The Scatters. The Shooting Grounds … historic nicknames for Arkansas’ Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area.
Situated in the heart of the mallard migration funnel, Bayou Meto is arguably the best public green timber duck hunting on the planet Earth.
Given its public status, anybody that has a pair of waders and an Arkansas hunting license can boat or walk into the woods hoping to convince a group of mallards to break the canopy and flutter down into the decoys. Hunters don’t need a colossal hunting lease or valuable family land to get into the mix of greenheads in the timber.
With the public access, hunters of all types and experience levels from all over the United States make their way to Bayou Meto during duck season. Estimates put around 2,000 hunters in the 34,000-acre WMA on opening weekend (or when word gets out the ducks have moved into the Scatters) and roughly 350 hunters on average on a normal day.
Locals and visitors alike fill the woods with ability levels ranging from savvy and skillful to rookie to everywhere in between. A majority of those hunters are out there to enjoy the experience and play by the rules, of which Bayou Meto has plenty designed to curb abuses in the WMA.
Bayou Meto’s popularity requires rules that are unique to Arkansas’ crown jewel of public duck hunting.
To deter sky-busting ducks above the treetops, hunters may only carry 15 shotgun shells that must be larger than No. 2 size shot. The daily bag limit is four ducks in the WMA, three of which can be mallards (outside the WMA, hunters are allowed six duck limits, four of which may be mallards). And boats are limited to 25 horsepower motors within the WMA.
These rules have come into play because of legitimate abuses by the hunting public and are instituted to improve the opportunity for all hunters to enjoy the sport regardless of skill level and residence.
The hunting on crowded days can be extremely competitive. From the boat launch to the hunting hole, hunters are battling the ducks, each other and the elements for a chance at a successful hunt.
I had to go see a Saturday morning in Bayou Meto WMA for myself. Not through the eyes of a hunter who is worried about whether I will get the hole I want or if the ducks will show, but rather from the perspective of a wildlife officer more concerned with hunter safety and penalizing those who prefer to bend or break the rules.
After a few phone calls and some rescheduling, I hooked up with Wildlife Officer Randy Rhodes at the Halowell Rest Area office around 8 a.m. on the final Saturday of the 2012-2013 duck season. We figured this could be an eventful effort given the final weekend allows all day hunting versus the normal 1 p.m. cutoff time.
Our first order of business was to round up Rhodes’ boat.
The wildlife officers maintain all their equipment and have sleeping quarters on the property for down time between shifts. For the final weekend, the AGFC pulled in wildlife officers from various other districts to assist with policing the woods around the clock.
Our presence as we picked up the boat stirred the off duty officers trying to get in a nap after a long night of operations in the WMA. The officers traded questions and answers about the overnight activities and discussed some of the plans for the remainder of the morning.
My ride along visit coincided with recent media attention given to the Bayou Meto Boat Races. The topic gained enough attention that some AGFC commissioners were making appearances with wildlife officers to witness activity firsthand as well as meet and speak to hunters using the WMA.
We put in at the Lower Vallier Access, which is the main starting line for the boat races. Given it was mid-morning, very few hunters were at the boat ramp, although a few straggled in after a morning of seemingly poor luck.
The parking lot was full but not nearly as overcrowded as it can be. Most of the hardcore Bayou Meto regulars don’t hunt in the WMA on the final weekend because of the people coming from far and wide to get one last hunt in and take advantage of the all day hunting.
As we prepped our gear for the excursion it was hard not to “feel” the eyeballs checking us out as we put the boat in the water and got ready to head out. I am sure quite a few text alerts were sent out from the campsite to hunting buddies still in the woods to warn them that we were coming.
Between the heavy presence of wildlife officers, mainstream media covering the “boat race” issue, social media and text messaging, one would be hard pressed not to know the AGFC had stepped up patrols for the final weekend.
Rhodes decided we would ride the famous “Blue Line.” The boat races take place from Lower Vallier so hunters can get to the Blue Line first and then hustle to their desired hunting holes along that route.
This area is highly coveted by longtime Bayou Meto hunters and pulls a large contingent of newbies to the consistently productive area. On this particular morning, most of the shooting we were hearing as we motored through the woods was in the Upper Vallier and the Government Cypress areas to our north.
We followed the Blue Line for probably 10 minutes before we encountered any hunters. After a routine check of their licenses, stamps, plugs and shell inventory, Rhodes sent them on their way and we continued farther into the WMA.
Finding hunters that morning was difficult. Either most had cleared out by this time of the morning or had migrated to other areas.
We spent the next little bit talking and trading a few stories as we navigated through the flooded timber, not unlike hunters do when the ducks are slow.
I quizzed Rhodes on how he got into the wildlife officer game. Rhodes spent over 10 years as a patrolman on the North Little Rock police force, including some time as a K-9 officer.
As a lifelong hunter and fisherman, Rhodes felt a change of scenery to the outdoors was necessary and became a commissioned wildlife officer in May of 2009.
The job change from patrolman to wildlife officer wasn’t a huge leap for Rhodes. AGFC Wildlife Officers are fully trained and certified law enforcement officers with statewide jurisdiction. They complete 20 weeks of training including police fundamentals, firearms training, first aid/rescue, physical fitness and drug enforcement procedures.
There is heavy competition for these jobs in the state, with one in every 20-25 applicants joining the force.
The conversation turned to some of Rhodes’ wildest run-ins with violators since joining the AGFC. Most are not like normal police interactions, with those caught claiming innocence or attempting to be dishonest with the who, what, when and where of their activities.
Rhodes did have a dangerous run-in with a fellow he busted on offenses related to deer hunting activities. Within a couple of nights of being caught, the violator showed up in Rhodes’ front yard with a rifle and an ego fueled by too many adult beverages. Rhodes had to rely on his police skills to diffuse the situation while his children and wife hid inside the house.
For the most part, Rhodes’ “traffic stops” end peacefully with some helpful dialogue and occasionally a ticket.
As our morning progressed we were easing closer to the Five Forks area when we both noticed some flashing wing decoys out in the thicker timber off the Blue Line. Given the low number of hunters we had checked that morning (none of which had killed a duck yet), Rhodes decided he should check on these hunters.
The area they were hunting was too shallow for the boat so he cut the motor and parked it. He exited the boat and walked about 50 yards or so to the hunter’s decoy spread.
On his walk, Rhodes noticed one of the hunters behind a tree dropping some items into the water. Rhodes made his way directly to that area and began the normal routine of quizzing the hunters on how the morning hunt went while checking licenses, shotguns and shells.
After everything seemed to check out okay, Rhodes used some of his police experience to question the hunter he had noticed dropping something behind the tree. After pressing the hunter a little bit, the guy came clean and said he had dropped some shells in the water.
Rhodes had already counted 15 shells for this hunter so anything in the water was going to put him over the Bayou Meto WMA restriction of 15. Rhodes then asked if he reached his hand down in the water behind that tree, would he find anything else.
The hunter sheepishly admitted he drank a few beers that morning and sunk the beers behind the tree as well.
So this one little stop off the beaten path resulted in nearly $700 in fines for this guy having more shells than the Bayou Meto WMA limit, possessing alcohol and littering — pretty hefty fines for a morning hunt that produced zero ducks. Just like those written by a city police officer, these tickets come with a court date and a date to pay the fine.
After all that, we decided to head back to the ramp and go assist on the big event from the night before. More on that in a minute.
As we pulled the boat out of the water and were getting ready to hop in the truck, a hunter still in his waders wandered over and struck up a conversation with Rhodes about the boat races. Early in the discussion it became obvious this guy was a regular and possessed one of the faster boats. He fancied himself a veteran of Bayou Meto, if you will.
The discussion was friendly with some back and forth as to how to correct the problems. Rhodes later informed me quite a few hunters at the ramp like to engage him in conversation so they come across to other hunters as “in the know.”
Rhodes called it “ramp cred.” Much like “street cred,” these guys like to be able to go back to their buddies and say they talked to a wildlife officer and have the scoop.
This particular guy rambled on with solutions and said a little arrogantly that most of the issues involved guys with small motors and no experience in Bayou Meto getting to the front of the line for the 4 a.m. boat race.
Rhodes’ tone then changed from friendly to fired-up, just enough to signal the statement had raised the hair on the back of his neck a little bit. In few words, Rhodes conveyed the notion that hunters with such an attitude are the real issue, not the guy with the 9.9 HP motor and no experience at Lower Vallier.
Rhodes made sure to point out Bayou Meto WMA is public property and a guy in a canoe with a paddle has just as much right to be at the front of that line as the guy with the souped-up 25 HP Tohatsu motor. The biggest boat with the fastest motor doesn’t equate to any level of preference at the boat ramp.
Until those types of guys set their egos aside, Rhodes indicated, enforcement would be heavier for unsafe boating practices and bullying at the boat ramp. The hunter attempted some backpedaling but it was obvious that, once out of sight of a wildlife officer, he and his buddies would be back to trying to own the ramp the next day.
Now we were back on track, as mentioned, to deal with unfinished business from the night before.
Rhodes headed back up the road to Upper Vallier to put the boat back in the water and meet the salvage crew called in to assist in an operation in Little Bayou Meto.
The previous day was the first of the closing weekend in which hunters could be in Bayou Meto WMA in the afternoon. Some hunters from Georgia were coming out late Friday after shooting time and proceeded to sink their boat.
I never did catch how the boat sank exactly. They said this was an annual trip for them and they chase ducks all over the Mississippi Flyway every season. It was hard to tell if they were telling the truth or trying to save face.
Four hunters, guns, shell bags, decoys, phones and everything else went into the water with most of it sinking to the bottom. The men had to swim out of the middle of the 50-yard wide, 10-foot deep bayou to the nearest tree while wearing waders and heavy hunting gear.
One hunter’s father was an older gentleman and apparently had a significant struggle getting to safety. Once out of the depths, their next issue was getting out of Bayou Meto, as most hunters were long gone by then.
Luckily one last boat happened to be coming out and rescued the cold, weary hunters turned survival swimmers.
We met the unfortunate guys at the Upper Vallier boat ramp and followed them to the scene of the accident. The salvage crew had gone ahead of us with some other members of the Georgia party and by the time we got there, the crew had fished out the boat with motor somehow intact from the bottom of Little Bayou Meto.
Using a large magnet, they found a couple of the guns as well. The drowned boat was towed back to the levee of the water control structure at Upper Vallier and the Georgia crew was dead set on getting back in the woods the next day.
Brave or a little ignorant — not sure which.
End Of Shift
Although there were no major busts of hunters over their limit (we didn’t check one boat with a dead duck) we did have an eventful morning. The interaction between wildlife officer and hunter was interesting to an observer.
Naturally there is some nervousness for those getting checked but Rhodes’ demeanor puts most innocent guys at ease. Most of the time the conversations turned to boats, motors, what the ducks were doing — normal duck hunter talk.
The wildlife officer’s job is to ensure hunters are playing by the rules and most do. There is a lot of work left to do in Bayou Meto WMA as well as some other state owned properties that can get out of control when the ducks hit the public shooting grounds.
The boat races are a high priority because of the risk of injury or worse, and it will happen if that isn’t cleaned up.
Rhodes and the other officers are stepping up their presence but the hunters need to start policing themselves before the AGFC institutes stricter rules and regulations nobody wants to see.
Bayou Meto Hunters Go Overboard With Boat Races
Any time there are humans competing for something, there will be that element that seeks an advantage over the competition, sometimes within the rules, often times not so much.
Thus, Bayou Meto may is almost as well known for its overcrowding and the wild, 4 a.m. boat races as it is for its duck hunting.
The Bayou Meto Boat Races are not a new phenomenon as hunters have been blazing down the ditches of the Lower Vallier boat ramp for years. Boats can stack up thick enough before the gates open you could walk from one side of the ditch to the other without touching water, from the ramp to the gate.
When the gate is opened at 4 a.m. to allow access to the WMA, the brave, the ego driven and dangerous crank the throttle wide open to the end of the ditch and off into the woods hoping to claim their desired hunting hole before someone else does.
It was hoped the unsafe boating and bullying would be curtailed when the guide services and their hole runners were expelled from the WMA. The effort helped some, but issues still exist.
Then the 25 horsepower limit on outboard motors was put into place to literally slow down the contingent of risk-takers frequenting “The Scatters.”
Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case as a fair amount of boats are running “hot” — 25 horsepower motors that run more like 40 or boats that have 40 horsepower motors in 25 horsepower housing.
While no deaths have been reported, countless boat crashes, sinking boats and hunters thrown into the water were frequent happenings. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has also pointed out the large wake produced by the boat races is eroding the levee down the ditch at some of the launches.
The expense of repairing damage cuts into the WMA’s budget, using money that could be spent elsewhere to improve the actual duck hunting.
Increased wildlife officer presence was the immediate solution for the end of last season and there will likely be some permanent solutions to put a stop to the practice before there is a serious injury or death.
Talk has ranged from a lottery system to a staggered launch to lowering the horsepower limit even more.
There will always be that element that decides to push rules or break them, but it is likely the end of the Bayou Meto races — and the less talked about, equally dangerous Hurricane Lake WMA races — is very near.
Hopefully this happens before the law abiding, safe boating hunter is forced to use a paddle to make it to his favorite Bayou Meto honey hole.