Archive for the ‘Duck hunting’ Category

Winter at Wingmead

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

My grandfather from Des Arc, who died during the hot summer of 1980 at age 96, was once the Prairie County judge. Having served in several county offices — and having owned both a funeral home and a hardware store — there was a time when he knew everyone in the county.

One of the county’s most prominent part-time residents during the previous century was Edgar Monsanto Queeny, who was born in September 1897. When he was 4 years old, his father — John Francis Queeny — founded the Monsanto Chemical Co.

Edgar Queeny served in the U.S. Navy during World War I and then earned a chemistry degree from Cornell University in 1919. He married Ethel Schneider after graduation and began working for Monsanto in St. Louis. He became a vice president of the company in 1924 and Monsanto’s president in 1928.

In a previous post, I wrote about Wingmead, the duck hunting retreat and farm Queeny established in the southern part of the county. My grandfather told me of being invited to dinner with Queeny at Wingmead.

The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program picks up the Queeny story in the extensive narrative it prepared when successfully nominating Wingmead for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places: “Although his father was concerned that Queeny was ‘going to ruin Monsanto’ because he ‘wants to change everything,’ the opposite was the case. By the time Queeny retired from Monsanto in 1960, it had become the third-largest chemical company in the United States and the fifth largest in the world. It had 44 plants in the United States that manufactured chemicals, plastics, petroleum products and man-made fibers.

“After Queeny retired from Monsanto, he spent much of his time involved in civic projects in the St. Louis area. Queeny served as a director for the United Fund of St. Louis, chairman of the board of trustees of Barnes Hospital, where he and his wife also donated funds for the construction of the Queeny Tower, and as a member of the St. Louis Symphony Society. Queeny died in St. Louis on July 7, 1968.

“Queeny’s success at Monsanto allowed him to indulge in duck hunting beginning in the 1930s. Queeny would drive a trailer down to Arkansas where he would join up with Tippy LaCotts to duck hunt on Mill Bayou near DeWitt. It was also through LaCotts that Queeny was introduced to Jess Wilson, one of the state’s best duck callers and hunting guides.”

Queeny later wrote about Wilson in his book “Prairie Wings”: “I met Jess for the first time about 10 years ago when he was guiding near DeWitt on Elmer LaCott’s Mill Bayou flats. The moment he stepped out of his tent to greet me, and before he had spoken a word, I knew I would like him, for there are silent voices between men also. A man’s face is a chart of his soul. One look at Jess’ face and I decided instantly that we would get along well together. I have shot with him ever since.”

“Prairie Wings” was published in 1946.

The plans for Wingmead in Prairie County were drawn in 1937 by a St. Louis architect, Frederick Wallace Dunn. A Yale graduate, Dunn was a well-known figure in St. Louis who had his own firm and taught architectural design at Washington University. The main home was built in 1939.

The National Register nomination narrative notes: “The Queenys came to Wingmead in October and stayed through March, which encompassed the height of duck hunting season. Guests to the estate, which included outdoor writer Nash Buckingham and Walt Disney, were always weekend guests and the routine never changed.

“The routine, as described in the ‘Arkansas Duck Hunter’s Almanac,’ was ‘arrive on Friday in time for cocktails and a formal dinner; hunt ducks Saturday and Sunday mornings, with a quail hunt possibly on Saturday afternoon; depart Sunday.’

“When Queeny was having Wingmead designed, he incorporated knowledge of duck flight into the design. In fact, Queeny hired aeronautical engineers and biologists to study the duck flyways. Their findings helped Queeny employ sound conservation methods at Wingmead, methods that were later used along the entire Delta flyway.”

East Arkansas proved the perfect spot for what many people considered the nation’s premier club for hunting ducks. Keith Sutton writes in his book “Arkansas Wildlife”: “In the 1700s, a French explorer complained that ducks were so thick on the Arkansas River he could not stir the water with his paddle. Two hundred years later, market hunters were taking as many as 25,000 ducks a day from Big Lake in Mississippi County for meat markets in St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans and Chicago.”

Rice drying in the fields in shocks provided food for ducks, as did the acorns in the river bottoms.

“In addition, in 1925 when rice farmer Arthur Tindall conceived of impounding water in fields to lessen the need for irrigation, it caused the ducks to flock in,” the nomination narrative notes. “It led, in 1933, to Frank Freudenberg building artificial lakes specifically for duck hunting. Others trace the beginning of big-time duck hunting to the building, in 1923 on Jacob’s Lake, of a rough-hewn camp with mess hall, bunkhouse and ‘outdoor facilities.’ The owner charged $5 a day for lodging and shooting rights.”

In 1942, Queeny added a levee to his property to form a 4,000-acre reservoir known as Peckerwood Lake.

“The lake’s name came from the thousands of woodpeckers that tapped on the acres of standing dead timber created when the lake was impounded,” the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program writes in the nomination narrative. “Although Queeny used Peckerwood Lake for irrigation on Wingmead’s farmland, it also provided a great rest area for ducks and other waterfowl. Also, because of the location of Peckerwood Lake in the Mississippi flyway, there were plenty of ducks to hunt.

“As Queeny wrote, ‘Whoever is unfamiliar with this region may consider words picturing prolonged swarms of ducks to be extravagant language. However, Fish & Wildlife Service officials counted 135,000 ducks on one flat of 300 acres; 500,000 on another of 640 acres; and more than 1 million on a third of 1,600 acres.’

“In addition to Peckerwood Lake, Queeny built three green-tree reservoirs (forested bottomland that is shallowly flooded in the fall and winter) on the property — Wingmead, Greenwood and Paddlefoot — but he did not allow outboard motors on the reservoirs, only wooden boats and canoes that were paddled or pushed through the shallow lakes. Carl Hunter, who became manager at Wingmead, believed that Wingmead was the first green-tree reservoir on the Grand Prairie, and it was at least one of the first in which wooded areas were temporarily flooded to attract ducks.

“The thought and care that Queeny put into the siting and construction of Wingmead and Peckerwood Lake with respect to the Mississippi flyway illustrates the interest that Queeny had in nature and conservation. Queeny had a lifelong passion for nature, and he was a recognized authority on wildlife.”

In “Prairie Wings,” Queeny wrote: “The great Mississippi flyway is shaped like a funnel. Along the Grand Prairie it narrows into the tube. Officials of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimate that 40 to 50 percent of all North America’s wildfowl use the Mississippi flyway and pass through this tube. Most of this great number pour out of its mouth upon the Mississippi Delta and spread over the marshes of the Gulf Coast. The remainder winter in Arkansas.”

Carl Hunter left the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission to work for Queeny in 1957. He returned to the commission following Queeny’s death. In addition to managing the farm for ducks, he also worked to increase the population of geese and quail at Wingmead.

“Hunter built up a population of 30 quail coveys at Wingmead,” the nomination narrative notes. “Queeny was always willing to invest money to try something new, whether it involved geese, quail or crops. Interestingly, Hunter’s programs with geese and quail at Wingmead were not the first bird-related conservation program undertaken in the Roe/DeValls Bluff area. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission started a three-year quail habitat demonstration project on 960 acres near Roe during the Depression in the 1930s.”

Unfortunately, hunting wild quail is almost a thing of the past in Arkansas. But the ducks and geese continue to flock to east Arkansas this time of year, and Wingmead, now owned by the Lyon family, continues to welcome guests.

Claypool’s and Wingmead: Duck hunting cathedrals

Friday, December 30th, 2011

I’ve enjoyed writing in recent weeks about storied Arkansas duck clubs. They’re a part of our state’s unique heritage.

In my mind, two names stand above the rest as far as being legendary — Claypool’s near Weiner and Wingmead near Stuttgart.

I wrote about Claypool’s in last week’s post about the book “First Shooting Light.” Wallace Claypool of Memphis bought the land in 1941 as a sanctuary for ducks, building a reservoir that would become internationally famous on Dec. 23, 1956.

That’s the day NBC broadcast live as three blocks of TNT were fired off, causing an estimated 350,000 ducks to lift off the water.

The black-and-white photo of those ducks has become a classic in the history of the Arkansas outdoors.

Claypool, an automobile dealer, sold his land in 1966 to friends from Memphis. In the course of my research, I ran across an article by Eugenia Bone that ran in the November 2000 issue of Gourmet (I miss that magazine).

She had gone hunting at Claypool’s on a Thanksgiving weekend with her husband, Kevin, and an uncle from Memphis named Norfleet Turner.

The cast of characters on that hunt included men with colorful names such as Skeets Boyle (“vivacious and grumpy”), Toof Brown and Bayard Boyle Jr. (“a gentle loner who hunts by himself”).

John Riley — “a giant of a man and the terror of local poachers” — had run the place for 32 years by that point.

“Green rubber waders hang on pegs along one wall,” Bone writes. “Guns, primarily 12-gauge, rest on a tall rack. Masks, camouflage jackets and boxes of neat orange and yellow shells sit on a long bench. There’s a dead mouse in the toe of one seldom-worn wader. The shed is dingy and gloriously atmospheric, smelling of leather and wet wool and dogs held in high esteem.”

Bone writes lovingly of waiting for shooting time in the flooded timber: “Everything stills. And we wait. Very quietly. So concentrated is the quiet that the slow zigzag of a leaf falling from the canopy captures everyone’s attention. This is the true character of hunting: A zen-like state of simultaneous excitement and calm that allows for acute observation of nature. It’s why I don’t have to kill anything in order to experience a good hunt.

“Overhead, ducks fly by in flocks and pairs, and higher up, geese travel in tremendous, fluttering ribbons. Riley begins calling — a wonderful, lonely quack. … As the sky turns orange and pink, we shoot mallards and tiny, zippy teal for their sweet, tender meat. With every bird that falls like a feathery stone, the dogs leap off the blinds and lope through the water to retrieve it in soft jaws, their tails wagging fiercely.”

Bone tells of the famous people who have hunted at Claypool’s: “Jimmy Carter, Wernher von Braun, various DuPonts and baseball great Preacher Roe, but not Bill Clinton. (‘Skeets don’t like Bill Clinton,’ says John Riley.)”

Like my trips to Piney Creek, breakfast after the hunt is as good as the hunt itself at Claypool’s, Bone writes.

“Settling down to this breakfast is a true reward,” she says. “The table, by a picture window that looks out on a duck-resting pond, is set with thick, dinner-style ceramic, matching in spirit only. Pitchers of orange juice and milk are set out, as well as bowls of jelly, jam and marmalade. It may be country, but nothing is ever served in its original container.

“Then Mary comes out with the goods: a platter of scrambled eggs and another of fried country eggs, a basket of steaming homemade biscuits, a mound of curly bacon and a bowl of white gravy with the handle of a ladle sticking out of it. Everyone is pretty quiet for the first few minutes of furious piling on plates, and then the stories start — about the hunt, the dark water, the red sunrise.”

Here’s how Bone describes the club: “Inside, it smells like coffee. And peanuts, and gun metal — and rubber boots, and old tobacco, and even older men. There’s a big fire burning in the living room fireplace, and a coffeepot and mismatched mugs on the table. Hunters lounge on dumpy furniture that crackles when you lean back because of all the peanut shells behind the cushions. Others are banging around upstairs in the dormitory bedrooms.

“There are dead wasps on the windowsills and worn issues of Ducks Unlimited, dusty taxidermied ducks and old sepia-toned pictures of hunters and dogs and ducks and woods. And there are maps — beautiful maps, depicting Claypool’s 1,370 acres of flooded woods and reservoir, and maps showing the location of blinds: Brown’s Hole, Well Island, Snowden’s Hole, Johnny’s Hot Spot, Turner’s Hole, Mystery Hole, Fifth Avenue.”

It sounds like my kind of place.

Wingmead, meanwhile, has the reputation of being an elegant place, a reputation promoted by its founder, Edgar Queeny. Wingmead, which is just off Arkansas Highway 33 in Prairie County, was built in 1939 by Queeny, a St. Louis resident who was the chairman of Monsanto. Peckerwood Lake was formed in 1942.

Queeny had a deep interest in how ducks fly. The book “Prairie Wings” was written at Wingmead and published in 1946.

The Wingmead estate recently was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In its nomination narrative, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program noted: “Construction on Wingmead took place shortly after the land was acquired, and the complex that Queeny built was unlike any other duck hunting camp in the state. Designed in the colonial revival style, the main house encompassed approximately 10,000 square feet. In addition to the main house, the estate included several farm buildings, a kennel and a small cabin located one mile south of the main house that Queeny used as his personal retreat to do much of his writing. Queeny named the estate Wingmead, a word of Scottish origin that means ‘meadow of wings.'”

For several years, Queeny had stayed in a trailer when he visited Arkansas to hunt ducks. His wife finally gave him an ultimatum: If she were to accompany him in the future, he would need to get rid of the trailer.

Queeny consulted with Stuttgart businessman Roger Crowe to find land. Crowe found property on LaGrue Bayou, northwest of Roe and south of DeValls Bluff. Queeny formed an irrigation company and actually used eminent domain to acquire the 11,000 acres.

Queeny died July 7, 1968. His wife, Ethel, maintained the property until her death in 1975, when it was donated to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. Barnes announced that the estate would be sold by sealed bids in January 1976.

Rumors as to who would buy Wingmead ranged from Johnny Cash to Elvis Presley.

The Lyon family of Little Rock was the purchaser. The estate is still owned by Frank Lyon Jr. and used as a hunting retreat and farming operation.

In his 1990 book “Private Tour: At Home In Arkansas,” Hunter Gray wrote: “Not many things have changed over the years at Wingmead. Hunters are still helped out of their muddy boots by the staff. A model 12 shotgun might be handed to you as if by a golf caddy. This is hunting with all the finery — the spirit of the hunt is alive and well at Wingmead. At the end of the day, the table is set with fine china embellished with the recognizable Wingmead logo.”

This is how an article published several years ago in AY magazine put it: “The word lodge is certainly a misnomer for the main house at Wingmead, which is reminiscent of a large, luxurious country inn. ‘There have been changes in farming and conservation practices,’ Frank Lyon Jr. said, ‘but we’ve tried to keep the lodge in the same condition as when Queeny had it.’

“Bedrooms occupy most of the space on the two levels; a wood-paneled office, brightened by abundant windows, sits at one end of the ground floor. Lining the walls are illustrations by Queeny’s friend Richard Bishop, once one of the country’s best-known wildlife artists. Also displayed is one of the few complete collections of federal waterfowl stamps and prints in private hands. A Bishop illustration of a flying mallard has become the Wingmead logo, seen on panels in the main room of the lodge, above the office fireplace, on glassware and dishes, and on the doors of vehicles.”

The article notes that “rumors inevitably developed about Queeny’s very private hunting grounds, and some of them were actually true. Guests at Wingmead, whether politicians, business tycoons or artists, were expected to arrive for dinner in formal dress: black tie and dinner jackets for men, long dresses for women. The sense of decorum continued even during hunts. A painting over the fireplace in the main house shows Queeny and his wife, Ethel, hunting in flooded timber, wearing old-style sporting jackets; their guide is wearing a jacket and bow tie.”

I’ve been fortunate to visit some of Arkansas’ great duck clubs through the years. But I’ve never seen Claypool’s or Wingmead.

One of these days, I would like to take a peek.

“Wild Abundance” — Eating at the hunt club

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote about the book “First Shooting Light,” a collection of photos and essays from ArtsMemphis about duck clubs in Arkansas and Mississippi.

I told you that you can buy the book as a late Christmas gift at Bauman’s at Pavilion in the Park in Little Rock.

While you’re at Bauman’s, you might also consider picking up a copy of “Wild Abundance,” which also was published by ArtsMemphis and also was edited by the organization’s president, Susan Schadt.

“First Shooting Light” came out in 2008.

“Wild Abundance” was released last year. It contains beautiful photography by Memphis photographer Lisa Buser.

Here’s the concept: Take some of the South’s best chefs and put them in the region’s top hunting clubs. Team them up with club cooks and members. We all know that food is as important as hunting at these clubs.

Here’s the lineup:

1. John Besh of New Orleans (August, Domenica, La Provence, Luke, et al) visits the Bayou Club, which was founded in 1927 south of Intracoastal City, La. Members hunt ducks, fish for redfish and shoot skeet. One prominent member of the club is Paul McIlhenny, the president of the company that makes Tabasco. Besh joins forces with the club’s cook, Sylvia Hebert Nolan.

Remembering his childhood, Besh writes: “Our form of duck hunting was an arduous one that required commitment, paddling a pirogue for 45 minutes while wearing waders, with a large-headed, gregarious black lab perched in the front along with a heavy bag of decoys.”

2. Alex Grisanti, the chef and owner of Elfo’s in Germantown, Tenn., visits the Blackfish Hunting Club in Crittenden County. He teams up with the club’s cook, Betty Jean Williams, who has been at Blackfish for three decades. Williams grew up the eldest of 10 children in Stuttgart. She has picked cotton, worked in road construction, driven a tractor and driven an 18-wheeler. She has also raised 13 children.

“Cooking and eating are such an important part of hunting for me,” writes Grisanti, whose family has been cooking Italian food in Memphis for a century. “I eat every piece I catch or shoot. I love to cook wild game. We eat all the venison, the ducks, the doves and the crappie. At my hunting club, Caulk Island, a couple of the guys and I cook lunch and dinner every day. It’s a lot of fun. Hunting, fishing and cooking — for me it just doesn’t get any better.”

3. Our own Lee Richardson from Little Rock’s Capital Hotel visits Circle T, a club 13 miles from Stuttgart that’s owned by Chuck Smith of Memphis. At Circle T, Richardson teams up with Kevin Shockency, the executive chef at the Memphis Hunt and Polo Club.

“I spent my youth and, to some degree, found my professional calling at a deer hunting camp in Adams County, Miss.,” Richardson writes. “This place is a long way from the nearest paved road, remote and home to relatively undisturbed herds of deer and wood ducks and the occasional mallard. We had a pretty nice house with running water, some ranges lifted from a hotel in Natchez and plenty of heat. I had always thought of it as a well-outfitted camp. When it came to meals, it was a community affair with a loosely recognized instigator. We were just a bunch of rednecks cooking for ourselves.”

I had the pleasure of trying out some of Lee’s selections on Tuesday night at Ashley’s. And, yes, duck was on the menu.

“Like pork and the squeal, you can use just about everything on a duck but the quack,” he says.

4. Derek Emerson, the executive chef of Walker’s Drive-In and Local 463 Urban Kitchen in Jackson, Miss., visits the Fighting Bayou Hunting Club in the Mississippi Delta near the Leflore County-Sunflower County line. He joins forces with club cooks Rosie Mae Brown and Annie B. Hogan.

The huge clubhouse there can accommodate 40 guests in 18 bedrooms. Peyton and Eli Manning are regular visitors to the club.

“The club members have special rituals,” Emerson writes. “I could tell how much they love the tradition and sharing these customs with each other and their families.”

5. Donald Link of New Orleans (Cochon, Herbsaint, Cochon Butcher and Calcasieu) visits the Grande View Lodge in Creole, La., which is in Cameron Parish in the southwest part of the state. He joins forces there with club cook Blair Zuschlag.

Many of the guides at the club are Cajuns whose families have been raising cattle, farming, hunting and fishing in the area for generations.

“Hunting in the marshes can be a daunting experience if you’ve never done it,” Link writes. “I did as a kid, but it has certainly been a long time.”

6. John Currence of Oxford, Miss. (City Grocery, Boure, Big Bad Breakfast, et al), visits Mallard Rest in Webb, Miss., and joins forces with Vera Williams, the owner of the Webb Diner since 1988. Mallard Rest is owned by Memphis cotton merchant Billy Dunavant and covers 5,800 acres.

Here’s how Currence describes Williams: “Vera Williams cuts an imposing figure for a diminutive, 60-something Delta woman. She wears the look of someone who has fought for more sunrises than she ever thought of enjoying. She speaks softly but with authority. People listen intently when she talks and stand straighter than they normally would when in her presence.”

7. Kelly English of Restaurant Iris in Memphis visits Menasha Hunting & Fishing Club near Turrell. The club was founded in 1902, and the current clubhouse was built in 1974. He teams up with Rebecca Sims, who has lived at Menasha to cook and keep the clubhouse in order since 2003.

“The directions to Menasha read like many others: from the highway exit, wrap around to the service road, turn right at the largest telephone pole, cross the levee with the train tracks and follow the path until you see the camp. I’m sure I forgot about a fork in the road somewhere. That is where the similarities end between Menasha and all other camps trying to cast the shadows that this club does. This is not the converted school bus that I grew up hunting out of in Chipola, La., a little town on the banks of the Amite River in St. Helena Parish.”

8.  Karen Carrier of the Beauty Shop Restaurant & Lounge in Memphis (she began Automatic Slim’s Tonga Club in downtown Memphis in 1991 — it’s a favorite of mine just across the street from the Peabody Hotel — and sold it in 2008) visits Quail Hollow near Coffeeville, Miss. Quail Hollow is Billy Dunavant’s turkey and duck preserve. Carrier joins forces with Emma Lincoln, who operates a catering business in Memphis.

“My first encounter with Emma Mayweather Lincoln was at the Memphis home of Tommie and Billy Dunavant,” Carrier writes. “I was a guest at a gathering to introduce the concept of this fantastic book. As usual, I arrived late, not being able to find the driveway to the house. While I was making my way through the den, the wait staff was passing succulent nuggets that were so moist they melted in my mouth. I wasn’t sure what they were, but I knew I wanted more.”

They were Billy Dunavant’s favorite appetizer — fried wild turkey nuggets with horseradish cream dipping sauce.

9. Martha Foose, the famed Mississippi Delta chef who now lives at Tchula, visits the Ward Lake Hunting Club near Sherard, Miss. She cooks there with Chris Robinson of Memphis. The club covers 6,500 acres.

“On a dim January twilight’s last gleaming, I pulled down the spine of the levee running through the boggy bottoms of the Mississippi Delta,” Foose writes. “I pulled up to a modest camp house overlooking a cypress hole. Piled next to the front stairs were six walking sticks carved with intricate talismans. A sign, I supposed, that I had come to the right place.”

The book is filled with recipes that complement the photos and essays.

Here’s how Chris Camuto described it in Gray’s Sporting Journal: “A New Yorker by birth, I lit out for the South after college, following a romantic, writerly whim I never regretted. This move took me to Chincoteague Island and then Webb Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where waterfowling has roots as deep and tangled as live oak, cedar and cypress.

“The most important consequence of Southern waterfowling, of course, is eating. … This beautifully illustrated cookbook anthology from the lower Mississippi Flyway will probably start out on the coffee table, being admired, and end up in the kitchen, being used.

“Like the best hunt-camp cooking, this book’s wild game recipes combine in stunning ways haute cusine and down-home table fare. You can’t beat the South for that. … (There’s) a bayouful of Deep South chefs who spill insider information on preparing duck poppers, sweet potato-stuffed duck, smothered pork belly, char-grilled oysters, crispy duck pizzette, chicken and dumplings, duck Bolognese and braised venison shanks, along with homespun trimmings like turnip greens, cornbread, fried quail, grits, hushpuppies and blueberry crunch. Anything there you don’t want to eat?”

I’m hungry now.

Merry Christmas.


“First Shooting Light” — Duck hunting clubs in Arkansas

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

If you’re looking for a late Christmas gift, you might consider stopping by Bauman’s at Little Rock’s Pavilion in the Park for a copy of the book “First Shooting Light.”

I know.

Bauman’s is a men’s store. But the store has this book, a gorgeous collection of photos and essays published by ArtsMemphis that focuses on duck clubs in Arkansas and Mississippi.

The photographer was Murray Riss, who established the photography department at the Memphis College of Art and taught there from 1968 until 1986.

Frank Schmidt of Guyette & Schmidt Inc., the world’s leading auctioneers of antique waterfowl decoys, says this: “The book reminds all of us who have had such experiences of the comfort of camaraderie in the blind, dogs and calls and the ultimate lure of migratory fowl. You’ll take a nostalgic journey back to those days of brisk early mornings, iridescent sunrises and shadowy figures in flight.”

Here are the Arkansas clubs featured in “First Shooting Light” —

1. 713 in Lee County — Terry McFarland was eating in a West Memphis restaurant in 1999 when he heard someone at the next table talking about “some great hunting near Marianna.” He listened to the directions, called friend Mac McKee and said “meet me in Marianna.” They bought the land.

There are 10 members with a 10-bedroom clubhouse and 1,280 acres to hunt. The book says the club is “perfectly located on the L’Anguille River and the St. Francis Floodway near the north end of the St. Francis National Forest, which is historically one of the greatest hunting areas in the Mississippi Flyway.”

2. Bayou DeView/Section 13 Farms in Woodruff County — The club was founded in 1972 when Bill Wunderlich saw a classified ad in the Memphis newspaper offering 1,800 acres for lease. He recruited 11 friends, and the club was born.

“In the 1960s, this marginal farmland, which was subject to frequent flooding by the bayou, was owned by speculators, who cleared the timber and leased the hunting rights,” the book notes. “When they decided to sell in 1978, the ‘Wunderclub’ members missed the chance to purchase it initially, but the next year the new owners sold them the northernmost 655 acres.”

The 10-bedroom, four-bath lodge was built in 1984. Club members are most proud of cypress trees in the bayou that are almost 1,000 years old.

3. Bear Bayou near Humnoke — The club, located 15 miles west of Stuttgart, was purchased by its current owners in 1983 after having been owned since the late 1940s by the Marks family of Stuttgart.

At the time the book was published three years ago, there were six members from Memphis, two from Little Rock and one from Chicago. The club has 400 acres of flooded timber, a 90-acre fishing lake, a 140-acre rest area planted with millet and 339 acres of rice fields.

The clubhouse, built in 1987, has 10 bedrooms, five baths and a long dinner table that will seat 20 people.

4. Blackfish Hunting Club in Crittenden County — Founded in 1978, the club has 1,500 acres. About 600 of those acres are flooded each season.

The clubhouse has two bedrooms and a bunkroom that can sleep eight people. A featured attraction is a cook known for her fried chicken, pork chops, greens, chicken and dumplings, bean soup and fried peach pies.

5. Circle T near Wabbaseka — The club, which is 13 miles from Stuttgart, was established in 1959 to entertain customers of Central Transformer Corp. of Pine Bluff. It was purchased by Chuck Smith Jr. of Memphis in 1991.

The clubhouse sleeps 22 people and even has an indoor swimming pool. Smith, who was instrumental in convincing Ducks Unlimited to move its headquarters to Memphis, built a nearby home designed by Memphis architect John Jones.

Loud country music is used to wake the hunters each morning before they go hunt the green timber.

6. Five Lakes Outing Club in Crittenden County — This club on Horseshoe Lake has been around since 1901 when a seven-mile strip of land bordering the lake was purchased for $4,000. The club consists of almost 5,000 acres and a clubhouse that was built in 1911.

“Traditions abound here,” the book states. “Special family events are held throughout the year, such as the annual dove hunt and picnic held on Labor Day. … There are many second- and third-generation owners.”

7. Five Oaks Duck Lodge near DeWitt — Owner George Dunklin Jr. is the current chairman of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and one of our state’s top conservationists. The club was established in 1983.

The book notes that “Deborah Dunklin Tipton and her brother, George H. Dunklin Jr., attribute their good fortune to lady luck and to their ‘unbelievable maternal grandfather,’ L.A. Black of DeWitt. His great foresight in amassing a tremendous amount of property in the Stuttgart area between 1907 and 1945 made possible the strong Black/Dunklin traditions of farming, hunting and conserving the precious Arkansas Grand Prairie land.”

The club offers hunting on 10,000 acres of flooded timber and fields. In 1983, the family bought the old Paradise Lodge, which had been owned by the Leatherman family and the Memphis Furniture Co., and renamed it Five Oaks.

8. 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.

This is the quotation carved into the wood mantelpiece of the clubhouse: “Here time is slow and gracious … a companion, not a master.”

The book notes, “In the earliest days, Olin and his guests stayed at the old Riceland Hotel in downtown Stuttgart and drove out to the Greenbriar lands to hunt, with only tents to protect them from the elements. Later, a clubroom was built in 1955 and a bunkhouse in the ’60s, with the main lodge being added in 1983 and a building to house more bedrooms in 1986. Today, the club comfortably sleeps 20 people with understated luxury in eight bedrooms.”

The owners include the children of Kemmons Wilson, the Holiday Inn founder.

9.  Hatchie Coon Hunting & Fishing Club between Marked Tree and Trumann — The book describes the club as “the oldest operating hunting club in the state of Arkansas and one of the oldest in the Southeast.”

The club was organized by a group of Memphis residents in 1889, though the 700-acre property wasn’t purchased from the state of Arkansas until 1892. In 1898, the club absorbed the Osceola Ducking Club (I love that name) and Oak Donic (another great name).

Hatchie Coon members say the chain of ownership goes like this: God, the native Americans, the French, the United States, the state of Arkansas and Hatchie Coon.

Hatchie Coon has 43 regular members along with junior, senior and lifetime members.

10. Kingdom Come near Stuttgart — The book says owners David Snowden Sr. and David Snowden Jr. of Little Rock view the club as “a refuge, both for the three generations of their family that currently hunt there and for who knows how many generations of ducks.”

The book tells how David Snowden Sr. “moved from Memphis to Little Rock following his graduation from the University of Virginia and his mother’s marriage to George Alexander. Snowden’s love for the outdoors led him to farming under the tutelage of Alexander. Aside from receiving his invaluable instruction, Snowden also was blessed to inherit Kingdom Come upon his stepfather’s death.

“Kingdom Come strikes everyone as a captivating name, and not surprisingly there is a lovely little story attached to its origins. Once upon a time it seems there was a worker on the family land who was helping down at the club. Mr. Alexander’s mother sympathetically (and a bit impertinently) inquired as to whether he was being fed properly by Mr. Alexander. In response, the man said, ‘Miss Teedie, I couldn’t be eating better than if I was in Kingdom Come.'”

11. Menasha Hunting & Fishing Club between Gilmore and Turrell — The original club was founded in 1902 and was sold in 1948 to Mary Kuhn of Marion. Club members leased land from her. She later sold the land to the club.

Duck blinds are located in Stave Lake and Mink Lake on the property. There also are 40 acres known as the Sanctuary that are planted with millet and used as a rest area.

The 11-bedroom clubhouse was built in 1974 after an earlier clubhouse burned.

12. Mud Lake Hunting Club near Hughes — A club on the property was established in 1902 by 10 prominent Memphis sportsmen. Originally consisting of 3,423 acres, the club was sold to the Oswalt family of Hughes in 1941.

The club ceased to exist in 1947 and was brought back to life by Bill Deupree of Memphis in 1997.

Mud Lake covers almost 1,000 acres and is an oxbow of the St. Francis River.

“The fact that the 75-year-old clubhouse was still standing was a piece of good fortune, especially in view of the fact that two earlier ones had burned,” the book states. “The beamed ceiling, large carved fireplace mantel and even the old dining table, chairs and sideboard had somehow survived.”

13. Claypool’s Reservoir (Wild Acres) near Weiner — Wallace Claypool of Memphis bought this land in 1941 as a sanctuary for ducks. He built a reservoir and 20 miles of roads.

The book picks up the story from there: “Mr. Claypool’s mission was the conservation of ducks, and he was famously quoted as saying that ‘if the wild duck is to avoid the fate of the passenger pigeon, somebody must furnish it with food, water and a place to rest.’

“Claypool’s Reservoir achieved national prominence when it was showcased on NBC. … And what a production it was to set up the crew and equipment in a remote spot and to conceal the trucks, the cameras and the power generators. Camouflaged blinds were specially built, including one which sat high atop a hickory tree.

“In an extraordinary combination of good luck and skill, the ducks were herded in front of the cameras at 3:14 p.m. on Dec. 23, 1956. There were two explosions — the first, three blocks of TNT in a rocket fired over the ducks — and then the second, 350,000 ducks lifting off the water, a sight which mesmerized millions of viewers and created a nationwide interest in Arkansas duck hunting.”

Claypool sold his land in 1966 to friends from Memphis. Hunting is only allowed each Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday morning during the season.

“First Shooting Light” was published in 2008 but still would make anyone who loves the Arkansas outdoors a fine Christmas gift.

Mallard madness in Arkansas

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

The rain was coming down hard when my alarm sounded at 3:30 a.m. Friday.

Thankfully, it wasn’t cold enough for ice, but it wasn’t warm, either — about 39 degrees.

There are few things that will make me get up at that hour. A trip to hunt ducks with the legendary Wiley Meacham at the Piney Creek Duck Club on the Monroe County-Lee County line near Monroe is one of them.

I’ve written about Wiley on this blog before. He’s 80 now, still getting up in the middle of the night and making the drive from his home in Brinkley to his farm office under the pecan trees at Monroe, on the land where he was born and raised.

The date had been marked on my calendar for weeks. Steve “Wild Man” Wilson of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission had called to inform me that he would be filming his annual “Talkin’ Outdoors” Christmas show at Piney Creek. He invited me to be a part of the hunt.

If for some reason you feel the need for television background noise on Christmas morning, the show will air at 9 a.m. Sunday on KARZ-TV.

It will air again Christmas evening at 11:30 p.m. on KARK-TV, Channel 4.

You’ll be able to witness a group of grown men standing in cold water, wearing camouflage Santa caps (thanks, Wild Man) and singing Christmas songs.

“Why do grown men get up in the middle of the night and then act like that?” I’m sure my wife will ask.

Unless you’ve experienced the mallard madness in the flooded green timber of east Arkansas, you really can’t answer that question.

It’s an experience that goes far beyond shooting ducks.

Watching the sun rise. Listening to the owls and the geese. Exchanging stories. Giving friends a hard time after bad shots.

Listening to Steve Meacham and Don Thompson call the ducks.

Sharing a bench with Rex Johnson.

Back where we parked the boats, Joe Weiss was busy cooking Friday morning. Yes, cooking. These flooded woods have a kitchen.

In 1987, a grocery store owner named Lattimore Michael opened the first Back Yard Burgers restaurant in Cleveland, Miss. A year later, Weiss — a Clarksdale, Miss., native — became a franchisee and was instrumental in the expansion of the chain.

Joe now owns the Blue & White Restaurant, a roadside classic that has been in business alongside U.S. Highway 61 in Tunica, Miss., since 1937.

On this morning, though, Joe is playing chef in the flooded timber of the Arkansas Delta. He’s grilling slices of teal and sausages. He’s cutting cheese and putting out crackers and Mickle’s Pickles from Picayune, Miss. (truly some of the best pickles I’ve ever had).

After the hunt, standing there eating slices of teal on a cracker, I think about the great tradition of east Arkansas duck hunting.

Yesterday, after lunch at the Peabody Little Rock, I went by the lobby fountain to pay homage to the four mallard hens and one mallard drake that swim inside the hotel. Even the famous Peabody Hotel ducks have their genesis in an east Arkansas duck hunt.

In 1932, Frank Schutt, the general manager of the Peabody at Memphis, accompanied a friend named Chip Barwick on a duck hunting trip to east Arkansas.

The Peabody website tells what happened after that at the landmark Memphis hotel: “The men had a little too much Jack Daniel’s Tennessee sippin’ whiskey and thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys (it was legal then for hunters to use live decoys) in the beautiful Peabody fountain. Three small English call ducks were selected as ‘guinea pigs,’ and the reaction was nothing short of enthusiastic. Soon, five North American mallard ducks would replace the original ducks.

“In 1940, bellman Edward Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, offered to help with delivering the ducks to the fountain each day and taught them the now-famous Peabody duck march. Mr. Pembroke became the Peabody duckmaster, serving in that capacity for 50 years until his retirement in 1991.

“The original ducks have long since gone, but after 75 years, the marble fountain in the hotel lobby is still graced with ducks. The Peabody ducks march at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.”

It has long been a tradition in our family to have wild Arkansas ducks for dinner in the days leading up to Christmas. So it was that I brought two mallard drakes back with me, stopping at McSwain’s on U.S. Highway 165 in North Little Rock to have the ladies in the back room clean them for me.

With dozens of ducks in the back room, it was obvious that others had been hunting on that rainy Friday morning.  The ladies said they could clean my ducks while I waited, so I watched them work their magic.

Again, my thoughts turned to the colorful history of Arkansas duck hunting.

One of my favorite writers is Nash Buckingham, a Tennessean who died in 1971 at age 90. Buckingham wrote nine books and hundreds of articles for magazines such as Sports Afield, Outdoor Life and Field & Stream.

His preferred types of hunting were for ducks and bobwhite quail, the two types of hunting my father most enjoyed. My dad always considered duck and quail hunting to be gentlemen’s sports.

Just like the legend of the Peabody ducks, east Arkansas figures prominently in a well-known incident involving Buckingham.

Here’s how a story on him began in the June/July 2010 issue of Garden & Gun: “On Dec. 1, 1948, two hunters emerged from the cool wetlands of Clarendon, Ark., and ambled along a country road. The men — Nash Buckingham and Clifford Green — had spent a long morning in a duck blind and were headed back to Green’s car, on their way home.

“Buckingham, then 68 years old, was at the time one of the most famous writers in America, a sort of Mark Twain for the hunting set. At Green’s car, they met a warden, who asked to see their hunting licenses. The warden quickly realized that he was in the presence of the celebrated writer. He asked Buckingham if he could see the most famous shotgun in America, Buckingham’s talisman, an inanimate object that the writer had referred to — in loving, animistic terms — in a great number of his stories. The nine-pound, nine-ounce gun was a side-by-side 12-gauge Super Fox custom made by the A.H. Fox Gun Co. in Philadelphia.

“The carbon steel plates on the frame were ornately engraved with a leafy scroll. The gun company’s signature fox, nose in the air, was engraved on the floorplate. The barrels had been bored by the renowned barrel maker Burt Becker and delivered 90 percent patterns of shot at 40 feet, an uncharacteristically tight load for a waterfowling shotgun. It was named Bo Whoop. A hunting buddy had designated it so, after the distinct deep, bellowing sound it made upon discharge.

“The warden chatted up Buckingham, handling and admiring the writer’s gun, like a kid talking to Babe Ruth while holding the slugger’s bat. At some point during the conversation, the warden laid the gun down on the car’s back fender. Buckingham and Green soon bid the warden farewell and drove off, forgetting about Bo Whoop until many miles into their trip home. In a panic, they turned around and retraced their route, painstakingly eyeing every inch of the road, to no avail.”

Buckingham spent the next several years searching for Bo Whoop.

“He lamented the loss of Bo Whoop in print, likening it to the death of a treasured hunting dog,” the article states. “He took out ads in local newspapers, offering rewards. He befriended local wardens and police, appealing to them to be on the lookout. He would never find it. But in the process of its loss and failed recovery, its legend grew in stature. Bo Whoop became a metaphor for other things gone and never to be retrieved, like one’s youth or the American wildnerness.”

 Like Elvis sightings in later years, there were regular Bo Whoop sightings. All were false.

In 1950, two friends gave Buckingham a Fox gun named Bo Whoop II.

During the 1950s, a sawmill foreman in Savannah, Ga., bought a used Fox shotgun with a broken stock for $50. The foreman’s son inherited the shotgun upon his father’s death and stuck it in a closet.

In 2005, the son brought the gun to a noted South Carolina gunsmith named Jim Kelly for repair.

Kelly, a student of hunting history, saw “Made for Nash Buckingham” and “By Burt Becker Phila. PA” inscribed on the gun.

He had found Bo Whoop.

After having the stock repaired, the man passed the gun down to his son, who in turn decided to sell it in order to pay the medical expenses for his sick father. It would be auctioned by the James Julia Auction Co. in Maine.

In March 2010, an 84-year–old man named Hal Howard Jr. learned of the impending auction. Howard, a former T. Rowe Price executive, was raised in Memphis. His father was Buckingham’s best friend and hunting partner. Hal Howard Jr. was Buckingham’s godson.

“We hunted in Arkansas together,” Howard said.

Howard paid $201,250 for Bo Whoop, the third-highest amount ever paid for an American shotgun.

A month later, it was announced that Howard was donating Bo Whoop to the Ducks Unlimited national headquarters at Memphis.

What has never been clear is how Bo Whoop got from the woods near Clarendon to Georgia. But the shotgun is almost home now, just across the Mississippi River from the duck woods of Arkansas.

What a fine tradition Arkansas duck hunting is.

We’ll see you on KARZ at 9 a.m. Christmas Day.


Thanksgiving, Stuttgart and ducks, ducks, ducks

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

I have vivid memories of my first time to be in Stuttgart on the weekend after Thanksgiving.

It was 1976. The high school football team for which I was the starting center, the Arkadelphia Badgers, had played for a state championship at what’s now known as Carpenter-Haygood Stadium in Arkadelphia on the day after Thanksgiving.

On the muddiest field you can imagine, we lost to Mena following a series of controversial no-touchdown calls at the end of the game.

I had no desire to go to Stuttgart after losing the game that Friday night.

My father, however, gave me no choice. We were to be the guests of Clyde Berry, a Stuttgart native and former head football coach at Henderson State University, and his son, Trey.

So I showered after a heartbreaking defeat that still haunts me 35 years later, and we drove that dark night to Stuttgart.

Trey, who is now one of the state’s best-known historians and a dean at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, will confirm that my father killed three ducks with one shot on a bitter cold Sunday morning. What’s even more amazing is that there were three types of ducks on the ground — a mallard, a green-winged teal and a pintail.

“Red, do you have a funnel on the end of that gun?” I remember Clyde Berry calling out to my father.

As the winds picked up and dropped the wind chill into single digits, we headed back into Stuttgart for breakfast. The memories of that Sunday morning will last forever.

This will be my first Thanksgiving without my dad. I’m sure I will think a great deal this week about the time we spent hunting ducks together.

Thanksgiving week and duck hunting went together at our house, you see.

I remember sleeping on mattresses filled with duck down at Trey’s grandmother’s house in 1976 and walking down Main Street on Saturday night to check out the carnival and visit the shops that were open late.

I remember driving through the countryside that Saturday afternoon listening to Dave Woodman and Jim Lindsey broadcast a Razorback football game. Dave congratulated all the high school state champions. I recall how much it hurt when he mentioned Mena.

In an article for Delta Waterfowl magazine a few years ago, Dr. Wayne Capooth of Memphis wrote about his first Wings Over the Prairie Festival, which he attended with his father at age 10 in 1955.

He wrote: “Here, after numerous carnival rides, Dad introduced me to Miss Sophie, wife of Chick Major. From her, I bought one of her calls, a Dixie Mallard, which I still own and cherish. Chick and Sophie are local legends, whose Dixie Mallard duck call established a standard of call-making excellence.

“It just so happened that their daughter, Pat, was a contestant in the world championship duck calling contest, which is held yearly in Stuttgart on the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day. Standing as close to the calling platform as I could, I saw Pat win the Arkansas title and, more importantly, the first of two straight world championships.

“In 1950, at age 12, Pat won the junior world title. In 1951, she took the first of five straight women’s world titles. Moreover, in 1960 she captured the coveted Champion of Champions crown. If that is not enough, in 1956 she won the first ever Queen Mallard beauty contest.

“Pat Peacock went on to become the director of the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie. It started out to preserve agriculture, but now it is the history of the Grand Prairie. A wing is devoted to waterfowl, whose highlights include the lights and sounds of an early morning duck hunt on the Grand Prairie. In addition, there are 500 award-winning game calls, a one-of-a-kind ‘coat of many feathers,’ antique decoy collection, market-hunter guns and waterfowl art and photographs.

“Snuggling closer to the platform, I witnessed the first-ever Champion of Champions contest, won by Art Beauchamp of Flint, Mich. Every five years since, the Champion of Champions duck calling contest is held. The winner is considered the best of the best, the Champion of Champions. Those eligible to compete are former world champions.”

The 2011 Wings Over the Prairie Festival has begun. At 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, the carnival will open on Main Street and remain open through Saturday.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, students who have attended classes conducted by famed Stuttgart duck caller Butch Richenback will hold a calling competition on the Main Street stage.

Born on July 11, 1946, as Harry Milton Richenback, Butch learned the art of making duck calls from Chick Major. Richenback was the junior duck calling champion of 1957. By 1972, he was the world champion duck caller.

Richenback won the Champion of Champions title in 1975 and then retired from calling.

He sold his first duck call in 1976, the year I went to the Wings Over the Prairie Festival with my father. Rich-N-Tone calls were born, and they have been used by more than 60 men’s, women’s, intermediate and junior world championship winners since that time.

Richenback’s youth calling clinics have been held since 1969.

By Friday, an arts and crafts fair, commercial exhibits, a sports collectibles show and displays of off-road vehicles will have been added to the Wings Over the Prairie mix.

The Main Street stage will host various duck calling contests beginning at 1 p.m. Friday.

The annual Sportsman’s Party is always held on the Friday night after Thanksgiving. It can best be described as a giant homecoming party for Grand Prairie natives. This year’s event will be at the modern Grand Prairie Center on Phillips Community College’s Stuttgart campus and feature the Little Rock band Big Stack.

Much of the day Saturday will belong to the annual World Championship Duck Gumbo Cook-Off. The world championship division of the duck calling contest will begin at 2 p.m. Saturday on the Main Street stage.

The early calling contests were part of an event known as the Rice Carnival. The first such contest was in 1936.

Here’s how the Sportsman’s Guide published by the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce described it: “The only rules for the first contests were that contestants would demonstrate four calls — the open water call, the woods call, the mating call and the scare call. As the contest grew, the rules grew with it. Callers were later required to do three calls — the hail, feed and mating calls. Later, the comeback call was added.”

The Sportsman’s Guide went on to note that “it is only natural to expect a few ducks to show up and enjoy the contest with all the duck calling going on. Low-flying ducks passing over Main Street during the contest have only added to the festive celebration.

“Perhaps the most celebrated of those events involved the late actor Wallace Beery, then a famous movie star who served as a contest judge. A tremendous flight of ducks approached on the horizon west of town just as the finals of the contest were ending. The flight never deviated from its course but continued directly over the judges’ stand at a very low altitude.”

As a sportswriter for the Arkansas Democrat in 1982 — my first job out of college — I talked my bosses into letting me cover the Wings Over the Prairie Festival just because I wanted to be in Stuttgart on the weekend after Thanksgiving. It just seemed the place to be in Arkansas on that weekend.

The thing I’ve yet to see since 1976, though, is someone kill three ducks with one shot.

I’m glad my dad didn’t let me stay home and pout all weekend after the state championship football game.

I return to the words of Dr. Capooth: “It has never been satisfactorily explained to me why it is that scenes and incidents transpiring in one’s youth remain fresh in the memory, indelibly impressed upon one’s brain for scores of years — yes, even until death — when incidents of greater importance transpiring quite recently vanish from memory as if they had never occurred at all. Possibly, it is because ‘the morning of life is like the dawn of day, full of purity, of imagery and harmony.’

“At any rate, nearly all the scenes and incidents of me shooting my first greenhead are as fresh and well defined today as if they had occurred only yesterday.

“At the Rice and Duck Capital of the World, waterfowling has taken on a legendary status that is hard to match anywhere else in the world. The market hunters of the past two centuries may be a thing of the past but the lifestyle that they created has endured. Many of today’s natives — guides, resort owners, boat builders and call makers — trace their lineage to these colorful characters of the Grand Prairie’s past. It just doesn’t get any better than this.”

I’ll miss hunting with you this weekend, Dad.

It’s duck season!

Friday, November 18th, 2011

Duck season begins in Arkansas on Saturday.

Hunters from across the country are migrating to our state today. You see, this is the mecca of their sport.

Let’s go back more than 60 years and read what Ralph Coghlan wrote in 1949 for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Let me say that, over a hunting experience of many years, I have never seen more ducks than darkened the Arkansas skies this year. Not being a bookkeeper, an accountant, a human adding machine or a member of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, I couldn’t come within 100,000 of figuring how many I saw.

“I watched mallards sitting in vast and solid rafts on the Arkansas reservoirs, quacking raucously and happily, and at dusk, saw them start for the rice fields. They took off in successive roars like fleets of miniature B-29s, and for half an hour or more, the whole sky was alive with ducks.

“For seven weeks in November 1949, wave after wave of mallards took off like scrambling fighter planes from their summer breeding grounds in Canada. Fanning out over four major flyways, they headed south. It was the heaviest migration of waterfowl that the U.S. had seen in years.

“Southward along the Mississippi Flyway, which in 1949 was traveled by the thickest squadrons of ducks and gunned by almost half the nation’s 2 million waterfowlers, the shooting was the best in years. Hunters from all over the U.S. converged on Stuttgart, which, at that early date, declared that its flooded woodlands and rice fields made it the Duck Capital of the World.”

As you can tell, the Arkansas reputation as a mecca for duck hunters has been decades in the making.

Bill Hope planted a small plot of rice near Stuttgart as an experiment in 1902. It yielded 139 bushels per acre despite all of the people who were pulling up stalks of this strange crop as souvenirs.

The Stuttgart Rice Mill Co. was incorporated on March 9, 1907. The mill was completed the following October and reported a profit on the first year’s crop of $16,000.

The cooperative of rice farmers that would become Riceland Foods Inc. was formed in 1921. The ducks followed the rice.

Writing for Delta Waterfowl magazine, Wayne Capooth explained: “Until the coming of drying facilities, harvested rice was left to dry in the fields, attracting southward-bound ducks and geese in indescribable numbers to feed. In addition, dotting the prairies were numerous timbered depressions known as ‘islands’ or ‘pin oak flats,’ at least two dozen of which were used as rice reservoirs or as ‘green tree’ reservoirs.

“The first rice reservoir, built by Art and Verne Tindall, was completed in 1927 near Elm Prong Mill Bayou. Verne Tindall remarked to the Stuttgart Daily Leader, ‘The first few years, it seemed as if all the ducks in the country tried to get into it.’

“By the mid-1940s, reservoirs were estimated to occupy about 10,000 acres, while the rice acreage of the Grand Prairie was about 175,000 acres. By 1950, about 200 had been built within the region and 50 were green-tree reservoirs. These reservoirs, constructed for irrigation, provided an additional attraction, resulting in the Grand Prairie becoming a nationally known venue for waterfowling.”

The first duck calling contest was held on Main Street in Stuttgart on Nov. 24, 1936, in conjunction with the annual Arkansas Rice Carnival. It was the idea of Thad McCollum and was sponsored by the American Legion. McCollum, Dr. H.V. Glenn and Arthur Shoemaker formed a committee to stage the event. Verne Tindall later replaced Shoemaker as a committee member.

There were 17 contestants in that first contest. Thomas Walsh won without using a call. Walsh, who raised ducks at his home in Greenville, Miss., produced the sounds with his throat. His prize was a hunting coat valued at $6.60 that the American Legion had purchased from the John Oberly Clothing Store.

The only other contestant to win the contest without a call was also from Greenville. Herman Callouet pulled off that feat in 1942.

By 1947, the prize was up to $1,000. Next week’s winner will receive a prize package worth more than $15,000.

Just as famous as the calling contest these days is the duck gumbo cook-off that is always held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I can only describe this as an Arkansas-grown bacchanalia that’s as close as you get in this state to Bourbon Street in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.

Cooking teams with names such as the Bud Light Rouxmasters (last year’s winner), the Flockers and Mallard Malee will wear custom shirts, work in elaborate booths and slap team stickers on the rears of women who walk by in tight jeans.

If you attend, plan on having to scream to be heard above the band Tragikly White and the hundreds of people who will be talking loudly with their friends.

The more than 50 teams are required to cook three quarts of gumbo each, and at least 50 percent of the meat must be duck. Teams begin cooking at 10 a.m., and the judging takes place at 3 p.m.

Each Thanksgiving, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones fires up his private jet following his team’s home game for a weekend of hunting at his Red Hill Duck Club near Stuttgart. Jones often can be spotted at the gumbo cook-off.

Capooth, the Delta Waterfowl writer, first attended the Wings Over the Prairie Festival in 1955 with his father. He was 10 years old.

He remembers staying at the old Riceland Hotel just down the hall from John Olin of Winchester-Western. Olin hunted at the Greebriar Club, which was known by locals as the Winchester Club.

“It was here on these famous grounds that King Buck retrieved his last greenhead,” Capooth writes. “Double national champion (1953 and 1954) King Buck was given his due when, in 1959, it was decided that the federal duck stamp for that year should commemorate the work of retrievers and their contribution to waterfowl conservation. … So it is that Maynard Reece painted a portrait of perhaps the greatest duck dog of them all.”

For all of you headed duck hunting on this opening weekend, best of luck and be safe. Know that you’re taking part in a treasured Arkansas tradition.

Take ’em!

The duck lands of White County

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

In the previous post, I described a delightful trip down Arkansas Highway 36 last week from Searcy to where the road ends at Georgetown in White County.

As the second-largest county in the state as far as the landmass (1,034 square miles), White County is incredibly diverse.

In the western part of the county, they raise beef and dairy cattle. Increasingly, they drill for gas in the Fayetteville Shale, an activity that has made Searcy a bit of a boomtown these days.

In the east, the hills give way to the bottomlands, and row-crop agriculture takes over.

The online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (my gosh, what a gift that product is to our state) describes the county this way: “It is a microcosm of the state as a whole. The southeastern part of the county is alluvial land that today is mostly used for farming and timber production. … The north-central and northeast parts of the county contain the eastern terminus of the Ozark Escarpment.”

In other words, Rose Bud, Romance and El Paso in the west have very little in common with Georgetown and Griffithville in the east.

I’ve come east in White County on this day. I’m driving through a part of the county that has become a mecca for hunters and fishermen. As the trees give way to huge fields just east of West Point, something dawns on me. Watching the large tractors bust up the soil on a sunny April afternoon, it appears that this area represents a good example of a place where agriculture done on a large scale can exist in harmony with the government protection of wetlands.

In the 1970s, as soybean prices soared, thousands upon thousands of acres of Arkansas wetlands were cleared for crop production. As I’ve written before, it became apparent in the years that followed that much of this poorly drained soil should be returned to bottomland hardwoods.

A large percentage of Arkansans fail to understand just how big a role agriculture plays in our state’s economy. Agriculture represents 16 percent of the state’s total labor income. With about 46,500 farms on 14.3 million acres statewide, Arkansas ranks 11th nationally in total farm receipts.

We’re the country’s largest producer of rice, and we rank second in cotton production, fifth in grain sorghum production and 10th in soybean production. In fact, Arkansas ranks 21st or higher in the production of 19 commodities.

According to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture: “Arkansas agriculture contributes a larger share to the state’s gross domestic product than does agriculture in neighboring states and the U.S. economy. Agricultural production, processing and retail account for 11.6 percent of the gross domestic product. This compares to about 7 percent for the Southeast United State and 5.2 percent nationwide.”

The farmers of east Arkansas are some of the best in the world at producing food and fiber. Just as the overall state economy needs Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods to be strong, people in all parts of this state have a vested interest in row-crop agriculture remaining strong. We must constantly search for new markets, greater efficiencies and more value-added products.

At the same time, however, we must protect the natural elements that make this state unique. There’s a balance that must be achieved, and it’s not often an easy balancing act. But it seems to me that Arkansas has made great progress during the past 20 to 25 years in better achieving that balance.

To the north of me as I head southeast toward Georgetown is the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, a 14,800-acre tract along the Little Red River that attracts large numbers of migrating waterfowl each winter. The refuge was acquired by the federal government in 1993 as part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Much of the land had been part of a corporate farming operation owned by the John Hancock Insurance Co. Parts of the refuge have since been reforested and returned to wetland conditions.

Through a cooperative farming agreement, some areas are still farmed. Up to 25 percent of the crop is left unharvested to feed the migratory birds and other wildlife.

Also to the north of me is the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area. The land once was owned by the company that made Singer sewing machines. It later was sold to the Fisher Body Corp. in the 1930s. Part of it became a game refuge in 1941, and the wildlife management area was created in 1958 to protect the bottomland hardwoods that were rapidly disappearing across east Arkansas. During the next 12 years, the Game and Fish Commission continued to make land purchases in order to increase the size of the management area and protect even more bottomland forests.

The 17,000-acre refuge is along both the White River and the Little Red River. Glaise Creek runs through the area, and there are numerous oxbow lakes with great names like Honey Lake, Mallard Pond, Big Brushy, Big Hurricane, Little Hurricane, Big Bell, Little Bell and Whirl Lake.

Water-control structures are closed early each fall to hold runoff water and make the area more attractive for ducks. Almost 8,000 acres are flooded each year at Hurricane Lake WMA, the third-largest wildlife management area operated by the state.

To the south of me as I head toward Georgetown is the Steve N. Wilson Raft Creek Wildlife Management Area, which was a parcel of bottomland hardwoods before it was cleared for farming in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 2000, Morrison Farms was enrolled in the Westland Reserve Program. Later that year, the state acquired the 4,063-acre farm.

During the past decade, the state has worked hard to restore native vegetation in the area. There are almost 11 miles of restored channels along Raft Creek and its tributaries. Cypress and oak trees have been planted along those restored channels. In other areas, pecan and ash trees have been planted along with oaks. Some fields have even been seeded in native prairie plants.

With a national wildlife refuge and two state wildlife management areas, one can see why hunters and fishermen flock to this area of White County.

And, yes, I’ll give yet another plug to the catfish at the Georgetown One Stop, where the road ends. After all, that was my ultimate destination.

I know that makes two posts in a row in which I’ve talked about the Georgetown One Stop, but it’s one of those remote places that make rural Arkansas so special. The walls are covered with photos of some of the thousands of people who have visited there during the past dozen years.

“I wouldn’t want to spend any money on decorating,” owner Joanna Taylor once told The Daily Citizen at Searcy. “That would take away from what we’re doing here. It’s all about the catfish.”

Here’s how Tim Bousquet described it in The Daily Citizen: “This is, without doubt, the finest catfish in the land. Light as a cloud, not too fishy and fresh, newly fallen dew fish. No need to gussy up this catfish. Taylor serves it plainly, maybe a hushpuppy or two on the plate with a side of sliced onion, tarter sauce, lemon and a pickle. Have as much as you want, Taylor will keep it coming until you tell her to stop, which might be a good long time.

“The trick, she says, is simple: She gets her fish direct from commercial fishermen working the White River, and she serves it fresh, never frozen. She’s meticulous with her product, working through the fillets, serving up fish as fat-free as possible, changing her oil daily — the kind of care long lost to the inland chain restaurants.”

Southeastern White County — a fascinating slice of a state whose rural areas never fail to surprise and amaze me.

Rainy morning in Monroe

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

It was raining steadily as I pulled away from my home at 4 a.m. Sunday.

I had ignored Wiley’s advice. He had called the previous afternoon and said: “If it’s raining fairly hard when you get up tomorrow morning, I suggest you go back to bed.”

Indeed, the rain was coming down when the alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. But I was wide awake. I figured that even if we didn’t go duck hunting, I might as well have a big breakfast with the guys and swap some stories.

The rain never stopped as I made the drive east on Interstate 40. In fact, it got harder. As I pulled into the parking lot of Gene’s Barbeque in Brinkley shortly after 5 a.m., I could see the forlorn faces of the men standing out front, outfitted in camouflage. Some of them likely had driven a long way to hunt ducks in east Arkansas, and the weather was not cooperating.

Inside the restaurant, the cooks had not yet made an appearance. But there were more hunters, drinking coffee and trading tales of past hunting adventures.

Wiley introduced me to one hunter from Mississippi. He introduced me to another couple of people from Tennessee.

“How long have you been coming over here?” he asked one of the out-of-state visitors.

“Every year since 1972,” the man answered.

Early on a Sunday morning at Gene’s, it quickly becomes evident what duck hunting means to the Arkansas economy.

Steve Meacham, one of Wiley’s three sons, came into the restaurant and said of his father: “You know why he made you come down here in the rain, don’t you? To get you back for not mentioning his name until the very end of that column.”

I recently had written a column on duck hunting for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It had become somewhat of a joke in these parts that I had failed to mention Wiley’s name until the final paragraph of the column. At age 78, Wiley is the patriarch of the Piney Creek Duck Club and one of a small fraternity of famous Arkansas duck hunting guides who have been practicing their craft for more than 50 years.

Finally, we decided to make the drive south to the small community of Monroe and the famous Piney Creek Duck Club, which recently was featured on the ESPN Outdoors website. The fellows who had spent the night there were doing the same thing the hunters had been doing back at Gene’s — drinking coffee and waiting for the rain to stop.

We decided to reverse the order on this Sunday morning. Rather than hunting first and then coming back for a huge breakfast, we would have that huge breakfast first and hunt later in the morning once the rain had stopped. My wife always gives me a hard time about our healthy fare. We had the usual — biscuits, gravy, hash browns, sausage and eggs. Someone opened a can of sliced pineapple so we could tell our wives we ate fruit.

As someone who has long been intrigued by Delta history, I was fascinated as I listened to Wiley talk about growing up on that farm. He talked about the thriving community that Monroe once had been, its stores and restaurants fueled by the thousands of sharecroppers who lived in the area. The same story could be told about countless other Delta communities that are now almost ghost towns in this age of agricultural mechanization.

He talked about the large sawmill at Monroe as the area was cleared of its bottomland hardwoods in the 1930s. He told me where the cotton gin had been. He pointed out where the farm’s pond had once been located and discussed how his father even tried to the raise sheep at one time.

He talked about accompanying his father as they took several bales of cotton on a truck to Memphis. They would join many other Delta farmers in driving up and down Front Street — “Cotton Row” — seeking the best prices for their products from the many cotton buyers along the street. Thousands of bales of cotton would be stacked on the sidewalks in those days.

By the time we had finished breakfast, the rain had stopped and the sun was working its way through the clouds.

It was time to put on our waders and head into the flooded green timber. No one hunts in the afternoon at Piney Creek. So for the first time in my memory, I rode the boat into the flooded woods when it wasn’t dark. By the time we reached the hole and took our places, all of the clouds were gone.

The hunting was slow. There were some ducks. There also were thousands of geese, a hawk and a majestic bald eagle circling these woods along the Monroe County-Lee County line.

As I sat there and breathed in the country air, I thought of a couple of things.

First, while duck hunters would consider this a slow morning, birdwatchers would pay good money to sit there and see what I was seeing. Those of us who get to do this on a regular basis should never take it for granted.

Second, I thought about how sad it is that so many of my fellow Arkansans never truly experience the Arkansas outdoors, whether it’s a cold January morning in the Delta or a hot June afternoon spent floating a stream in the Ozarks. For too many of us, even in a still-rural state like Arkansas, “outdoor activity” consists of walking through the parking lot at Wal-Mart.

With the duck season entering its final two weeks, I said farewell at 1 p.m., tuned the radio to the Cowboys-Vikings playoff game and headed back toward Little Rock.

I sure am glad I had not taken Wiley’s advice. I’m happy I had not gone back to bed at 3:30 a.m. Sleep can wait.

It’s that season

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Tucked inside my copy of “The Season,” the wonderful book on Arkansas duck hunting by Steve Bowman and Mark Stallings, is a note from Wiley Meacham of Brinkley.

The note is dated Feb. 10, 2005. It was written soon after the conclusion of the 2004-05 duck season.

It says: “Sorry we could not have had a better duck season. It looks as if our place is a has-been. Don’t give up on us. We may have a few more hunts. Maybe next year.”

Obviously, Wiley didn’t consider the 2004-05 season to have been up to his standards. I laugh now as I read the note almost five years later. That’s because the “place” Wiley describes is the Piney Creek Duck Club on the Monroe County-Lee County line. And it has never been a has-been. It’s quite simply one of the finest duck hunting spots in Arkansas, meaning it’s one of the finest duck hunting spots in the world.

And Wiley, who has been hunting this land for more than 50 years, is one of the state’s most famous duck guides.

Like a football coach who knows just how good his team is, though, he likes to poormouth the place. When things are slow — and they will be slow from time to time in even the finest hunting holes — he will say, “My, aren’t we having fun?”

Or he will mutter, “This used to be a good place to hunt.”

I’ve had the honor of being invited to hunt the flooded green timber at Piney Creek for almost 15 years now, and I’ve never failed to have a good time. Yes, there have been times when the ducks weren’t flying. But the trips have always been fun.

I made my first trip of the current season on Sunday. Hunting alongside Wiley, Don Thompson, Rex Johnson and Don’s grandson Ethan, the hunting could not have been better. The ducks worked well all morning. I happen to be one of the world’s poorest shots, but I figure it gives the others a chance to rib me in their good-natured way.

Following a huge breakfast after the hunt, I departed about 11:40 a.m. By the time I reached McSwain Sports Center on the England Highway at North Little Rock to have my four mallards cleaned, the line was out the side door. Lots of people hunted Sunday. And lots of people killed ducks.

I grew up in Southwest Arkansas shooting at any duck that flew within range. My father had learned to love duck hunting when he was a coach at Newport. He maintained a passion for the sport even though he spent most of his adult life in Clark County. Around Arkadelphia, we often simply sat along the edge of various creeks and sloughs, popping at wood ducks as they flew by. I didn’t know the joys of green timber hunting in east Arkansas.

The “duck club” my dad belonged to in the Ouachita River bottoms was more of a supper club, where the members would gather once a month to eat and socialize. There were few mallards killed.

It’s fitting therefore that I’m probably one of the few people with a spoonbill (technically a shoveler) mounted in my den. I was never too proud to hunt what the purists describe as “trash ducks.” To me, a duck was a duck.

There’s a story behind that spoonbill. Several years ago, I was eating dinner with my wife and two sons in the back room of Gene’s Barbecue at Brinkley with owner and duck hunting companion Gene DePriest. Gene insisted that each of my boys take one of the duck mounts off the wall of the restaurant and carry it home. I aruged with him, but Gene was adamant that each boy take a mount home. One picked a pintail. The other picked a spoonie. Both mounts remain on the wall of our den.

As the bumper sticker on the back of Wiley’s truck says: “Spoonies have green heads too.”

In “The Season,” my friend Steve Bowman (who I’ve known since he was a college freshman at Ouachita) writes: “When it gets here and it’s so cold it chills down to the bone, duck hunters anticipate the sunrise of the next day. They look forward to the clanging of an alarm clock, the trip into the darkness to sit in the cold and wait. And when the sun washes light across the sky, anticipation is measured in increasingly smaller increments. They anticipate the next hour, when surely the next wave of migrants will be enticed by the perfect cadence of hail calls and feeding chuckles. Then it comes to minutes waiting for the clock to finally tick to 30 minutes before sunrise, and the game is on. It’s present in the thoughts of when to make the next call, when to raise the gun, seeing the next retrieve or waiting for the last duck to fill the bag. Anticipation never stops.”

Thanks, Wiley, for counting me among your duck hunting friends.

My, aren’t we having fun?