Welcome To Ducktown USA
September 24, 2010
Among the rice fields and rivers that crosshatch the Natural State, these towns and cities compete each season for the title of Arkansas' best duck hunting hole (other than Stuttgart, of course). (October 2008)
Waterfowler Lanier Brown and Arkansas Sportsman editor Patrick Hogan enjoy the benefits of hunting DeWitt's green timber.
Photo by James Joslin.
There's little doubt that Stuttgart is universally regarded as "The Rice & Duck Capital of the World"; to dispute its title would truly be pointless.
Growing up in the shadows of the city, just up U.S. Route 165, I took for granted the ducks seasons of my youth and the events associated with them, such as the Wings Over The Prairie Festival and The World's Championship Duck Calling Contest held yearly in rice-crazy Stuttgart. But as I matured I began to realize what Stuttgart and its surrounding fields and green timber mean to duck hunters across the nation and even the world.
While I was serving as sports editor for The Daily Leader in Stuttgart, I overheard some of the festival crowd, out-of-towners from the Carolinas, exclaim: "Man, I can't believe it. We are here -- in Stuttgart, Arkansas."
While Stuttgart is the epicenter of the camo-clad, wader-wearing community, several other Arkansas cities can boast prime duck hunting action. Even in a bad year, the Natural State's duck hunters still are usually first or second in the nation in harvest numbers for mallards and a handful of other species.
Now think for a minute: Even before the first European settlers gazed across the landscape of what would eventually become Arkansas, its rivers had already served for centuries as travel corridors for the annual migration of ducks along the Mississippi Flyway and the eastern edge of the Central Flyway. Humans -- prehistoric and historic Native Americans, as well as the encroaching Europeans -- were attached to the rivers for what these waters offered: food, water, travel, commerce. It comes as no surprise that many towns popped up along and near those waterways.
It is because of these communities' proximity to those rivers, their backwater bottomlands and the fertile farming grounds that these "duck towns" and nearby public hunting grounds provide can't-miss prospects at some point during the season for Arkansas' waterfowl wingshooters.
Steve Bowman, a duck hunter and duck caller not tied to any specific region of Arkansas, has pursued his quarry for decades, visiting in the process virtually every pothole, slough and flooded field in the state in his search for any opportunity to take a greenhead or goldeneye.
Over the years, he has turned his love for the outdoors into an occupation, first as a newspaper and magazine writer and photographer and then as a member of a major television production company that specializes in outdoors programming.
So, figuring that the papers on this dog made it look like a surefire champion retriever, I got in touch with Steve Bowman so he could give his slant on some of Arkansas' other great duck towns. Here goes.
"This is definitely a duck hunting town," Bowman said. "It's close to the confluence of the White and Cache rivers on the Grand Prairie, so rice is plentiful. I would almost characterize this as 'Stuttgart East.'"
While field and reservoir hunting are both readily available on Brinkley area farms, some of the area's hottest action can sometimes be found at Dagmar WMA. "Some of the best duck hunting in the world takes place at Dagmar WMA when the White River gets high," Bowman said. "It's not an every year thing, but when it happens, it's unbelievable."
Other public hunting lands in this area of east-central Arkansas include the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge and Rex Hancock Black Swamp WMA.
Weiner is the home to Claypool's Reservoir, made famous by the television show shot at the impoundment 52 years ago. This area benefits from not just one waterway, but three.
"Before Stuttgart took the title and played it strong, Weiner billed itself as the duck-hunting capital of the world," said Bowman. "It's in the middle of Bayou DeView, the Cache River and the L'Anguille River."
The benefit that comes with these waters lies not only in their proximity to Weiner, though. "One of the things that makes Arkansas hunting so good are those rivers that run parallel to each other," Bowman explained.
f you don't have a lease around Weiner, you can get in some good public shoots at Earl Buss Bayou DeView WMA or St. Francis Sunken Lands WMA.
When you mention duck hunting and Blytheville, the first thought is probably not its nearness to the Mississippi River or any of the other rivers in this part of northeast Arkansas. Instead, much of the duck hunting here revolves around Big Lake.
"Some of the earliest commercial hunting in the interior part of the country was centered here, primarily around Big Lake, which was created by the New Madrid Earthquakes in 1811-1812," began Bowman. The wars raging between commercial and sport hunters in the early 1900s changed the landscape even more.
That's because President Woodrow Wilson made the area of Big Lake Arkansas' first national wildlife refuge in 1915. Like other areas, there are farm-based hunting opportunities around Blytheville, but hunters and ducks seem to both flock to Big Lake WMA and the St. Francis Sunken Lands, another WMA also created by the big New Madrid quakes.
RUSSELLVILLE, CLARKSVILLE, FORT SMITH
Yes, that's three towns lumped together. But, the fact that all three lie within the Arkansas River Valley makes that possible when talking about duck hunting opportunities around these cities.
"The Upper Arkansas River has tons of history," began Bowman, "but these ducks are Central Flyway ducks. Before the river was dammed as a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project in the 1970s, when the river got high, it was as good as anywhere in the country. It still is at times. But, it's best when it's super cold and the shallow water is frozen."
Most of the duck hunting here is in the backwater shallow flats of Arkansas River areas like Lake Dardanelle or the river's many tributaries. Here, hunters can expect a truly mixed bag, with divers plentiful on many occasions and more of the puddle ducks making their way here in times of below-freezing temperatures.
Public hunting possibilities are plentiful in the r
iver valley around these cities, with Ed Gordon Point Remove, Galla Creek, Dardanelle, Ozark Lake, Frog Bayou and Fort Chaffee WMAs all providing waterfowl hunting.
Moving out from the river, you will find the Ouachita Mountains offer Harris Brake WMA in Perry County and Petit Jean WMA in Yell County. A little farther downstream on the northern Ozarks side, hunters can test the waters at Bell Slough WMA or Camp Robinson WMA.
DUMAS, LAKE VILLAGE, EUDORA
If we can lump three towns together in the Arkansas River Valley, there's no reason to think the same is not possible in southeastern Arkansas where the Arkansas and White rivers, give way to the Mississippi River.
"Dumas is close to Stuttgart. So, there's not a lot of difference, except it's right where the Arkansas, White and Mississippi rivers come together," said the co-author of Arkansas Duck Hunter's Almanac and The Season: A Photographic Look at the Sport of Duck Hunting. "Dumas has lots of rice, and it's near the original tract of the White River NWR."
Where Dumas takes advantage of the convergence of the three rivers, Lake Village and Eudora are situated farther south in what some waterfowlers have characterized as the bottom end of the flyway funnel in Arkansas. Ducks that fly the eastern edge of the Central Flyway and come down the Arkansas River and those that travel the middle of the Mississippi Flyway find their suitable habitat somewhat bottlenecked here by the Piney Woods of Arkansas' Gulf Coastal Plain.
So, with fertile farming ground and Mississippi oxbows and sloughs as common as mosquitoes in the summer, these two southeast Arkansas communities get in on the double dose of ducks that Bowman said usually intermingles near Stuttgart.
Much of this area is tied up with leased land, like it is around Stuttgart. But, the south unit of White River NWR and Overflow NWR are available to the public, as are WMAs by the names of Trusten Holder, Choctaw Island and Little Bayou.
This community is more often thought of as the home of "The Battle of the Ravine" between Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University, their campuses separated only by a highway. But, at times, duck hunting can be hot in this area.
"With Arkadelphia being on the Ouachita and Caddo rivers, again these are Central Flyway ducks. There is good hunting there at times, but it's spotty," Bowman said, noting that he went to college here.
DeGray Lake WMA offers some of the best public duck hunting in the Arkadelphia area.
Like Brinkley, Walnut Ridge enjoys its place in the duck-hunting world at least in part because of the way Arkansas' rivers flow. "The distinction of the parallel rivers from the White, Black, Cache, etc., show ducks the pathways in the interior of the state," he said. "Walnut Ridge is on the edge of the Delta and the Ozarks. Once the ducks start spilling out into the Delta, they find Walnut Ridge at the top of the funnel."
Walnut Ridge is close to three WMAs -- Shirey Bay/Rainey Brake, Dave Donaldson/Black River and Earl Buss/Bayou DeView.
"On the Little Red River, close to the confluence with the White River, Searcy has several smaller flyways around it. Hurricane WMA and Bald Knob NWR together provide almost 40,000 acres of public land and are within 10 miles," said Bowman.
The area also benefits from a variety of habitat: agricultural fields in the areas around the refuge, some oxbow lakes on Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake WMA and, when the White River tops its banks, flooded timber.
"Plus, this is rice country," Bowman added. So, it is easy to see why Searcy and its surrounding area have a positive duck hunting reputation.
Other public lands nearby include Steve N. Wilson Raft Creek Bottoms WMA, Cache River NWR and Rex Hancock Black Swamp WMA.
Both of these communities benefit from beneficial influences similar to those to which Stuttgart, their Arkansas County neighbor to the north, is subject. The biggest difference may lie in the fact that the ground is lower here as it slopes toward the meeting point of the Arkansas and White rivers at the county's southeastern terminus. Plus, both cities are closer to the Arkansas River than Stuttgart.
"Much of the same information that applies to Stuttgart, applies here," Bowman said of DeWitt and Gillett. They are both on the Grand Prairie and both in the heart of this region's rice-growing agriculture.
These communities are sandwiched between two WMAs and a NWR that offer up some good timber hunting -- Bayou Meto WMA to the west, White River NWR to the east and Trust Holder WMA to the southeast.
ST. CHARLES, CLARENDON
"With these two, the situation is much like that of Stuttgart and Brinkley," Bowman said, further explaining that St. Charles mirrors Stuttgart, while Clarendon is a more southerly version of Brinkley. Farming draws ducks to both areas, but Clarendon sees more cotton planted to its east and more rice and beans to its west. St. Charles, meanwhile, gets the honor of being known as the home of the visitor center for the White River NWR.
The refuge extends along about 90 miles of the White River encompassing roughly 160,000 acres. Among its offerings are more than 300 lakes, sloughs and bayous. The cypress-lined waters prove attractive to the ducks as resting areas when they've fed out in fields or flooded green timber, while the refuge's bottomland hardwoods see more action in year's that have both high water and a good mast crop.
You may think that this spot is just as unlikely as Arkadelphia to land on a list of Arkansas' other duck towns. But, at least in Bowman's estimation, a variety of geographic features can explain this site's being in general a better duck-hunting destination.
"Along the Red River, these ducks are all Central Flyway ones," he explained. "Texarkana can provide some great hunting. Some of the earliest duck clubs started here along Yellow Creek and Cypress Bayou. Then, when the Corps impounded Lake Millwood, it added to the drawing power. . . . The best thing about this kind of hunting is that it's the best-kept secret."
Both Sulphur River WMA and Pond Creek NWR provide public waterfowling opportunities near Texarkana.
"Batesville is located on the upper White River and near Shirey Bay," Bowman said in stressing why this is one of Arkansas' other great duck towns. The benefits to duck hunters are obvious, with Shirey Bay/Rainey Brake WMA's 10,000-plus acres luring the ducks.
Found on the southern end of the state, these two communities get most of their duck hunting faithful because of the waters of the Saline and Ouachita Rivers.
At the union of those two rivers is the 65,000-acre Felsenthal NWR. The refuge covers parts of Ashley, Bradley and Union counties and provides gallons and gallons of duck hunting opportunities because of the flooded bottomland hardwoods.
Other public-lands possibilities in this area include Beryl Anthony Lower Ouachita WMA, Cut-Off Creek WMA and Overflow NWR.
Since we are already on the subject, we could throw in a hundred more names -- Bono, Cash, Egypt, Tichnor, Delaplaine, Lynn, Holly Grove, Snow Lake, Jonesboro, Pine Bluff, Humnoke, Wabbaseka, Carlisle, Reydell, Seaton Dump, Dell, Manila, DeValls Bluff . . . on and on. That's the thing about Arkansas duck hunting: You're never too far from a good duck hole when you live in the Natural State.
While the list of Arkansas' other duck towns is lengthy, the best place to find information on leases and guided hunts leads us right back to Stuttgart. The Stuttgart Chamber Web site (www.stuttgartarkansas.org) has several listings for lodges and hunts all around Arkansas.