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Banding Together for Waterfowl

December in Stuttgart

A late autumn visit to this waterfowling mecca is always memorable, even when the ducks don't cooperate
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Tens of thousands of snow geese frolic in sun-drenched rice fields on the outskirts of town. The temperature is 74 on this mid-December day—more than 20 degrees warmer than the average high for this time of year. Still, I have high hopes that hunting flooded timber is in the cards... until the long faces that greet our arrival in camp suggest a change in plans. 

"We've been scouting—a lot," longtime friend Jim Ronquest reports. "But if the ducks are here, I don't know where they are. We're kind of stumped. I think we're probably going to have to do something different tomorrow." 

Yes, improvising is part of the program in Arkansas too. Despite its lofty reputation, the Rice and Duck Capital of the World is not a duck-hunting slam-dunk day in and day out. As in other renowned waterfowling meccas, gunning can range from fabulous to frustrating.

Fortunately, John Stephens, a three-time world duck calling champion and president of RNT Calls, has a backup plan. And it's located right in his backyard. We'll hunt his family's reservoir in the morning.

This has been rice-growing country for more than 100 years. Arkansas today harvests 48 percent of the nation's rice crop, and it all started in the Stuttgart area. It's probably safe to say that more waterfowlers hunt ducks in Arkansas rice fields than in any other environment, if only because of the volume of available acreage. Rice needs water in order to grow, and Stephens's reservoir serves as an irrigation source. Our hunting site is located just a short boat ride from camp.

Stephens and his crew went to great lengths to create an efficient yet comfortable blind. This setting is all natural. The cover is provided by mature buttonbush, typically called "buckbrush" in this part of the world, which was planted by hand in select locations. Oak boughs were added to enhance concealment. Shooting holes were created by pruning the branches. A wooden bench allows for solid seating. The bottom is paved with gravel, so there is no floundering in the mud. Quite the setup.

The guest list is short but includes a geographic mix. Stephens and I are joined by Bill Miller of Minnesota, Doug Howlett of Virginia, Skip Knowles of Illinois, and Brad Criner of Missouri. We hope to put Winchester's Blind Side ammunition fully to the test.

"We try to coax the birds in as they go from one part of the reservoir to a 75-acre flat that is full of weeds and other stuff they eat," Stephens says. "There are also mounds where they can loaf. I think they come in here because it's close to other areas they use."

We can hear sassy mallard hens quacking in the distance. They're sitting somewhere on what amounts to a reservoir rest area. Gunning is allowed only on portions of this property, so as not to disturb birds that gather here. "Usually, we shoot mostly ducks back here," Stephens says. "But this has been a really strange year."

Translation: Shooting has been slow throughout the region. It's still early, but wintering mallards have not yet arrived in large numbers. Mild weather has slowed the migration. Tens of thousands of greenheads are still hanging out in South Dakota and other points north.

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