I love duck hunting, the Arkansas Delta, good food, history and tradition.
Given those interests, three of the most valuable books in my personal library are First Shooting Light: A Photographic Journal Reveals the Legacy and Lure of Hunting Clubs Along the Mississippi River Flyway from 2008; Wild Abundance: Ritual, Revelry and Recipes of the South's Finest Hunting Clubs from 2010; and A Million Wings: A Spirited Story of the Sporting Life Along the Mississippi Flyway from 2012. They're beautifully designed books with quality writing and fantastic photography. The creative mastermind behind them is Susan Schadt, a former president and chief executive officer of ArtsMemphis, a nonprofit arts funding organization that has been around for more than five decades.
After 13 years leading ArtsMemphis, Schadt stepped down at the end of 2014 to focus full time on book publishing. She now heads the Susan Schadt Press and confided to an interviewer last year: "If someone had told me eight years ago when I published my first book that I would start my own publishing company, I would have made a huge wager against that probability. Becoming a publisher, editor and occasional author was never a passion. It has been a generative, creative, evolving prototype that I tried, liked and developed over the years."
Schadt's latest effort is Calling the Wild: The History of Arkansas Duck Calls: A Legacy of Craftsmanship and Rich Hunting Tradition. The author is White Hall attorney Mike Lewis, who grew up duck hunting in east Arkansas. Lewis began collecting duck calls more than two decades ago and documenting their history. His collection of Arkansas-made calls numbers almost 2,000. The photographer is the same person Schadt used for her first three books, award-winning photojournalist Lisa Buser. The book, published earlier this year, has 396 pages and hundreds of photos. It will appeal not only to duck hunters but also those interested in Arkansas history and crafts.
"Duck hunting in Arkansas is something more than a sport," Lewis writes in the preface. "It is akin to a religious experience in the right circumstances. The hardship and suffering on frigid mornings is quickly forgotten as the birds circle overhead in response to your pleading, begging and sometimes demanding calls. Not every hunt ends in success, but the pursuit is always worth it. Duck hunting in the days of my youth was much different than today. The Scatters of Bayou Meto were not as crowded, and many farmers would freely give permission to hunt their fields. Opportunities to hunt were plentiful. As kids, we all longed to be the guy with the sweet-sounding duck call around his neck that was the sole party responsible for the 'get 'em' call that brought the guns up."
Lewis says he purchased his first call in about 1980 and paid $15 for it. It was a Dixie Mallard call, made by Darce Manning "Chick" Major of Stuttgart. Major died in 1974. It was the only call Lewis used for years.
"It never occurred to me that duck calls could be anything other than a Dixie Mallard until I first saw one of Mark Weedman's candy-stick Weedy's Pin Oak calls," Lewis says. "A buddy bought one for $12.50, and we all ridiculed the gaudy colors and shamed him into leaving it at home on our next hunting trip. The next time I saw a Weedy's was 15 years later. It was in a display case at an antique store next to a mint-condition Corian Taylor Made. I bought them both and embarked on a more than 20-year fascination with the artistry of the duck call. Like most folks bitten by the collecting disease, I initially tried to buy any old call that I could find. After a few years, I realized that I would go broke if I didn't narrow my focus."
Lewis decided to concentrate on calls made in Arkansas. He describes the state's history with duck hunting and calls as "unparalleled."
"I soon began seeking out older call makers and collectors to hear their stories," he writes. "I found that much of the history surrounding call makers had disappeared. That seemed wrong to me so I set out to gather and preserve as many stories of the old-time makers as I could. Along the way, I tried to acquire at least one call from virtually every person that ever made a call in Arkansas. This book is a result of my efforts to preserve the stories of the more than 125-year-old tradition of call making in Arkansas. From the artistry of J.T. Beckhart to the passionate pursuit of the perfect sound by Butch Richenback, I have tried to tell their stories."
In the book, Lewis outlines fascinating periods of Arkansas history such as the Big Lake Duck Wars in northeast Arkansas from 1865-1915. Big Lake is a swampy area of western Mississippi County formed by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12. Early maps sometimes just listed it as the Great Swamp.
Lewis writes that wealthy Northern industrialists "bought land and formed clubs where the market hunters operated. The local market hunters and fishermen made their living selling their kill and catch to hotels and resorts in booming Hot Springs, and to hotels and resorts on the railroad that received regular rail shipments in iced barrels. ... Lands were purchased and hunting lodges were constructed from the readily available local hardwood lumber. Almost as soon as the lodges were built, they were burned. People from both sides were beaten, shot and jailed."
Duck hunting, as you can see, has always been serious business in Arkansas.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 12/20/2017
Print Headline: Calling Arkansas ducks