North Arkansas Waterfowl Hotspots
September 24, 2010
Stuttgart may be the first word in waterfowl, but it's definitely not the last. These prime areas are among the best the world has to offer - even if they don't get the publicity.
The name "Stuttgart" has long been synonymous with world-class waterfowling. Mention this southeast Arkansas city to a duck hunter, and, responding like Pavlov's dog to a dinner bell, he'll all but salivate, a hungry look in his eyes. In the minds of many, Stuttgart is the center of the waterfowling universe, and anything outside this fabled realm is of a far lower order of quality.
In reality, however, several parts of Arkansas serve up waterfowling opportunities equal to and sometimes better than the duck hunting available in and around Stuttgart. These areas haven't benefited from the promotion that made Stuttgart famous as the "Rice and Duck Capital of the World," but when the facts are examined, one can't deny that many lesser-known locales north of Stuttgart can lay claim to equal stature as duck hunting hotspots. They may be lacking in public-relations savvy, but when it comes to their duck hunting, their history and traditions are just as rich and fascinating as are Stuttgart's, and spending a blue-ribbon day in the flooded timber here should convince even the most skeptical that this, too, is a neighborhood in duck hunter's heaven.
BIG LAKE WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA The history of Arkansas duck hunting began not in Stuttgart, but in the northeast corner of Arkansas in what is now Mississippi County. According to archaeological investigations at the Zebree site in Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the Native Americans who lived here between 600 and 800 A.D. were duck hunters who frequently killed and ate waterfowl.
Big Lake itself didn't exist when these Indians resided here, however. This 3,500-acre pool of flooded cypresses and oaks wasn't formed until 1811-12, when the New Madrid earthquakes shook the region and upended its topography. Even before Big Lake came to be, however, this region drew major concentrations of ducks, which wintered here each year in the "Great Swamp" between the St. Francis and Mississippi rivers. Big Lake's genesis simply enhanced what was already a waterfowl paradise.
Around the turn of the century, railroads built through the swamp by the timber industry started carrying sportsmen into the Big Lake area, where market hunters already lived and worked. Over the next two decades, the two groups often had violent encounters as each tried to drive the other from the area. Resident market hunters were daily killing thousands of ducks - estimates have ranged from 5,000 to 25,000 per day - that were shipped to big city markets, and non-resident hunters associated with the Big Lake Shooting Club and other properties wanted to end to the slaughter. The violence escalated - clubhouses were burned and people shot. It didn't end until well after 1915, the year when President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order creating Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Unfortunately, the ducks now faced an even greater threat than had been posed by market hunting: the destruction of their wintering habitat. During the next 30 years, the Great Swamp was cleared and drained, and Mississippi Delta soils were soon being plowed so that cotton, soybeans, rice and other crops could be grown. Big Lake continued as a magnet for wintering ducks, but by the 1940s it was a small island of waterfowl habitat in a huge agricultural sea. To preserve some of the few remaining acres of appropriate habitat outside the boundaries of the NWR, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission purchased the first land for 12,160-acre Big Lake WMA in 1951.
Northeast Arkansas' duck hunting can be just as productive as Stuttgart's, but it's usually far less crowded. Photo by Keith Sutton
It's fortunate for waterfowl enthusiasts that the AGFC purchased this important tract of bottomlands. To experience the thrilling hunts once considered commonplace in extreme northeast Arkansas, one must come here, for Big Lake WMA is now the only sizeable public duck hunting area in this part of the state. (Duck hunting no longer is permitted in the national wildlife refuge, as the lake and flooded woodlands there serve as a rest area for ducks.)
Mallards and flooded green timber are the basic ingredients in the Big Lake duck-hunting recipe. The WMA contains a mixture of tupelos, willows, buttonbush and cypress. The northern third of the area supports timber types such as oak, elm and hackberry. A dozen decoys or fewer will ordinarily be adequate for drawing the attention of the birds; most hunters stand in the shadow of trees in knee-deep water. Calling is usually continuous - first highballs to turn their heads, and then a lot of feeding calls alternating with quacking.
The smart hunter doesn't wait until opening day to get ready. He studies area maps, questions officials who are constantly on the area and, most importantly, scouts his hunting area from the ground. Sometimes the choice spots require long hikes for access; others are easy to reach - if you know where you're going. Waterfowlers should scout several optional hunting spots.
Before the AGFC purchased the land, a series of ditches - one running east-west every half mile, all connecting to a main ditch running north-south - was dug within the timber. These flooded highways, which retain water in the area even during the driest falls, can lead you in and out safely if you carry a compass and map and pay attention to your whereabouts.
Big Lake WMA, about 15 miles west of Blytheville and five miles east of Manila, can reached by way of state highways 181 and 18. The area's northern border is the Arkansas-Missouri state line; the western border abuts the federal refuge.
DAVE DONALDSON/BLACK RIVER AND SHIREY BAY-RAINEY BRAKE WMAs Thanks to the funneling effect of two natural features, the Black River bottoms in northeast Arkansas have always been havens for waterfowl. To the west lie the high Ozarks; to the east is Crowley's Ridge. In between is a north-south corridor of flat, often flooded river bottoms that draws one of the densest concentrations of wintering mallards in the world.
Much of those forested bottoms has been cut and cleared, but thanks to the efforts of the AGFC, two prime tracts of Black River duck habitat have been protected. The northernmost area, Dave Donaldson/Black River WMA, encompasses 21,150 acres of bottomland hardwoods in portions of Clay, Randolph and Greene counties. About halfway down the river, one enters the second area - 10,711-acre Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake WMA near Lynn in Lawrence County.
As part of its commitment to buy duck-hunting land, the AGFC did a good bit of purchasing in 1951 - the Big Lake acquisition mentioned above, and its first for Black River WMA. There wasn't much prime waterfowl habitat le
ft in northeast Arkansas at that point in time, but this piece of ground that often overflowed in late autumn and stayed that way until late spring, attracting flocks of ducks numbering in the hundreds of thousands, was choice property, and the AGFC knew it; it ranked Black Rock's purchase third on the list of priorities just behind Bayou Meto and Big Lake. The area later was renamed to honor Paragould conservationist Dave Donaldson, who served as state waterfowl biologist from 1950-1977.
A 17-mile system of levees, pipes, and stoplog structures assists the Black River and Little River in flooding approximately one-half (12,000 acres) of the heavily wooded WMA each fall. Spectacular hunting is the norm in the WMA's three compartments. Little River Island on the east end of the area is popular with walk-in hunters who find access from Hubble Bridge near the area headquarters off Highway 280. The Reyno side compartment is on the north side, with access from Highway 67. The Lower Area is accessed via the Black River off Highway 280 at Brookings.
The key to success at a large area like Black River WMA lies in knowing where to go - and in having a boat to get there. The best hunters are experienced people who know the waterfowl area; having been at it long enough to learn how the ducks are likely to move, they aren't afraid to try new areas.
When ducks are in the woods, the shooting is fast and furious. Hard to see in tall timber, the birds can be on top of you before you realize that they're near, so you must decide in a split second if they're within range, if they're going to decoy, or if they should be taken on the pass.
Even though it's tricky to track, lead and shoot a bird in the scant seconds before it's swallowed in the maze of branches, you'll probably take more birds if you stick exclusively to pass-shooting. Too often, mallards that appear to be decoying will circle and circle and then, spotting something out of place, disappear over the treetops.
But resisting pass-shots holds promise of a special reward. Few sights in hunting are as memorable as that of a flock of ducks, wings cupped in classic fashion, skimming winter-bare treetops as they drop from the sky into a flooded forest.
In 1954, just three years after the first Black River purchase, the AGFC bought the first land in Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake WMA. This area encompasses a wilderness realm of bottomland hardwoods, sluggish streams and old river cutoffs in Lawrence County. Geographically, it is divided into two separate parts by the Black River, with the 7,000-plus-acre Rainey Brake portion lying west of the river near Lynn and the Shirey Bay segment to the east near Portia. Though the WMA's western edge lies in the Ozark foothills, most of the acreage is bottomland hardwood forest.
About 4,000 acres are flooded by Lake Charles, just north of the area, through a series of levees, pipes and stop-log structures. In addition, over half the area is subject to receive overflow from the Black River, undergoing on average at least one flood event per year. These factors make the area a magnet for ducks and duck hunters alike.
Hopeful hunters here generally wade in and stand next to trees, kicking water and blowing calls as they wait for a pod of mallards to pitch into holes in the timber. The hunting pressure is relatively light here compared to that at many other Arkansas WMAs, but covering a smaller area than is usual, it can seem crowded even without the crowds. The best hunting often comes late in the morning; as other hunters leave, the birds start responding more positively to calling.
EARL BUSS-BAYOU DeVIEW WMA Weiner isn't a big town. I grew up near there, and often visited this little Poinsett County community. I still pass through on occasion, and when I'm there, I'm reminded of Stuttgart in many ways. Rice fields surround the town - at one time, Weiner held an annual Rice Festival - and long before you drive in, you can see tall rice dryers looming high above it. Nearby are many dead-timber reservoirs and big bottomland rivers like the L'Anguille, the St. Francis, Bayou DeView and the Cache.
And there are ducks. I remember once counting more than 10,000 mallards on a 640-acre field of flooded rice stubble on the north side of town. That was more than 20 years ago - and last year, while driving through Weiner, I saw a field holding just as many. It's been that way since I was a kid, and long before that. In fact, some say that Weiner is the second "Rice and Duck Capital of the World," only slightly below Stuttgart.
Former President Jimmy Carter, one among the celebrities who often hunt ducks here, included a story about a Weiner-area hunt in his book Outdoor Journal. Ducks were scarce most of that frigid day, but: "Finally a flight of circling ducks set their wings, just above the treetops, and sailed down toward us, darting from side to side as they avoided the outstretched tree limbs. We watched intently, our backs to the wind. No one moved as we crouched against the trees. I fired first. A greenhead hit the water. Three other guns opened up as the ducks flared upward, their wings beating rapidly. I turned and fired the other barrel. One of my rare doubles.
"We counted six drakes down, with no cripples" Carter continued. "One other was a female, but no one would admit having shot her."
Weiner doesn't have as much public land or as many commercial operations to accommodate visiting hunters as does Stuttgart. And in recent years, as the number of duck hunters has increased and the number of places to hunt decreased, sportsmen in Weiner have grown ever more tight-lipped about their duck hunting. But if you'd like to experience the many pleasures of a Weiner waterfowling junket, there's a public hunting area near town that can enable you to do so. Earl Buss-Bayou DeView WMA encompasses only 4, 435 acres, but it's rarely overcrowded, and when conditions are right, the duck hunting here is little short of phenomenal.
For many years the WMA was known simply as "the Weiner Area" or "Bayou DeView." In 1984, the AGFC renamed the area in memory of Earl Buss, a caretaker for the Thompson Duck Club - a privately owned entity that, through acquisition, was incorporated into the management area. The WMA can be reached by way of county roads west out of Weiner on state Highway 39 or off state highways 14 and 214.
The WMA consists of three areas: the Martin Impoundment, 1,200 acres of naturally flooded timber; the Thompson Impoundment, 2,000 acres of pumped area; and the Oliver Tract, 1,400 acres of naturally flooding bottomland. Here, the key components to optimal duck hunting are adequate water in the nearby St. Francis and Cache river bottoms and flooding in the fields and surrounding areas. Lake Hogue, which is within the WMA, also helps to attract ducks. This 340-acre AGFC lake serves as a waterfowl rest area during duck season.
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Before hunting any of these areas this year, contact the AGFC for maps and a migratory bird hunting regulations guide. The regulations booklet will tell you what laws you need to be aware of, as well apprise you of when and where you can hunt.
For more information
about WMAs, you should also purchase the Arkansas Outdoor Atlas, which includes maps of all 75 Arkansas counties, each showing public access areas and public hunting grounds. Also ask about the annual waterfowl hotline phone number, with information updated weekly about water levels, duck numbers and more.
All of this information is available from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, 2 Natural Resources Dr., Little Rock, AR 72205; 1-800-364-GAME; www.agfc.com.
(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Hunting Arkansas: The Sportsman's Guide to Natural State Game ($28.25). To order autographed copies, send a check or money order to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. Arkansas residents should add sales tax. For credit card orders and more information, log on to www.ccoutdoors.com.)
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