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Duck-hunting capital of the world

Stuttgart lies at heart of America's greatest mallard hunting area

By By Keith Sutton CONTRIBUTING WRITER

This article was published February 3, 2008 at 3:35 a.m.

— It's not a big town. Nine thousand, three hundred seventy-six people live there, give or take a dozen. It's not an especially beautiful town, either, although the renovated downtown and modern residential areas have a quaint country charm that tells you this would be a good place to live and raise your children.

The town is visible long before you get there. Driving in on U.S. 165 or 79, you're still 10 miles or more away when the tall Riceland Rice dryers appear in the haze across the Grand Prairie, rising like monuments to the agricultural industry that is the area's lifeblood. They seem out of place - buildings 20 stories tall protruding from crop fields as flat as tabletops. But they serve as a beacon of sorts, guiding you into town, growing clearer, looming larger, with every mile that ticks off on your odometer.

You continue past fields of rice, soybeans, wheat and cotton, and soon the town itself can be seen - the fast-food joints, the service stations, the motels, the grocery stores, the schools, the homes. The rice fields encroach to the very edge of the city, and erected at the side of one is a small wooden sign that says you've reached the city limits. This is it: Stuttgart, The Rice and Duck Capital of the World.

It may look small and commonplace, not unlike dozens of other small cities scattered across the Arkansas Delta. But in the world of waterfowling, Stuttgart is hallowed ground. The sign's claim about the abundance of ducks is no hollow boast, nochamber of commerce propaganda. Stuttgart lies at the heart of the greatest mallard hunting area on the face of the globe, and thousands of hunters trek here each year to immerse themselves in the town's rich waterfowling heritage. Despite its diminutive size, despite its lack of glitz and glamour, Stuttgart is a town known worldwide. And the ducks have made it so.

Ducks were flocking to Arkansas before man began recording his journeys to the state, but why did the Grand Prairie area around Stuttgart attract them by the millions? In one word, habitat.

In the days before land wascleared to grow crops, thousands of square miles of bottomland hardwood forests provided food and refuge. Ducks fed on enormous crops of acorns and other mast produced by the trees, and rested on the White River, Bayou Meto, Bayou LaGrue, Maddox Bay and dozens of other rivers, bayous, sloughs and oxbow lakes that inscribe the landscape. But it was more than the coincidence of bottomland rivers and oak trees that drew ducks by the millions to this region. Stuttgartis in the Mississippi Flyway at its narrowest place, along a route followed by more migratory birds than any other in the world. For thousands of years, ducks have flooded into the Grand Prairie like water through a funnel and have stayed throughout winter in this land of plenty.

The first commercial rice crop was planted on the Grand Prairie in 1904, an event that set the stage for Stuttgart and the rest of Arkansas County, already famed as a sportsman's paradise, to become the self-proclaimed rice and duck-hunting capital of the world. This was before the advent of modern combines, and the rice that was grown was cut and put in shocks. Each field had scores of shocks.

"They let the rice sun-dry, which was just like setting the table for the ducks," outdoor columnist Bill Apple of Little Rock explained in 1972. "The ducks would feed on rice all night long and then at daybreak they would head for the White River bottoms. Then they fed on acorns during the day. This was where most of the hunting was done. The guides would have boats on the river and they would take their parties down the river to these old river lakes."

In later years, duck-hunting enthusiasts built green-tree reservoirs to attract ducks. Water is pumped into the woods before duck season and held there by a system of levees and stop-log structures. After duck season is over, the water is released, thus it does not kill the trees, and they remain green. Ducks flock to these reservoirs to feed and rest. Hunters follow.

On December 21, 1947, St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Ralph Coghlan wrote this about the number of ducks around Stuttgart: "... 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-29's, and for half an hour or more the whole sky was alive with ducks."

I have hunted the Grand Prairie near Stuttgart many times and often seen flocks of ducks reminiscent of those Coghlan recorded more than half a century ago. On my most recent hunt, January 16 and 17 of this year, ducks weren't present in such huge numbers, but the hunting was extraordinary, nevertheless, and we took advantage of another waterfowl resource that's become increasingly common in recent years as well - the huge flocks of snow and whitefronted geese that migrate here from their Canadian breeding grounds each winter. Hundreds of thousands were gathered on agricultural lands around Stuttgart, flocks astounding in their breadth and numbers. And hunters who visit here are increasingly taking advantage of opportunities to hunt these sporty gamebirds.

During the more than 30 years I've hunted Stuttgart waterfowl, I've always hunted ducks in flooded timber, an experience for which the Duck Capital is famous. On this trip, however, Mike Checkett, a media relations biologist with Ducks Unlimited in Memphis, Tenn., invited meto join him and several writers from around the country for a hunt in flooded agricultural fields near Stuttgart. Here we would have opportunities to kill geese as well as mallards.

When the sun rose on January 16, Checkett and I, along with Alabama outdoor writer Robert DeWitt and Checkett's hunting dog, Elvis, were sitting comfortably inside a pit blind just east of Stuttgart. Hundreds of realistic goose and duck decoys surrounded us, a come-hither call for the thousands of birds that filled the sky at first light.

Checkett is a biologist by training (he worked several years as the waterfowl biologist for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission), but if the folks who hired him at DU knew of his expert duck- and goose-calling abilities, there's no doubt that cinched the job for him. His versatility is amazing. One minute he was blowing a call to entice mallards to land in front of the blind, the next he'd be playing a beautiful rendition of a white-fronted goose call or whistling to the flocks of pintails trading about.

His calling worked like magic. Although it was late in the season, and the ducks and geese were extremely wary after weeks of being hunted, Checkett convinced several that the decoy spread was real. DeWitt and I enjoyed fast-paced shooting throughout the morning, and by noon we had killed several beautiful snow and white-fronted geese and some mallards. Elvis, an incredible retriever, proved his worth as a conservationist several times, bringing back crippled birds that might otherwise have been lost.

Other hunters in our group accompanied other guides for excursions to Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area and local reservoirs. They, too, experienced good hunting. Four in one group managed limits of both mallards and white-fronted geese, and repeatedly I heard out-of-state visitors expressing what a memorable morning it had been.

"Even when it's bad, Stuttgart waterfowling is the best in the world," one told me. "And the fact that I'm here experiencing what many duck hunters consider the ultimate adventure makes me feel extremely fortunate."

It was more of the same on hunts later that day and the following morning. Checkett called, ducks and geese dropped in, and Elvis gleefully retrieved the birds unlucky enough to fly through our shot patterns. It was the first time in several years I've had a chance to hunt near Stuttgart, and I came away realizingonce again that the Stuttgart waterfowling experience is like no other. How fortunate we are to have this incredible winter waterfowl wonderland here in Arkansas.

Ducks Unlimited in Arkansas

Ducks Unlimited, the wellknown conservation organization based in Memphis, Tenn., is working with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and other agencies to improve waterfowl habitat and hunting on 25 wildlife management areas (WMAs) in the Natural State. To date, DU has completed 63 projects on public lands in Arkansas. Projects like the one recently completed on Frog Bayou WMA not only provide improved habitat for waterfowl, but also increase hunting opportunities in the state.

"Ducks Unlimited was instrumental in partnering with the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in purchasing this newest wildlife managementarea for Arkansas sportsmen and women," said Craig Hilburn, director of conservation programs in Arkansas. "DU biologists and engineers also were instrumental in designing and constructing the new wetlands and reforesting the area with bottomland hardwood trees.

Plans for the upcoming year include submission of another NAWCA grant proposal for restoration work in White River NWR and at Wrape Plantation on Bayou Meto WMA. Ducks Unlimited and the AGFC are actively reviewing all waterfowl areas in Arkansas for restoration opportunities to benefit both waterfowl and hunters.

For more information, visit www.ducks.org.

River Valley Ozark, Pages 128, 129 on 02/03/2008

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