January 01, 2012
SNAKE ISLAND, Ark. — It was well past sundown when I drove across the bridge over Buffalo Ditch, turned on to a gravel road and punched the keypad to open the electronic gate that led to the Steel Wings duck hunting lodge. I would leave two days later in a thick noon fog, after adding five pounds to my bodyweight.
Five freaking pounds — in less than 48 hours.
Duck season hasn’t been good for me, falling into a lifetime pattern of the seasons before it. I had already put on a fat 15 in the previous six months, most of it since October, when photographer James Overstreet and I had started this season’s “Duck Trek” in Canada’s Delta Marsh. So I’ve been watching the scale closely, and there was no denying I’d hit 190 after the trip to Steel Wings.
But driving in there on a Friday evening, I really didn’t know what to expect. I had heard this place was “nice.” It’s owned by Lexicon Inc., a large steel fabrication, erection and mechanical installation company based in Little Rock. It was built to suit the style of Lexicon CEO Tom Schueck.
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Lexicon purchased this property in Arkansas’ Grand Prairie six years ago. It is located in the heart of Arkansas’ best duck hunting, just south of the Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. “The Wabbeseka Scatters,” as it’s also known, encompasses 33,832 mostly bottomland timbered acres that vary in elevation no more than 11 feet, enabling the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission to annually flood about 13,000 acres to attract ducks. Bayou Meto also attracts hunters, hence it’s other nickname, “The Metro.”
Steel Wings has the best of both worlds — flooded timber hunting on privately owned land near one of the best public waterfowl shooting areas in the U.S.
You must be invited to Steel Wings. Lexicon uses it every day of duck season for entertaining clients and employees. It was essentially through another passion —trout fishing — that I’d been invited. Sportswriter Clay Henry of Fayetteville, the publisher of “Hawgs Illustrated” magazine, and I are longtime friends, since our newspaper sports writing days. Henry enjoys fly fishing on Arkansas’ White River and North Fork River, where he’s befriended Wayne Reed, a Lexicon employee, who has a second home on the North Fork.
Reed, 58, grew up duck hunting in Arkansas. He lived in North Little Rock, but spent much of his youth at his grandparents home in Atkins, a small town located near the Arkansas River, northwest of Little Rock. He discovered more hunting and fishing opportunities there than in North Little Rock during summer jobs catching chickens for poultry processors and picking cucumbers for the Atkins Pickle Company. (It was in Atkins where Bernell “Fatman” Austin opened the Duchess Drive In and served the world’s first fried dill pickles in 1963.)
Blackwell Bottoms, near Atkins, is where Reed developed an addiction to duck hunting. Now known at the Ed Gordon/Point Remove WMA, this public hunting area encompasses 8,400 acres, about half of which is flooded timber when the Arkansas River gets high.
“I hunted there before the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission gave it a facelift,” Reed said. “It was guerilla warfare back then, pulling pirogues and decoys through all matter of hell to get to the ducks. I acclimated a lot of my North Little Rock comrades to duck hunting up there.”
With that background, Reed and Lexicon’s farm manager, Jay Hauck, assume most of the guide duties for hunters invited to Steel Wings. Hauck would close the season a week later having hunted all but two days, due to illness, in a 60-day season.
When I walked through a set of double doors into Steel Wings that first night, Reed was entertaining guests. He and his 29-year-old son, David, were playing former University of Arkansas baseball players James McCann and Jarrod McKinney in a game of shuffleboard, sliding metal discs down the hardwood lane, knocking and blocking, just like I’d done so many afternoons in college at the D-Lux game room in Fayetteville, Ark.
After you step into Steel Wings for the first time, it’s difficult to maintain eye contact during introductions. The distractions are everywhere. Four years ago Schueck remodeled the lodge and more than doubled its size to 7,800 square feet. There’s a pool table next to the shuffleboard table.
A big flat screen TV, surrounded by plush reclining chairs, is in a corner on the other side of the pool table. Further left, a round dining table that comfortably seats 12 features the largest Lazy Susan I’ve ever seen. We’d soon be putting Susan to work, spinning condiments and drinks around the table.
I’d never met Reed, but we’ve heard hunting and fishing stories about each other for several years. And I was trying to concentrate on our conversation, but my eyes kept darting around Steel Wings.
On the other side of the shuffleboard table, against the back wall, hung a large video projection screen, fronted by green artificial turf and three golf tees. A computer video “virtual golf” game allows you to use regulation clubs and balls to play the best holes on the finest courses in the world. The second hole at North Carolina’s Pinehurst Country Club appeared on the screen. The sound of golf balls thwacking canvas would become familiar over the next two days, when guests weren’t sharpening their shooting skills on the video shotgun games.
The walnut-paneled walls in the main room hold so much taxidermy that you can’t take it all in at once. I didn’t notice the standing black bear mount just inside the front door until my second day there. A flock of teal attached to a piece of driftwood appears to have just flown past the video screen. Large-racked elk and whitetail deer peer from the walls amidst wild turkeys and various waterfowl.
Steel Wings has an open design. You can stand in the kitchen, look over a bar, the dining room and game area and see down a long hallway into the boot room. There are nine bedrooms accessible through the hallway, each with its own flat-screen TV. The boot room is bigger than most duck hunting clubhouses I’ve entered.
One wall has wooden hooks for two dozen pairs of waders. A rack for 20 shotguns divides the wader wall. Tall benches, for cleaning guns, and a sink are on the opposite wall. Low benches, for putting on and taking off waders, anchor the middle of the room.
Once inside the boot room, your eyes go to the ceiling, where a dozen mounted mallard drakes are suspended, then shift to the upper walls, where trophy mounts of elk, whitetail deer and a boar are hung.
The boot room is brightly lit. A golden glow is reflected from the glossy blonde Australian cypress wood lining the floors, walls and ceiling.
Lest you think they take things too seriously at Steel Wings, Reed’s laptop computer lays dead on a bench, shot through screen and keyboard with a load of No. 2 steel shotgun pellets — at close range.
“When that thing crashed on me for the last time, I gave it what I call a Steel Wings re-boot,” Reed said with a smile.
When finally assembled, our group would include the gamut — from young athletes to old farts.
Over the previous three college baseball seasons, James McCann became the anchor for Arkansas teams that won at least 40 games each year, including a Southeastern Conference West Division title in 2011. Last season, as a junior, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound catcher hit .306, called most of the pitches and improved his already stellar defensive skills. The Detroit Tigers selected him with their first pick of the Major League Baseball draft, in the second round, and McCann signed a contract last summer. He was recruited to Arkansas from Santa Barbara, Calif.
There has long been a tradition of duck hunting among University of Arkansas baseball players. It goes back at least to Kevin McReynolds, a two-time All-America outfielder for the Razorbacks, who had a 12-year Major League Baseball career before settling back in Arkansas for good, as owner of the Double Deuce Hunting Lodge near DeWitt.
McCann fell into that duck hunting tradition at Arkansas. Jarrod McKinney was already an avid outdoorsman when he was recruited to Arkansas as a speedy outfielder with a strong arm from Hughes Springs, Texas. He recovered from a season-ending knee injury (torn ACL) and surgery during his sophomore season to hit .301 for the Razorbacks last season. The Houston Astros selected McKinney in the 31st round last summer and signed him to a contract.
McCann and McKinney have been working out in Fayetteville in preparation for spring training, which begins in February. If they hadn’t signed pro contracts last year and were coming back for their senior seasons at Arkansas, this Steel Wings trip would have been considered an NCAA rules violation, even though no one pays to hunt here. It would fall under the “illegal benefits” category.
It ought to be illegal to eat like you can at Steel Wings. Three local women — Madeline, Melissa and Debra — prepare an all-you-can-possibly-eat buffet for every meal. The homemade German chocolate cake, cinnamon rolls and ice cream sandwich cookies for dessert Friday night capped the first pound I gained.
Shortly after consuming large cups of coffee at 5 a.m. Saturday, we broke into two parties and headed for different sections of flooded timber. Steel Wings owns 200 acres of timber and leases another 200 acres, in addition to having flooded fields that mostly serve as rest areas for ducks.
“We like to hug trees if we can,” said Reed. “We usually lay off the timber in the afternoons. If we hunt the fields, it will be in the afternoon.”
After a short drive in pickup trucks, we arrived in the dark, a half-hour before shooting time, at a spot on a levied dirt road where two johnboats were tied at the edge of flooded timber. Long-shaft, shallow-running mud motors powered us into a big opening in the woods. Reed warned that ducks had quit working into the big opening, and scattered seven of us in one edge of the hole, standing in a line, one man per tree. He started blowing a duck call a half-hour before sunrise.
But the sun didn’t really rise on this day. Thick clouds blanketed the sky in gray except for one brief moment when the sun broke through and bathed the woods in yellow and gold. That’s pretty much when we killed our four ducks that morning.
It was gray again, windy and cold when we left at 10:30 a.m. Nothing stirs an appetite quite like standing in cold water for four hours. Steve “Spider” Ashcraft, Clay Henry’s brother-in-law, obviously enjoys eating. He had all of us talking biscuits-and-gravy as we boated out of the woods.
We were not disappointed when we started filling plates in the buffet line at Steel Wings: fruit salad, scrambled eggs, two kinds of egg/meat/vegetable casseroles, hash browns, two kinds of sausage and a warming pan overflowing with fried bacon, capped by a crock pot full of cream gravy and a basket of fresh-baked biscuits. Oh, yeah, there were homemade cinnamon rolls, again. Estimated weight gained: a biscuit shy of two pounds.
Hauck, McCann, McKinney and one other hunter came in an hour later, having been spurred by the goal of killing their six-duck limits. They fell only two ducks short. It’s interesting how much warmer you feel and how much longer you’ll hunt when you’re shooting at ducks instead of staring at gray skies.
Hauck is the connection that led to another chapter in Razorback lore. His wife is former Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett’s first cousin. It was at Steel Wings where Mallett and his family gathered last April to watch the NFL draft, when Mallett was selected in the third round by the New England Patriots.
But it was on a previous duck hunting trip here when the legend grew about the strong-armed quarterback from Texarkana, Texas. After a morning hunt, someone noticed an armadillo scratching through the dirt outside the lodge. Hunters generally don’t like armadillos because they’re thought to be predators of wild turkey nest eggs. And scientists have confirmed that armadillos can spread leprosy to humans. So it was with much malice that Mallett stepped outside, grabbed a rock and stoned the armadillo dead with one laser shot to the head. The distance of that throw has tended to grow in the re-telling. Some say 20 yards. They’re still kicking themselves at Steel Wings for failing to mount that possum-on-the-half-shell and adding it to the other trophies on the walls.
Following breakfast Saturday, after laying around in lounge chairs, rubbing our bulging bellies while watching Arkansas beat Michigan in basketball on the big flat-screen, Reed guided us to a flooded field. We added two more ducks before sunset, capped by retired pharmacist and active bamboo fly rod maker Tony Austin of Little Rock knocking a wigeon from the sky at a distance I’d not previously witnessed. A duck dropped from an airplane wouldn’t have fallen much farther.
Then we came back to Steel Wings and ate again. Estimated weight gained: a cake slice over one pound.
Sunday dawned in thick fog, a duck hunter’s worst nightmare. We walked out the back door of the boot room, down two short sets of stairs to a boat dock harboring two johnboats. We were going to hunt the hole where Hauck, McKinney and McCann had success the previous day.
We motored beside the raised roadbed that leads to Steel Wings, then hung a right and followed a boat trail into flooded timber. A small clearing in the woods had been planted in corn. Bare cornstalks now stood above the water, with a few dozen decoys scattered among them. Three heavily-brushed wooden blinds were hunkered on the edge of the timber. Reed clipped wires to two batteries that powered a pair of spinning-wing decoys.
Six of us paired up in the three blinds. Reed and Tom Lauerman of Mountain Home, Ark., another Ozark trout fishing connection, stood next to trees. Lauerman had brought his one-year-old black Labrador retriever that Lauerman’s two young sons had named Jaws due to their fascination with the movie of the same name.
Over the next four hours we heard many more ducks than we saw. When ducks did appear, they arrived like ghosts in the fog. We managed to knock down eight ducks — more shovelers than mallards — and Jaws retrieved every one.
After boating back to Steel Wings, we bellied-up to the breakfast buffet one last time. My short-term memory still functions well enough to recall over-eating misery during the previous 24 hours, so my plate was light. But I couldn’t resist another homemade cinnamon roll, completing the two-day, five-pound exercise in gluttony.
Shortly after, I drove through thick fog back to Little Rock. I had to get my fat ass out of there.
(They started killing daily duck limits again at Steel Wings the day after we left. Although failing to match last season’s total of over 1,600 ducks, Steel Wings hunters topped the 1,200 mark on the final weekend of the season.)