Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour describes duck hunting this way: “The camaraderie and collegiality you get in duck hunting is totally different from other hunting because you’re together and form a bond of shared experience. You may be an ambassador or a governor. But when you duck hunt, you can always be a 17-year-old.”
I thought about those words on my most recent duck hunt in east Arkansas as my hunting companions and I laughed, told jokes and generally acted like a bunch of 17-year-old boys.
My host, mind you, is past the age of 80. I’m past the age of 50. It really didn’t matter.
In the previous Southern Fried blog post, we told you about the latest book from Wild Abundance Publishing Co. of Memphis. It’s titled “A Million Wings” and focuses on 12 duck clubs along the Lower Mississippi Flyway — three in Missouri, one in Kentucky, three in Arkansas, three in Mississippi and two in Louisiana.
The Arkansas clubs featured in the book are Greasy Slough near the upper Bayou DeView in northeast Arkansas, the Coca Cola Woods near Wynne and Screaming Wings near Stuttgart.
“Greasy Slough has never been a hunting club for the faint of heart,” writes Susan Schadt of Memphis, the book’s author. “Take, for instance, the Tag Shack. The shack is a rickety monument to the antics and aberrations of hunters at Greasy in pursuit of the perfect hunt. The Tag Shack is indeed a shack. The tool shed-sized edifice is a simple structure, but that’s not a problem for the overly zealous members who illuminate the property map on the wall with car headlights and play games of extreme one-upsmanship to be the first to ‘tag’ their favorite hole for the morning hunt.
“Originally, the club used a ‘first in time rule’ to determine who got to hunt which hole. It was not unheard of for members to drive to the property at 2 a.m. or earlier in order to stake claim on their hole of choice. They would sleep in the blind, in the boat or in their trucks, warding off all other comers, until first shooting light.”
Club member Hughes Lowrance remembers “waiting to see who was going to show up because there were no cell phones and no one knew where anyone was. If someone was being nice, they’d flash their light at you to let you know they were out there.”
Massive poker games would take place at a hotel in Jonesboro. At about 2 a.m., teenage sons would be sent out to hold the holes.
“Holding the hole was not only a lonely and potentially scary vigil; it could be a very frigid one as well,” Schadt writes. “Charlie Lowrance remembers holding a hole one freezing night with his Uncle Collie and being so cold that they resorted to building a fire in the bottom of the metal boat for warmth.”
The club consists of more than 1,000 acres of timber and farmland on the northern end of the Bayou DeView. J.H. “Jim” Crain formed the Greasy Slough Outing Club in November 1945. The property included timber that could be flooded, a reservoir and Greasy Slough. Crain sold 33 memberships in the club for $1,000 each.
There are now 26 members. About half are from Memphis. The other half are from Arkansas.
Schadt notes that the club still has some of the Crain family as members and maintains a beneficial relationship with the adjacent Crain farm when it comes to attracting ducks.
As one of the Lowrances put it: “We can pick Greasy out from the air at 30,000 feet, and that’s why we think ducks can pick it out. As they come down the flyway, the first flooded timber they see is Greasy. We are the most northern club in the area, and we’re surrounded by rice fields.”
Schadt writes: “Many members have had the same opening weekend guests, many of whom are neighbors in Memphis, for 20 years. Guests are treated to some of the South’s finest hunting in some of its more famous holes, including the Grasspatch, the Lowrance Hole, the Big Woods Hole, the Carter Hole and the Lil’ Marty.”
The next Arkansas club featured in the book, Coca Cola Woods near Wynne, is owned by Memphis businessman John Dobbs Jr.
Everett Pidgeon, whose family bought the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Memphis in 1909, acquired the property over a three-year period at a price of $1.20 an acre. There was only one small cabin there at the time. Pidgeon moved a house from Snow Lake to serve as the lodge.
“During that era, the property known as Morton’s to close family and friends was used as a hunting club on weekends and a place to entertain their Coca-Cola clients during the week,” Schadt writes. “As its reputation for great hunting and good times spread among customers, friends and locals, it became referred to as ‘that Coca-Cola place’ and before long the unofficial nickname was Coca Cola Woods.
“Typically a men’s-only retreat, Bobby Pidgeon Jr. has fond memories of trips to the camp with his grandmother before opening day of duck season transformed it into an all-male bastion. When he came of age to hunt, he ‘enjoyed camaraderie and fellowship with my dad’s friends, and also with my friends, some of whom I’ve known and hunted with for 47 years now.”’
Schadt notes: “During those days there were no blinds so hunters stood in the water behind trees. Hunters followed a strict set of rules. There was no hunting after noon, and hunters were not allowed to walk ducks up. While the ducks have certainly appreciated these considerations, they are also drawn to the property’s natural features, including a creek that splits the back part of the property in half and the extensive flooded green timber. Hunters from St. Louis to New Orleans came to enjoy this duck-filled paradise.”
The Pidgeon family sold the club to Harvey Robbins of Tuscumbia, Ala., in 1995 and it was renamed Harvey’s Duck Club.
When Dobbs bought the property three years ago, he officially changed the name to Coca Cola Woods.
The club’s manager and lead guide is Rusty Creasy, who began hunting at age 8 and calling at age 10. Brother Mike Creasy and their uncle, Harvey Shue, also serve as guides.
“Rusty Creasy is a special guy,” Dobbs says. “He has been around the club since he was born, and he cares deeply about his job and about being a good host and guide.”
Dobbs adds: “Historically it has been known for great duck hunting, but more importantly it has been known for the adventures and stories people tell about their experience at Coca Cola Woods. Now it’s a place for everyone, just the guys or our families or three generations of families. Some people hunt ducks their entire lives and never see the things we see at Coca Cola Woods with the quality of ducks and camaraderie.
“As a man, sometimes it’s hard to identify this feeling, but when you’re out there, there’s a realization that you’re doing what you’re meant to do. There’s no thinking about other problems. The focus in on killing the ducks. It all goes back to man’s most primal instincts as hunters and gatherers and doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Next, Screaming Wings.
Russell McCollum placed a full-page ad in the Daily Leader at Stuttgart in 1952, urging landowners to flood their fields to attract ducks.
“McCollum’s marketing ploy surely contributed to Stuttgart’s undisputed reputation as Duck Hunting Capital of the World,” Schadt writes. “After some 50 years as a commercial hunting operation known interchangeably as Wildlife Acres, McCollum’s and Russell’s, this property is now a private retreat in the capable hands of Witt Stephens of Little Rock.”
The land on which the club sits was purchased by Otis McCollum in 1925.
“Otis McCollum was a visionary,” Schadt writes. “To transform the land into a magnum-size commercial hunting operation, he enlisted the aid of water management engineer T.J. Fricke and built a series of levees that created the ideal conditions for hunting. Today there are more than 15 miles of Otis McCollum-built levees in the Bayou Meto basin.”
His nephew Russell bought the land in 1952 and charged visitors for daily hunts.
“Soon referred to as Russell’s by those in the know, it accommodated as many as 1,400 shooters per year,” Schadt says. “There was no advertising. Duck hunters from around the country came to experience the thrill of world-class duck hunting replete with local guides fully loaded with sharp wits, tall tales and an expert feeding chuckle that all but guaranteed a limit of mallards.”
Buck Mayhue began guiding on the property in 1951 and became the club’s manager in 1959 when Russell McCollum developed health problems.
The book states: “Buck’s one-year trial as manager turned into a career spanning 42 years and counting. He has managed the land and duck hunts for Russell McCollum, Russell’s daughter and son-in-law, Nancy and Mike Smith, and now for Witt Stephens. While many envy his dream job, make no mistake, for Buck the hunt is strictly professional.”
“It’s like going to the office,” he says. “When I’m out there, I’m all business. When I pull that duck caller out, I’m serious.”
Witt Stephens Jr. began looking at the property in 2005.
“The owners wanted to sell the property in a private manner and knowing of Witt’s longstanding interest, they sent a cryptic message through a mutual friend, Mike’s brother, Steve Smith, and soon the deal was sealed. It was a perfect fit. Buck was, of course, inseparable from the property and although initially skeptical of new ownership, he is a firm believer in Witt’s vision for the land.”
He says: “I’m 110 percent committed to this operation. I was happy when Witt took over. I was so afraid that somebody would make a bean field out of those woods out there.”
The book tells how Witt Jr. learned to shoot on his father’s cattle farm at Prattsville, where the man known as Mr. Witt spent his weekends. It talks about the person often known around Little Rock as Little Witt “trying to breathe” on the way to the farm. That’s because Mr. Witt smoked his ever-present cigars as the longtime driver named Finley steered the car south out of Little Rock.
Mr. Witt would always start meals at Prattsville with a prayer. Finley would add loudly at the end, “And Jesus wept.” That, by the way, isn’t in the book.
Soon after buying the property, Witt Jr. was having dinner with friends when the name of the winery Screaming Eagle came up. One thing led to another, and the name Screaming Wings was chosen for the club.
A spacious lodge was built on the historic property.
“There are no public roads into, out of or around Screaming Wings, ensuring prime hunting conditions,” Schadt writes.
Witt Jr. says: “We plant corn or rice and leave them in some of the fields. We never hunt out in the fields. It’s purely for the ducks. In the afternoon they’ll come out and feed, and in the morning they’ll roll into the flooded timber to loaf, feed and find thermal cover.”
Sam Leder, who has been working on the property for more than two decades, has taken over the club’s day-to-day management.
“You can’t be exposed to it every day and not appreciate the natural beauty of it,” Leder says. “Not many people get to see the things that Buck and I get to see, the wildlife and the way nature works.”
The book “A Million Wings” offers a glimpse into that world. It will make quite a Christmas gift for the waterfowl lover in your life.