Every duck hunter has one, and I am not talking about a melodic duck call, a dependable shotgun or leaky waders.
It’s the proverbial bucket list of places or specific clubs that would cause someone to make a deal with the devil just to get one hunt on those hallowed grounds.
As fortunate as I have been to hunt some fantastic places during my more than 35-year duck hunting career, I definitely had a bucket list hunt. In 2011, I was able to cross that off the list as I ventured near North Battleford, Saskatchewan for some fantastic goose and duck hunting.
To see the “duck factory” of the prairie pothole is a pilgrimage every duck hunter should make.
Closer to home, I was always humbled by the excellent private clubs I had hunted through close friends and family while growing up. I had always read or heard about some of the historically famous places Arkansas has but never really had a good excuse or opportunity to actually pursue hunting some of these places. At least not until I received a phone call last summer from acclaimed wildlife photographer Dale Spartas of Bozeman, Montana.
I had worked with Dale a few times through email and the telephone on past editions of Greenhead, arranging for some remarkable photos he had to accompany some of our stories. Dale informed me he was making one of his periodic treks to Arkansas and wanted to know if I could set him up on some high quality duck hunts. Dale had been to Arkansas numerous times in the past and hunted some great places but was looking for something different this time.
While I could not promise the conditions would be perfect for photography, I did feel like I could call in some favors and put Dale on some ducks and hope for the best. I made a shortlist of some good friends who I knew had good timber hole shooting that Arkansas is famous for.
After a few phone calls and a little networking, I built a lineup of hunts that most waterfowlers only dream about. Not one hunt but four outstanding private clubs.
Little did I know in August when I finalized the locations that come early December, Arkansas would be holding as many ducks as I’ve witnessed in quite some time. The trip couldn’t have been time any perfectly.
Gone Too Long
Our first stop on this dream hunt was the Crockett’s Bluff Hunting Lodge. A true, rustic treasure sitting high above the White River roughly 25 miles east of Stuttgart, the lodge was the primary hunting spot for the Lyon family, which now owns the famed Wingmead farm north of Stuttgart. The boathouse that sits below the lodge is where many of the scenes from the movie “Mud” were filmed.
From age 6 until my early 20s, I was able to frequent the Crockett’s Bluff Hunting Lodge because the bank my dad worked for used the lodge as a corporate hunting retreat. I had not been back to the lodge in roughly 20 years and eagerly anticipated seeing it again.
The current lodge was built in 1956 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As soon as I hit the front door a tidal wave of memories from my youth overtook me. Remarkably, the current ownership group has kept much of the original look and feel of the main lodge just as I remembered.
Ken McCrae and James Hearnsberger, of Little Rock, were our hosts. Hunting the White River bottoms had been tough as of late so Ken made the decision we would be hunting the famous Tindall Reservoir south of Stuttgart where McCrae was also a member.
Tindall is notable as it was the first rice reservoir built on the Grand Prairie in 1927. Tindall is not your traditional green tree reservoir that Arkansas is known for. The large blind that comfortably holds 10 hunters is situated on the edge of the willows and buckbrush facing east, where the rest of the reservoir is shallow, hard pan and basically wide open water.
Despite the pouring rain that had set in and a backward wind bringing a sizeable artic front into Arkansas, we had a fantastic hunt in conditions less than favorable for reservoir hunting. Various species made their way to our decoys from every direction all morning in a heavy rain that turned to sleet. A mixed bag of gadwalls, greenwing teal and pintails complemented the full limits of mallards, including a banded drake that Spartas shot while he was on break from the camera.
Post hunt the weather was taking a turn for the worst and we needed to get on our way before the roads turned bad in order to make the next day’s hunt. Spartas and I loaded up and headed to the recently refurbished Quack Shack Hunting Club just west of Humnoke.
Divide and Conquer
With sleet and some freezing rain gaining intensity, Spartas made the move south to the Bayou Meto Club to meet his good friend Dr. Rob Richardson before the roads turned dangerous. With temperatures predicted to be in the low teens later in the week, Dale had to make sure he got in a hunt with Rob in case the state was locked up with ice and the ducks headed out of town. I went ahead and slipped over to Quack Shack with the hope their woods wouldn’t be frozen solid by morning.
Unfortunately the Quack Shack Club had become underutilized and run down when the Arkansas banking family headed by patriarch Reynie Rutledge purchased the property in the spring of 2012. Reynie and his sons John, Adam and Nathan have overhauled the motel style lodge and woods, returning the club to its former glory.
John Rutledge and I shared the same concerns regarding the potential of significant ice in the morning but he had a solution in the form of an Ice Eater. Rutledge used some connections with Mack’s Prairie Wings to get one of the last ones they had in the inventory. Ducks were on the Grand Prairie in huge numbers and it seemed numerous waterfowlers were worried about being frozen out of some high quality hunts.
We encountered a little skim ice in the boat road but not nearly as bad as expected. After turning off and stowing the Ice Eater and getting the decoys situated in the hole, we spread our six guns on the north side of the hole and began the waiting game. The mallards working the treetops just before shooting time had us hopeful.
Rutledge had rested this hole for a handful of days to ensure we had the best chance possible this particular morning. The ducks didn’t disappoint despite a slow start right at shooting time. As soon as the sun provided enough light for the mallards to see the woods were open water, we put several nice groups of 20-30 ducks in the decoys, making quick work of our six-man limits. The highlight of the hunt was a gadwall/greenhead cross that fell to my 870 in the middle of the hole.
As the clouds cleared and the north wind picked up steadily, ice began forming in the woods behind the hole at a rapid pace. Rutledge made the call to head out and let the ducks get into the woods undisturbed in hopes of another good hunt tomorrow.
Hats off to the Rutledge family for restoring and managing their woods for the long haul. The Quack Shack woods are an important timber option for wintering mallards using the prime rice growing farms in the Humnoke area. As much as I would have liked to stay and see more of the property, it was time to catch back up with Spartas, who had a great two man hunt with Richardson, and head to our next venue in the Big Ditch bottoms.
Situated southwest of Stuttgart, Screaming Wings, formerly McCollum’s Wildlife Acres, will forever be known as some of the finest flooded timber duck hunting on Planet Earth. Not only because of its historic past but its future under the stewardship of current owner Witt Stephens Jr. Stephens, a former Arkansas Game and Fish Commissioner and member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Outdoor Hall of Fame, has created outstanding habitat for wintering waterfowl through prudent land management, as evidenced by our visit to the property’s rest area.
At sunset on the eve of our hunt, we witnessed an impressive aerial assault into their massive undisturbed corn and rice fields. Ducks and geese came from virtually every direction to spend the night among tens of thousands of their closest friends. There was enough waterfowl to keep the water open in the rest area despite temps falling into the upper teens.
In the world of a waterfowler, there are pros and cons to intense cold fronts like the one we experienced in early December. Naturally we typically get a large push of mallards, which was definitely the case, but these type temps lock up most shallow and still water. Stephens and guides Buck Mayhew and Sam Leder gambled the No. 2 hole was deep enough to stay open overnight.
Our crew now included a mutual friend of ours, Evans Dietz and his poodle, Jethro. Yes, poodle. A statuesque, black poodle with a nice haircut. Mayhew, who has guided on the property for over 40 years, was 100 percent sure this was the first poodle that had ever graced McCollum’s woods. Skepticism in Jethro’s hunting ability was definitely on the faces of our hunting party as we motored down the boat ditch breaking half-inch ice the entire way.
We reached the No. 2 hole and unfortunately the entire block of woods had succumbed to the bitter cold overnight and we were forced to use the boats to clear the hole of ice. Given the number of ducks we saw the evening before, we figured all we needed to do was give them place to land. Wrong.
Shooting time rolled by. Not a duck gave us a look. The first 30 minutes went by. Nothing. At about the 45-minute mark we managed to talk a pair of greenheads into the hole and both fell to our eager shotguns. The upside to that is we got to see Jethro in action. The downside was that was as far as our shooting opportunities went. Mayhew, Leder and Stephens made the executive decision we needed to pick up and head to the deeper, moving bayou on the property.
As we exited the makeshift boat trail out of the woods into the bayou, several thousand ducks of all species escaped up and out of the open water. Now the trick was how to set up and hunt them as we were carrying decoys for two feet of water, not 20 and had too many hunters and dogs to hunt out of the boats.
Leder directed us to a small sliver that cut back into the woods around which we could set up. The location wasn’t ideal. To be in shooting range of the open water in the bayou we had to stand in extremely cold water well above or waist and the dogs had stand on logs in the thicket a 100 yards from the bayou. But before we could set up ducks began swirling over the bayou trying to get back in the open water.
Ever been on a duck hunt that more resembled a dove shoot where you can’t load your gun fast enough before the next birds get into range? I’ve been fortunate to experience a handful in my lifetime and this one ranked right up there as the ducks aggressively dive bombed this little pocket, some within 10-15 yards of our guns. Stephens, being the consummate sportsman, would only attempt challenging shots at ducks going up and away or across, and his skills were impressive.
This was not a routine slam-bam timber hunt. And Jethro the poodle was nothing less than superb as he marked and retrieved in a fast-paced shoot with ice and cold, deep water and six guns blazing.
I suspect a few assumptions about Jethro’s skills were vanquished by the time we finished six mallard limits with a potpourri of “scrap” ducks added to our haul.
It was one of those things in waterfowling you just have to see to believe.
Dose of Nostalgia
The Greenbriar Hunting Club, known by the locals as The Winchester Club, is over 1,800 acres of timber and farm land roughly 15 miles northwest of Stuttgart. Greenbriar was formed in 1945 by John M. Olin, president of Olin Industries, which owned the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Olin brought notable guests such as actors John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable, baseball legend Ted Williams and the famed outdoorsman Nash Buckingham to Arkansas to experience hunting mallards in the flooded timber.
I have been fortunate enough to experience Greenbriar a few times as a guest of Bobby Martin. Martin, the former president and CEO of WalMart International and past chairman of the Arkansas Game & Fish Foundation, grew up in southeast Arkansas and hunted Bayou Meto religiously as a youngster. Martin and the Wilson brothers of the Holiday Inn legacy own Greenbriar today.
Spartas had dreamed of hunting the Greenbriar woods for years and his excitement showed. Upon our afternoon arrival, we loaded up in Martin’s UTV to tour the property and catch the sunset over the rest area that lies just south of their woods. For 30 minutes we sat in awe of the number of ducks and specklebellies descending upon the uncut corn. Our hope now was, with overnight lows predicted to be in the low teens, the woods would stay open.
Before dinner each night, Greenbriar draws numbers to determine the order of hunting hole selection. With a full house at the club and most of the woods already frozen, a high pick would be crucial to morning success. Spartas was given the privilege of drawing for our group and unfortunately didn’t draw first pick. Martin felt we would be best served hunting the famous No. 2 hole at Greenbriar.
We awoke to clear skies and cold, cold temperatures which led us to feel pretty positive about our chances if we could manage some open water. Upon arrival at the No. 2 hole, we found no such luck. The decoys were frozen in half-inch ice, which our hunting party worked frantically to clear before shooting time. Despite those efforts, the ducks coming off the rest area dive-bombed the other two hunting parties’ holes, which were open because of some moving water on that piece of the property. Luckily they cleaned up pretty fast on the mallards and we slid over to the hot spot and managed to scrape together a good mid-morning hunt.
The treat was watching Martin’s retriever, Lucas, work the woods, battling ice to round up downed birds. Lucas was the subject of the 2010-2011 Arkansas duck stamp print painted by Phillip Crowe in Greenbriar’s Olin’s Lane hole.
For our second hunt at Greenbriar, Martin’s brother in law F.A. Crockett had the lucky hand and drew first pick. There wasn’t much thought required as the 8 Point hole had been productive since the ice overtook the woods earlier in the week. The 8 Point Hole wasn’t a typical hole in the rotation and was small in nature compared to other spots on the property, but there was just enough moving water to keep the hole huntable and the ducks had zeroed in on it as well.
After some pre-daybreak maintenance of setting decoys and clearing ice, our group of myself, Martin, Crockett, Spartas and longtime Martin buddy Steve Ferguson found our strategic spots behind the trees encircling the 8 Point Hole. And the show was on. Right at shooting time we put a group on the water that numbered north of 250 mallards. We made quick work of our five-man mallard limits before the sun topped the trees.
Martin made the call to get out of the hole quickly to let another member’s small group come in to finish up their limits and vacate the hole to take some pressure off the ducks. With most of Arkansas frozen solid after four nights with temperatures well below freezing, ducks were under intense pressure wherever there was open, huntable water.
While enjoying fantastic success year in, year out, Greenbriar’s owners and staff are important agents for habitat management for wildlife in the Lonoke and Prairie County areas. Their efforts to manage water, food and hunting pressure speak volumes about their historic and future success.
Hard to Top
I am confident one would be hard pressed to line out another series of hunts within a five-day span at four locations that would out do what Spartas and I experienced. The weather was the only curveball as the ice forced us to adapt each and every hunt, but the deep freeze didn’t slow our success in the slightest. It actually ratcheted up the challenge a little more, which made the trip that much more enjoyable.
Great meals and outstanding hospitality while making new friends and getting reacquainted with old ones made the adventure complete.
The common thread among the four clubs was their dedication to managing resources to ensure success in the future. Their efforts along with those of countless other sportsmen and farmers are paramount in allowing us to daydream about “once in a lifetime” hunts like these.