Friendships tend to be tribal in their origins – shared interests, hobbies, and lifestyles attract and keep folks together. For this group of friends, their love of music and duck hunting are the ties that bind.
“Would you have any interest in going on a duck hunt in Louisiana with us?” That seems like an innocuous-enough question to ask somebody. But those of us who are obsessed with the sound of whistling wings and the smell of a wet, muddy retriever know better. We can see the trap being laid. I was texting with my friend Buddy Melton, an avid grouse, turkey, and bear hunter from the mountains of western North Carolina, when I asked the question. “Sure. I’ve never duck hunted but always wanted to try it…” he replied. Curtains. Dead Man Walking. Buddy didn’t know it yet, but he just agreed to his own demise as a productive member of society. The slide into dreaming of flooded timber and pit blinds—and never-ending spending on gear and travel—had begun.
Buddy’s acceptance of my offer completed the line-up for the Hunting Band on this excursion to the Sportsman’s Paradise. The band is a loose, revolving group of friends who are professional musicians and are also passionate about the outdoors. The crew included next-level fly fisherman Woody Platt, guitarist and vocalist for the Steep Canyon Rangers; Daren Shumaker, a world-class mandolin player from Union Grove, North Carolina, who actually makes his living as audio engineer for comedian/musician Steve Martin; Buddy Melton from the band Balsam Range on fiddle, the reigning Grammy-Award winning Male Vocalist of the Year in bluegrass music; and myself, Barry Bales on bass. I’ve been a member of Alison Krauss & Union Station for the last 30 years, when I’m not duck hunting.
For three wonderful days in November, we laughed a lot, drank too much, ate too much, slept too little, played lots of music and made new friends. And we hunted ducks. First at Honey Brake Lodge, near Jonesville. A place almost too good to be true, built in amongst the Spanish Moss, holding staggering numbers of birds in the flooded WRP fields, while rolling out the red carpet in all areas of hospitality. Then moving on to Big Lake near Lake Charles and marsh blind hunting that was fast-paced and quite sporty in the 30-mph wind. As usual, it came and went way too fast.
As we gathered in the gravel parking lot outside the boat house, hurriedly changing clothes and repacking for the impending flights home, hugs and back slaps were exchanged as we said our goodbyes. As he stuck out his hand, Buddy said, “Thanks for inviting me – it was a great time. I think I’m hooked.”
I never had any doubt.