In the same way mallards migrate through the state in winter, the claim of “Duck Capital of the World” started in the northeast portion of Arkansas before settling in Stuttgart and Arkansas County.
As late as the 1950s, according to state historical records, tiny Weiner (pop. 900) on U.S. Highway 49 in Poinsett County boasted of being both the duck and rice capital. With the much-circulated photo from 1956 of nearby Claypool’s Reservoir inundated with an estimated half-million ducks as proof, and a live nationally televised broadcast from the hunting site showing the ducks, one could easily buy that claim.
But for the last half century, no one would doubt that when it comes to greenheads and attracting hunters the world over, Stuttgart reigns supreme. The city of just under 10,000 people markets itself with its annual Wings Over the Prairie Festival, held on the weekend after Thanksgiving, and the town’s population doubles because of it, according to Stephen Bell, executive director of the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce.
“What we’re known for is flooded timber, and hunters [from throughout the world] want to come here to have that,” Bell said. “Also, we’re in the national migration route of the mallard, the biggest duck.”
Its four hotels stay booked for most of the 60-day duck season, its few restaurants overflow with visitors, and some residents make a side income of cleaning (“dressing”) ducks brought in by the many local and out-of-state hunters. Mack’s Prairie Wings, owned by Marion McCollum and based on the north side of town next to the duck call maker Rich-N-Tone, has a catalog circulation of 2.8 million and is usually the first stopping off point for anyone planning to hunt ducks, from an average hunter from South Carolina to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The best duck callers in the world also converge on Stuttgart during the Wings Over the Prairie Festival for the right to be crowned the best in their respective categories. This year will mark the 75th year of the calling contest, the first event that laid the groundwork for the Arkansas County seat claiming to be the Mallard and Rice Capital of the World.
Weiner, it should be pointed out, while it surrendered the duck crown to the south-central part of the state, still holds a rice festival every year.
But the big question debated every duck season, maybe causing more arguments in a duck blind than opinions on politics, religion or the Razorbacks, is whether Northeast or Southeast Arkansas has the best duck hunting.
“The ‘Duck Capital’ will always be Stuttgart, but that doesn’t mean the ducks are in the capital anymore,” says Charles Snapp, a renowned duck guide from Walnut Ridge who retired last year after 31 years in the business.
By their nature and following the waterways on their annual migration from Canada and the Dakotas, most mallards on their way to warmer Louisiana waters converge every year in the Arkansas County area where the Cache, White, and Arkansas rivers draw close before they empty into the Mississippi River. They’re also drawn by the many rice farms of the Grand Prairie. But plenty of ducks first make a stopover in the rice fields in uppermost Arkansas, seeking out the water of the rivers (the Black, the L’Anguille and upper Cache, most certainly) and the reservoirs.
With warmer weather patterns in recent years — i.e., not as much freeze-over as a quarter-century ago — some of those ducks aren’t leaving that northeast corner either. Statistics reveal that by a slight margin, a five-county area of Northeast Arkansas outproduces the Grand Prairie now in rice production. If ducks don’t have to move further south for food and water, they won’t.
And so, even if Stuttgart proudly declares itself the duck capital, hunters may argue endlessly as to which area of the state truly has the best mallard hunting.
“I’ve certainly heard that debate before,” says Trey Reid, field editor for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in Little Rock. “I don’t know … Stuttgart obviously holds claim to that title, I would say simply because of the Wings over the Prairie Festival and the traditions of duck hunting on the Grand Prairie.
“But I think probably in the last 10, 15, 20 years there would be people that might argue that better hunting might have shown up in the northeast. The thing about it is, the hot spots change every year based on factors beyond a hunter’s control. The weather and the birds themselves are constantly changing. For anybody to say they have the best hunting in the state, that depends on what hour, what day, what month we’re talking about.”
Hunters in and around Arkansas County had their struggles through much of the 2009-10 season, partly due to record rainfall followed by frigid conditions in January that iced over bayous, flooded timber or fields. But Northeast Arkansas hunters also complained about fewer ducks, as the water around the state spread the birds out to areas where they weren’t hunted.
One avid hunter of the eastern part of the state suggested that Stuttgart will have the title of “best duck hunting area” simply because no one else would try to get that attention now and draw hunters to their area. Some hunters stumble upon a hot spot and like to keep that information to themselves.
Steve Bowman, who writes for ESPN.com’s outdoors coverage and has gone on many a season-long, everyday “duck trek” throughout the state and region, is a native of Jonesboro, but he doesn’t hesitate to point south for the best Arkansas duck hunting.
“Arkansas County is still the duck capital of the world,” he said. “I think the reason that anybody might even start to debate that anymore is people have gotten a lot more secretive like they were in the 1960s. Not letting anyone know what they’ve got, that’s just part of the deal.
“But look at it from a Mother Nature standpoint and from the geography. Eastern Arkansas, which is a fine place to hunt, is on the upper end of the Mississippi Delta where the [migration] funnel opens. By virtue, that makes them a strong candidate. But you get on down the river, you’ve got Stuttgart and the Arkansas [River], where you also have a primary funnel of ducks from the Central Flyway, and the Arkansas, White and Mississippi rivers come together. And that is at Stuttgart, or Arkansas County.”
Bowman said that with the vast amount of both grain fields and flooded timber — the White River National Wildlife Refuge to the east and Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area to the west all but sandwich Stuttgart — hunters in the area have more opportunity.
“There are years that Northeast Arkansas doesn’t have any ducks, but Stuttgart always has ducks,” he said. “It’s not because of the Flyway, but because of the water, the Arkansas and White rivers and the Mississippi. It’s just better suited to be the duck capital of the world than any of these other places. There are reasons all those ducks are there.”
While hunters haggle over whether Northeast Arkansas or the Arkansas County area has better hunting, they may be missing golden opportunities elsewhere in the state.
“Some of the best duck flooded-timber hunting in Arkansas is near Texarkana, but that doesn’t make it the duck hunting capital,” Bowman said. “But they have some awful nice shallow water hunting.”
Trey Reid, who hunts around 45 of the 60 days a year and more if he can, from Minnesota back to Arkansas, also notes the opportunities available outside the most-talked about duck areas.
“The whole area of Southwest Arkansas, basically around the Red River, there are some Game and Fish management areas like Bois D’Arc and some private clubs. They get a lot of ducks and they’re probably more Central Flyway ducks, but that’s an often overlooked area, that and the Ouachita River bottoms in southern Arkansas.
“And, not that it’s a secret, but Felsenthal [WMA], that’s the Bayou Meto [WMA] of South Arkansas and for El Dorado area hunters. That’s where you have the boat races to the best spots before shooting time and the traffic jams at the boat docks.”
The numbers of ducks killed in that area, based on Game and Fish studies, won’t match the numbers from the eastern third of Arkansas, Reid says, but the area also doesn’t have near the hunting. It may be under-hunted, where those familiar hot spots may have too much hunting pressure.
Stuttgart may have marketed itself well as the duck capital, but devoted sportsmen from the McCollum family and even Memphis native Wallace Claypool, who owned the famed reservoir of the photo near Weiner, invested in land and saved flooded timber areas around Stuttgart. Bowman said, “Private citizens were way ahead in the land-management department,” when duck attention became focused in Arkansas County. Not so in the Jonesboro area, which had much more cleared lands.
That’s not to say Northeast Arkansas doesn’t have its share of legendary holes for duck hunting — Claypool’s, the Chicago Hole and hunting on the Black River. Dick Cheney may have hunted in the Stuttgart area, but Jimmy Carter went to Northeast Arkansas. From a historical perspective, more interesting stories may have emanated from Northeast Arkansas. Before duck-call makers found Stuttgart, call makers worked their way from Illinois into the northeast corner.
Whether it’s by reputation now or not, Stuttgart is the Arkansas region most synonymous with ducks.
“There are people I run into from all over the world and in this country when I’m traveling who identify Arkansas and duck hunting with Stuttgart, not with Weiner or Waldenburg or that area,” Bowman said.
Farming Changes Ducks
Charles Snapp of Walnut Ridge says that when allotment levels for rice production in the state were opened in 1972, it changed the environment for ducks. “Rice moved north at an alarming rate of speed,” Snapp said. “Those five counties of Northeast Arkansas — Greene, Lawrence, Craighead, Clay and Poinsett — produce more rice than the rest of the entire state.
“Ducks love rice, and rice is an ideal crop in that area. The ducks in many cases are short-stopped before they ever get farther south.”
There’s more to the rice story and ducks than just the amount now being produced up north. Changes in varieties and improvements in the crop in recent decades, thanks to research, mean that rice is being planted and harvested earlier, and it is ready for harvest in Southeast Arkansas a good month before the crops in Northeast Arkansas. When the duck food, the seed, sits on the wet ground after harvesting — and before the ducks arrive — it germinates. It no longer is a food source for the ducks.
So, as Snapp points out, the rice draw of Southeast Arkansas is no longer what it was 25 to 40 years ago.
“They track the birds on the Internet, so watch that,” Snapp said. “It might freeze up here and the birds will continue on, but as soon as it thaws, they are right back up in this area. The birds come right back. Over the past 30-some-odd-to-40 years, agriculture has changed things enough that the ducks don’t have to go that far south. … Would you want to pass up the big buffet up here?”
Many hunters in the Stuttgart region have complained in the past three decades about birds not reaching their area before the duck season expired — hence, when numbers of ducks in the breeding grounds increased in the 1990s, the season was doubled in length to 60 days. In recent years, the closing date was extended to the last weekend in January. Still, you’re sure to hear some southeast hunters complain that the ducks haven’t arrived, even that late in the year, and that they’re hearing stories of more successful hunts further north.
Blair Arnold, a lawyer in Batesville, was enjoying some of those outings just off the Black River not long ago.
“It used to be extraordinarily good,” Arnold said. “In a lot of years we were killing a lot more ducks than they were in Stuttgart.”
Something changed. Arnold believes it was the development of a 15,000-acre federal refuge at Bald Knob, where half of the former farm is not hunted but is planted and flooded. Arnold has compared duck counts for the refuge against state duck count totals from 1993 to 2003. Arnold’s comparison shows an amazing trend in which, on average, up to 80 percent of the ducks in Arkansas in the December census were counted as being in the Bald Knob refuge and the Little Dixie unit off the Cache River, a 8,250-acre area of flooded fields not being hunted. Arnold believes ducks flying south over Independence County can easily spot the wide-open Bald Knob water and find food and no hunting pressure, and they stay there.
“Leaving the crops and pumping the whole thing up, it really hurt our duck hunting,” Arnold says. “When things were going well, the worst year we had on the Black River we killed our limit two-thirds of the time. Our hunting has not been that good since then. You get further up the Black River, though, it’s more like it used to be.”
The White River National Wildlife Refuge near Stuttgart is mostly flooded timber that is open with specific guidelines and hours to hunters, but nonetheless hunted. It’s not regulated the same as half of the Bald Knob refuge. “And, at some point [the ducks] have to get up and get food” in the privately owned, hunted fields near the White River, said Arnold.
Early on the Bald Knob refuge was flooded naturally, and sometimes it didn’t have water when the Little Red River was low. Now, it is pumped and holds the water, sometimes when surrounding hunting areas have no water.
“In 1998, we had an extraordinary number of ducks. We had so many ducks we had to hunt in shifts,” Arnold recalled. “We were going out, and you could kill four mallards and a pintail that year. In 20 or 30 minutes, you had a limit of four greenheads and a bull sprig per person. In 20 or 30 minutes, that was going to happen, you could count on it.”
Snapp says the Independence County hunters are being affected not by the non-hunted refuge area, but by the farming changes. “Where Blair’s farm is, moving north, that used to be prime duck territory,” he said. “There is a whole lot more rice up there now. When Blair’s club was in its heyday, they didn’t have the rice. It was mostly grown in the Grand Prairie.”
When hunters and biologists say that the flyway has changed, Snapp believes it. “When I first guided, I only dreamed about what we’ve had the last 10 to 15 years. The flyway has moved north the entire time I’ve guided. The winter grounds, they’ve moved a little bit by little bit. At best, when we started, we were at the very northern end of the wintering grounds. Now we’re more toward the southern wintering grounds. Now, they’ll go farther south if the weather pushes them down.”
But, the mid-Arkansas winters have been milder, and there is more food and safety for the birds up north.
Also, consider that Missouri is now growing rice on 300,000 acres in the Bootheel. And Snapp believes that as duck hunting has become even more popular than it was 30 to 40 years ago, ducks that are shot at all the way down the Mississippi Flyway are feeling more pressure and “have to have a place to seek safety.” The protected national refuges in Missouri and Arkansas are an important part of the changes, he said, but “as far as holding too many birds, I don’t think they do.”
Arkansas “is a big state,” he concludes.
And somewhere a hunter will find that perfect spot.
The point is, as Trey Reid noted, depending on the hour, the day or the month, a hunter in Arkansas will swear he’s found the duck hunting capital of the state.