In its nomination narrative to have Wingmead, the noted private duck hunting mecca in Prairie County, included on the National Register of Historic Places, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program noted the proliferation of private hunting clubs in Arkansas.
Here’s part of what was submitted: “In the early years of duck hunting in Arkansas, private duck hunting clubs were the center of the action and one of the most prevalent ways to hunt. In fact, by 1956, Arkansas had 1,820,921 acres in private hunting areas that were not available to the general public. This amount of acreage in private clubs in Arkansas ranked second in the nation, only being surpassed by the 3.5 million acres in Louisiana clubs.
“Since many of the best duck hunting grounds were privately owned, it was often considered a sport for the rich, and a Nov. 26, 1935, article in the Arkansas Gazette illustrated the fact that Arkansas drew the wealthy for duck hunting: ‘Herbert Pulitzer of New York and Joseph Pulitzer of St. Louis, sons of the famous New York publisher, have gone in for duck hunting in a big way. They have rented the ground floor of the Riceland Hotel (in Stuttgart), also two houses in Stuttgart and leased a 1,500-acre tract, including a large reservoir on the rice plantation of Frank Freudenberg, six miles east of Stuttgart. It is reported that the brothers have installed a retinue of attendants, including a hairdresser, in the hotel while they and their wives and guests are occupying the homes that they have rented.’
“However, Joseph Pulitzer was not the only wealthy person from St. Louis who made the trek to Arkansas to take part in duck hunting in the 1930s. Edgar Monsanto Queeny, president of the Monsanto Chemical Co., also came to Arkansas beginning in the 1930s and would play an important role in the Arkansas conservation movement.”
It was Queeny who built Wingmead.
In the years between World War I and World War II, Americans began spending more of their earnings on outdoor recreation.
This is how Paul Sutter put it in the book “Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement: “To many Americans, nature, once a raw material to be transformed by ceaseless labor, became a place of relaxation, therapeutic recreation and moral regeneration. For many, nature offered psychic accommodation to a changing world.
“Outdoor recreation became more intimately connected with consumerism during the interwar years. Certainly Americans had more leisure time, and with the automobile they were more likely to head out into nature to enjoy it. More strikingly, outdoor recreation became a decidedly commercial phenomenon after World War I. American expenditures on recreation during the decade increased by 300 percent. Among other effects, this created anxiety among those who saw nature as a bulwark against commercialism. Finally, with the growth of both a car culture and a consumer culture, Americans turned to recreational nature with a new set of acquisitive habits in mind.”
More Arkansans than ever before began to hunt ducks in the first half of the 20th century. But as tens of thousands of acres became part of private clubs, the common man found it difficult to find decent places to hunt.
Enter Bayou Meto.
When we hunted together recently at the Piney Creek Duck Club in Monroe, Steve “Wild Man” Wilson of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission gave me a copy of a fascinating little book titled “From the Scatters To Buckingham Flats: A History of Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area.”
The book was written by the late Carol Griffee and edited by Jim Spencer. It was published by the Game & Fish Commission in 2002, but I had never seen a copy until last month.
The book describes the decades-long struggle to build what many experts consider the finest public duck hunting area in the country.
I agree with what Hugh Durham, who was the director of the Game & Fish Commission at the time of publication, said: “Almost from its inception, the acquisition, management, flooding, drainage, user group conflicts and other problems associated with Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area have bedeviled the succession of area managers, district biologists, wildlife division chiefs and agency directors who have come and gone since the first deed transfer in the late 1940s. But, as practically everyone who has ever set foot on this WMA could agree, it has been worth the effort.”
Spencer, one of the nation’s top outdoor writers, moved to Stuttgart with his family when he was just 7 years old.
“Dad hunted Bayou Meto WMA and the White River bottoms,” Spencer told Keith Sutton in an interview last year. “It was tough hunting, poor-boy style, with no boat and lots of walking through flooded timber. I was too little for that sort of stuff, but that didn’t keep me from wanting to go.
“Finally Dad told me I could go when I got big enough to wear a size-five hip boot, the smallest they made. I think I grew to fit those boots when I was 10. They were still too big, but I told Dad they fit just fine. Those black gum boots didn’t have any insulation, and I remember my feet would get so cold I couldn’t even feel them. I rarely wanted to call it quits, though, and even when I did, I never said so because I was afraid I wouldn’t get to go next time if I wimped out.”
Asked his favorite public hunting areas in Arkansas, here’s how Spencer answered: “First, Bayou Meto WMA, mostly because that was where I learned to hunt ducks but also because even with the crowding, it’s still one of the world’s best public areas.
“Second, the Maddox Bay area of what is now the North Unit of the White River National Wildlife Refuge. My family had a cabin at Crockett’s Bluff when I was a kid, and I hunted Maddox Bay a lot.
“Third, Dagmar WMA when it’s flooded because it lies right where the White/Cache/DeView drainages all converge and is therefore under a tremendous flyway junction.
“Finally, the Arkansas River when cold fronts freeze everything else. Hunting conditions can be brutal, but there’s a wide variety of ducks and lots of them.”
Spencer, who has hunted ducks all over the world, added this: “There’s better teal/pintail/gadwall/widgeon hunting in south Louisiana, and it’s going to be hard to forget hunts I’ve had on the Platte in Nebraska, on the upper Mississippi near Prairie du Chien, Wis., and in the Lake Erie marshes. But when you’re talking about mallards, the best hunting is here in Arkansas.”
So the best mallard hunting in the world is in Arkansas.
And the best public hunting area in Arkansas is Bayou Meto.
“Bayou Meto is a product of nature — a wetlands wilderness where bayous and sloughs draining an unusually large watershed begin to say ‘howdy’ to each other en route to the Arkansas River,” Griffee wrote. “During high flows, the water in the streams intermingled across the flat terrain, causing natural but intermittent winter and spring flooding that lasted for days, weeks or months.
“Because the area was so wet for so much of the year, and because of its reputation as superb trapping and hunting grounds, particularly for ducks, what is known now as the Bayou Meto WMA was last on the list of places settlers and early-day farmers planned to clear and convert to cropland.
“The area was heavily logged, and the higher parcels of land were cleared for cotton farming in the early decades of the 20th century. The biggest ‘cash crop,’ however, was moonshine whiskey, and this fact caused residents of the more refined settings of Stuttgart and DeWitt to ridicule the area.
“Before landowners could march their bigger, better, post-World War II clearing machines into the Bayou Meto area, three fortuitous changes occurred in quick succession. First, the voters of Arkansas reconstituted the Game & Fish Commission as a constitutionally independent state agency by adopting Amendment 35 in 1944.
“Second, on its staff at the time was Trusten H. ‘Trut’ Holder, who was deeply troubled about the rate at which wetlands in eastern Arkansas were disappearing and who became obsessed with saving as many of them as he could.
“Third, Ducks Unlimited and the Arkansas Wildlife Federation began to speak up for sportsmen who were being squeezed out by the proliferation of private, exclusive hunting clubs being established where waterfowl flocked to feed and rest during their Mississippi flyway migrations.
“As a result of these three factors, the Game & Fish Commission decided to get into the land-ownership business. In 1948, the first deeds were recorded and Bayou Meto WMA came to be.”
It was a wise move, one that has now provided dividends for duck hunters for more than 60 years.
Mention Bayou Meto to avid duck hunters across the country, and they’ll know the place. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to put Bayou Meto on the list of the world’s legendary hunting areas.