It's the time of year when duck hunters across the country dream of a trip to east Arkansas, whether they can afford it or not.
Some of the most famous (and even luxurious) spots in this state have never been visited by regular Arkansans. That's because they're private duck clubs, many of which date back generations. Their rich history and culture is something Arkansas historians should study more thoroughly. Each club has its own set of rules and traditions. Members of these clubs share a love of the sport of duck hunting and a love of the Arkansas outdoors.
One of my favorite books is a collection of essays and photographs titled "A Million Wings," which was released by Wild Abundance Publishing in 2012. Arkansas clubs featured in the book are Greasy Slough in northeast Arkansas near the upper Bayou DeView, the Coca Cola Woods near Wynne, and Witt Stephens Jr.'s Screaming Wings near Stuttgart.
Another cherished book came out in 2008 and is titled "First Shooting Light." Arkansas clubs in the book include 713 in Lee County near the north end of the St. Francis National Forest, Bayou DeView/Section 13 Farms in Woodruff County, Bear Bayou near Humnoke, Blackfish Hunting Club in Crittenden County, Circle T near Wabbaseka, Five Lakes Outing Club on Horseshoe Lake in Crittenden County, George Dunklin Jr.'s Five Oaks Duck Lodge in Arkansas County, Greenbriar Hunting Club near Stuttgart, Hatchie Coon Hunting & Fishing Club between Marked Tree and Trumann, the Snowden family's Kingdom Come near Stuttgart, Menasha Hunting & Fishing Club between Gilmore and Turrell, and Mud Lake Hunting Club near Hughes.
As noted, many of the Arkansas clubs are old. Bear Bayou was founded in the 1940s by the Marks family of Stuttgart. Circle T was established in 1959 to entertain customers of Central Transformer Corp. of Pine Bluff. Five Lakes Outing Club has been around since 1901. Greenbriar, referred to by locals as the Old Winchester Club, was founded in 1945 by John Olin of Illinois. Hatchie Coon was established by a group of Memphis residents in 1889. Menasha and Mud Lake both date back to 1902.
The book also features the famed Claypool's Reservoir near Weiner, which was purchased by Wallace Claypool of Memphis in 1941 and was the site of an NBC national television program in December 1956.
In his foreword to "A Million Wings," professional golfer Davis Love III writes: "I learned that being an outdoorsman was not just about hunting. The sportsmen I met were truly stewards of the land. They were involved with Ducks Unlimited, marsh projects and property management.
"I was immediately pulled into that contagious culture, so I was committed to conservation very early. ... This is what outdoorsmen do: They work together to make a difference for wildlife and embrace the preservation of precious habitat for all time."
Love understands that the average duck hunter will never be invited to these clubs. But he knows why they want a glimpse inside.
"While everybody will not play golf at Augusta National or play in the U.S. Open, they watch," he writes. "They watch, they see it and it inspires them to play the game; it inspires them to play the game better. Like Augusta National, the private retreats may seem like the ultimate experience. But these are the places that do the work to keep duck hunting alive. And through their stories, they are inspiring people to get out there and hunt and to gain a better understanding of the sport.
"Like in golf, the big clubs and the professional game are a small part of the whole story, but they motivate people to grow the game. The families and the members in these clubs are the ones who motivate the rest of us. They are the ones who are growing the sport."
I enjoy studying and writing about Arkansas duck clubs because of the little things that set them apart. Consider Greasy Slough's history.
"Greasy Slough has never been a hunting club for the faint of heart," writes Susan Schadt of Memphis. "Take, for instance, the Tag Shack. The shack is a rickety monument to the antics and aberrations of hunters at Greasy in pursuit of the perfect hunt. The Tag Shack is indeed a shack. The tool-shed-sized edifice is a simple structure, but that's not a problem for the overly zealous members who illuminate the property map on the wall with car headlights and play games of extreme one-upsmanship to be the first to 'tag' their favorite hole for the morning hunt.
"Originally, the club used a 'first in time rule' to determine who got to hunt which hole. It was not unheard of for members to drive to the property at 2 a.m. or earlier in order to stake claim on their hole of choice. They would sleep in the blind, in the boat or in their trucks, warding off all other comers, until first shooting light."
Club member Hughes Lowrance remembered "waiting to see who was going to show up because there were no cell phones and no one knew where anyone was. If someone was being nice, they'd flash their light at you to let you know they were out there."
Massive poker games would take place at a hotel in Jonesboro. About 2 a.m., teenage sons would be sent out to hold the holes.
"Holding the hole was not only a lonely and potentially scary vigil; it could be a very frigid one as well," Schadt writes. "Charlie Lowrance remembers holding a hole one freezing night with his Uncle Collie and being so cold that they resorted to building a fire in the bottom of the metal boat for warmth."
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.