Steve Chlapecka Jr. has nearly eight decades under his belt, years measured by the rhythm of farming and hunting in Prairie County.
Chlapecka (pronounced Ka-Petch-Ka) started duck hunting as a 15-year-old armed with a 12-gauge pump, a Winchester Model 1897.
Back then, he scanned the skies for ducks from his family’s rice fields and woods, about two miles northwest of Slovak as the mallard flies.
The man known by many today as Big Steve has guided duck hunters in these parts for nigh on 60 years for hunters on the Thomas Reservoir and adjoining flooded timber along LaGrue Bayou.
“I went to calling for them in 1955,” he said. “I enjoyed it so much I just stayed with them.”
The hunting grounds around the Thomas Reservoir and LaGrue lie just north of where Big Steve was born and raised in a two-story house his grandfather built not long after moving from Chicago to homestead 80 acres in 1897.
His grandfather, Paul, was part of an influx of Czechoslovakian immigrants drawn to Prairie County by the opportunity to own farmland. Over the years, Chlapecka Farms grew to about 450 acres.
Little Steve, his namesake son, oversees the family’s farming operations these days. But Big Steve still found his way into a combine cab during the 2013 harvest.
The county road separating the homeplace from Thomas Reservoir No. 2 bears the Chlapecka name. Big Steve remembers being a little squirt and watching draglines scoop bucket after bucket of soil to excavate the 700-acre reservoir during World War II.
The Adolph Thomas Farm & Hunting Club also encompassed 1,100 acres of timber and 1,060 acres of cropland. When Adolph Thomas died in 1991, ownership shifted to his charitable trust.
The property sold in December for $10.86 million to LET Varsity Farms LLC, led by retired Tyson Foods exec Leland Tollett.
The group for which Big Steve guided moved off the Thomas lease about 20 years ago, and his hunts with them shifted to the neighboring LaGrue Land & Irrigation Co., a 1,285-acre farming-hunting spread north the Thomas property.
One of the investors in LaGrue Land & Irrigation Co. was Rogers Badgett, the Kentucky-based businessman, Arkansas native and duck hunting enthusiast who died in 2005.
Badgett so loved the spread that upon his death his nephew, Bentley Badgett returned to Lagrue Bayou to spread some of Rogers’ ashes, which would become an unofficial, Lagrue Land & Irrigation Co. tradition, as we shall see.
“He always had a love for Arkansas,” Bentley Badgett said of his late uncle.
Little Steve has been a caretaker of the property and guided there since 1988. When he reached to pull some beaver twigs from a spillway drain in 2000, Little Steve got a nasty surprise.
“I brought a cottonmouth out of the water on my finger,” he said. “My ring finger started turning charcoal black, and it felt like 30-40 wasp stings. I said, ‘We got to go.’ “
It took two vials, 14 CCs of antivenom, a $19,800 line item on his medical bill, to counteract the swelling that spread up his right arm from the snake bite.
Big Steve doesn’t get around as well as he once did. That comes with living 79 years combined with the wear and tear of too many hours walking rice levees and plodding through wet fields in mud-gripped boots.
“Just a wore out farmer, that’s all I am,” he said.
Big Steve has undergone three knee replacements and two back surgeries along the way. Getting into the duck woods is more of a chore than in his younger days.
He uses a walking stick to steady his gait in the flooded timber with four-wheel drive shuttle service courtesy of a Gator.
“They made it easy for me,” Big Steve said. “They sit me on a stool or a log. I don’t get in deep water any more. I’m too old to do that.”
Big Steve called ducks on many a hunt for John (Ed)win Ruby Jr., who died on June 18, 2011. Per his request, the Kentucky businessman was cremated and his ashes scattered in his favored patch of duck woods east of the Thomas Reservoir.
Ruby’s final send off during the 2011 duck season was accompanied by a 21-shotgun salute of sorts that included both his first and second wife in the shooting party.
“That was the first time I had been to a shotgun funeral,” Big Steve said. “It was the next day before I realized we were shooting Ed Ruby.”
Ruby’s ashes were substituted for shot in the repacked shells. Each pull of the trigger blasted bits of his mortal remains onto Prairie County landscape.
Yeah, that’s right. He went out with a bang.