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Hunter Grounds: No. 1 with a Bullet

Hunter Grounds best young caller world flashes rare smile while fishing Lake Egypt one his favorites. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times

Hunter Grounds, the best young caller in the world, flashes a rare smile while fishing Lake of Egypt, one of his favorites. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:28AM

MARION, Ill. — Hunter Grounds smiled.

It wore well on the bearded 25-year-old, grown up since he was little.

With good reason, he’s the most accomplished young outdoorsman in Illinois.

‘‘I have been around it my whole life — being raised, that is the only thing I knew: hunting and fishing,’’ he said while we bounced shaky head jigs off a deep point while looking for largemouth bass Monday at Lake of Egypt.

Grounds would make a hell of a fishing guide. He has the skills and temperament.

But that’s not how he made his world-famous mark.

He won the Junior World Goose Calling Championship in 1999 in Easton, Md., then became the only person, junior or senior, to win world duck- and goose-calling titles in the same year. He won the World Goose Calling Championship in 2003, ’05 and ’07.

‘‘The Worlds are special,’’ Grounds said. ‘‘That’s the one that stays in my head. They can’t ever take that away. Once you win that, you’ve done something.’’

Callers are mandatorily retired after three world titles. But Grounds has won some 70 first-place titles, including the calling contest at Southern Illinois Hunting and Fishing Days last month for the fourth time.

‘‘I would rather hunt,’’ he said. ‘‘That calling is like work.’’

Making duck and goose calls is his life. As we fished in the morning chill, he wore his Tim Grounds Championship Calls hoodcoat. Tim Grounds is his dad, Illinois’ most famous caller.

‘‘That’s all I have ever done, and fish a little bit,’’ Hunter Grounds said. ‘‘I prefer fishing.’’

That’s when the smile came.

We caught bass, even on a high-sky, post-front day, reaching double figures with a couple pushing three pounds.

Fall is an odd time on Lake of Egypt.

‘‘All the shad are on the bottom,’’ Grounds said. ‘‘Just try to find the shad. Normally, I try to stay around the shad.’’ Otherwise, he watches his electronics and fishes fish marked on the screen.

We started with shaky heads, but he switched to crankbaits when bass started busting schools of shad. More than half our fish came on crankbaits.

I enjoy fishing but love writing stories more. Grounds has one rich enough to take more than a day of bass fishing to get. Maybe, when he does an autobiography.

Finally, I asked him, couched by saying that I am a dad and a son, if he and his dad have as good a relationship as they seem to have in public.

‘‘We have our times,’’ he said.

Those four words capture the ambiguity of fathers and sons perfectly.

But they are not only father and son but the most accomplished father-son callers in the world. Tim Grounds won his three world goose titles in 1988, ’92 and ’94. And he lived the life. Everybody who has knocked around the outdoors in certain circles has a Tim Grounds story.

Like I said, Hunter Grounds has been grown up since he was little.

But the twenty-something comes through. His fishing boat is a bright yellow, 21-foot Bullet with an OptiMax Pro XC Mercury motor. After a lunch break at Mack’s Lake of Egypt Marina, he got us back to a fishing spot in the far back, well, nearly fast as a bullet.

Another peak came Tuesday. As guide Matt Strobel drove me back to the launch on Crab Orchard Lake so I could go home, Strobel said, ‘‘Isn’t that Hunter?’’

His yellow Bullet is hard to miss. Grounds had dropped his writer off, then went back to fishing brush on a point. Strobel and I invented stories of what he told his dad to explain why he couldn’t tune duck calls Tuesday afternoon.

We laughed, but Hunter Grounds was having his own fun, all alone.

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