Sports: One in a Million
Antonio "Duck Man" Jones
Photographs courtesy of Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce
Antonio “Duck Man” Jones has no problem standing out in a crowd of duck hunters.
Take for instance a recent duck hunt to Missouri, where the White Hall, Ark., resident was duck hunting. “All these hunters up there recognized me,’’ Jones said, with a laugh, “but then again I’m not that hard to pick out as a black guy who duck hunts.”
That “black guy who duck hunts” may actually be a distinction in a sport that is filled largely with white Anglo-Saxons toting guns to the woods. Jones, though, has an even larger distinction. He’s the first African-American to win the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest.
If local memories are accurate, he may be the only African-American to ever compete in the prestigious competition that has been held on Main Street in Stuttgart, Ark., since 1936. “It’s very, very humbling,” Jones said, moments after winning. “It’s a good feeling.”
It’s a distinction, though, that despite his skin color, is a natural fit for the 25-year old commercial duck guide who as a kid, in order to not disturb his siblings, was forced out of the house by his mother when he started practicing his duck calling.
“Ask anyone from Redfield, I was the kid walking the streets blowing a duck call,’’ he said. His passion for the mostly-white sport began at a young age. “I loved the outdoors,” Jones said. “I grew up in a small town south of Little Rock and I just wanted to hunt.”
The duck hunting part came while watching a hunting show that featured former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL superstar Bo Jackson. “He was timber hunting in Arkansas and that really put the icing on the cake and made me want to do it,’’ Jones said.
Even though he was only 10 years old, he started looking for the chance. On the weekends he played Peewee Basketball, and noticed that one of the fathers in the stands always had camouflage on. That man was Jimmy Courtney, and Jones would quiz him on what he had hunted that morning, asking him questions about duck hunting.
“I bugged him enough he finally took me hunting,’’ he said. “I remember it was Dec. 24th, on Youth Waterfowl Hunting Day. We hunted on the edge of a soybean field. He carried me on his back because I didn’t have waders, and I had a borrowed shotgun. He set me on the edge of a beaver dam slough. I shot a wood duck and a gadwall and I was hooked.”
He’s still hooked thanks to a list of mentors like Courtney who didn’t mind taking an inquisitive youngster. “I couldn’t afford to duck hunt when I was growing up. I couldn’t have done it without all the guys who took me under their wings.”
One of those was Buck Gardner, the 1994 World Champion and 1995 Champion of Champions.
“The first time I ever met [Antonio] was at the World Championship contest,’’ Gardner said, recalling. “He was about 12 or 13, and he walked up to me and said ‘Mr. Buck, my name is Antonio Duck Man Jones.’"
“He had bought one of my calls at Walmart and was learning to blow it. We packaged cassette tapes with the calls in those days, and he proceeded to quote back to me word-for-word what was on that tape — he had listened to it so much. It was evident, early on, that Antonio was going to be serious about duck calling.”
Over time Jones has become a fixture in the competitive duck-calling world.
“The duck hunting world has really accepted me, or at least 95 percent of them has, the other 5 percent, you ain’t never going to change their ways,’’ Jones said.
Most people are drawn to Jones, not because of his color, but because of his passion. One of his current mentors is 69-year old R.J. Horner, who travels with Jones on hunts to other states.
The two met 11 years ago when Jones, 14 at the time, was visiting Avery Outdoors Camp near Casscoe, Arkansas. Horner’s camp was nearby, and in the middle of the night, Jones, who dives into everything with fervor, was outside the Avery Camp practicing his calling. Horner and his crew were trying to sleep.
“He came outside and simply said, ‘son, there is a time to sleep,’” Jones said, laughing. The two have been friends ever since.
“For some reason, we became dear friends,’’ Horner said. “ He’s not just a ‘black duck caller.’ He’s a good person.”
Jones has not forgotten the feelings he had as a youngster. Or the guidance and friendship that so many older, duck hunters showed him. While winning the pinnacle of duck calling titles is at the top of his list of great things he’s experienced, close to that ranking are some of the hunts he experiences with young kids.
“I really get a lot of enjoyment out of taking kids hunting,’’ Jones said, then paused. “Seriously. All ‘BS’ aside, I get more enjoyment out of that than anything.”
Jones said he always thinks about when he was the kid being taken on those hunts. “I can only imagine what my face looked like on that first hunt,’’ Jones said.
Knowing that a kid beside him as never seen a synchronized flock of birds crane their necks in response to his calls, then break through the treetops and flutter to the water. It’s a sight that still excites hardened, experienced duck hunters.
“For a young kid, especially one like me who might never have gotten to see that it’s something that stays with you forever,’’ Jones said.
“Seeing that look on their faces, knowing they’ve never seen anything like that before … that’s more rewarding than shooting the ducks. My love for watching ducks, calling ducks and bringing them from the stratosphere that’s pretty special.”