A lot of good ideas have been hatched around campfires, only to go up in smoke for lack of attention.
That wasn’t the case with Mallard Masters.
Born in the flickering firelight, the competitive duck hunting event designed to help promote the community of Augusta, is entering its second year after unexpected success in its inaugural outing in 2016.
“We were just looking for something to bring a little spotlight to the area,” said Mallard Masters founder Chris Eldridge.
Eldridge, 35, and friends were on a hunt at their duck club when the concept for a team-oriented event with related activities was born.
“We decided on a duck hunting tournament because of where we are,” he said.
The Augusta area, known for its dense populations of mallards, is prime Arkansas duck hunting territory. Given the town’s name and the distinctive look of the prized greenheads hunters pursue each fall, the idea of playing off the venerable Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., became the inspiration.
Mallard Masters winners are even awarded green jackets.
“It really started off not to be such a big idea,” said organizer Boyd Wright, an eyewitness to the Mallard Masters genesis. “It was just a bunch of us around a campfire talking about what we could do to help Augusta.”
It didn’t take the avid outdoorsmen long to realize it would be a good idea to capitalize on their access to over 100,000 acres of Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife land, as well as some 30 lakes and five waterways or rivers: White, Little Red, Cache, Bayou Deview and Black.
Reports show the Cache River system has the largest concentration of Mallards in North America and, Boyd pointed out, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission numbers show Woodruff County has the heaviest concentration in Arkansas.
“I think it was the perfect storm,” Wright said.
The Mallard Masters organizers took their brainchild to the Augusta Chamber of Commerce, where they found plenty of support, and relied on Think Idea Studio in Searcy to help promote the event.
“We’ve got a good chamber and we had a lot of help from our local businesses,” Eldridge said.
Area businesses proved willing to donate money for prizes, and even the Frank Broyles Foundation — named for legendary Arkansas Razorbacks football coach, athletic director and avid golfer Frank Broyles — donated a signed cap from Augusta National Golf Club.
Enough money was put up that the Mallard Masters movers and shakers were able to move from their modest idea of making a few cosmetic improvements around the city to funding a scholarship program that includes matching money from the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery up to $1,000.
“We wanted to do something a little different so that’s when we started the scholarship program,” Eldridge said, adding that the goal is to eventually be able to fund a student’s full ride.
“We were hoping by Year Five we could do what we’ve already done in Year One,” Eldridge said.
In its first outing last year, Mallard Masters, and its accompanying social event Tailfeathers and Tamales, sold out, drawing 700 people and more than 50 registered teams.
“We had no idea it had the ability it would grow that fast,” Wright said.
This year’s event is scheduled for Dec. 9 in Augusta.
Feathers And Format
In the format, four-man teams scatter around the state to hunt. A handful of check-in stations have been consolidated into one this year in downtown Augusta, tying it to the festival and related events that include a chili cookoff, live music, live and silent auctions and awards.
The scoring system involves points assigned to different breeds of duck. At the time he spoke to Greenhead, Eldridge said the system was still in flux for this year’s event after there was pushback last year over the scoring being weighted too heavily toward mallards.
That also gave too much of an advantage to flooded timber hunters.
Eldridge said points are assigned to duck breeds according to a raffle, and the hunting teams can use strategy to collect enough points or shoot strictly for quantity.
“If the right duck is pulled out of the raffle you could potentially kill zero mallards and still win the tournament,” Eldridge said.
“Green timber hunters last year had an advantage because of the mallards,” Wright said. “The inclusion of field birds levels the playing field.”
The Mallard Masters planners also are doing away with time limits and will use the clock only as a tiebreaker this year. Hunters can donate their birds on-site to the nonprofit Hunters Feeding the Hungry.
Where The Heart Is
Wright, 51, attended high school in Augusta but graduated from Searcy, where he met his wife Stacy. He helped found Reliance Health Care and Incite Rehab, selling out to partners in 2010, and is now developing property on the White River.
“My second love is Augusta, Arkansas, right now,” he said.
Eldridge is an Augusta native whose family roots run deep there. He operates his family’s farm equipment distributorships in Augusta, Brinkley and Helena and, like Wright, said love for the hometown is what Mallard Masters is all about.
He hopes the scholarship program will keep local kids in Arkansas and that the overall event will begin to prop up his community that has seen people and businesses drift away.
“My business is not going to benefit a lot, I don’t expect Augusta to boom and people moving in by the hundreds,” he said. “But if we can keep people from moving to stop the bleeding a little bit this would help a lot.”