A Quack in Time

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

talents to call-making. At one point he even supplied calls to a mail-order sporting goods company.

But times were changing. In the 1910-20 period, a local drainage district dug the Diversion Channel along the Ozark escarpment, cutting off Castor River, Whitewater River, Crooked Creek and many smaller streams that had flowed through the Missouri Bootheel, eventually forming Little River.

This channel - an engineering wonder - made it possible to drain the swampy lowlands of the Bootheel. The last wetlands began to disappear. Forests were cut, land was cleared and crops were planted on an unheard of scale.

Other changes were taking place. Even as wintering grounds here were shrinking, so were northern breeding grounds. No longer did the fall flights darken the sky.

There were still good times, to be sure. Market hunting gave way to sport hunting, and in the 1950s duck numbers climbed again. At that time, corn was the main crop around Hornersville and, although there was less water for ducks to rest on, they sure liked those corn fields.

Stone's son, Claude, Jr., says they'd rise in waves as you went through a corn field back then.

But then farmers switched back to cotton, and duck numbers began slipping downward again.

The fate of ducks and their habitat has changed, but there is a strong thread of continuity to Beckhart's Big Lake duck calls. McFarland is part of it. He's younger - 40 - but hunted with another of Claude Stone's sons, Joe (now deceased).

As McFarland was growing up, what was left of the great swamps near Hornersville could be reached by a teenager walking the railroad tracks. He admits he missed a lot of school, sometimes hunting and learning with Joe Stone as his teacher.

Joe Stone kept alive a lot of the skills of his father, among them the art of making the call Beckhart invented. When Joe Stone got to the point that he couldn't see well enough to do the checkering, he taught McFarland how.

So McFarland learned not only how to hunt, but developed a taste for history, including the history of the duck calls that had been pioneered here, and by then were in demand among collectors.

A few years ago, McFarland began carving duck calls as a hobby, following the Big Lake style. He entered one of his calls in the national competition of the Callmakers and Collectors Association at Chicago. It won first place in the fancy calls division.

A collector himself now, he has several hundred calls and knows the history of each. The mind spins as he tells how this one or that one came to be developed. Small details in the construction translate into major differences in styles and sounds.

The Big Lake style call, for example, was developed for wade and shoot hunting in the woods, and Beckhart made his calls with metal reeds so they'd make a soft call, effective in flooded woodlands. Louder calls were designed for open water.

In recent years, the Conservation Department has acquired most of the swamp remaining at Hornersville. The Conservation Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the drainage district are looking at ways to manage the area for ducks in light of today's realities.

Typically, Conservation Department areas are engineered to manage the water levels. But here, Hornersville Swamp is part of the Bootheel's flood management plans. It is expected to absorb floodwaters when nature sends them, not necessarily when the Conservation Department wants water. And Missouri plans must be coordinated with what Arkansas is doing in the Big Lake area just south of the Missouri border.

Things will be worked out and the area will be made more attractive to ducks once again. McFarland says farmers are growing more corn and rice nowadays, and perhaps the loss of breeding habitat up north is slowing. The future of duck hunting for the next generation of Hornersville duck hunters isn't all bleak.

The calls? They're part of the tradition. Listen to McFarland and you learn that he isn't taking credit for winning the national competition by himself. He credits Hornersville duck hunters of the past, men such as Beckhart and Stone.

McFarland sees himself and the Big Lake style call as simply the latest expression of this rich tradition.

The fact that he won first place in a prestigious national contest with his first entry is pretty clear proof that the art, the tradition, is being successfully passed along.

Thanks to Design for Conservation, some of the wild lowlands on which the traditions are based will also be preserved.

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