Fred Silverstein hasn’t missed a duck opener in 60-plus years—a legacy his kids aim to continue
For the first time in years, things weren’t looking good for Fred Silverstein’s opening-day streak. Earlier that morning he’d borrowed a shotgun from the USO in Seoul, hitched a ride on an M35 deuce-and-a-half cargo truck, and whistled for a stop in the Korean countryside when he saw ducks dropping from the sky. Now he stood at the end of a dirt path, in front of a small stick hut, flapping his arms with his thumbs tucked into his armpits, and gesturing toward ricefields a couple of hundred yards away. The stooped, elderly farmer who’d answered his knock wasn’t sure what to make of the skinny Tennessee boy in Army fatigues, holding a shotgun and quacking like a duck. That was in 1962, and Silverstein hadn’t missed an opening-day duck hunt in 14 years.
As a kid, he hunted with his dad on Tennessee’s famed Reelfoot Lake. Through high school and college, he stalked the green timber and riverbottoms of west Tennessee and Arkansas. And as a soldier stationed stateside, getting a weekend pass to go home to duck country was no big deal. Then came the Bay of Pigs incident, and the 22-year-old Morse code specialist was shipped to the U.S. Army’s base outside Anjung-ri, South Korea. Duck hunting got significantly more difficult.
“He had to wonder what this idiot was doing,” Silverstein says, recalling that morning half a world away. “He pointed and said, ‘Go.’ At least, I took it as go, so off I went. No duck call, no decoys—but I was going to hunt. There was no such thing as a duck season over there, but it was opening day for me.”
If you give Silverstein credit for his South Korea opener, then this soft-spoken grandson of German immigrants, businessman (he still runs a large bathtub and shower manufacturing enterprise in west Tennessee), and lay rabbi has hunted 65 opening days in a row. He may have the longest, deepest, and most historic résumé of green timber hunting in America, especially in the lauded woods of Arkansas. He has hunted most of the most famous pieces of timber—Hurricane Hole, Bayou Meto, TNT, Bayou DeView. He has leased duck ground from the Cache River to the L’Anguille to the Hatchie River of west Tennessee. Silverstein hunted timber before anyone called it timber hunting. Before Duck Dynasty, $200 duck calls, and spinning-wing decoys. Before flat ground in Arkansas was worth more filled with water and ducks than soybeans and corn. Before hunting green timber was duck hunting’s big deal.
And at 74 years old, Silverstein is still hard at it. Most days during duck season, he’s in the woods with his extended family. The man knows the past and present of green timber hunting like few others. It’s the future that has him scratching his head.
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In the gold light of dawn, Silverstein and I share a giant oak, leaning into the gray, fissured trunk, close enough to whisper but with enough room to swing the guns. When I think of flooded timber, this is the scene that comes to mind: A half-dozen hunters—sons, grandsons, in-laws—are tucked into the woods on the upwind edge of a timber hole 60 yards wide, knee-deep in the flooded forest. It’s a classic piece of green timber, the kind that attracts hunters from around the world.
The first birds are high, flying over outstretched limbs and twigs 100 yards away, but they’re close enough to work. While his black Lab, Slate, whines softly from a dog stand pushed into the muck, Silverstein’s grandson, Jimbo Robinson, quacks fast and low, a teasing contact call to let the ducks know they have a decision to make, as if to say: You guys are missing out. Pretty sweet spot down here.
Six mallards bank and circle downwind, and the calling cuts a pair out of the flock. Robinson has them hooked. The flock circles again, closer, lower, with the pair now right at the treetops. The foursome hangs back, unconvinced. This is the allure of timber hunting—this close, intimate dance with ducks, unfettered by a blind. I drill my eyeballs upward, looking for the birds but not daring to turn my face to the sky. Here they come. The drake scans the hole. I can see his head moving side to side.
Robinson’s next calling sequence is slower, more confident, a series of hen quacks with a tailing-off qwank qwank qwank in a self-satisfied tone that should turn any bird. Up to you, but we’re fat and happy in this sweet timber hole.
The pair commits on the third swing—wings set, feet out, skittering through branches and twigs like leaves in the wind. Their decision convinces the four other mallards, now parachuting down 15 yards above the pair. I want to take it all in, but I force myself to keep my head down. We’ve read the wind, we’ve fussed with the decoys, we’ve pressed our faces close to the tree trunks to complete the ruse, and now the ducks hang suspended 30 feet overhead, so close I hear the air rushing through their primaries. We drop the pair with three, four, maybe five guns going off all at once, then knock down two more mallards from the foursome as they claw for daylight. The flooded woods erupt in celebration, but Silverstein remains reserved. “There is nothing more beautiful than those ducks coming through the trees,” he says. “I’d rather kill one mallard in the timber than 50 in a ricefield.”
It’s a long holiday weekend, so Silverstein’s family duck camp, Snake Island Hunt Club, headquartered in an old country church 15 miles west of Stuttgart, is packed. Silverstein’s son, Will, is here with his two young boys, H.T. and Jemison. There’s a son-in-law, Jimmy, and three of his kids: Alex, in school in South Carolina; Jimbo, a regional director for Ducks Unlimited; and 9-year-old Jack. Jack has Down syndrome, and the way the extended family folds itself around him—rising early to get him into his waders, taking him to the timber, helping him into the pits—is a defining motif of the club. Later this afternoon, wives, daughters, and other grandchildren will show up at camp. For Silverstein, duck hunting is family time.
That’s obvious in the low roar of conversation at breakfast after the morning’s hunt. The whole crew crowds around a wide plank table, working over biscuits, eggs, and sausage. There are stories of Silverstein’s turning the ATV over in a flooded ditch, the morning his boat caught fire, the day the camp caught fire. “He’s hunted through every phase of duck shooting you can imagine,” Robinson says. “He was here for the point system; he hunted when the numbers were so low the season was down to 30 days and two ducks. He didn’t care. He was going, as long as it was legal.”
Silverstein loads his coffee nearly white with creamer and remembers his earliest duck trips. “All my first hunts were with my father, up on Reelfoot Lake, and it was just like you hear about,” he says. In the 1940s and 1950s, there wasn’t a more famous waterfowling spot on the planet than west Tennessee’s Reelfoot. “I would walk into the big Samburg Motel with my dad and he knew all those famous guides—Sharpie Shaw, Elbert Spicer, the Hamiltons, the Bunches. I hunted with all of them.” Silverstein carried a 20-gauge Winchester Model 12 with a Poly-Choke, but that was his only piece of serious duck hunting gear. He hunted in two pairs of flannel pajamas stuffed under blue jeans, three pairs of socks, and an old Army fatigue coat.
After breakfast, we move to the end of the table where Silverstein unrolls a large Arkansas map, the paper peppered with ink circles. He has marked the locations of all the clubs and leases he’s had over the years. An accordion file is stretched to its limits, stuffed with plat maps, notes, and photos of old leases and camps. He has three others just like it.
Arkansas’s famed waterfowl grounds, he tells me, can be broadly divided into two regions: North of Interstate 40, complex river systems lattice the land—the Black, the White, the Cache, and L’Anguille Rivers. Winter rains flood the streams, and when they spill over the banks they inundate hardwood bottoms. South of I-40, bayous stitch the Arkansas Grand Prairie, land laced with drainage ditches that run for miles and feed many impounded timber plots. In the middle of it all lies Stuttgart, the epicenter of timber hunting.
“I started leasing land back in the ’60s, and there was a pretty standard chain of events that happened over and over again,” Silverstein says. He and his buddies would hunt a spot for a few years, then get run out of the place. The farmer would either clear the land for planting, or wind up leasing the water to some distant relative. “That was pretty typical for everyone. It was no big deal. We’d just find someplace else.”
Those “someplace elses,” however, are vanishing in today’s new realities of Arkansas green timber hunting. Timberland is under increasing pressure to be used for agriculture, while more and more duck hunters are clamoring for the dwindling number of timber holes left. In the mid 1990s, Silverstein says, farmers figured out they could dig a hole in the ground and lease it for $5,000 a year. “That’s when it got crazy,” he says. “The really big money just keeps coming in.” For example: One duck club recently sold for $8.5 million. This past year, Snake Island lost a hole to another club that offered the landowner twice what Silverstein’s group was paying. “It’s business, I understand,” Silverstein says. “You get outbid. I’ve had landowners—good friends—call me to say, ‘Fred, it’s $20,000 versus $40,000. What do you want me to do?’ So we’re always looking over our shoulders. We know what can happen.”
It takes an hour for Silverstein to tell me about all the lands he’s hunted. He folds up the maps, then says, “Come on.” There’s a new place he wants to check out, and there’s time to take a look before our afternoon shoot. This is what Silverstein loves most: driving, searching, talking, wondering. Hoping. “One thing hasn’t changed in all these years,” he says. “There’s always a better duck hole somewhere.”
In the afternoon we hunt a new piece of timber. Silverstein has glassed these woods for a decade, watching as ducks dump into the trees, but he was never able to secure hunting permission until now. After years of persistence, Silverstein has the O.K., just this once, to get a sense of what’s there and to feel out a relationship with the farmer. He’s excited and a bit jittery. We cut our way through with machetes until the woods open up a bit, and then push through the trees to find an opening that looks large enough to draw birds.
“This is short timber,” Silverstein calls. “If the ducks are on the treetops, we’re taking ’em.”
Jimbo Robinson rings out a reply: “Counting your chickens already, huh?”
This short timber, willow and honey locust instead of the classic tall canopy of oaks and gum trees, is indicative of another challenge facing duck hunters in the Mississippi Flyway: Not only are timber leases harder to come by, but Silverstein worries that climate change is having an even more insidious and long-term effect. Compared with earlier years, water comes later in the seasons to his neck of the Arkansas woods, and stays longer, killing off the timber. Many of the most successful clubs pour fortunes into management—cleaning out the dead trunks and fallen limbs, fertilizing and pruning. When hunters find a new lease whose younger trees may not offer the traditional big canopy, they still jump at the chance to lock down a timber hole.
“You have to work at finding good woods all year long,” Silverstein tells me, as he backs into the root ball of a fallen tree to break up his silhouette. He might have started timber hunting in an era when duck timber wasn’t lit up with headlamps three hours before shooting light, but Silverstein isn’t living in the past. He’s as competitive when it comes to finding new duck ground as hunters a third his age. “The first thing I do every morning is Google duck lease Arkansas.” One farm that the club recently leased, Silverstein found on Craigslist.
For a guy like Silverstein, who cares about relationships as much as a heavy duck strap, working all the angles comes as second nature. Every Christmas, Silverstein delivers Tripp country hams, a west Tennessee staple, to his friends and contacts in the Snake Island community. Landowners, farmhands, the people in the general store—he hand-delivers a ham to anyone who has lent him a smile. If the recipient isn’t home, Silverstein won’t leave the gift on the porch or front counter. It’ll sit in the duck club kitchen until he can hand it to someone, personally, and thank him for letting his family be a part of their community. And that’s the real clincher for Silverstein: his family. He’s killed a pile of ducks. He’s gunned with famous hunters. But at Snake Island, he’s found a place where the roots feel solid. He’s watching his kids and his grandchildren, moms and daughters, learn to love what he loves. He is making plans to enlarge the camp and has a line—or three—on some new ground he might get the chance to lock down. He gazes at the hunters around him. “Look out there,” he says. “I’ve got three generations that hunt with me right here. If I can hang on long enough, no reason I can’t make it to four.”
It’s a long wait in the new timber, but a half hour before shooting light ends, the ducks start pouring over the trees 100 yards high toward some other piece of open water another 100 yards deeper into the swamp. We can hearing them landing and quacking, but there’s not enough time to move the decoys. Duck shapes dot the sky, buzzing past our spread, then drop into some not-so-distant opening. “There’s a million holes in here,” Silverstein says. But it’s not a complaint. He’s looking toward the sound of the ducks, smiling. A million duck holes that need figuring out is just the sort of problem he’s happy to fix.
I’ll be honest: Our second morning in the big timber is a mess. We have quite a crowd. I count eight hunters, plus young Jack and our photographer. One child has already gone in over his waders, and his father has laid him out on a giant fallen tree. He strips off the boy’s waders, pants, long johns, and sopping wet socks. Then he removes his own socks, and puts them on his son. All better. There’s a fair bit of joke-telling, laughter, and hollering around the timber hole—all in fun, but all quite loud. There’s a wooden bench on the hole’s shallow side, a good place to stow a pack, but it’s mostly to give the kids a comfortable place to sit. Jack has claimed one end. He has his hat in his hand, his blond hair shining, and he’s rocking back and forth, smacking the water with a stick, and singing the chorus of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” at the top of his lungs.
The scene is barely controlled bedlam, and I know that during these most promising minutes of dawn, the odds of a duck dropping in are zilch. I couldn’t care less.
Listening to Jack, I sag into a big tree 30 yards away, and my eyes well. The little boy has gone silent for a moment, and he screws his face up with concentration as if he’s trying to remember something. Then suddenly it comes back to him, the pieces fit, and he throws back his head and belts out the rest of his homily to sunrise and duck wings and the family that loves him so much they wouldn’t dream of not bringing him to the timber:
I’ve got a beautiful feeling,
Everything’s going my way!
I glance over at Silverstein on the far side of the tree. His head is slightly raised, his eyes fixed somewhere beyond the highest branches. The corners of his mouth follow his gaze toward the sky.
I don’t say a word, don’t move a muscle, afraid to break such a magical spell. There’s something powerful about the presence of a man who has sown such a harvest of love, and lived so long and true. For Silverstein, the big questions have largely been answered. He’s secure in his place in eternity, in both the spiritual and physical realms, and he knows where his ashes will be spread. They’ll be mixed with those of his long-gone Lab, Jake, and scattered in the timber on some opening day to come.