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Paradise on the Prairie: Waterfowling on Hallowed Ground

The Grand Prairie region of Arkansas is a bucket-list experience for duck and goose hunters.

Paradise on the Prairie: Waterfowling on Hallowed Ground

Flooded agricultural lands, like this rice field, are a big part of eastern Arkansas’ hunting scene. They attract loads of waterfowl. (Photo by Drew Warden)


Hidden behind the blind’s branches, burlap and leaves, I watched as the group of five gadwalls angled toward us and started dropping lower. They were locked in on our winding pocket of water, located a few miles from our accommodations at Cypress Island Lodge in eastern Arkansas. Our decoy spread, comprising a smattering of mallards, wood ducks and ringnecks, drew the birds in like moths to a flame. As they pumped the brakes and dropped their landing gear some 20 yards in front of the blind, our guide Collin Hornbeck issued the command to take them. Four of us poked through the blind and unleashed a barrage of steel and bismuth.

The outburst shattered the placid stillness of the small, meandering bayou, but we were too focused on the ducks to notice. I missed a rushed first shot, then connected on a second. Other birds dropped, and as the lone survivor of the group pushed toward the skies, I tracked him, swung through and fired. This final bird splashed down just beyond the far edge of the hole, past some short, spindly trees. Five birds in, none out.

Almost as soon as we all reloaded, we saw another group of ducks crossing high from right to left. Our three-day December hunt was off to a good start in the renowned duck waters of Arkansas’ Grand Prairie region.

duck hunter and dog in water
Mallards in green-timber reservoirs may get the most attention, but the Grand Prairie region offers a wealth of other waterfowling opportunities. (Photo by Drew Warden)

RISING FROM THE DIRT

Sandwiched between the bottomland hardwood forests of the Arkansas and White rivers, the Grand Prairie is a unique sub-region of the larger Mississippi River Alluvial Plain, or simply the “Delta,” as the portion in Arkansas is called. It extends north to south from Searcy to around where the Arkansas, White and Mississippi rivers converge, and east to west from near Clarendon to the Bayou Meto, an Arkansas River tributary east of Little Rock. Cypress Island Lodge, owned and operated by Tyler Hornbeck (Collin’s brother) and his wife Paige (Hornbeck’s father is also a co-owner), sits near the bottom of this region in a highly active portion of the Mississippi Flyway. The luxurious two-story log cabin, complete with multiple bedrooms, indoor/outdoor fireplace and game room, would be our home for the next three days.

For almost as long as I’ve been duck hunting—nearly 20 years now—I’ve known about the fabulous hunting in this part of Arkansas and wanted to come here. Widely considered the birthplace of green-timber hunting, the Grand Prairie is steeped in duck hunting lore and culture.

The town of Stuttgart—home to the annual Wings Over the Prairie Festival, World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest, Rich-N-Tone Calls (aka RNT) and Mack’s Prairie Wings—is located here. As is the legendary George H. Dunklin Jr. Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, the first WMA purchased and managed by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC). Bayou Meto (locals pronounce it “bye-o-meeta”) sits in prime duck hunting country and is so desirable to hunt that non-resident waterfowlers are restricted to hunting it (and other WMAs) only on certain days of the season. Cypress Island Lodge, roughly 3 miles east of Bayou Meto, is just one of seemingly countless duck lodges, outfitters, guide services and private duck clubs that call Arkansas’ Grand Prairie home.

Stuttgart is known as the “Rice and Duck Capital of the World,” but the epithet could apply to many area towns, as rice production and duck hunting are at the heart of the entire region. The key to all this—the rice, the ducks, the $70 million to $100 million that duck hunting annually brings into the Natural State—lies within the dirt. More specifically, the silty clay subsoil, with its slow permeability, makes it perfect for growing rice, which requires lots of water. This dirt, called Stuttgart soil (though it’s found across five counties), is so important to Arkansas’ agricultural economy that it’s even been designated the official state soil.

William H. Fuller is generally given credit for the first successful commercial rice crop in the Grand Prairie around the turn of the 20th century, and the effects of this—both good and bad—persist to this day. The explosion of rice cultivation in the area has made Arkansas the nation’s leading rice producer (nearly 50 percent of total U.S. production, 200 million bushels annually), but at the cost of almost 400,000 acres (99.9 percent) of the region’s native prairie grasslands. With the grasses went the greater prairie chickens and other species, but in their place came swarms of waterfowl. This part of eastern Arkansas had already been a stopping point for migrating ducks, which fed and rested in the area’s flooded hardwoods, but the growth of the rice industry created even more wetlands and a grain buffet. In short, the Grand Prairie became a veritable utopia for ducks.

hunter and dog in boat
Guide Collin Hornbeck and his yellow Lab Nelli take the boat to retrieve downed ducks on one of eastern Arkansas’ many bayous. (Photo by Drew Warden)

Water from drilled wells historically went toward rice production, but when farmers began creating reservoirs in small patches of timber to assist with irrigation, things got even better for duck hunters. Ducks flocked to these newly flooded timber areas. Unfortunately, the standing water proved lethal to the same trees that ducks looked to for shelter and acorns. Soon, methods were developed for moving this water from farmland to timber reservoirs in the fall and winter and back to farmland in the spring.

Thus was the green-tree reservoir (and green-timber hunting) born. In short, the Grand Prairie region offers a stunning mix of everything that migrating waterfowl need. The area’s agricultural fields—the ubiquitous rice, along with soybeans, corn and wheat—provide ample waste grains for hungry ducks and geese. The flooded hardwoods, meanwhile, offer both shelter and food in the form of acorns. Beyond that, there are winding bayous, cypress sloughs and more, all of which can hold ducks. Hunters in Arkansas consistently kill more mallards than anywhere else in the country, and the state also usually winds up in the top three in terms of total duck harvest each year. Many of these birds come from the Grand Prairie and other areas within Arkansas’ Delta.

hunter shooting shotgun
Stoeger’s M3000 semi-auto proved reliable on Arkansas’ flooded timber reservoirs, rice fields and bayous. (Photo by Drew Warden)

A NECESSARY PILGRIMAGE

We wrapped up our first hunt on the bayou after bagging a three-man limit of ringnecks and gadwalls. We’d had a continual drip of singles, pairs and trios most of the morning, with a handful of larger groups coming on occasion. Aside from a few misses on the bigger groups, most ducks that came in dropped dead into the bayou’s still waters. Collin and his yellow Lab, Nelli, took the boat several times to retrieve birds. When things finally seemed to slow down for good, we called it, packed everything in the boat and headed back to the vehicle. It had been a fun morning, and we capped it off with a big breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage and French toast back at the lodge.

That afternoon, we ventured into Stuttgart to check out the RNT Calls shop and the Mack’s Prairie Wings store. It seemed an essential trip for any visiting hunter. We saw some exquisitely crafted duck calls, got lost in a sea of waterfowl gear and even managed to snap a quick photo by the giant duck statue in front of Mack’s. Several of us left a little poorer than we entered. And, because this was eastern Arkansas in the middle of December, we drove through a downpour on our way back to the lodge.

Recommended


Later, we scouted a little bit and saw tons of birds dump into a field right before dark. Unfortunately, it wasn’t on any of the properties Tyler owned or had access to hunt. Worse than that, a storm was coming that would bring even more rain and could mess up the hunting the next morning. With the impending storm likely affecting duck behavior, Tyler suggested a morning hunt for specklebelly geese with another guide instead. It would give him time to see what the ducks were doing and plan for an afternoon hunt. Excited at the possibility of adding a goose hunt to our trip, we all answered with a resounding yes. I fell asleep dreaming of skies darkened with hordes of specks.

hunting dog in field
Although the author and his group saw tons of specklebelly geese on a morning hunt, they only shot two. Nevertheless, speck hunting has grown in popularity in eastern Arkansas. (Photo by Drew Warden)

Overnight storms brought lightning, thunder and even more rain to water-logged fields and roads. After waking, we grabbed a light breakfast, geared up for our goose hunt and discussed how we’d all get to where we were meeting our guide, Zach Martinez of White Fronted Outfitters. Keith Heinlein, Stoeger’s product manager, would take a couple people in the small SUV he had rented. Meanwhile, I was nominated to take the two remaining hunters in my rental, which, due to my chosen vehicle being unavailable, ended up being a minivan.

There are times in life when your friends goad, pressure or otherwise try to convince you to do things your better judgement knows you probably shouldn’t. Plowing a ground-hugging minivan—without rental insurance—through standing water on Arkansas’ rural dirt roads likely qualifies. At one point, while traversing some fairly deep water, alarms went off on the dash and we barely chugged along, even as I had the pedal firmly pressed to the floor. Yet, somehow, the mighty mini persevered and we made it to our rendezvous.

In the pre-dawn darkness, we hastily carried our things into well-brushed-in panel blinds and organized our gear. The guides had already set out a combination spread of full-body snow goose and speck decoys. All we had to do was wait. With every passing minute, the anticipation built.

Formally known as white-fronted geese, specklebellies have become a much bigger deal in Arkansas in recent years than they were historically. Many have speculated that the flocks of specks that once migrated to Texas and Louisiana have now made eastern Arkansas their winter home.

Some feel food is a factor. Rice is a staple for white-fronted geese, and as production of the grain has dwindled in those states to the south, it has exploded in Arkansas. Others also point to a drought in Texas in the late 2000s, urban development, climate changes, a decline in coastal wetland marsh and more.

hunting dog in water
Tyler Hornbeck’s dog, Layla, retrieves one of several mallards shot the last morning of a three-day hunt in Arkansas’ Grand Prairie region. (Photo by Drew Warden)

Whatever the reason, Arkansas has become a top speck spot, with harvests frequently leading the nation. In fact, excluding California—another strong specklebelly state—hunters in Arkansas killed more specks (57,308) than in all the other states with reported harvests combined (47,770), according to 2022 United States Fish and Wildlife Service harvest estimates. Last season, Arkansas accounted for 38 percent of all white-fronted geese killed in the U.S. and 66 percent of those taken within the Mississippi Flyway. Over the past four years, hunters here have killed an average of 74,669 specklebellies each season.

Unfortunately for us, a specklebelly slaughter was not in the cards that morning. While our group managed to shoot two specks, a big snow goose feed several fields away drew most of the white-fronted geese we saw. The birds would give our spread a look then continue flying, sucking into the giant feeding flock as though pulled by a magnet.

Our afternoon duck hunt proved similarly challenging. Fellow hunters Kali Parmley, Joe Ferronato, Travis Franklin and I hunted with Tyler in a beautiful, flooded rice field on property near Cypress Island Lodge. The field seemed to present a perfect enticement to ducks looking to feed before bed, but action was slow. We shot a few ducks that worked for us, as well as one random snow goose, but the birds weren’t moving like they were the first morning. Thankfully, things were about to change for the better.

duck hunters in blind
The author and his companions hunted a reservoir from a boat blind tucked back into some hardwoods on the third morning. (Photo by Drew Warden)

DAY THREE REDEMPTION

The final morning, the four of us again hunted with Tyler, but this time on a large open reservoir with a few cypress trees scattered throughout. Various hardwoods also bordered the entire reservoir, towering above us in the roughly knee-high water.

Our blind, a converted War Eagle boat, was backed up into these trees and sported boards decked out with leafy branches for cover. We hastily set out the decoys, this time mostly mallards, including a couple spinners near the edge of our spread.

As we settled in, I noticed the temperature had dropped substantially and we had more wind than the previous afternoon. Cold and wind are a duck hunter’s friends, and sure enough, things started off with a bang at legal shooting light. A group of gadwalls arrived first, and we dropped a few from the group. Then came the ringnecks again, streaking over the decoys like jets buzzing the tower. Finally, the mallards showed, their emerald heads radiant in the morning’s golden light as they descended toward our spread. This was more like it.

hunter holding mallard duck
Most hunters visit Arkansas to target mallards in flooded timber. The state usually harvests more of these ducks than any other. (Photo by Drew Warden)

When the action died down and we decided to end our hunt around 10 o’clock, we’d nearly matched our total from the first morning. We might’ve gotten more, but the wind shifted a bit during the hunt, causing birds to swing over our spread while trying to land rather than coming in directly at us. We also had a few groups, clearly educated by other hunters they’d encountered, flare out of range.

Either way, it was a fun and productive hunt, especially with the addition of the mallards. And the hunting here would likely only continue to get better moving further into December and January, assuming things remained cold up north. Although I didn’t experience a typical Arkansas green-timber hunt, I did get a sample of the many different types of duck hunting the Grand Prairie region offers. With the incredible number of ducks passing through and all the water available—in flooded rice or other agricultural fields, green-tree reservoirs, and sloughs and bayous everywhere—I was a happy duck hunter.

FAMILY CABIN

  • Hunt quality Arkansas duck water in comfort and style at Cypress Island Lodge.
Cypress Island Lodge sign
Cypress Island offers comfortable accommodations and 2,000 acres of duck hunting property in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway.

Cypress Island Lodge (cypressislandlodge.com) is a luxury two-story cabin situated in a highly productive stretch of the Mississippi Flyway near the bottom of Arkansas’ revered Grand Prairie region. It boasts a multitude of bedrooms to accommodate numerous guests, a game room and lounge area, an awesome indoor/outdoor fireplace, and a fully stocked kitchen and dining area.

Tyler Hornbeck, his wife Paige and his father own the lodge; Tyler, Paige and their three daughters operate it. The whole thing is a family affair, with Paige cooking up delicious meals and handling much of the business’ administrative side, the girls helping with cleaning and grocery shopping, and Tyler and his brother Collin serving as the primary guides. Most of the properties that clients hunt—some 2,000 acres—are owned or have been owned by the family. Their properties are diverse, too, comprising agricultural fields (rice, soybeans and corn), reservoirs with standing timber (including some true green timber), cypress sloughs and bayous.

The Hornbecks have operated the business for 11 years, though Tyler has been guiding for 17, and they run it like a well-oiled machine. It’s a perfect place to stay and hunt in eastern Arkansas.

GRAND GEAR

  • Whether you’re hunting the Grand Prairie’s flooded fields, timber or reservoirs, the right tools will boost your waterfowling success.
hunting gear
Gear used on this trip: Stoeger M3000 shotgun, Fiocchi Golden Waterfowl Bismuth loads, Banded RedZone 3.0 Breathable Insulated Wader and Stretchapeake Insulated Wader Jacket.

No matter where you’re hunting, or whether you’re hunting ducks or geese, you want a dependable shotgun. I used Stoeger’s 3-inch-chambered M3000 ($559-$669; stoegerindustries.com) on my hunt in Arkansas, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more reliable semi-auto, let alone one at the M3000’s highly affordable price. It uses the tried-and-true Inertia Driven System, a clean, gasless system that never needs adjusting and cycles load after load. The M3000 handles everything from target loads to magnums, and it performed flawlessly on my hunt. The gun’s new recoil pads and removable cheek pieces make shooting more comfortable, and redesigned controls are now enlarged to make operation easier, too.

I stuffed the Stoeger with Fiocchi’s Golden Waterfowl Bismuth ($27/box of 10; fiocchiusa.com) and Flyway Series ($21/box of 25) loads. The Golden Waterfowl Bismuth loads use denser-than-steel 9.75 g/cc bismuth in a precision-loaded, moisture-resistant sealed hull, making it perfect for longer-than-average shots. The Flyway Steel series, meanwhile, combines treated steel shot, protective wads and matched powders for reliably dense patterns and potent performance. Load options for decoying mallards or pass shooting geese, and everything in between, are available.

Hunting wetland areas or flooded timber in winter calls for warm and comfortable waterproof outer layers, especially waterfowl waders. Banded’s RedZone 3.0 Breathable Insulated Wader ($440; banded.com) and Stretchapeake Insulated Wader Jacket ($260) served me well in Arkansas’ flooded rice fields and reservoirs. The wader comes with removable, over-the-boot protective pant layers to defend against punctures while walking, has a built-in belt system and shell holders, and is designed to be comfortable from 50 degrees to minus-10 degrees. The jacket has a super comfy coral-fleece lining inside and in the hand pockets, includes a magnetic chest enclosure and offers excellent maneuverability.





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