Bonding in the Blind

Jill Gadberry Johnson passes on a joy of hunting to her daughters.

By Dwain Hebda, Photography by Lily Darragh

Mom bonds with daughters while duck hunting

Many a memoir has been penned about children being introduced to the wonders of the hunting wilderness by a father or grandfather. Especially in Arkansas, multiple-generation hunting parties are the stuff of family legend and a legacy that survives the changing times.

Jill Gadberry Johnson knows that feeling well and not just from watching distance. From a young age, the social media manager learned the art of duck hunting at the knee of her father and grandfather and has continued that proud lineage through her three daughters.

“I grew up duck hunting and fishing with my dad and his dad, my two brothers and even my mom on occasion,” she said. “Though none of my close friends hunted, we had family friends who hunted with their girls, so I don’t remember thinking it was unusual for girls to hunt. My parents both expected that I could do anything I wanted to do,” Johnson said.

The Arkansas outdoors permeated every phase of Johnson’s life from water-skiing Bull Shoals Lake to hunting and fishing on Flag Lake near Gillett. As girlhood gave way to high school, she asked for, and received, a shotgun for her 15th birthday. Her love of hunting even attracted her husband, Charles.

“One day during [high school] football practice, Charles overheard my then-boyfriend talking about an upcoming duck hunt with me and my family,” she said. “Being a hunter himself, Charles told my boyfriend that if we ever broke up he was going to ask me out. We recently celebrated our 30th anniversary, and I still love hunting with him.”

Given the Johnsons’ mutual love of the outdoors, it’s no surprise that the couple’s three daughters would be practically raised on the water or in the blind. As they’ve grown, each has developed her own specialty in the outdoors. “Our youngest, Charlotte, is a sixth grader at Pinnacle View Middle School. She also really enjoys archery,” Johnson said. “Our middle daughter, Samantha, is a senior at UCA studying elementary education. She hunts on occasion but really prefers fishing instead.”

“Our oldest, Rebecca Webber, really enjoys hunting. Several years ago, Rebecca asked for a shotgun for Christmas. My husband gave her his gun, which had been in the family for several generations.” Hunting was more than mere recreation. Among other life lessons, Johnson said the girls learned self-confidence and respect for the environment along the way. Rebecca, now herself married to a hunter, recalled such lessons as meaningful, even to a sleepy 10-year-old.

“The first time I remember going hunting with my mom, it was a cold Christmastime hunt,” she said. “I remember sitting in the dark, squished up against my mom and shivering in my damp waders. I was just starting to wonder why I had agreed to come out and sit still in such a wet, cold place when my mom nudged me and pointed at the horizon line on the water where orange sunlight was just beginning to blossom.”

“It was then that I saw the ‘V’ of ducks pass over the blind. The light on the horizon reflected off the water below. As my mom pointed them out to me, I remember that mischievous look in her eye, like she was sharing a wonderful secret, and she was,” Rebecca said.

The hunting legacy continues to this day as, at least once per season, the extended clan gathers at the family acreage outside the famed Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, home to some of the finest duck hunting on the planet. There, old hunts are relived and new memories are made in the frosty dawn.

“I don’t love getting up early, but it is always worth the effort once we get there,” Johnson said. “As we arrive and begin to gather our gear by the light of the stars, I love the sound of voices discussing wind direction, water levels and decoy placement, the sound of the boat or four wheeler motor, and even the whine of our dog as he anticipates what is coming.”

“In the blind, my mom is equal parts huntress and audience,” Rebecca said. “I have always admired her ability to sit in wonder and intentionally appreciate the beauty of nature from a duck blind. She doesn’t feel the need to take every shot she can because she isn’t there for the sport of hunting, but as a respectful participant in the nature of life.”