Duck season begins in Arkansas on Saturday.
Hunters from across the country are migrating to our state today. You see, this is the mecca of their sport.
Let’s go back more than 60 years and read what Ralph Coghlan wrote in 1949 for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Let me say that, over a hunting experience of many years, I have never seen more ducks than darkened the Arkansas skies this year. Not being a bookkeeper, an accountant, a human adding machine or a member of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, I couldn’t come within 100,000 of figuring how many I saw.
“I watched mallards sitting in vast and solid rafts on the Arkansas reservoirs, quacking raucously and happily, and at dusk, saw them start for the rice fields. They took off in successive roars like fleets of miniature B-29s, and for half an hour or more, the whole sky was alive with ducks.
“For seven weeks in November 1949, wave after wave of mallards took off like scrambling fighter planes from their summer breeding grounds in Canada. Fanning out over four major flyways, they headed south. It was the heaviest migration of waterfowl that the U.S. had seen in years.
“Southward along the Mississippi Flyway, which in 1949 was traveled by the thickest squadrons of ducks and gunned by almost half the nation’s 2 million waterfowlers, the shooting was the best in years. Hunters from all over the U.S. converged on Stuttgart, which, at that early date, declared that its flooded woodlands and rice fields made it the Duck Capital of the World.”
As you can tell, the Arkansas reputation as a mecca for duck hunters has been decades in the making.
Bill Hope planted a small plot of rice near Stuttgart as an experiment in 1902. It yielded 139 bushels per acre despite all of the people who were pulling up stalks of this strange crop as souvenirs.
The Stuttgart Rice Mill Co. was incorporated on March 9, 1907. The mill was completed the following October and reported a profit on the first year’s crop of $16,000.
The cooperative of rice farmers that would become Riceland Foods Inc. was formed in 1921. The ducks followed the rice.
Writing for Delta Waterfowl magazine, Wayne Capooth explained: “Until the coming of drying facilities, harvested rice was left to dry in the fields, attracting southward-bound ducks and geese in indescribable numbers to feed. In addition, dotting the prairies were numerous timbered depressions known as ‘islands’ or ‘pin oak flats,’ at least two dozen of which were used as rice reservoirs or as ‘green tree’ reservoirs.
“The first rice reservoir, built by Art and Verne Tindall, was completed in 1927 near Elm Prong Mill Bayou. Verne Tindall remarked to the Stuttgart Daily Leader, ‘The first few years, it seemed as if all the ducks in the country tried to get into it.’
“By the mid-1940s, reservoirs were estimated to occupy about 10,000 acres, while the rice acreage of the Grand Prairie was about 175,000 acres. By 1950, about 200 had been built within the region and 50 were green-tree reservoirs. These reservoirs, constructed for irrigation, provided an additional attraction, resulting in the Grand Prairie becoming a nationally known venue for waterfowling.”
The first duck calling contest was held on Main Street in Stuttgart on Nov. 24, 1936, in conjunction with the annual Arkansas Rice Carnival. It was the idea of Thad McCollum and was sponsored by the American Legion. McCollum, Dr. H.V. Glenn and Arthur Shoemaker formed a committee to stage the event. Verne Tindall later replaced Shoemaker as a committee member.
There were 17 contestants in that first contest. Thomas Walsh won without using a call. Walsh, who raised ducks at his home in Greenville, Miss., produced the sounds with his throat. His prize was a hunting coat valued at $6.60 that the American Legion had purchased from the John Oberly Clothing Store.
The only other contestant to win the contest without a call was also from Greenville. Herman Callouet pulled off that feat in 1942.
By 1947, the prize was up to $1,000. Next week’s winner will receive a prize package worth more than $15,000.
Just as famous as the calling contest these days is the duck gumbo cook-off that is always held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I can only describe this as an Arkansas-grown bacchanalia that’s as close as you get in this state to Bourbon Street in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.
Cooking teams with names such as the Bud Light Rouxmasters (last year’s winner), the Flockers and Mallard Malee will wear custom shirts, work in elaborate booths and slap team stickers on the rears of women who walk by in tight jeans.
If you attend, plan on having to scream to be heard above the band Tragikly White and the hundreds of people who will be talking loudly with their friends.
The more than 50 teams are required to cook three quarts of gumbo each, and at least 50 percent of the meat must be duck. Teams begin cooking at 10 a.m., and the judging takes place at 3 p.m.
Each Thanksgiving, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones fires up his private jet following his team’s home game for a weekend of hunting at his Red Hill Duck Club near Stuttgart. Jones often can be spotted at the gumbo cook-off.
Capooth, the Delta Waterfowl writer, first attended the Wings Over the Prairie Festival in 1955 with his father. He was 10 years old.
He remembers staying at the old Riceland Hotel just down the hall from John Olin of Winchester-Western. Olin hunted at the Greebriar Club, which was known by locals as the Winchester Club.
“It was here on these famous grounds that King Buck retrieved his last greenhead,” Capooth writes. “Double national champion (1953 and 1954) King Buck was given his due when, in 1959, it was decided that the federal duck stamp for that year should commemorate the work of retrievers and their contribution to waterfowl conservation. … So it is that Maynard Reece painted a portrait of perhaps the greatest duck dog of them all.”
For all of you headed duck hunting on this opening weekend, best of luck and be safe. Know that you’re taking part in a treasured Arkansas tradition.