They come from the North, in dribs and drabs at first, starting as early as mid-August. From Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Dakotas and elsewhere, they start southward according to their own species’ timetable down the Mississippi Flyway: blue-winged teal first, and then gadwalls, widgeon, pintails and greenwings, and finally mallards.
The farther south they come, the narrower their flight lanes. Migration routes merge, and merge again. On a map, the overall migration pattern resembles a giant tree, with its uppermost branches in the boreal forests of Canada and its roots in the Gulf of Mexico. Along its trunk, where the three largest branches collide, lies the Grand Prairie of Arkansas, near the confluence of the White, the Arkansas and the mighty Mississippi itself.
That’s why the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce can bill its town as the Duck Capital of the World — because of the happy geological coincidence that made those three major rivers and several smaller ones come together within a short distance of the Grand Prairie. The ducks migrate along the waterways, and the waterways lead to the Grand Prairie. This great grain basket, surrounded as it is by hundreds of thousands of acres of public and private bottomland hardwoods, has everything wintering ducks need — water, food, shallow feeding and resting areas. If you’re a mallard, you name it, and you can find it around Stuttgart.
If you’re a mallard hunter, you can find it here, too. Given adequate rainfall, thousands of acres of bottomland hardwoods are flooded by Thanksgiving, and even in dry years, surface water abounds in the form of reservoirs, riverbottom lakes and duck clubs who pump their woods full rather than relying on Mother Nature to do the job.
In dry years, public-land hunters find slim pickings in the Stuttgart area because the public areas are too large to flood by pumping. But when there’s enough rainfall to flood the public areas (it may not happen by Thanksgiving, but almost always by Christmas,) the Stuttgart area lives up to its reputation as the duck hunter’s Avalon. For the best public green-timber duck hunting in the world, look no farther. The duck stops here.
There’s no “prime time” to hunt Stuttgart. If the flood is on, early-season hunting can be fantastic, but then, so is late-season hunting. There are tradeoffs at both ends: Early, you face the possibility of low or no water; late, there’s the potential for freeze-up. Within these extremes, though, there’s a lot of room for good things to happen.
If you hanker to sample the public green-timber hunting here, the advice from this corner is to travel light. In general, waterfowl hunting is equipment-intensive, but hunting mallards in green timber is not.
For one thing, you probably won’t need decoys. Carry a sack or two if you want, but mobility is one of the keys to success in the green timber. The ducks may be working the timber a half-mile from your setup, in which case you’l need to move — and move quickly. Having to pick up and then lug a double dozen decoys is going to slow you down. And the ducks can’t see them that well in the timber, anyway.
Nor do you need a retriever. That’s blasphemy for many dedicated duck hunters, but in the timber a dog is usually more trouble than he’s worth. For one thing, long-distance retrieves are tough because of the limited sight distances, and there are almost always going to be other hunters in the area. Get two alpha male Labs together in the duck woods, and you’ll have more than duck hunting to contend with.
Bring the dog if you must, but realize when you do that you’re adding an extra and probably unnecessary complication. On the typical freelance hunt, you’re going to be standing in knee-deep to belly-deep water, and that means you must make provisions to get the dog out of it. It’s usually possible to find a blowdown for the dog, but like decoys, this requirement reduces your mobility. And if you have to break ice for a half-mile before you reach open water (not uncommon for late-season hunting) your problems will be even worse.
For much of the public duck hunting in the Stuttgart area, you won’t even need a boat — although, admittedly, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring one on your trip, as it expands your options if the ducks aren’t using areas you can walk and wade to. The best boat for most Stuttgart-area duck hunting is a sturdy 14-foot johnboat with no more than a 15-horsepower outboard. The exception is on the big-water areas along the White, Arkansas or Mississippi rivers, where a larger boat with more horsepower is advisable for speed and safety.
The list of absolutely essential equipment for a green-timber duck hunt is beautifully short: shotgun, shells, chest waders, warm clothes, compass or GPS and duck call.
In the timber, good calling is what separates the shooters from the bird-watchers. If you can’t call with proficiency, buddy up to someone who can. You’ll be competing with some of the best duck callers you’ll ever hear, on or off the stage, and if you can’t stay in there with ‘em, you might as well stay home. If you think you’re pretty good already, get better.
“In the woods I tend to call fairly loud, and probably more than I do on open water,” said veteran Stuttgart guide Jim Ronquest, owner of Rich-N-Tone Guide Service and vice president of public relations and TV Production for Rich-N-Tone Calls as well as a two-time U.S. Open Duck Calling Champion and a 14-time qualifier for the World Championship Contest held each Thanksgiving in Stuttgart. “In open water or in fields, decoys are a lot more visible, and you have the advantage of using visual attractors from a greater distance. In the timber, you have to attract them by sound, and keep them interested by sound. The better you can call, the better your chances.”
The extremely heavy loads, large shot sizes and tighter chokes that are so popular for open-water duck hunting aren’t necessary in green timber. In fact, for public hunting areas around Stuttgart, shot size larger than No. 2 is illegal, and there’s a limit to the number of shells a hunter can carry into the woods each day. My preference, based on more than 40 years of hunting the Stuttgart green timber, is a standard 2 3/4-inch 12-gauge load of number No. 3 steel, No. 5 bismuth, or No. 6 heavier-than-lead shot. These loads correspond pretty well to the old No. 5 shot lead load, which was my favorite back in the old days.
There’s simply no need for anything heavier. Most shots in the timber are relatively close, often under 20 yards, and tight chokes and heavy loads are unnecessary, if not a downright handicap.
Chest waders are infinitely better than hip boots for green tim
ber. Often, you’ll have to cross waist-deep sloughs to get to the ducks. Also, flooded woods are full of underwater surprises, and falling is common. Waders greatly improve your chances of remaining dry.
Warm clothing is very important when you’re standing in water for several hours. Even in mild weather, the water will be cold, and it presses against your legs the whole time. You’ll get chilled in a hurry if you’re not properly dressed, especially below the waist.
A compass or GPS is vitally important, too. It’s hard to walk a straight line through flooded woods before daylight, and that’s exactly what a hunter must do. If it’s cloudy, everything looks alike and you’ll need a direction-finder of some sort to get safely out of the woods.
Camping is allowed on state-owned wildlife management areas in the Stuttgart area, but tent camping in an Arkansas bottomland can be squishy business. A trailer or self-contained camper will prove a better option. There are motels throughout the region, but duck season is a busy time. If you don’t make reservations by August, you’re probably too late.
Maps are nearly as important as are your shotgun and waders. You’ll need a copy of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Arkansas Outdoor Atlas, available at AGFC regional offices or from the Little Rock headquarters, for $18. You can also buy a copy online at AGFC.com. Topographical maps are also valuable because they show much more detail. The old-fashioned but reliable paper maps published by the U.S. Geological Survey are great, but they’re expensive ($6 per map at present) and unwieldy. Several companies sell Web-based or CD-based map systems, and in the long run, these are cheaper and more convenient because you can print letter-sized maps from the CDs. DeLorme (www.delorme.com) is one such company; others include Maptech’s Terrain Navigator (www.maptech.com), TopoZone (www.topozone.com) and All Topo Maps (www.igage.com).
Finally, don’t head for the Stuttgart without first checking the latest conditions there. This is arguably the best place on the planet to find good public timber hunting, but there are off days, off weeks and even off months here, too. Fortunately, up-to-date knowledge is only a phone call or a few mouse clicks away. The AGFC’s Waterfowl Hotline, 1-800-440-1477 is updated weekly during duck season; the agency also publishes a weekly Waterfowl Report, available in e-mail format. To get on the mailing list, visit the AGFC Web site, AGFC.com.
All of the above nuts-and-bolts stuff is important if you’re planning a freelance trip to the green timber public areas around Stuttgart, but none of it gives you the flavor of the experience. For a taste of that, come with me on a typical waterfowl hunt to Bayou Meto WMA.
Almost 100 percent bottomland hardwood habitat, this 32,000-acre public hunting area about 15 miles southwest of Stuttgart is perhaps the most famous WMA in the country. Two-thirds or more of the area floods annually. White River National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles east of Stuttgart, contains 165,000 acres, much of which floods annually. A large portion of this area is open to duck hunting. Dagmar WMA, 30 miles northeast of town, is another prime waterfowl area when it floods, as is Cache River NWR.
At Bayou Meto, we won’t need a boat, since where we’re going is only a 20-minute walk from the parking area. (Sorry — I’m not going to tell you which parking area.)
We’ll leave the truck before the sun starts coloring the sky, so bring a flashlight. And be careful walking in: Remember those underwater surprises. Getting wet is no fun, especially at the beginning of a long hunt.
Normally, I don’t have a specific destination in mind for a green-timber hunt, and that’s the case this morning. So far, anyway. At this point, all we want to do is to get back in, as far as possible from other hunters, moving through the knee-deep water until, as one of my old duck hunting buddies used to say, it “feels right.” Then we’ll stop, lean against trees or find a handy log to sit on, swap lies, and wait for daylight. Only when the sky starts to lighten will we be able to tell what the ducks are doing on this particular morning. If we’re lucky, we won’t have to adjust our position much.
Here: This place feels right. It’s getting gray in the east now, and I’ve already heard a few bunches of mallards trading quacks back and forth. See how the canopy is broken here where that big oak blew over? It’s a likely spot; the opening gives ducks a place to drop down through, and it also gives us a hole to shoot up through.
Ten minutes until shooting time. Lots of ducks in the air now, and plenty of them are low and looking. There’s a little bunch now, sifting through the trees less than 50 yards east of us. Maybe we won’t have to move at all to get some action.
We’ll call a little bit between now and shooting time — not to work ducks, but to let other hunters know our position so they won’t crowd us too much. It’s considered polite in these heavily hunted public woods to let other folks know where you are.
Oops: Shooting time’s upon us, and now the law is off the duck. It’s time to load our guns.
There — look to the east. See that bunch, low, about 200 yards away? They look like working ducks, and if we can get their attention before they get any lower . . .
Ah — good: They heard us. And they’re turning. We’ll call a little more to give them a line, shut up until they pass overhead, and then hit ‘em with a quick come-back call as soon as they’re behind us. Don’t shoot at ‘em on this pass — they’re a little too high.
OK. They’ve gone by. Now help me with the come-back stuff. Make it short and choppy, and put some feeling into it. Talk to them like you mean it, because those guys over there a quarter-mile south know how to blow their calls. They’ll take this little bunch away from us if we let them.
Good! That four-note run you made sounded good, and my quick chatter wasn’t bad, either. The ducks thought so, too; did you see them break around at your first quack? I thought that lead drake was going to break his neck, he swung so fast. Let’s let them make another pass. They’ll probably be low enough when they come over this time, but what we’re seeing right now is what this green-timber stuff is all about, and it would be a shame to end it too soon. No other hunters are crowding us, and I think we can get these ducks down into the timber.
Same thing this time: Wait till they pass, then hit ‘em with the short, urgent stuff. Keep your tree between you and the ducks, and hide your face with your hat brim. I want to look at them as bad as you do, but if they see us rubbernecking, it’s all over. Peek if you’ve got to — but be careful.
All right. They came around tig
ht and quick that time, and they’re still losing altitude. I think they’ll break the treetops this time, but even if they don’t, we’d better take ‘em before something goes wrong. They’re plenty low enough now. You pick a greenhead on the left side of the flight, and I’ll find one on the right. Don’t shoot a hen, and stop shooting when you’ve killed one drake. The ducks are flying well now, and we can stretch our hunt a little that way.
Here they come. They’re low enough. Are you ready?