Archive for the ‘Duck hunting’ Category

Land of ducks

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

In a previous post, I wrote about how Ernest Hemingway decided to head south from Piggott, where he was visiting his in-laws, in order to hunt ducks along the lower White River in southeast Arkansas in late 1932.

Hemingway was accompanied by Max Perkins, the legendary book editor known for discovering and nurturing authors such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

I had the pleasure of quail hunting in Clay County earlier this year with Perkins’ granddaughter, and she gave me a copy of a letter her grandfather wrote on Christmas Day in 1932.

Perkins wrote: “I’ve just got back, two days ago, from the sunny South. In six days on the White River in Arkansas, we saw the sun once for a couple of minutes and all the time we froze. Hemingway wrote that he ‘needed’ to see me, and it had to be done while duck shooting, in the snow, on the shore of a river with cakes of ice in it. And you have to kneel down a lot of the time or sit. We got quite a lot of ducks, but not nearly so many as Hem thought we should; but I had a fine time.”

I quoted from this letter in the previous post. My favorite part by far was Perkins’ description of the men who lived along the lower White and Arkansas rivers, making their living hunting, fishing, gathering mussel shells and trapping: “We were five hours by train from Memphis, but we went half of that by motor and almost ran down several hogs that ambled across our road. The whole country and the people were just as in the days of Mark Twain. We went into several houseboats to get some corn whiskey and saw men who lived always on the river. They were dressed just like the men told about in Huckleberry Finn, their trousers stuffed into their boots, and they talked just like them.”

A few such men can still be found living on houseboats on the rivers of east Arkansas — the Arkansas, White, Cache and Black — but much of what you will now find during duck season are well-heeled people from across the country who come to this mecca of mallards.

East Arkansas long has attracted the rich and famous during duck season. Vice presidents, former presidents, ambassadors, movie stars, well-known musicians, professional athletes and titans of industry descend on our state in search of ducks.

They say that if you were to stake out the Stuttgart airport during the 60-day duck season, you would be shocked by the number of faces you recognize.

Given that rich tradition, I shouldn’t have been surprised last month when I found myself at a duck club near DeWitt as dinner was being prepared by Dickie Brennan from the Brennan family of New Orleans, one of the best-known restaurant families in the world. Brennan is an avid duck hunter and was spending several days at a duck club known as Little Siberia before heading east for another hunt in Mississippi.

Brennan drove to the Arkansas Delta from the Crescent City and brought food with him — lots of food.

We started with cobia (also known as lemon fish) from the Gulf of Mexico, which was sliced paper thin as sashimi. That was followed by grilled wild boar sausages, turtle soup, fried oysters, a crab dip on French bread, a salad and prime rib. I didn’t bother to ask if there was dessert.

Brennan was born in 1960 in New Orleans and lived a block away from the historic Garden District restaurant Commander’s Palace, where his father Dick Sr., his uncle John and his aunts Adelaide, Ella and Dottie ran the show. He began working in the kitchen there as a teenager under the tutelage of chef Paul Prudhomme.

After helping his family open Mr. B’s in the French Quarter in 1979, Brennan worked under chefs in Mexico City, New York and France. He became the general manager of the family’s Brennan’s of Houston in 1986 before moving back to New Orleans in 1990 to open the Palace Café in the old Werlein’s Music Store on Canal Street.

Dickie Brennan has since opened three additional restaurants in the French Quarter — Dickie Brennan’s Steak House, Bourbon House and Tableau.

It was a magical night at Little Siberia that combined many of my favorite things — the Delta, ducks, hunting clubs with a long history, good food, fascinating people and intelligent conversation. There also was a touch of melancholy since the men who built the current Little Siberia lodge in 1983 are selling the club this month to George Dunklin Jr. of Stuttgart, the immediate past president of Ducks Unlimited who founded the Five Oaks Duck Lodge near Stuttgart. Dunklin, who served for seven years on the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, was in the inaugural class of the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame, which was inducted in December.

The Little Siberia lodge sits on the banks of a reservoir that covers almost 700 acres and is adjacent to Bayou Meto. The reservoir was constructed in part by German prisoners of war in 1943-44.

It was warm for late January, the kind of day when club members often pull large crappie from the reservoir. The door was left open so there could be a roaring fire in the lodge’s fireplace. Veteran club members told stories of the other duck clubs in this area of the state and the colorful characters who inhabit them each season.

On the bookshelf in the lodge was a copy of Ohio native Keith Russell’s book “The Duck Huntingest Gentleman.” First published in 1977, the collection of waterfowling stories contains a piece about a Thanksgiving trip Russell made to Arkansas one year. The hunting was slow from a pit blind in a flooded field his first morning in Arkansas. It was even slower the second morning in the pin oak flats.

When the late Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart heard Russell complain in the back of Buerkle Drug Store on Main Street in Stuttgart, he promised to take the visitor “where the ducks are.”

That place was the reservoir at Little Siberia. Hancock, a dentist who died in 1986, was among the South’s foremost conservationists. He was best known for his lengthy battle to keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from turning the Cache River into a drainage ditch. Shortly after Hancock’s death, the federal government earmarked more than $33 million from the federal duck stamp program for the establishment of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

The lodge at Little Siberia faces west, which allowed us to watch a glorious winter sunset as Dickie Brennan prepared dinner.

“We got up in pitch dark every morning, Hem’s idea of daybreak,” Max Perkins wrote back in 1932. “I had an argument with him about it, but he said the sun had nothing to do with it; that was the only way to shoot ducks. So I gave in, with mental reservations. We really had a grand time.”

Another Arkansas duck season has ended, but the memories will linger for the thousands of people who found their way to the fields and flooded timber of east Arkansas.

From Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Carter to Dick Cheney to Dickie Brennan, famous Americans have been lured to Arkansas for decades by its duck hunting culture.

Hunting with Hemingway: Part 2

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

We made our way to downtown Piggott on that wet, cold Saturday in January for breakfast at the Inn at Piggott.

In addition to enjoying the company of those in the hunting party with whom I would shoot quail later in the day, I visited with Link Fuller, a hometown football star who graduated from Piggott High School in 1969 and went on to become a well-known high school coach in Texas and a scout for the Dallas Cowboys. Fuller was in town to speak at that evening’s Piggott Mohawk football banquet.

Following the Saturday quail hunt, most members of the party planned to go to southeast Arkansas to hunt ducks for two mornings near Yancopin in Desha County, near where the White River and the Arkansas River empty into the Mississippi River.

The group — including the grandson of Ernest Hemingway and the granddaughter of famed book editor Max Perkins — was determined to re-create a trip Perkins and Hemingway took to that area in late 1932.

Perkins wrote in a letter dated Dec. 25, 1932: “I’ve just got back, two days ago, from the sunny South. In six days on the White River in Arkansas, we saw the sun once for a couple of minutes and all the time we froze. Hemingway wrote that he ‘needed’ to see me, and it had to be done while duck shooting, in the snow, on the shore of a river with cakes of ice in it. And you have to kneel down a lot of the time or sit. We got quite a lot of ducks, but not nearly so many as Hem thought we should; but I had a fine time.

“We were five hours by train from Memphis, but we went half of that by motor and almost ran down several hogs that ambled across our road. The whole country and the people were just as in the days of Mark Twain. We went into several houseboats to get some corn whiskey and saw men who lived always on the river. They were dressed just like the men told about in Huckleberry Finn, their trousers stuffed into their boots, and they talked just like them.

“We walked one day for several miles through the forest to a desolate narrow lake. I never was in a perfectly natural forest before. I never understood how people rode through them, but you could, rapidly, because of wide spaces between the trees. It was a ghostly walk. The trees were all whitened with ice and snow. Everything was white, and there was a white mist. We heard a dozen old trees fall under the weight of ice. But the lake was frozen over so we got no ducks there, and a big branch almost fell on Hem on the way back.

“We got up in pitch dark every morning, Hem’s idea of daybreak. I had an argument with him about it, but he said the sun had nothing to do with it; that was the only way to shoot ducks. So I gave in, with mental reservations. We really had a grand time. After dinner in the evening, we’d have two or three highballs and talk. He’s wonderful company.”

I would later hear that the duck hunting was good for our modern Arkansas visitors, but I get to duck hunt on a regular basis.

It had been years, on the other hand, since I had been behind bird dogs pointing quail on Arkansas soil.

There were few things my father loved more than what he referred to simply as “bird hunting.” And there were few things I enjoyed more as a boy than hunting with him.

I knew I was becoming a man when he would allow me to take our truck and our bird dogs out alone. When I was in high school, winter afternoons meant going out after school for an hour or so of hunting before dark — just our Brittany spaniel, our English setter and me. I never much enjoyed hunting pen-raised birds. Once wild quail became rare in Arkansas, I stopped hunting. I miss the sport.

Alas, we would hunt pen-raised birds in Clay County.

Stephen Crancer of Rector has transformed his family farm on Crowley’s Ridge near Rector into a beautiful facility for guided quail and pheasant hunts. Crancer hosts everything from corporate retreats to church outings at what’s known as Liberty Hill Outfitters. After breakfast, our group took the back route in the rain along winding gravel roads as we made our way south down the Ridge from Piggott to Liberty Hill. Several wrong turns later, we arrived, only to find that the rain had gotten harder.

After we had waited for about 30 minutes, the rain stopped.

John Hemingway, who lives in Montreal and is the grandson of Ernest, warmed up by shooting clay pigeons over a pond.

Our group, led by Crancer, walked from the pond to the fields where the quail were. It was a joy to watch Crancer’s two dogs — one of them is 13 years old — work. These were not wild birds, but it was still enough to bring back memories of those hunts with my father. And I was hunting with a Hemingway in Clay County, a story I no doubt will still be telling years from now.

Following the morning hunt, it was time for lunch, a meal catered at Liberty Hill by Chow At One Eighteen, which is located in downtown Paragould. The menu consisted of grilled quail with mushrooms, black truffle oil risotto, green beans, biscuits and a French apple tart for dessert. In other words, it wasn’t the average Saturday lunch.

As we ate, I thought about the Hemingway visits to Clay County. The Pfeiffer family back in Piggott didn’t realize it, but the marriage between Ernest and Pauline essentially was over by 1939. Ernest was spending most of his time at his home named Finca Vigia in Cuba, and Pauline remained in Key West.

On Dec. 12, 1939, Ernest wrote to Mary Pfeiffer in Piggott: “I counted very much on coming to see you last fall with the children. I wanted to see you very much, and I wanted to ask your advice about some things. … If we could have talked I believe you would have found that I have changed much less than Pauline and Virginia. … I do not mean that I have ever been in the right in everything, but the true version would be very different from anything you have heard.”

Ernest and Pauline’s divorce was final in November 1940, and Ernest soon married Martha Gellhorn, the third of his four wives. He would not return to Piggott. He committed suicide in Idaho with his favorite shotgun on July 2, 1961.

In an August 1934 letter to Mary Pfeiffer, Ernest had written: “Everything is going well with us. As usual when I am writing a novel I am making nothing and am probably regarded by the family intelligence service as a loafer. On the other hand when I am all through with a novel I make plenty of money and then, while I am loafing, am regarded with respect as a money maker.”

The “loafing” time occasionally included hunting quail in the far northeast corner of Arkansas.

On one glorious January weekend, we did our best to relive those days.


The duck season ends

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

The sun is setting on another Arkansas duck season.

Though the 4 a.m. ringing alarms and the drives through the dark will end for now, the stories will continue to be told and retold.

You see, in a duck hunter’s heart, the season never really concludes. There’s just more time to read about duck hunting, tell stories about duck hunting and quietly contemplate future hunts.

One of the people with whom I’ve hunted through the years is fond of saying, “I’ve gotten to the point where I rather talk about it than actually do it.”

The older I get, the more I think back on duck hunts with my father and his friends. They were men who influenced my life greatly.

As a small gift to end the season, I thought I would share this story by longtime Little Rock lobbyist Bill Brady, who grew up at Gregory in Woodruff County and often hunted ducks with his dad. Enjoy.

Take it away, Bill:

“I killed my first duck on Broadwater.

“That’s what we called the wide place on the Cache River where my dad and some of his hunting buddies had a duck blind. My dad was an avid hunter. Deer, duck, quail, squirrel, dove, you name it. If it was game in western Woodruff County in the 1950s, my dad hunted it. His favorite — and mine, too — was mallard hunting on the Cache River at that place we called Broadwater, where he and his buddies had built a fine blind on floating logs. They had managed to tie onto four good logs that they found in the area and then drag those logs by boat to the choice spot on the east side of Broadwater where they knew the ducks would work.

“These seasoned duck hunters knew everything that there was to know about locating, building and camouflaging a duck blind. To an 8-year-old looking to bag his first greenhead, it was all a great mystery and a grand experience just being there with those men.

“Once I turned 8, my dad started getting me ready to go on my first duck hunt. He had a 20-gauge Remington Model 11 shotgun that he used primarily for quail hunting. That was to become my duck gun. I recall that it had a Cutts Compensator on the end of the barrel, and he had put the modified full choke on. My how I loved that gun. It was semiautomatic, but for the first year Dad would only let me put one shell in the barrel and none in the magazine, turning it into a single shot. And that was fine with me.

“The only problem I had back in those days was with boots. I never could keep my feet warm. This was before insulated boots. I hunted in some black leather lace-up boots that were just about the coldest things you can imagine. At about the age of 10, I wrote a letter to the editor of some sporting magazine and suggested that a company should invent electric socks, powered by flashlight batteries. I never heard back from that magazine editor, but about 10 or 15 years later, there they were — electric hunting socks. That was my first good marketing idea.

“Broadwater was a stretch of the Cache River in what we always called Black Swamp. It’s now a part of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Rex Hancock Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area. It was particularly good for duck hunting in that it was at least 50 yards wide and perhaps a quarter of a mile long, running north to south. Access to Broadwater from our home at Gregory was to the east on a road that the locals referred to as ‘the road to Fred Lee’s place.’ Fred Lee was an old hunter, trapper and fisherman who lived alone on a floating cabin on the Cache in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Usually, we would have to walk or boat the half mile from the edge of the bottoms to the river and then cross by boat to the blind. The blind was on the south end of Broadwater on the east side in an area that ducks really seemed to like.

“The blind had a snug warming shack and a front porch for shooting that would safely accommodate five shooters. They had done a great job of decorating it with freshly cut oak branches so that it looked just like a big brush pile to a duck. Inside the shack were a propane stove, a food locker and cookware. A week before the season, Dad somehow would manage to get a large cylinder of propane brought in by boat so we would be ‘cooking with gas’ for the entire duck season. One of my fondest memories of a meal was when Dad cooked me a fried egg and a spiced ham sandwich right there in the blind. I would give a lot of money for one of those sandwiches right about now.

“I also fondly recall Rule No. 1: Dip the coffee water from the north side (upstream) and take a leak on the south side (downstream). Pretty practical rule, huh?

“In the blind with us the day of my first duck kill were a couple of dad’s buddies, one of whom had a reputation as a quick shot. That’s someone who would take his first shot before the caller yelled ‘take ’em.’ The plan that day was for the caller to work the ducks all the way to the water, right in front of the blind. I would then get the first shot of a greenhead sitting on the water. Mr. Quick Shot would never let the ducks get close to the water before he would start blasting. That’s when my dad told him that if he did that one more time before I could kill my duck, ‘I’m throwing you and that damn gun of yours in the Cache River.’

“I got my first duck about 10 minutes later.

“We also fished from our blind. Yes, we caught crappie right off the front porch. There wouldn’t be many ducks flying some days, and Dad would get out his crappie poles, bait a couple of hooks and we’d try to catch a mess of crappie between flights of mallards. Occasionally, we would take our crappie home to eat the next day. If we only caught three or four, we would clean them and cook them right there in the duck blind for a late lunch of fried fish and light bread.

“Another fond memory concerns the occasional ‘red wasp invasion.’ Dad had a buddy with whom he hunted often, and the two of them enjoyed taking a nip about midafternoon when the ducks had almost quit flying. But they didn’t just pull out the bottle and start drinking. They had a ritual.

“One of them would suddenly slap a leg and complain that he had been stung by ‘a big ol’ red wasp.’ Well, that pretty much mandated that some alcohol be applied to the sting — the bourbon type of alcohol. One of them would fetch a bottle, and they would begin to doctor each other, even the one who had not been stung. The one who had been stung would start it off by taking a long slug, chased with a Coke, in order to ‘ward off infection and swelling.’

“Then, the other one would take his slug to prevent the red wasps from swarming. This routine might go on for the rest of the afternoon, and I would have to drive the boat back over to the launch and get those two happy hunters out of the woods and back home safely (without any swelling or infections from red wasp stings). This routine was funny, and I loved it. Though I never saw a red wasp in that duck blind, I’ve been known to resort to the red wasp antidote a few times myself in the years since then.

“I enjoyed many a day in the Cache River bottoms and the beautiful Black Swamp. In the process, I observed both hunting and hunters at their best. Some of my fondest memories still emanate from that Broadwater duck blind on the Cache. I learned a lot about hunting: The building of a blind, the setting of a spread of decoys, the calling (my favorite part), the living by the rules, the actual hunts.

“And I learned a lot about life and being a sportsman and a good guy. Most of all, I still cherish the memories of my time there with my dad and his buddies, all great men and all gone now to that big duck blind in the sky, where I suspect the mallards are still working and the red wasps are still swarming on beautiful, mild winter afternoons on a stretch of water much like Broadwater.”

From Little Siberia to Natchez and back

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

It was a magical weekend that combined some of my favorite things — Southern history and culture, the Delta, duck hunting, historic hunting clubs, fried crappie, crawfish, tamales, frog legs, beautiful homes, fascinating people, good friends and intelligent conversation.

It began Friday afternoon when Randy Ensminger of Little Rock picked me up for a trip to southeast Arkansas. To be specific, we headed for one of those famous Arkansas duck clubs I had long heard about but never visited.

It’s called Little Siberia, and its membership consists of some of Arkansas’ most successful businessmen.

The lodge sits on the banks of a reservoir near DeWitt, adjacent to the Bayou Meto. The reservoir was constructed in part by German prisoners of war in 1943-44. The current lodge was built in 1983, and significant renovations were made last year.

It was warm for late January, and two of the members had spent part of the afternoon fishing for crappie on the reservoir. They had filled an ice chest with large slab crappie, many of which weighed almost two pounds. Dinner that night consisted of fried crappie, hushpuppies and the best slaw I’ve ever had.

It had cooled off enough after dark for a roaring fire in the lodge’s large fireplace. The members regaled me with stories of days gone by in a part of the state filled with duck clubs and the colorful characters who inhabit them late each fall and early each winter.

I pulled from a shelf a copy of Ohio native Keith Russell’s book “The Duck Huntingest Gentleman.” First published in 1977, this collection of waterfowling stories contains a chapter on a Thanksgiving trip Russell once made to Stuttgart. The hunting was slow from a pit blind in a flooded field the first morning in Arkansas. The hunting was even slower on the second morning in the pin oak flats.

When the late Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart heard Russell complain during a bull session in the back of Buerkle Drug on Main Street, he promised to take his visitor to “where the ducks are.”

That place was the reservoir at Little Siberia.

Hancock, a dentist who died in 1986, was among the South’s foremost conservationists. He was best known for his lengthy battle to keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from turning the Cache River into a drainage ditch. Shortly after his death, the federal government earmarked more than $33 million from the federal duck stamp program for the establishment of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

There wouldn’t be time for Randy and me to hunt the next morning, though I could hear shots from my bedroom as the Saturday sun rose. We left Little Siberia at 7:30 a.m., bound for Natchez and a meeting of the board of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

Randy has been on the board for several years. This would be my first board meeting. Headed by New Orleans resident Liz Williams, the organization that’s often referred to simply as SoFAB operates a museum in New Orleans that celebrates the food culture of the South. It’s the only museum of its kind in the country.

In addition to museum exhibits, there’s a culinary library, extensive archives and regular programs. There also are big plans for the future. SoFAB will leave the Riverwalk (the long, narrow shopping mall adjacent to the convention center, which is being turned into a collection of outlet stores) and move into the Uptown location once used by the Dryades Street Market. That market opened in 1849.

Writing about the neighborhood in a 2001 article, Keith Weldon Medley said: “Located in the Central City historic district of New Orleans, Dryades Street has always been one of the Crescent City’s most intriguing thoroughfares. … Now named Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in honor of one of the city’s premier civil rights workers, this old street has witnessed the bustling panorama of the New Orleans experience — the lively and the melancholy, prosperity and economic hard times. Bold entrepreneurs of different religions, races and classes found their fortunes along Dryades Street.”

SoFAB also plans to partner with the New Orleans Public Library for a new branch. There will be more than 9,000 volumes of cookbooks, menus, recipes and other literature pertaining to Southern foodways in the branch.

A well-known New Orleans chef by the name of Ryan Hughes will operate a restaurant named Purloo as part of the SoFAB complex, and there may even be a working brewery. It’s an exciting effort to be a part of, especially since there will be exhibits on every Southern state, including Arkansas.

The board was meeting in Natchez rather than New Orleans because of an invitation from board member Regina Trosclair Charboneau. Seven generations of her family have lived in Natchez. Regina returned to the city in 2000 to raise her two sons and be close to her mother. She and her husband later purchased Twin Oaks, which they operate as a bed and breakfast inn.

More on Twin Oaks in a moment.

As the frost burned off Saturday morning, Randy and I made our way down U.S. Highway 165, slowing down as vehicles pulled into Arkansas Post Museum State Park for an event marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Arkansas Post. That January 1863 battle was a Union victory.

We crossed the Arkansas River and intersected with U.S. Highway 65 at Dumas. From there it was a journey due south through the flat farming lands just west of the Mississippi River in southeast Arkansas and northeast Louisiana.

It was too early in the day to buy tamales from Miss Rhoda as we drove through Lake Village and passed its iconic “Home of Good Fishing” sign.

It was too early to buy a shrimp, crawfish or oyster poor boy at The Dock on the banks of Lake Providence.

The morning sun was beautiful as it reflected off the waters of Lake Chicot in Arkansas and Lake Providence in Louisiana, those two giant oxbows that have been magnets for hunters, fishermen and boaters in this part of the Delta for decades.

The Delta has its own brand of stark winter beauty as the giant pecan trees in the orchards on either side of U.S. 65 form silhouettes. Ducks could be seen on flooded fields, and pickup trucks crowded the parking areas of the hunting camps we passed. I’ve long been interested in the history and traditions of Southern hunting clubs. Though I resisted the temptation, I wanted to knock on the doors, ask how the morning’s hunt had gone, inquire how old each club was and see what was being served for breakfast.

We rolled south through East Carroll Parish, Madison Parish, Tensas Parish and Concordia Parish. We saw the landmarks that thousands of Arkansans remember from their summer treks to the Redneck Riviera — the Panola pepper sign, the bat on the water tank at Transylvania, the Christmas lights that stay in the middle of the bayou at Tallulah 12 months a year.

We crossed into Tensas Parish. Suddenly the woodland floor was covered with saw palmettos, a sure sign we were getting further south. We passed through Waterproof and Ferriday, though we didn’t have time to stop at Ferriday’s Delta Music Museum. Ferriday is the home of Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

We then turned toward the east, driving into Vidalia and seeing the church steeples of Natchez on the hills across the river. We crossed the Mississippi River bridge, having reached our destination.

I’ve always been fascinated by Natchez, dating back to trips I took there as a boy with my parents. My mother loved touring the city’s elegant old homes, and she enjoyed having lunch at the Carriage House Restaurant on the grounds of Stanton Hall.

The ladies of the Pilgrimage Garden Club have been serving food at the Carriage House since 1946. My mother, now 87, always would order the fried chicken. In her honor, I had fried chicken, rice and gravy and those silver dollar-sized biscuits. That’s not to mention the fact that Randy and I had started with an appetizer known as the “Southern sampler” that featured everything from deviled eggs to pimiento cheese to fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade on top (I hope my wife isn’t reading about how much I ate).

Randy, who has a massive collection of cookbooks, bought a cookbook in the gift shop next door after lunch.

From there, it was off to Twin Oaks. The original cottage, which is now the back kitchen and den, was built in 1806 for the area’s first territorial sheriff. There were a series of ownership changes during the next several decades. In 1832, the widow of Dr. Josiah Morris (who had been the victim of yellow fever) sold the house to a Philadelphia, Pa., couple, Pierce and Cornelia Connelly.

The couple had moved to Natchez so Pierce could serve as the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church. The Connellys added the Greek Revival portion of the structure. In 1835, Cornelia Connelly named the house White Cottage.

The story takes a bizarre twist at this point. Pierce Connelly decided to leave the Episcopal Church and convert to Roman Catholicism. The couple left for Rome and put their four children in orphanages. Pierce became a priest, and Cornelia became a nun. Cornelia later founded an order of nuns known as the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, which was dedicated to teaching young girls.

An 1840 tornado did a great deal of damage to the home. By 1852, Charles Dubuisson had completed the reconstruction of the Greek Revival home that visitors to Natchez see today. Dubuisson served as president of Jefferson College and later became a judge and state representative.

In an incident that sounds like something from a Southern gothic novel, Dubuisson’s 3-year-old daughter drowned in a cistern on the property and his wife died of yellow fever soon after that. Dubuisson fell into a deep depression and began spending most of his time at his plantation in Yazoo County.

Following a succession of owners, Homer and Elizabeth Whittington bought the house in 1940 and restored it. Since the house was not white at the time and was considered too grand to be named a cottage, they renamed it Twin Oaks in honor of the two huge live oaks out front.

Regina and her husband, Doug, bought the home in 2002 and have since added their own touches. Regina has conducted numerous cooking classes at the home during the past decade and fed guests ranging from Lily Tomlin to Anderson Cooper.

Following the SoFAB board meeting that afternoon, Regina gave three of us a driving tour of the area, complete with stories that sounded like something from “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

I’ll have more on Natchez and the rivalry between the city’s two garden clubs in a later post.

The dinner Regina served our board Saturday night included beef tenderloin, frog legs fried in duck fat and shrimp and grits.

Following breakfast across the street at The Castle (which is part of Dunleith, another of the famous Natchez mansions), Randy and I headed north toward Little Siberia.

Our only stop was at The Dock in Lake Providence to buy 10 pounds of crawfish for that night’s dinner at the duck club. While we headed north with crawfish, a friend headed south out of Little Rock with several dozen tamales from Doe’s and a pork loin.

We arrived at Little Siberia in time for Randy to give me a Sunday afternoon boat tour of the reservoir. We scared up hundreds of ducks as Randy pointed out the various blinds and told the kinds of stories one can only get at a club with a long history.

The lodge at Little Siberia faces west. We were back from our boat trip in time for a glorious sunset. We sat by the fire pit and watched hundreds of ducks funnel into the flooded timber in the minutes just before darkness descended over southeast Arkansas.

Dinner followed.

Crawfish and tamales for appetizers. Pork loin for the main course. The AFC championship game on the big screen.

It doesn’t get much better than that. And a morning of hunting still awaited us on Monday.

The beauty of Big Lake

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

The invitation was intriguing.

I was having lunch in Arkadelphia a couple of days before Thanksgiving with banker and philanthropist Ross Whipple, the chairman of Summit Bank.

He began telling me about the Big Lake Hunting Club, formed in 1886 by a group of Little Rock businessmen with prominent last names such as Worthen, Penick and Kavanaugh.

“One of the great things about Big Lake is you can almost see it from downtown Little Rock,” Whipple told me. “I would love for you to come duck hunting with me.”

Having lived in Little Rock since I moved back to my native Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in 1989, how could I have never heard of Big Lake?

It appears I have plenty of company since most other Arkansans have never heard of this natural treasure in southern Pulaski County, which covers almost 1,100 acres. There are areas of open water, but much of the lake is thick with cypress and tupelo.

The Big Lake Hunting Club — also known in various documents through the years as the Big Lake Club, the Big Lake Sportsman’s Club and the Big Lake Sportsmen’s Club — had 41 original members who paid $100 each and then were charged annual dues.

On the walls of the lodge that Whipple built overlooking the lake in 2004 are maps of the club and photos of the individual members from the late 1880s. In those photos, each man holds a shotgun and is accompanied by a dog. They hunted ducks and geese on Big Lake in those days while hunting deer in the woods surrounding the lake.

A wooden clubhouse was built on the spot where Whipple now has his lodge.

They also fished. The shallow lake, which now has maximum depths ranging from six to eight feet, is the home to mostly rough fish. There still are some crappie and bass.

“It was a place for them to get away,” Whipple says of those early Big Lake Hunting Club members.

The club gave free memberships to governors, members of the state’s congressional delegation, judges, legislators, county officials and others. Those memberships proved especially popular during Prohibition. I’ll let you speculate why.

Members could ride the train south from Little Rock and get off the train close to the clubhouse at what was known as Rottaken Station.

In 1943, the club disbanded after 57 years of operation. It seems that someone was putting arsenic in the sugar, and no one could determine the culprit. The members voted to dissolve the partnership.

World War II was in progress. Many males were away at war, and money was tight. There just wasn’t much time or money for hunting, fishing and playing cards in the country.

In 1946, the land was purchased by south Arkansas timber magnate Hugh Ross, who would take the train each Wednesday from Arkadelphia to Little Rock for an evening poker game at the Marion Hotel. That poker game included a number of the state’s top businessmen. Financier W.R. “Witt” Stephens, a Prattsville native, told Ross that there was property in Pulaski County he might want to buy.

Ross made the purchase, though he didn’t use Big Lake as a hunting club.

As an Arkadelphia native, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the Ross and Clark families. J.G. Clark began buying timberland in Clark and surrounding counties in the 1880s. Ross married J.G. Clark’s daughter, Esther.

Jane Ross, the daughter of Hugh and Esther Clark Ross, was born in Arkadelphia in December 1920. She would go on to become one of the state’s best-known philanthropists. Jane Ross graduated from what’s now Henderson State University in 1942 and then worked as a Navy photographer in Washington. She joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1944 and had assignments in Delaware and New Hampshire.

Jane Ross studied color photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology after the war and then came home to open a studio, Photos by Ross.

In a large scrapbook, Whipple has a collection of photos taken by Ross after her father hired a group of men from south Louisiana to use pirogues to harvest cypress trees from Big Lake.

When Hugh Ross died in 1955, Jane Ross gave up her photography studio in order to manage the family timber operations.

Christin Northern picks up the story from there in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In 1966, Ross established the Ross Foundation, a philanthropic organization, with her mother. The foundation’s financial backing came from Esther Ross’ timber holdings. Jane Ross became the executive director of the Ross Foundation after her mother’s death in 1967, while still operating the timber business. She remained chairman of the board of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. However, in 1979, she relinquished some control over daily operations of the Ross Foundation to her relative, Ross Whipple. The Ross Foundation, which continues to operate, focuses on education.”

The Ross Foundation manages more than 60,000 acres of timberland with the proceeds from that land going for charitable purposes. The initial endowment consisted of about 18,000 acres that had been part of the J.G. Clark estate. Smaller tracts were added through the years.

In 1993, the Ross Foundation acquired a major tract of land from International Paper Co. in Hot Spring and Garland counties. Following Jane Ross’ death in 1999, the foundation received additional acres from her estate.

The foundation has opened part of its land to the public. For example, much of the land in Clark County is operated in partnership with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Hiking trails are maintained in Hot Spring County.

Ross Whipple has followed in the footsteps of the Ross family, becoming one of Arkansas’ most noted conservationists.

In an interview with the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance, Whipple laid out his activities: “I serve as chairman of the Ross Foundation, chairman of the board of Summit Bank and run a timber management company, Horizon Timber Services Inc. I am also the managing general partner of the Whipple Family Limited Partnership. This is a separate set of lands that are considered to be a charitable asset. We manage these lands like a mini-national forest. Since 1970, we’ve grown from 18,000 acres to about 65,000 acres through acquisitions. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you.”

Big Lake isn’t open to the public, but the fact it is owned by Whipple is good news since that means that this natural wonder on Little Rock’s doorstep will remain pristine rather than ever being drained for row-crop agriculture or developed into a housing project.

Whipple established Horizon Bank. After selling it, he founded Summit Bank in 2000. The bank now has more than $1 billion in assets and has moved into the  Benton, Bryant, Conway, Hope, Hot Springs, Little Rock, Magnolia and Malvern markets in addition to Arkadelphia.

Whipple bought Big Lake from Jane Ross in 1996. He now owns almost 5,000 acres in the area. Hugh Ross tore down the original clubhouse in 1951, using part of the cypress timber to build a house on Lake Hamilton at Hot Springs.

When Whipple decided to build his hunting lodge, he determined the best location was the one that had been used by the founders.

If you were to search the corporation records in the Arkansas secretary of state’s office, you would find a nonprofit corporation with the interesting name of Clark’s Squirrel Head Hunting and Fishing Club. The club dates back to 1911, and the orginal bylaws allow 17 members. In its more than a century of existence, the club has included a number of well-known southwest Arkansas business figures. Arkadelphia attorney Ed McCorkle keeps the club’s records, but Whipple now hosts its meetings at Big Lake.

Several years ago, a man named David Gatzke contacted Whipple and said he had a box filled with Big Lake Hunting Club records. A descendent of J.W. Mons — an early officer in the club — knew that Gatzke hunted in the area and gave him the records.

Gatzke learned that Whipple owned Big Lake and turned the records over to him. Those records have since been preserved in scrapbooks and in frames on the walls of Whipple’s lodge, making it as much a museum as it is a hunting club.

A map from the 1880s showed that parts of Big Lake had names — the Frog Hole, the Pike Hole, the Big Opening, Holly Island.

The modern club also has names — the Grinnel Hole, the Round Pond, the Ash Hole, the Island Blind and the Beaver Pond Blind.

Whipple has a bound copy of the orginal articles of incorporation and club rules, done in beautiful calligraphy. Guest charges were $1 a visit for males age 10 and older, $1 a visit for females age 18 and older and 50 cents a visit for females from age 10 to 18. No females were allowed at the club from Sept. 1 until April 1 each year in the late 1800s.

The letterheads are fascinating. A few of the ones I looked at were:

— L. Muller & Co., which sold “liquors, cigars and tobacco.”

— The W.M. Kavanaugh Co. in the Southern Trust Building.

— The Little Rock Cooperage Co. with offices at the corner of Main and Markham in downtown Little Rock and a factory in Argenta. It listed its products as “oak barrels, whisky barrels and white oak staves.”

— Parker & Worthen Bankers, Brokers and General Real Estate Agents.

— Geyer & Adams Co., wholesale grocers and cotton factors.

— The American Delinter Co.

— F.B. Wells, the maker of the “Page” brand of boat oars with offices in Camden and DeValls Bluff.

— Cockrill & Cockrill Lawyers.

— Missouri Pacific Railroad Co.

 — The Little Rock Street Fair and Mardi Gras Celebration.

— Arkansas Rock Asphalt Co.

— Fones Brothers Hardware Co.

— St. Louis Cotton Compress Co. of Pine Bluff.

The club members made a concerted — and ultimately unsuccessful — attempt to raise wild rice in the lake to attract more ducks. There are numerous letters to a supplier of seeds in Wisconsin and to the U.S. Department of Agriculture concerning wild rice.

There also are letters to members of the Arkansas congressional delegation and to various federal agencies asking that crappie be stocked in Big Lake.

Many of the letters are signed by Mons, who headed the Little Rock operations of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co.

Among the most interesting things in Whipple’s collection of papers are the thank-you notes from politicians for their complimentary memberships. The roster represents a who’s who of leading Arkansas politicians from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

There are letters from Joe T. Robinson both when he was a governor (he only served for a short time in early 1913 before resigning on March 10, 1913, to enter the Senate) and when he was a U.S. senator.

There are letters from Jeff Davis both when he was a governor and a U.S. senator.

There are letters from Gov. George Donaghey and Gov. X.O. Pindall (the Arkansas City lawyer who became governor in 1907 after Gov. John S. Little resigned for health reasons).

Carl Bailey, who would serve as governor from 1937-41, was an early member of the Big Lake Hunting Club.

There’s even a letter from the Garland County judge asking that a constituent be allowed to trap on Big Lake (with promises that he would not hunt or fish).

For those who love Arkansas history, what Whipple has is a treasure trove. He’s preserving both the natural beauty of Big Lake and the history of the Big Lake Hunting Club.

From Greasy Slough to Screaming Wings

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

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.

“A Million Wings” — Duck hunting at its finest

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

The folks at Wild Abundance Publishing Co. have done it again.

Just in time for Christmas 2012, the publishing division of ArtsMemphis has released “A Million Wings,” a beautiful collection of essays and photographs from a dozen of the top private duck clubs along the Lower Mississippi Flyway.

Three of those clubs are in Arkansas. They are:

— Greasy Slough, which is in northeast Arkansas near the upper Bayou DeView.

— Coca Cola Woods near Wynne.

— Witt Stephens Jr.’s Screaming Wings near Stuttgart.

The coffee table book also features three clubs in eastern Missouri, one in western Kentucky, three in Mississippi and two in south Louisiana.

Susan Schadt, the president and CEO of ArtsMemphis, produced her first book in 2008. It was titled “First Shooting Light: A Photographic Journal Reveals the Legacy and Lure of Hunting Clubs in the Mississippi Flyway.”

Two years later, she released “Wild Abundance: Ritual, Revelry & Recipes of the South’s Finest Hunting Clubs.”

The first book in the series focused on clubs in Arkansas and Mississippi. The photographer was Murray Riss, who established the photography department at the Memphis College of Art. The Arkansas clubs featured in “First Shooting Light” were:

— 713 in Lee County near the north end of the St. Francis National Forest.

— Bayou DeView/Section 13 Farms in Woodruff County.

— Bear Bayou near Humnoke, which was founded in the 1940s by the Marks family of Stuttgart.

— Blackfish Hunting Club in Crittenden County.

— Circle T near Wabbaseka, which was established in 1959 to entertain customers of Central Transformer Corp. of Pine Bluff.

— Five Lakes Outing Club on Horseshoe Lake in Crittenden County, which has been around since 1901.

— George Dunklin Jr.’s Five Oaks Duck Lodge in Arkansas County. Dunklin will soon become the national president of Ducks Unlimited.

— Greenbriar Hunting Club near Stuttgart. Referred to by locals as the Old Winchester Club, the club was founded in 1945 by John Olin of Illinois.

— Hatchie Coon Hunting & Fishing Club between Marked Tree and Trumann, which was established by a group of Memphis residents in 1889.

— The Snowden family’s Kingdom Come near Stuttgart.

— Menasha Hunting & Fishing Club between Gilmore and Turrell, which dates back to 1902.

— Mud Lake Hunting Club near Hughes, which also dates back to 1902.

— The famed Claypool’s Reservoir near Weiner, which was purchased by Wallace Claypool of Memphis in 1941 and was the site of a well-known NBC national television program in December 1956.

The concept of “Wild Abundance,” meanwhile, was to take some of the South’s best chefs and put them in the region’s top hunting clubs. One of the nine chefs in the book is Lee Richardson of Little Rock (I’m anxious to find out what Lee’s next adventure will be).

“Wild Abundance” featured the photography of Lisa Waddell Buser. She is back with dozens of great shots in “A Million Wings.”

Schadt calls Buser a “talented and tenacious photographer who was truly unstoppable in her pursuit of these shots. She was able to capture the slightest movements on a rest lake while standing on a two-by-four railing 40 feet off the ground. She tracked, step for step, a hunter in pursuit of a wild pig. She waded through muck, downed logs and various temperaments shouldering 20 pounds of gear. And while she smiled through the entire season and was always willing but demure, her voice is loud and clear.”

In his foreword to “A Million Wings,” 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III writes: “I learned that being an outdoorsman was not just about hunting. The sportsmen I met were truly stewards of the land. They were involved with Ducks Unlimited, marsh projects and property management. I was immediately pulled into that contagious culture so I was committed to conservation very early. … This is what outdoorsmen do: They work together to make a difference for wildlife and embrace the preservation of precious habitat for all time.”

Love understands that the average duck hunter will never be invited to any of the clubs in the book. But he knows why they want a glimpse inside those clubs.

“The stunning photographs and the heartfelt stories in ‘A Million Wings’ inspire people,” he writes. “While everybody will not play golf at Augusta National or play in the U.S. Open, they watch. They watch, they see it and it inspires them to play the game; it inspires them to play the game better.

“Like Augusta National, the private retreats shared by the individuals on these pages may seem like the ultimate experience. But these are the places that do the work to keep duck hunting alive. And through their stories and these photographs, they are inspiring people to get out there and hunt and to gain a better understanding of the sport. And like in golf, the big clubs and the professional game are a small part of the whole story, but they motivate people to grow the game. The families and the members in these clubs are the ones who motivate the rest of us. They are the ones who are growing the sport.”

Schadt explains the book’s name: “Witnessing the phenomenon of a million collective wings is a rare sight. Yet most sportsmen enthusiastically recollect massive numbers of ducks, millions of wings, seen in a single day, over multiple seasons or throughout a lifetime. Some exhibit decades of patience in anticipation of the possibilities and all extol the limitless pleasure they derive from a flight of ducks.

“The third in our series of collectible books that seeks to chronicle and preserve the unique culture and tradition of American duck hunting is a journey into that world, dedicated to the lure of nature and conservation efforts to restore and perpetually protect habitats and populations of migrant waterfowl.

“Our journey along the migratory route of the Mississippi Flyway follows the lower Mississippi Valley through Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. We begin in St. Charles County, Mo., at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, one of the finest confluences in the world, and conclude in the coastal marshes and bayous of southwest Louisiana.

“Our Wild Abundance Publishing team was welcomed wholeheartedly into this culture. We blessed the ducks; we traversed the timber and flooded wheat fields; ‘we’ shot a wild pig; we painted our faces; we were in full gear at 4:30 a.m.; we stood knee deep in water; froze our fingers and toes and we sipped circa 1895 whiskey. We learned about food plots and acorns, hens and drakes, when to shoot, when not to shoot and a few new jokes. We were fully immersed, thankfully not with a waderful of cold water but with respect, guidance and patience by our mentors.

“We felt the pleasure of anticipation, the beauty of the silence, the noises of the waking morn and the thrill of the first sight of ducks. We became part of the team, as eager as our subjects. The rare photographic glimpse into the 12 private retreats is a gift to be shared and is only eclipsed by the passion, trust and time the lodge owners and club members bestowed upon us.”

The historic duck clubs are part of our heritage in this part of the country. I couldn’t put the book down until I had flipped through all 260 of its pages. I’ve written at length on the Southern Fried blog about several of this state’s legendary duck hunters, men such as Wiley Meacham of Monroe County and the aforementioned George Dunklin Jr. of Arkansas County. While impressed with their ability to call and shoot ducks, I’m most impressed by their dedication to the land and their conservation efforts.

“Throughout our journey, we certainly saw hundreds of thousands of wings,” Schadt writes. “Those spectacular displays made for great photographs and unforgettable stories. But ultimately, they point to the dedication of all the sportsmen in this book and across the country. The most amazing story is the way that outdoorsmen have worked together with truly remarkable results. Thanks to them, future generations will experience awe-inspiring moments, poignant memories and the astonishing prospect of a million wings.”  


George Dunklin and the ducks of Five Oaks

Friday, November 16th, 2012

Duck season begins Saturday in Arkansas, a high holy day for many residents of this state.

A number of the state’s hunters (and the out-of-state visitors) will head in the direction of the Bayou Meto, a slow-moving stream that begins in northern Pulaski County near the Little Rock Air Force Base. The bayou winds toward the southeast for almost 150 miles before emptying into the Arkansas River southwest of Gillett.

“The origins of the bayou’s name are a matter of debate,” Guy Lancaster writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Some early French documents dub it ‘Bayou Metre,’ perhaps indicative of a supposed measured depth of one meter, though Judge U.M. Rose put forward the hypothesis that the name is derived from the French ‘mi terre’ or ‘minor land.’ Until the early 20th century, spelling variants remained common with ‘Bayou Metoe’ being used with some frequency.”

The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission began acquiring land in 1948 along the bayou for a wildlife management area. The Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, which covers 33,832 acres, generally is recognized as the top public duck hunting area in the country. It’s also among the largest state-owned wildlife conservation areas in America.

Almost 13,000 acres of the WMA are flooded each fall to attract ducks. There are two waterfowl rest areas, Halowell Reservoir and the Wrape Plantation. Up to 2,000 hunters converge on the area on Saturdays during the duck season.

Bayou Meto is surrounded by exclusive private duck clubs. One of those is George Dunklin Jr.’s Five Oaks, which attracts hunters from across the country and will be filled this weekend.

In the current issue of Arkansas Life magazine, there’s a cover story on Dunklin that I had the honor of writing.

In January 2009, Dunklin was named the Budweiser Conservationist of the Year. The award, sponsored by Budweiser and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, recognizes those who have made major contributions in the area of wildlife conservation. Dunklin received a $50,000 grant for winning the award and immediately plowed it back into Bayou Meto WMA improvements.

On June 30, Dunklin’s seven-year term on the Game & Fish Commission ended. He was the chairman during his final year and a leading proponent for finding new ways to attract migrating ducks to Arkansas.

In May, Dunklin will become the president of Ducks Unlimited, the world’s most famous waterfowl conservation organization. He will be the 42nd president in DU history and only the second from Arkansas. E.L. McHaney of Little Rock became the DU president in 1948.

DU began in 1937 during the Dust Bowl era as waterfowl numbers plunged due to drought. A small group of hunters formed DU to raise money to preserve breeding areas in the prairies of Canada. From 1937-83, all funds raised were spent in Canada. Since 1983, money has been spent for waterfowl conservation efforts in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

DU now has more than 550,000 adult members and about 46,000 youth members. Local chapters host more than 4,400 fund-raising events each year, meaning that Dunklin will spend a lot of time away from his beloved Five Oaks during his two years as president.

Since its founding, DU has helped conserve 6.3 million acres in Canada, 4.5 million acres in the United States and 1.8 million acres in Mexico.

The United States has lost more than half of its original wetlands and continues to lose an average of 80,000 wetland acres annually. When soybean prices soared in the 1970s, thousands of acres of wetlands in east Arkansas were drained for row-crop agriculture. Much of that was marginal farmland, at best.

Dunklin has planted thousands of hardwood trees on his farm through the years.

“We’ll keep doing that for the rest of my days,” he says. “I won’t live to see some of these trees mature, but I really enjoy watching them grow from one year to the next. We want lots of diversity.”

During his seven years on the Game & Fish Commission, Dunklin steered funds to the Bayou Meto WMA for needed improvements. He calls it the “crown jewel of all commission properties.”

One management improvement on the WMA has been a mulching project designed to make land more attractive for migrating waterfowl. Millions of dollars also were spent improving drainage systems.

Dunklin didn’t set out to be a farmer and a nationally recognized conservationist. The thing he cared about most when growing up at Pine Bluff was tennis.

His father, George Dunklin Sr., won the state singles championship nine times between 1939 and 1958. The elder Dunklin was the top-ranked player in the Southern Tennis Association for almost a decade in the late 1940s and early 1950s and was a semifinalist in the national senior championship in 1968.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Paul Greenberg once wrote of Dunklin Sr.: “George Dunklin’s biggest win — it’s not easy choosing — was probably his triumph in the Southwest Open at Little Rock in 1947. He was the ‘old man’ of the tournament since he’d taken a few years off from tennis to win World War II, but he still outpointed all the collegiate contenders. That was just before Jack Kramer revolutionized the game, and some time before its fall into ill-mannered modernity in the age of McEnroe.

“In 1947, tennis was still inconceivable played in anything but whites. My personal theory is that the long decline of tennis, and maybe that of Western civilization, set in with colorization, which has had much the same effect on tennis as on Bogart movies: deplorable.

“George Dunklin’s toughest match, however, may have been in Pine Bluff on the old clay courts at Oaklawn Park. He had come back from the University of Virginia to take on the University of Arkansas’ top player, Frank McElwee. In those days they played three out of five sets, not a mere two out of three, and this contest went all the way through a shimmering hot day in June of 1939. Dunklin and McElwee had to play not only each other but the heat and humidity.

“It was the kind of match made for scrapbooks and reminiscences. Friends and admirers turned out in convivial numbers. The fierce competitiveness of the game was decorously covered by exquisite manners and hushed voices. Heads turned as if they were choreographed during the sustained exchanges.

“Tennis was an amateur sport then, that is, a sport rather than a business. The game was played from the baseline in long, steady returns from the backcourt. Flash was considered almost bad form, complaints unheard of and a player could be sidelined for a smirk. There was still a code to uphold.

“The memory of that match … still radiates. Who won? Not that it matters — the game was all then — but young Dunklin did, if memory and records serve. He usually did. Among his more than a score of championships are nine state singles titles over three decades (the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s). He likes to repeat a friend’s description of himself: ‘The Jimmy Connors of the Stone Age.’

“Even more than his titles, it is the persistence of George Dunklin’s performance that impresses. And the good humor. Dunklin always has been a champion win or lose, though in his case it’s usually win. Whether on clay at Oaklawn Park during a long-ago summer or senior tennis on grass at Forest Hills, he always provided interest.

“George Dunklin never claimed any great talent (gentlemanly modesty, surely) but says his life on the court indicates what application can accomplish. Omnia vincit labor, or effort conquers all. But the effort must never show. That’s the code.”

As you can see, Dunklin Jr. had much to live up to. His mother also was a force of nature. Her list of accomplishments made her the epitome of the accomplished Southern belle. The daughter of Mary Boone Black and the rice-growing pioneer Lester Asher Black of DeWitt, Mary Elisabeth “Lib” Dunklin graduated from Gulf Park College in Mississippi and then made her debut at the Memphis Country Club. She was a princess to the queen of Memphis’ famed Cotton Carnival.

Her marriage to George Sr. occurred at the Black family home in DeWitt in May 1949. They had met in Memphis, where George Sr. was playing tennis. She went on to become the chairman of M.E. Black Farms Inc. and a majority owner of the Bank of West Memphis. She even was a founder of an offshore oil drilling operation.

“Lib” Dunklin served on the board of Kenmore, the Virginia home of George Washington’s sister, and was a member of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America. She was a Junior League member in both Pine Bluff and Memphis and was appointed by Gov. Dale Bumpers and Gov. Bill Clinton to the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion Commission. She joined Helen Walton in founding the National Museum of Women of the Arts in Washington and served on the board of the Pine Bluff Symphony League.

George Dunklin Sr. and “Lib” Dunklin died just 10 days apart in May 2007 at age 89.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Dunklin Sr. had returned to Arkansas to help run the family business. That business was Planters Cotton Oil Mill at a time when cotton was king in the eastern half of Arkansas. He worked for the company for more than 60 years until his retirement in 2005. Dunklin Sr. was the president of the National Cottonseed Association and a member of the Cotton Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Dunklin Jr. played football and basketball as a child but found himself concentrating on tennis by the ninth grade. Coming out of high school, he considered three colleges — Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia (his father, a member of Pine Bluff’s First Baptist Church, had given the school a substantial contribution for a tennis complex), Ole Miss and what was then Memphis State University. He wound up in Memphis.

The younger Dunklin’s last major tennis tournament was the Arkansas State Closed in 1980, the tournament his father had won nine times. Dunklin Jr. captured the title and began to think about new goals in life. His friends were surprised when he chose to move to Arkansas County to operate the farm that had been in his mother’s family for years.

Dunklin had dabbled in radio during his college years, helping produce a show taped in Memphis that featured the top 80 songs of 1980. Called “Countdown ’80,” the program aired on almost 60 stations. He decided that his future wasn’t in radio. After attending the 1980 U.S. Open in New York as a spectator, Dunklin convinced his mother to let him take over one of the family’s farms even though he knew nothing about farming or timber management.

Naturally smart, Dunklin learned along the way. Extra income came from leasing part of the land to the Memphis Furniture Co. for duck hunting. That deal was cut during lunch one day at the Memphis Country Club. The company had built what’s now Five Oaks Lodge in 1976 as a place to entertain its clients, and Jerry Jones had built a club down the road in 1982 (seven years before he bought the Dallas Cowboys) based on the design of the 1976 lodge.

In 1983, Memphis Furniture Co. lost its largest account, Sears Roebuck & Co., and decided to sell the lodge.

George Dunklin Jr. bought it.

The rest, as they say, is history. He has developed one of the finest duck hunting operations in the world while becoming an icon among waterfowl conservationists for his efforts to restore this piece of the Mississippi Flyway.

Given Dunklin’s background, it’s fitting that there’s a tennis court at Five Oaks.

Tennis, though, will have to take a back seat for now.

It’s duck season in Arkansas.

Along the Cache River

Monday, February 20th, 2012

It begins along the Arkansas-Missouri border and meanders through east Arkansas until emptying into the White River near Clarendon.

The Cache River.

This Delta stream played the lead role in one of the great environmental battles in American history.

“Though the Cache River area was an important source of timber, the area was not as extensively cleared as were other parts of eastern Arkansas due to the river’s reputation for flooding, and major stands of native hardwood survived,” Guy Lancaster writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Because the Cache moves at a slow speed due to its low amount of fall per mile … the Cache River can overflow its banks after only a few inches of rainfall.

“Work on the river in northeast Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s straightened the channel, even splitting the river into two separate ditches between Bono and Egypt. … During the flood of 1937, the Cache River was one of a number of eastern Arkansas rivers that spilled across agricultural land. Planters, landowners and businessmen long advocated for some form of flood control along the Cache, which had no well-developed system of levees.

“The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was a plan to dredge, clear and realign 140 miles of the Cache upstream from Clarendon, 15 miles of the upper tributaries and 77 miles of Bayou DeView, the river’s main tributary. However, initial funds for the project, projected to cost $60 million, were not approved until 1969.”

Bill Alexander, the Democratic congressman from the 1st District, fought hard for the project. His opponents included the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and conservationists statewide who realized that a large percentage of the remaining bottomland hardwoods in east Arkansas were along the Cache.

Leading that band of conservationists was Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart, a dentist and avid duck hunter.

“Conservation needs more than lip service, more than professionals,” said Hancock, whose organization was known as the Citizens Committee to Save the Cache River Basin. “It needs ordinary people with extraordinary desire.”

Hancock was born in July 1923 in Laddonia, Mo., a small town northwest of St. Louis. His father was a dentist. Hancock served in the Navy during World War II and graduated from Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., in 1947. He then went to dental school in Kansas City.

The thing that led him to Arkansas was his love of hunting. He first practiced at Huntsville and then moved to Stuttgart in 1951.

A lawsuit was filed to stop the Cache River project, but U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on May 5, 1972.

The Corps wasted no time. Clearing and dredging in the Clarendon area began in July 1972 even though Henley’s ruling had been appealed.

On Dec. 15, 1972, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to Henley, ruling that the Corps had not met the requirements of the Enviromental Policy Act in preparing its environmental impact statement. The court ordered construction stopped in 1973.

The environmental impact statement was approved in 1976, but funding was stalled in Congress. In addition to blocking funding, opponents of the project worked feverishly to establish a national wildlife refuge along the lower Cache.

Congress reauthorized funding in 1977, and three more miles of the river were ditched. A year later, a government task force concluded that ditching the river would be the single most damaging project to waterfowl and floodplain forest in the nation.

Funding ended, leaving a seven-mile scar along the lower Cache.

The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1986, covers almost 60,000 acres and is now considered to be among the nation’s most vital wintering areas for migratory waterfowl. It’s also among the country’s last remaining tracts of contiguous bottomland hardwood forests.

These east Arkansas wetlands were recognized in 1990 by the 61 nations of the United Nations Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for wetlands preservation, as Wetlands of International Importance.

The Cache River ranks right up there with the Everglades, the Okefenokee Swamp and the Chesapeake Bay as far as environmental importance.

Last fall, the Nature Conservancy held what it billed as the Save the Cache Bash at the home of Hanke and Cathy Browne in DeValls Bluff to draw attention to its efforts to restore 4.6 miles of the river that were channelized upstream from Clarendon before the courts could step in.

Working with the Corps, the city of Clarendon, the Game & Fish Commisson, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy hopes to make this a model for river restoration nationwide.

Mike Wilson of Jacksonville, who chaired the Nature Conservancy’s board in Arkansas, wrote in the organization’s 2011 year-end report: “We are opening a new and exciting chapter for the Cache River. The story of conservation in the lower Cache River and surrounding Big Woods of east Arkansas is one of ecological setbacks, protection victories and painstaking restoration.

“Many of you might remember the efforts in the early 1970s to prevent the channelization of the Cache River. We cheered when, after much hard work and a halt to the channelization that had already begun, the river was left to run its natural course. … It is up to us to carry on the extraordinary desire of so many conservationists who came before and to restore this iconic river.”

If you want to see what the Cache would have looked like if Alexander and the Corps had had their way, go north of Grubbs. It’s basically a drainage ditch.

In addition to its work to establish the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, the conservation coalition was instrumental in the addition of 41,000 acres of Potlatch Corp. lands to the adjacent White River National Wildlife Refuge.

There has been steady progress since then.

“Through the Wetlands Reserve Program, tens of thousands of acres were reforested,” the Nature Conservancy writes in its year-end report. “All told, the Conservancy and partners have reforested more than 50,000 acres and safeguarded more than 130,000 acres in the Big Woods.

“While conservation strides have been significant, the work on the channelized stretch of the lower Cache remains incomplete. Now we have an opportunity to begin restoring natural meanders of the channelized river, helping to fulfill the vision of those who originally worked to protect the river. If successful, this stretch of the Cache will once again enjoy thriving fish populations and flourishing habitat that supports waterfowl and hundreds of other resident and migratory bird species.”

The Nature Conservancy correctly notes that the Cache “pays homage to and helps sustain the deeply rooted Delta river culture so cherished throughout Arkansas.”

On Aug. 17, the city of Clarendon entered into a project partnership agreement with the Corps to move forward with the restoration project. The Nature Conservancy is working with the city to raise the funds needed to complete the effort.

The cost of the project is $7.3 million. The Corps is contributing $5 million. The Nature Conservancy must raise $2.3 million.

The Conservancy notes: “Timing is crucial. … While design work on the project has been completed, the Conservancy must be certain that we can deliver our share of the funding before we begin construction. After coming so close to losing the entire river, we now have a chance to put the Cache back on course for future generations.”

Why is restoration so important?

The Nature Conservancy responds: “With channelization, the Cache basin’s productive aquatic habitats and richly diverse bottomland forests have declined. This harms millions of wintering waterfowl that flock to this area, black bears that roam freely in surrounding woods and prized sport fish that define the Cache’s waters.

“Returning the lower Cache to its natural meandering condition will slow the river’s velocity and reduce the delivery of sediment that damages not only the Cache but also downstream rivers and habitats.”

Back to Rex Hancock: Later in life, he was instrumental in documenting the presence of dioxin — a toxin known to cause cancer and birth defects — in the Bayou Meto.

The Arkansas Wildlife Federation named him its Conservationist of the Year in 1968. In 1981, the Game & Fish Commission renamed the Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area in Woodruff County in his honor. His ashes were buried there following his death in July 1986.

In 1993, Hancock was inducted posthumously into the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame.

He no doubt would be pleased with the current efforts to restore the lower part of his beloved Cache River.

Bayou Meto: The Scatters to Buckingham Flats

Friday, January 6th, 2012

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.