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.
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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.