By Eric Keszler
A journey to one of North America's most famous waterfowling regions reveals why eastern Arkansas is still so important for greenheads and those who would pursue them.
Like most of us, I've done some interesting things in my time. But, like most of us, I've also missed out on many of life's grandest experiences-those activities seemingly reserved for the very gifted, the very fortunate, or the very wealthy. I've never pitched a shutout in Yankee Stadium. I've never taken the checkered flag at Daytona. I've never climbed Everest. And I've never faced down a charging Cape Buffalo in deepest Africa.
But when it comes to waterfowling, I can proudly say that I've played in the big leagues, reached the apex of the sport, and rubbed shoulders with the best in the business . . . because I've hunted mallards in Arkansas.
It's simple really. Eastern Arkansas has long been one of North America's top destinations for duck hunters because of one basic fact: It is also one of North America's top destinations for ducks.
As the Mississippi and Central flyway's waterfowl head south every fall along the continent's longest river, they find themselves funneled into the famous Mississippi Delta, that legendary region of swamps, bayous, and flooded forests. Historically, this region provided a perfect blend of food, shelter, and weather-just what you look for if you're a duck in search of a winter home.
Today, of course, much of that landscape has changed. Only 20 percent of the original natural wildlife habitat in the Delta remains. In spite of that, the Delta is still an extremely important area for ducks-especially mallards.
Approximately one-fifth of North America's mallards spend the winter here. And of the seven states with Delta land, Arkansas is by far the most important. Arkansas has 9,000 miles of streams statewide and contributes around 8 million acres of land to the 24 million acres of the Mississippi Delta floodplain.
In 1999, hunters in Arkansas killed more than 1,146,000 mallards-considerably more than any other state and nearly three times as many as Louisiana, a distant second in total number of mallards harvested.
Considering all of these factors, eastern Arkansas really does seem to be a kind of mallard heaven. And if that's true, then the town of Stuttgart, Arkansas, is the pearly gates. Billing itself as the Rice and Duck Capital of the World, Stuttgart is at the epicenter of the duck hunting world.
But the flurry of activity around Stuttgart seems a world apart from the down-home style of duck hunting that has become a way of life across the rest of eastern Arkansas, where every other pickup has a dog box in its bed and a DU sticker in its window, where most convenience stores and restaurants open at 3 a.m. to serve a bleary-eyed camo-clad clientele, and where hundreds of thousands of acres of public and private land are managed for waterfowl and waterfowl hunting.
I found myself immersed in this unique Arkansas atmosphere in mid-December as the guest of Charles Snapp, a lifelong mallard enthusiast who learned the art and business of duck hunting from his father. Snapp guides hunters in northeastern Arkansas near the town of Walnut Ridge, where he combines a converted motel and restaurant and access to thousands of acres of prime public and private land into a complete Arkansas duck-hunting experience.
According to Snapp, the key to success in this part of the country is flexibility. Depending on weather, time of year, hunting pressure, phases of the moon, and other factors, large concentrations of ducks can be found in several different kinds of habitats. Snapp's advantage is that he can choose from virtually all possible habitat types in the area-flooded rice or bean fields, sloughs and river bottoms, or some of the state's best stands of flooded hardwood timber.
As Snapp's guest, you usually don't know what kind of area you'll be hunting until you drag yourself out of bed in the inky-black predawn and join dozens of hunters gathering in the main lodge to get their assignments for the day. Those assignments are based on the results of the previous evening's scouting trips around the area. Many of Snapp's guides spend their afternoons cruising the countryside to find out what the ducks are up to.
"The best duck caller is the man who's where the ducks want to be," Snapp told me while getting the troops organized. "And the only way you can find out where the ducks want to be is by scouting."
That particular morning we headed to the Dave Donaldson/Black River Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near Pocahontas. One of the largest public areas in the state, in wet years this WMA provides as much as 18,000 acres of waterfowl hunting in a classic Arkansas flooded timber setting. Joined by DU regional biologist Scott Manley, who is working with landowners and others to provide waterfowl habitat across Arkansas, we loaded up the boat and puttered off into the timber.
The night was still black as coal, and the woods here were thicker than I had imagined. Narrow channels through the flooded timber provide "roads" for hunters. I sat in the bow and held a flashlight above my head to help Snapp see where we were going, and I wondered how anyone could find anything in these ghostly woods.
I asked Manley why Arkansas is still so important to mallards, considering the changes that man has wrought on the landscape over the years. He gave me several general reasons.
First, he said, is tradition. For longer than anyone can tell, the Mississippi Delta has been the historical wintering grounds for the mid-continent mallard population. Eastern Arkansas is attractive to those southbound birds because of its sheer size and because of its water resources. For illustration: "The Delta portion of Arkansas," he said, "is twice the size of the Delta portion of Mississippi."
Add to that the number of major drainages in Arkansas, and you begin to put a lot of water on the landscape. Those drainages include the White River, St. Francis River, and Arkansas River-a major east-west drainage that even pulls birds eastward from the Central Flyway.
We arrived at a huge hole in the timber and began unloading. Hundreds of decoys were already sitting motionless on the chest-deep water. Snapp explained that the Dave Donaldson/Black River WMA is one of only a few public areas in the state where hunters are allowed to leave their blocks out overnight.
That's a unique regulation, but it comes with a unique caveat-you are not allowed to prohibit someone else from hunting over your decoys. That means if you show up at your spot and someone else is already there, you better just make a quick friend and plan on spending the morning hunting together.
But we were the only hunters in this hole this morning. Manley and I hung our gear on either side of a huge old Nuttal oak, steeled ourselves against the icy water pressing against our waders, and turned our eyes skyward as the heavens began to lighten.
As I leaned against that oak, trying to stay concealed, I started thinking about how long the tree had been there, and the millions of acres of trees just like it that had blanketed this area more than 100 years ago. Manley told me that even though many of the original forests have been cleared and much of the habitat has been converted to agriculture, eastern Arkansas still has a relatively large hardwood component, compared to the other Delta states of Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois.
Snapp's scouting report served us well. Because there had been a full moon the night before, the birds had been feeding in the surrounding grainfields all night. At sunrise, they would begin moving into the timber to find shelter and resting areas. And that's exactly where we were waiting.
It was a clear day, and the sun was already nearing the treetops when the first flights began arriving. Just about every duck hunter in Arkansas will tell you that sunny days are the best for hunting timber. But try to find out why that is and you're likely to get a variety of responses.
Some waterfowl biologists theorize that on clear days more ducks will head for the woods because they feel uncomfortable in the open fields and somehow more vulnerable to attack from airborne predators. Others say that ducks don't necessarily search out timber on sunny days, it's just that they're more likely to drop in to a decoy spread when the sun hits the water and hunters can stay out of sight on the shady side of a tree.
Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, the mallards seemed intent on finding a place in the timber on this sunny morning. Groups of as many as 20 or 30 birds would circle around our hole, just above the trees, casting suspicious glances at the imposters on the water.
We kicked the water to give the decoys some motion, and Snapp enticed them with feeding chuckles and greeting calls. And then, just as if there were runway lights and arrows pointing the way, two or three would drop out of every group, following the exact same path into the hole, where they would hang above the decoys, presenting almost embarrassingly easy shots.
It seemed like only a few minutes, but it was probably more like an hour, as I stood gape-mouthed, watching this spectacle and trading pick-off shots with my partners for the day. And I thought: "This is like being the star in one of the best duck hunting videos ever made.
It's like one of those moments when the planets are aligned in your favor, your tee shot glides long and straight down the middle of the fairway, your free-throw swishes light as a feather through the net, you place your fly gently and tantalizingly in front of a rising trout. In short, you can do no wrong."
On the way back to Walnut Ridge, Manley gave me a tour of several nearby project sites where DU is helping private landowners manage their agricultural operations for waterfowl. "Probably more so in Arkansas than in any other state in the Delta, people are serious about wetland restoration and management efforts," he said as we walked along a dike built around a flooded rice field.
Combine those efforts with restoration activities by Ducks Unlimited, state and federal agencies, and other groups, and you begin to see a patchwork of waterfowl habitat spread across the state, providing waterfowl with a variety of food, shelter, and other resources.
Later, I spoke with Ken Reinecke, a wildlife research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a recognized expert on mallards and their use of the Delta. Reinecke enlightened me on the importance of Arkansas to North America's mallards. One of the main reasons for that, he said, is people. "People in Arkansas are disproportionately active in managing habitats for waterfowl-rice fields in particular."
Rice does seem to be a magic ingredient in the recipe that makes eastern Arkansas such an attractive place for mallards. Of the approximately 3.3 million acres of rice grown in the United States, 1.5 million (45 percent) are grown in eastern Arkansas. And around 250,000 of those acres are actively managed for waterfowl after harvest.
Snapp pointed out that rice farming leaves a lot more spilled grain on the ground than other agricultural products-sometimes a few hundred pounds per acre. He also noted how rice farming in the state has changed over the years. Most of the rice used to be produced in southern Arkansas, around Stuttgart, he said, but today there is more rice produced in northeast Arkansas than anywhere else.
Back in Walnut Ridge, we gathered around the sign in front of Snapp's lodge, hoisting our day's take to pose for a customary picture. An amazing number of people in cars and trucks on the busy road that runs in front of the lodge were honking, waving, and giving us the thumbs-up as they passed by our little photo session. "Welcome to Arkansas," said Snapp as the flashbulb popped.
I might as well have been standing on the mound in Yankee Stadium, the crowd roaring in my ears.