By Gary Koehler
Jutting high into the sky from their roots in the flat Arkansas prairie, the distant Riceland Foods grain Elevators signal that Stuttgart is just down the road a piece. These structures—the tallest in town—maintain several roles, including serving as beacons for the trail-weary waterfowl hunter. There is a sense of relief when the bins finally materialize on the horizon after a long drive. Visitors immediately expect to become part of yet another chapter in this region's rich duck hunting history.
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.
At 7:35, Knowles quickly rises from his seat, swings his shotgun, and drops a lone gadwall that arrives unannounced. Taco, a black Lab, is sent to retrieve the morning's first bird. What will the rest of the morning bring?
"We've been seeing a lot more specks [white-fronted geese]," Stephens says while scanning the sky. "I don't know why. Somebody said that the birds may be coming this way because of the drought in Texas. But we're seeing more and more every year."
As if on cue, five specks appear over the tree line. Stephens strikes up a short conversation with the geese, and moments later they are hovering over the decoys, wings cupped and feet down. Specks become the birds du jour. Six limits are eventually loaded into the johnboat, along with four ducks. The Blind Side has proved lethal.
Groups of ducks are conspicuous in their absence. A flock of green-winged teal buzzes us but flies out unscathed. They caught us napping, and were here and gone in a hiccup. Single mallards, the occasional odd pair, and a pintail drake are among the rare visitors.
"Some people think it's real easy to hunt ducks down here," Stephens says. "But up north, hunters don't have to worry about ducks being paired up. When they do get paired up, they want to stay away from other ducks. That can make for some tough hunting because they don't want anything to do with large decoy spreads."
His point is well taken. Arkansas is clearly a duck migration destination. But once the birds arrive here—after being shot at for at least a couple of months—their behavior can change. Pair bonds formed in early winter factor into the riddle.
Miller and I are joined the next morning by Greg Kosteck, a Winchester Ammunition executive, and T.J. Mallette, who helps out the RNT crew when he's not soaking up knowledge in an Ole Miss classroom. We are sequestered in a rice field pit blind, complete with rolling top and Mallette's black Lab, Cash. The temperature is in the 40s and the sky is gray. Wind is negligible. Snow geese are making a racket in a field behind us.
Early on, Kosteck drops a drake mallard that swings wide right before turning back over the decoys. We add another shortly thereafter. Maybe today is the day.
Three hours later, that hope is in shambles. The ducks—at least the greenheads—are just not here yet. We see scattered flocks of other species, but all are bound for parts unknown.
Timing is everything, even in Arkansas. Sometimes you hit the flights just right... and sometimes, well, you miss. Having experienced my share of hits in this rice- and duck-rich region, I'll be back.
For more information on waterfowl hunting and other attractions in the Stuttgart area, visit stuttgartarkansas.org.