A weekend at one of Arkansas’ popular duck lodges doesn’t always guarantee ducks. Some seasons are just leaner than others.

But the mealtime menu? Not so lean.

So, for those who are concerned about their favorite hunter’s diet and eating habits, avert your eyes from what is about to transpire.

For everyone else, pull up a chair and treat yourself to a couple of cheat days. Sit down at a table groaning from the weight of wild game, seafood and other favorites prepared for maximum flavor, or line up for a bountiful breakfast buffet bursting with choices.

“I think generally, given the genetic makeup of most duck clubs, I think that the heartier the better,” said Dave Schuessler, who cooks for Duckhead Lodge near Casscoe. “I think when guys go to duck clubs they want to be able to eat there knowing that they wouldn’t eat like that at home because it’s so unhealthy.

“Everybody takes a pass when they’re duck hunting and part of that is you burn a lot of calories. Standing in the mud or wading waist deep in flooded timber you burn a lot of calories.”

Dave Schuessler of Duckhead Lodge

Whether providing fuel for the next day’s hunt or satisfying big appetites honestly earned slogging through flooded timber, the cooks do it with gusto and a big smile.

“The most I really enjoy is when I look and all of a sudden they’re quiet,” said Bill Bogey, who cooks at Prairie Wings Lodge near Altheimer. “When they’re quiet, then I know it’s good and I even say that sometimes. ‘It must be good, fellas. You got quiet.’ ”

Growing up, Schuessler and Bogey learned both hunting and cooking from their families.

Ashley Anderson is a culinary school graduate who cooks at Dry Lake Hunting Service Lodge near Stuttgart. His introduction to the world of duck hunting came through contacts made at a previous job, but like his colleagues, Anderson believes the main meals are the second-most important pillar of a weekend duck hunt.

“I think a meal has a lot to do with their experience when they come because people come here from all over the world,” Anderson said. “A lot of the people are, if not wealthy, well off, so they have the ability to eat good food wherever they come from. But when they come here and they come here to hunt, whether they kill ducks or not, they’re looking for some kind of fulfillment or enjoyment or pleasure, so the food is like the cherry on top. It could turn a bad hunt day into a great day.”

Ashley Anderson of Dry Lake Hunting Service

At Home In The Lodge

Schuessler, originally from Tallahassee, Florida, and now in Memphis, learned his love of cooking from his mother, a caterer and later a chef.

He has hunted other game on other continents, and as national director for events fundraising with Ducks Unlimited, his contribution to duck hunting doesn’t stop at the kitchen door.

“There is just something about waterfowl hunting in the United States that is different than anything else,” Schuessler said. “You can meet somebody for the first time, a guest of a member. You wake up and it’s snowing and it’s blowing 25 mph out of the north and you’re all going to experience that together.”

After a morning like that, a hot and satisfying meal is a welcome treat.

“When you get 15 people, man they can put away some groceries,” Bogey said.

Bogey, from Wabbaseka, picked up cooking from his mother and sister, who cooked for one of the previous lodge owners, while Anderson, originally from Michigan, graduated from the Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta.

While Bogey segued into caretaking and cooking, Anderson, who had cooked at hotel restaurants, steakhouses and a country club in Alabama, was introduced to the duck hunting world when he moved from Alabama to Stuttgart a few years ago.

“It’s really not different. It’s kind of like cooking for a big family and I add my gourmet touches to it,” Anderson said.

In their tenures, each cook has developed a go-to, signature dish and all incorporate wild game — fried, smoked, grilled or baked — generously into their menus. There are duck gumbos, pates and poppers, venison steaks, sausage and burgers as well as fish.

Schuessler’s signature dish is fried specklebelly, not coincidentally because the tasty geese are hunted at Duckhead. Anderson does a hibachi fillet topped with Alaskan King Crab, complemented by his signature bourbon-glazed carrots. But he tries to have a duck appetizer for every meal and also does a duck gumbo.

Bogey has a smothered deer steak recipe that caught the attention of the hunting program “The Fowl Life With Chad Belding.”

“I would say it’s about 75% of them want some wild game because they don’t get it at home. And a lot of our food is fried. They don’t get that at home. They’ll tell you real quick,” Bogey said.

For a number of reasons, including the taste, wild game sooner or later pops up on the menu at a duck lodge. Many hunters insist on it. Dave Schuessler is aware of the specklebelly goose’s reputation as a tasty bird and dishes up fried specklebelly, a favorite of the guests at Duckhead Lodge.

Prep, Planning And Tricks

A duck lodge cook doesn’t just wake up on a given day and decide what to cook. A menu for 10, 15, 20 people takes planning and preparation. As does the season.

Anderson spends much of August and September getting an inventory together, planning menus, making any needed upgrades, ensuring no pots and pans need replacing, cleaning and hiring staff.

“I don’t really have that much time on my hands come duck season,” he said.

Depending on the lodge, some meals require more effort than others.

Schuessler says the guests at Duckhead often like to catch a post-hunt breakfast at one of their favorite local diners or dives. However Bogey puts on a “full blown” breakfast/brunch complete with three kinds of meat, biscuits, gravy, grits and eggs, with maybe a little leftover duck thrown in.

Bogey says he tries to have 75% of his menu planned, but tries to grant requests made for the next day. Schuessler said it’s important to balance the hard and easy dishes. If the main course has a degree of difficulty, keep the side dishes simple, he said.

And you can’t cook for a lot of people without developing tricks, food prep cheats, must-have seasonings or homemade sauces.

“It’s just a few tricks,” Bogey said. “I just add this and add that. I ain’t got no secrets.”

Schuessler swears by Cavender’s Greek Seasoning, Bogey uses a lot of vegetables from his garden and makes his own hot sauces and Anderson makes what he describes as a “world famous, award-winning” white chocolate bread pudding for which he makes the sauce from scratch.

Feeding a large group of people well over the course of several meals is a responsibility unto itself. But the twists and tweaks and TLC that duck lodge cooks put into their meals is also part of the greater tradition of duck hunting in Arkansas.

They can’t control the numbers of ducks, but when in the kitchen the cooks can have a direct impact on the camaraderie and fellowship, important components of a weekend’s hunting in the Duck Capital of the World.

“To me, I consider it the grand state,” Schuessler said. “While all places in the world, all famous duck hunting places, can have challenging mornings and challenging stretches of the season, when it’s right in Arkansas there is no place like it in the United States.”

Photography by Maddalynn Davis