ON THE COVER: Player to watch - Carl TurnerREAD ONLINE
Arkansas town turns duck-crazy each yearOriginally Published November 22, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 21, 2012 at 2:00 p.m.
A large group of mallards — both Susies and greenheads — looks for a landing spot in a flooded rice field near Stuttgart. Such sights are why duck hunters from across the nation come to Arkansas each fall and winter to hunt the flooded timber and fields of the Arkansas Grand Prairie.
STUTTGART Most folks around the state will be thinking about one bird today, the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast. Yes, I’m talking turkey. (And, no, I couldn’t resist.) While a fair portion of such birds will be devoured in one southeast Arkansas community today, it is another bird that will truly be the star attraction.
To explain this phenomenon, I rewind to a day in a flooded bean field in east-central Arkansas. All the surrounding waters had frozen overnight. My hunting partners and I, however, had a deep hole in the corner of that field. Upon arriving in a shower of sleet pellets, we found the blind and decoys to be in the only open water for miles.
Just 15 minutes later, we watched as several hundred birds circled above our heads. The group flew off for a minute; then nearly 100 mallards peeled back our direction, set their wings and fell into the decoys.
We got our limits on the first three shots. Then, with waders and gloves caked in ice and sleet pelting our faces, we stared in awe as flight after flight of greenheads and Susies settled into the water around us. It was one of those magical days when the rest of the world faded into the background, and only the present existed.
Each fall, as the leaves change and the dominant winds turn from the north, waterfowlers around Stuttgart and across the Arkansas Grand Prairie and east Arkansas delta begin dreaming of such flights of mallards sifting their way through the treetops of flooded timber or cupping their wings as they drop into a farmer’s field.
While other regions of The Natural State are enamored with chasing white-tailed bucks, the duck is definitely king of the Grand Prairie. Taking that analogy one step further, the duck undoubtedly wearing that crown is the male mallard, commonly referred to as a greenhead.
It is the mallard duck that is the biggest draw here in Arkansas toward the southern end of the birds’ annual migration route along the Mississippi Flyway. Even in poor years, Arkansas typically finishes in the top three for total number of ducks harvested and is the perennial winner in the number of mallards taken.
Duck season is such a big deal, in fact, that Stephen Bell, executive director of the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce, once estimated that those days — whether 30, 45 or 60 — bring in roughly $1 million for the area’s economy. No, that’s not over the course of the season; that’s per day.
Like NASCAR, however, the culmination of such activities comes on the front end of each season. Where the racing set has the Daytona 500, the wader-wearing crowd has the Wings Over the Prairie Festival and the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest.
The festival actually kicked off Saturday with the crowning of this year’s Queen Mallard and Junior Queen Mallard. A Sunday-afternoon open house followed the next day in the downtown district. Then, the carnival and midway opened Wednesday, and the first sounds of “contest” calling flew from the stage on Main Street as former mayor and longtime RNT Call maker Butch Richenback tutored his youth calling contest.
The festival and calling may already be under way, but that doesn’t mean there’s not more to experience at the festival today, Friday and Saturday.
As manager of the festival, Bell works with volunteers and Bill Free, a district manager for Riceland Foods and the festival chairman for 10 years running.
Of the events, Free said, “The festival has been going on for 77 years now. It is the longest-running festival in the state, possibly the South.”
He then offered a laundry list of choices for attendees, including an off-road village, exhibits and calling contests that feature everyone from youths to the actual World’s Championship entrants.
The festival and calling contest truly have their roots planted in the area’s agricultural activities. The Arkansas Grand Prairie was just that — a prairie — when it was settled by the ever-westward expansion of European pioneers coming to the region. In 1904, a farmer near Hazen grew the prairie’s first crop of rice. Then, that practice spread like the wildfires that had regenerated the prairie grasses for centuries before.
The first calling contest occurred in 1936 during what was then referred to as the annual Arkansas Rice Carnival. Some of the locals hatched the idea, and 17 entrants competed. The winner, Thomas E. Walsh of Greenville, Miss., used his own natural talents (that’s right, he did not use a duck call) to win first place. For that honor, he took home a brand-new hunting coat valued at $6.60.
Since then, the contest and its associated festival have continually grown to their present state. Now, the contest winner takes home a prize package worth several thousand dollars. Plus, the rice carnival has morphed into several blocks of downtown Stuttgart being shut off from traffic so there’s enough room for all the arts and crafts vendors and various rides and games.
In explaining the magnitude of what the festival and contest have become, Free said, “To see the faces and talk to duck callers from all over the United States that make it to the World’s, as they say, it’s the Super Bowl of duck calling. I can’t tell you how many people say they look forward to coming back to Stuttgart every year. They have made lifelong friends here that they get to spend time with every Thanksgiving weekend.”
For those wanting to take in the entire experience, Bell and Free recommended checking out the Great 10K Duck Race, the Sportsman’s Party and the Bud Light World Championship Duck Gumbo Cook-off. The lattermost of those activities Free referred to as “our very own Mardi Gras on the prairie.”
So, if you’re stuffed with turkey and looking for a reason to get off the couch, consider heading toward Stuttgart for the 77th annual Wings Over the Prairie Festival and World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest. While you’re there, you can even drive by the local radio station. Its call letters are KWAK. See, I told you this town is duck-crazy.
For more information on the events, call the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce at (870) 673-1602, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit stuttgartarkansas.org.
Staff writer James K. Joslin can be reached at (501) 399-3693 or email@example.com.
Zoned Editions Editor James K. Joslin can be reached at 501-399-3693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.