Gar Lile is fond of the phrase “in an ideal world” to contrast the difference between what the hypothetical and what reality gives us to work with. An ideal world, in his view, would be one in which the lands we use for duck hunting would naturally take better care of the ducks who pass through Arkansas each season, offering the birds both rest and a variety of food in the same areas. Managing that land wouldn’t require year-round monitoring and, in some cases, significant capital investment.
Ideally, too, hunters and landowners wouldn’t count their success in managing their land in the numbers of limits they filled each hunting day. And in this alternate world, the whole business of providing sustenance and shelter for traveling ducks wouldn’t take on a competitive dimension.
But here we are, and “facts is facts.” While the health and sustainability of duck migration depends on the efforts of all landowners, the limits of cooperation are reached when a flock of pintails picks a spot — yours or your neighbor’s — on which to descend for a spot of breakfast.
It’s with that real world in mind that Lile’s and businesses like his help to coax the greatest value out of potential hunting grounds.
“We consider ourselves investment brokers, not real estate brokers,” said Lile, who in 1993 started Lile Real Estate Inc. of Little Rock. The company helps landowners assess and improve land as habitat and as recreational ground, with a third benefit that the property is more valuable.
The features that can affect birds or the quality of a hunt are myriad. A consultant such as Lile might guide the creation of shallow water impoundments, suggest and outline better methods of access to parts of the property, recommend sites for duck blinds, hire an airboat to navigate swamps and spray away unwanted plants, or make plans for new vegetation: installing red oaks, repositioning cropland or cultivating buckbrush. The factors that can influence a duck’s choice of pit stop on its journey to or from Canada are as numerous as they are ticklish.
“Waterfowl habitat is very much a product of location,” Lile said. “If you’re not in a flyway, you’re not going to bring a magnitude of ducks. Waterfowl in general are hardest to manage, because they can get up and fly. All you can do is make the property the best you can, and then hope the ducks are nice to you.”
Land management for the benefit of ducks or bucks is hardly new; since the middle of the 20th century, Americans have recognized that over-development and over-hunting posed potentially mortal threats to the species they most liked to pursue. Organizations such as Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited have been promoting the best practices to public and private managers for years.
East Arkansas, though, was unwittingly ahead of that curve when rice farmers built the levees and irrigation systems that have for generations attracted weary and hungry ducks to the area, which real estate agent John Witherspoon now describes broadly as the best privately owned duck hunting grounds on the planet.
“The property value on good duck hunting land is about three times what the best cropland in the state’s worth,” said Witherspoon, a Little Rock Realtor who has since the 1980s specialized in duck hunting properties. “It’s because of the infrastructure that’s been there forever. The farmers were raising rice, they built the reservoirs, and the duck hunters increased the popularity.”
Levees and controlled flooding projects undertaken only with greater rice yields in mind had the unintended consequence of creating a paradise for ducks and, subsequently, duck hunters. (“In a dry year, the private-land people do better, because they’re the ones providing water and food,” Witherspoon pointed out.) But the balance between crops and ducks also found a tipping point. Sloughs where red oak stands were flooded for too much of the year saw those trees die — at the loss of timber for industry and acorns for birds.
Reforestation is a large part of what George H. Dunklin Jr.’s Five Oaks Wildlife Services in Arkansas County offers for flyway properties where timber quality has suffered. “We’re providing habitat,” Dunklin said. “But the great thing about it is, the best habitat for ducks is also the best lumber for the market.” His nursery’s menu of oak trees alone runs to more than a dozen different species.
That aspect of sustainability — economic productivity — is another concession property managers and landowners must make for the real world. Every acre of rice cropland left fallow is 175 bushels of grain not sold — a gross loss of $900 if rice is $5 a bushel. No wonder managers emphasize to landowners the long-term benefits of maintaining arable land as more favorable duck hunting grounds.
“The object of what we’re doing doesn’t matter to what we’re doing on our property,” said Dunklin, an appointed commissioner with Arkansas Game and Fish. “We’ve got to have others onboard in this whole Mississippi Valley flyway. We’ve always felt we don’t compete against our neighbor. We complement our neighbor.”
To hear Gar Lile tell it, one of the risks of developing a property to appeal to ducks is, curiously, making it appear as though you’ve tried too hard. In that regard, landowners are counting on one another not to make the region appear too manmade. Whether by their nature or by surviving barrages of steel shot for generations, ducks have become discerning browsers of feeding and resting grounds, and are turned off by lands that bear the evidence of backhoes and dozers. “A lot of these environments that are already in a ducky area,” Lile said, “you don’t want to make them look too unnatural.”
But the keys to attracting birds are, for the most part, fairly intuitive. A duck exhausted by thousands of miles of flying will still look for carbohydrates — in Arkansas, that’s a rice dinner — in grain seeds. As the temperatures drop further, ducks are keener on moist soil, where they can trawl for grubs, to store protein for their coats and for breeding. They like to huddle around buckbrush and willows for warmth; they also like to bob for meals of acorns and invertebrates around green timber at other times.
“You don’t want to have just rice or just buckbrush,” Lile said.
Then, he added, “In an ideal world, you provide them a buffet.”
For a landowner with enough dedication, that’s one idealistic vision that can actually become reality.
Sam Eifling is a freelance writer and a former assistant editor at Arkansas Business.