hit Jim like a ton of bricks! Taking about twenty minutes to gather up the birds, the cold temps and water on my half frozen fingers had taken its toll, as I was chilled to the bone. To my amazement Jim and Nick still wanted to stay as they had dumped a couple more spoonbills.
Old Mike See, our Kansas goose hunting buddy, would really have been up in arms with Jim if he knew he was putting the hurt on spoonies. When Mike made a trip up to North Dakota a few years back, Jim was their guide. Big Mike would eyeball a bunch of ducks on a prairie pothole but Jim would pay little attention to Mike's pleas doing a drive by saying the ducks were spoonies. Mike did the slow burn as he wanted a duck hunt, but Jim was after sandhill cranes and geese. Now on this trip way south, we got the transplanted North Dakota guide into his element-diver ducks. We couldn't get him out of the tank blind! Nick and I named Jim "The Spoonbill King".
When we arrived back at the motel that evening, we damn near froze to death as our furnace conked out in our room. Jim, Nick, I, and the dog had to transfer all our junk to another room with heat. Nick really got a kick out of the resident population of mice in our new room. The little buggers were running all over hell as one jumped out of my duffle bag when I reached in for a new pair of clean socks! Nick commented too bad we don't have the 22 rifle with bird shot. Nick left an opened bag of potato chips on the dresser that night. You could hear paper crinkling, as the mice were chewing on those chips off and on throughout the night. Nick was also very amused with Jim's loud snoring. Saying, "if we could electronically tape all that ruckus, hooking it up to an electronic call, all the geese in Woodruff County would come right on into the decoy spred." I also had to battle with Nick and the lab "Jet" for a sleeping spot on the big double bed. They sure as heck didn't leave Uncle Tom much room for sleeping!
On our last morning the bottom fell out, temps dipped down to 14 degrees. Our flooded rice field was frozen up with an inch or more of solid ice. If we would have had access to a John boat and motor, we could have gotten onto the DeView Bayou as it still had open water. We did hear quite a bit of shooting from the flooded timber in the Bayou, but we never fired a cap. All our birds had moved out because of the ice.
After the complete freeze up, my brother, Nick and I decided to take a ride down to see Black Swamp Wildlife management area near Gregory. My brother was trying to find a hunting friend down there. We stopped and shot the bull at a local duck picking shack. I forget the old fellows name, the owner, but he told us a story about a local warden who was also a local cop but lost his job for "Getting too big for his britches". Anyway, the old boy had a number of clients who would drop off ducks for cleaning and then later as the season wore on not pick them up. He had about 80 extra birds. So he asked hunters who came in if they wanted or needed ducks being short of their limit. He got rid of most of his surplus of ducks for $2.00 each, which covered the cost of his cleaning and storage fees. Keep in mind this fellow was a local who didn't have much money. This local warden fined him $500 plus confiscated what ducks he had in the picking house at the time for evidence. Then wrote a second fine for giving away the down and feathers without a permit!
We met a local guide who worked the Black Swamp area named Ronnie Ladd. He and his clients were shooting flooded timber along the river channel that had not completely frozen up yet. He said shooting was fantastic. They had not seen this many mallards in this area in some time due to the freeze up. Seeing hundreds of ducks sitting on very small ice holes just a few feet in size. Ronnie introduced us to a husband and wife couple that had just returned with their limit of greenheads in a very short time. They had ducks at times trying to land right near their dog while making retrieves. There were so many ducks in their hole that they actually "picked out jewelry", shooting ducks with bands on their last couple of birds. Ronnie said that man's wife was really something, a heck of a shot, duck calling competition champ, plus she raised and trained labs, and an excellent fisherman-"Every outdoors' man's dream girl".
Would like to thank my old friend Reb and Charlene for putting up with all our crew in the evenings in their home. They made a fine mallard dinner one night that was out of this world.
I would also like to thank Ralph Myers Jr. for a most interesting and wonderful visit. He is a self-made man that has used his head, and worked very hard to gain land acquisition throughout the McCrory area. He bought his first piece of timber land a couple of hundred acres for forty bucks an acre in 1959. Cleared the timber and sold it for four times that much in 1961. His hard work paid off as he later farmed over five thousand acres of land raising rice and cattle. Since retiring he bought the motel we stayed at. He and his son are in the process of building an 18 hole golf course plus an exotic game ranch. Ralph deals with many hunters both through his motel, restaurant, and gas station, and was very interested in becoming a distributor for the excellent line of Kent Cartridge ammunition.
My brother and I very much enjoyed talking with Janice Hollis and her sister at Ralph's restaurant. These gals cooked and cleaned at the restaurant and motel. We asked Janice if we could keep the dog in the motel and she said yes. But she did warn us "Don't pluck no ducks in the bathtub"! God how I got such a charge out of her as she was really something! She raised and trained dogs for hunting. She also worked very hard cutting and clearing timber off the land, then hauling it to various lumber mills in the area with her own log hauling truck. She also did most of the mechanical repairs on the truck. I asked her if she was married and she replied, "never was, and who the hell needs a man anyway."
On our return home Jim and I stopped at Cape Outfitters in Cape Girandeau, MO, killing some time due to a bad ice storm. I was truly amazed at the hundreds of fine guns they had in stock. Huge double rifles in various large calibers, even a Double 8 bore! Jim fell in love with a single barrel 8 bore shotgun by G.E. Lewis with a very heavy 36" full choke steel barrel. This big gun was opened by a Jones under lever. Jim's comment, "What would she do with a brass cased load, pushing 2-3/4 oz of BB Bismuth shot," up on the line in North Dakota.
Later that evening we spent some time talking with David Lange at Shooters Gun Shop in Cape. We talked about guns, reloading, and hunting. Dave and his family owned a large farm about twenty miles out of Cape. Thousands of snow geese had really been doing a number on his winter wheat crop. Dave's father had called him telling him to blow a big bunch of those snow geese out of their winter wheat before they ate them out of house and home. Dave grabbed his rifle, hopped in his pickup, headed for the problem field. As he stepped out of the truck with rifle in hand, he let fly scaring the geese away. Moments later a state warden pulled up behind him, asking him what he was up to. He told the warden his father had given him orders to blow the birds out of their field due to the severe crop damage problem. The warden told him he was lucky he had not seen him shoot. After a somewhat heated exchange of words, they parted company.
Jim and I headed up towards Cairo, IL to check out the state goose refuse, Horseshoe Lake. I had first visited and hunted here 30 years ago. Heavy snow, ice and cold weather had moved about 50,000 Canadian geese into this state refuge area plus many mallards. We made a scouting trip around the lake and we were very excited to see so many geese. The lake was frozen over and the geese were keeping small ice holes open. We had high hopes of a good goose shoot, til we stopped and talked with a local guide. To my dismay now all the state owned grounds were closed to hunting on both Monday and Tuesday. Years back the closure was just Monday. Guess what, it was Tuesday! We had our blind picked out and I was ready to grab some outlaw goose decoys to put out.
We were disappointed, but to sooth my sore behind, we made a short run to the B & B gun shop to see our old friend Bob Barnes in Olmsted, IL, overlooking the Ohio River. We had a wonderful visit with Bob and his good friend, Earl. As usual Bob had a great selection of guns, many Winchester M-12's. One little shot gun in particular caught my eye. A beautiful little Winchester M-42 that Bob had refinished both the bluing and wood. This was the very rare three digit serial number gun we had seen in his shop two years ago. This little beauty now looked like the day it came out of the Winchester factory! Bob's daughter-in-law Heidi, walked into the shop grabbing a box of 12 GA 7-1/2 shot. She and her husband were going quail hunting. She said hunting had been slow as the quail population was down. Heidi was hoping for a new 20 GA shotgun for quail but her husband told her it was too late in the season for a new gun. I teased Bob, with all the nice shotguns in his shop, couldn't Santa find Heidi a nice little 20 GA for next Christmas.
I was kind of disappointed that we did not see Clint on this trip. The last time he was in the shop, he was six years old and mouth calling Canada geese. The little fellow was so good, that for a moment I thought some geese were going to fly into the gun shop. His younger sister, Lacey, also has the same talent. Grandpa Bob is sure proud of his grandchildren following in his footsteps enjoying the great outdoors hunting and fishing.
As our trip came to an end, I thanked God for a wonderful time meeting new friends and reuniting with old ones. Plus four great days in the pursuit of wildfowl on an Arkansas duck hunt that would soon not be forgotten!
In closing, I would like to stress the importance of time spent at the pattern board with your favorite wildfowl gun to determine the best choke, non-toxic load, and the shot size combination. Most duck and goose hunters who have shot steel shot for some time realize a more open choke constriction is required for an uniform pattern. In fact, most screw in choke manufacturers have somewhat relaxed choke constrictions with steel shot to alleviate choke stress. In other words, a choke tube stamped full may really be a modified tube. This is fine if we didn't shoot at birds say past 40 yards. Now we have at our disposal new non-toxic loads available in Bismuth, Tungsten Matrix, and Tungsten Polymer. Velocity, penetration, and pellet energy has extended our sure kill range in some cases out to 60 yards. Tighter choke constrictions are required past 40 yards, as in the old lead shot days when a full choke was popular. Our future looks bright, as we have many new non-toxic combinations to evaluate, an exciting time for the wildfowler to be sure.