- Steve sb Bowman
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HARRISBURG, Ark. — Small icicles lined the rim of Johnny Riley's hat and sleet covered his coat in a white sheet of ice.
Add a carrot for a nose and Riley might have passed for a snowman. It was cold enough — 14 degrees — to make him feel like it.
But Riley wasn't that cold. In the middle of a winter wonderland, he was sitting in the duck wonderland known as Claypool Reservoir, watching a sight most believed only existed in old pictures.
It included more than a hundred thousand ducks lifting off the slush-covered reservoir, filling the skies with wings and feathers, milling overhead in the falling sleet. If the sun had been shining, the mass of duck bodies may have blocked out the sun. It was a sight many have seen before, but not in person.
And if it had been 1956, you might think you were sitting in the middle of a photograph, a photograph so well known that even after 50 years, many duck hunters associate the image as a logo for Arkansas duck hunting.
It's simply known as the Claypool Picture. Every inch of it is nothing but mallards flying above and sitting on the reservoir. Few hunters have gazed at the photo of 300,000 mallards and not been drawn into the magic of what's captured in print. Many T-shirts have been made from the image and posters of it adorn the walls of clubhouses and executives' offices.
It's an amazing sight on paper. But in person, it can warm a duck hunter in the coldest of conditions.
That image, taken in 1956 by George Purvis, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's longtime chief of information, has come to define Arkansas duck hunting.
Non-residents look at it and really believe every wet spot in Arkansas looks like that, in the same way they believe there's a Boone and Crockett buck behind every tree in Canada, or a nutria on every log in Louisiana, or 10-pounders in every inch of Lake Fork, Texas. Residents look at it and long for a return to the past, when legend said there really were that many ducks in every wet spot in Arkansas.
They might be surprised the legend, at least the legend of Claypool Reservoir, is still being made. Fifty years after that photo was taken, the ducks on Claypool Reservoir can still fill the skies.
To understand the legend, it's important to go back 50 years and re-tell the story of how Claypool became a familiar name among duck hunters.
It came to be after a simple invitation by Purvis to Dave Garroway to come film a live duck hunt in Arkansas for Garroway's "Wide Wide World" on NBC.
Live television had entered a popular era, and Garroway's show was a big part of it. With an audience of four million households, "Wide Wide World" offered the chance to tout Arkansas duck hunting like nothing else before it.
"My job was to have 300,000 ducks in front of the cameras at exactly 3:14 p.m., Central Standard Time, on December 23rd," Purvis said.
When you look at the picture and think of Claypool Reservoir, it's easy to imagine that you are looking at the whole thing. In reality, the reservoir covers approximately 1,500 acres and those 300,000 ducks occupied only about 40 acres.
Putting those ducks in a confined area at a precise time, however, was no easy task. There were many hurdles.
Initially, Purvis dealt with how to hide TV cameras, crews, control trucks and the necessary workmen and equipment, plus how to get electricity and telephone lines 2 miles to the woods.
"To start with, the only way to get to the spot selected was over two miles of muddy woods roads, where only tractors had gone before,'' Purvis recalls. "The cameras would be 2 miles from the nearest power line or telephone. This meant using power generators placed far enough back in the woods so as not to disturb the wary ducks. Six telephone circuits were needed to send the audio part of the program to New York.
"Even after stringing 2 miles of wire, there was just one circuit from Claypool Reservoir to Jonesboro, 20 miles away. So a radio loop was installed at the barn to cover the 20-mile gap."
Camouflaged blinds were built for television cameras and operators, one of which was 40 feet up a hickory tree. An additional blind was built for the remote control truck.
The video would go from the camera to the control truck via the cable, then to an 80-foot relay tower 1,000 feet back in the woods, then 35 miles to another relay tower, then 40 miles to a third tower before being sent to Memphis. From there, it was transmitted 1,200 miles to New York, where the audio and video were combined to be broadcast live.
With the electronics in place, the only thing left was to make sure that at an exact prearranged time there would be ducks in front of the cameras — over a quarter of a million ducks.
"I had learned that by leaving one area undisturbed in the vicinity of the picture blind, then driving ducks with boats on open water and using beaters around the edge of the reservoir, that the ducks concentrated in front of the blind," Purvis said. "I thought we could do it again and at a definite time."
"Originally the Arkansas duck hunting segment was to be eight minutes," Purvis said. "When they saw no ducks, the New York directors decided to limit our part to four minutes."
It looked like weeks of preparation would boil down to four minutes of air time. At 1:30 p.m., Purvis set the drive in motion for the broadcast.
"The ducks began to swim and fly into the staging area by the thousands," Purvis said. "New York was watching over the closed circuits. By 3 o'clock, there were 40 acres of ducks in front of the cameras. The directors in New York became enthusiastic and started trimming time off of the other segments of the show and giving it back to Arkansas.
"All of us were praying that everything would click."
At 3:14, the program director in New York pushed a button and four million viewers were looking on. Not another duck could be put on the screen.
"It was perfect," Purvis said
To add to the excitement, a rocket holding three blocks of TNT was fired over the ducks and exploded in mid-air.
"Then there was another explosion, as 300,000 ducks leaped into the air," Purvis said.
With the ducks flying, Wallace Claypool, owner of the reservoir, and Lynn Parsons, a 12-year old with his new shotgun, stepped out of a blind. Claypool called the ducks in, six shots were fired and Claypool's dog was shown retrieving ducks.
New York was begging for more.
"A lot of people saw it all over the country," Purvis said. "It kind of put Arkansas duck hunting on the map."
While all of that was taking place, Purvis was taking pictures. "Wide Wide World" has since become the answer to trivia questions, remembered by a few who were old enough and fortunate enough to own a television at the time.
The photo, though, has endured the test of time. And so has Claypool Reservoir.
As the attention of Arkansas duck hunting increased, more and more acres of land were added to the G&FC's inventory, and most people just assumed the attraction of the reservoir had decreased.
But not much has changed at Claypool, at least when it comes to ducks.
"We'll still hold a quarter of a million ducks and more," said Johnny Riley, the caretaker of the reservoir for the past 38 years. "There are times I think we hold a million.''
The drawing power of the reservoir is more than 1,500 acres of timber, smartweed and moist-soil plants that pull in ducks each and every year. Claypool holds them because the owners, Bayard Boyle, Snowden Boyle, Toof Brown and Norfleet Turner, all of Memphis, still abide by the rules Wallace Claypool set years ago.
Hunting takes place on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays only. And then only in the mornings. To Claypool and the present-day owners, the reservoir is much more valuable for the ducks as a resting place than to the owners for a place to shoot ducks.
After all, it wouldn't take much to shoot a lot of ducks, right? At least that's what a lot of folks say when they gaze upon the picture — "It wouldn't take much to kill a limit there?''
It's true. But it might be a little more difficult that one would imagine.
In your average duck hunt, you see a duck, you call to it, it comes, and hopefully you get it and others close enough to shoot. All of your energy is focused on one duck or one flock.
At Claypool, ducks are everywhere, flying from every direction, a wonderful situation — but there's so much going on, it can be hard to concentrate on the task at hand. Picking out one greenhead in the middle of thousands is a distracting process.
But it's one most would give their right arm for the opportunity. A right fist, anyway.
Riley is a modern-day version of John Wayne, though this time he's not saving a small western town, but a reservoir filled with ducks. Standing 6' 4" and with hands the size of iron skillets, he's an imposing figure, one that has been the perfect complement to keep Claypool Reservoir attractive to ducks.
"When I first came, they had five men trying to keep people run out of this place," Riley said.
Poachers were a constant threat, and even the men hired to help keep people off the property often took advantage by accepting payments from locals for a chance to slip onto the reservoir.
Riley, though, changed all that. While his stature as a fighter is obvious, his reputation is another legend revolving around Claypool Reservoir.
"One Sunday, I put 27 people in jail,'' Riley said. "Anybody I caught in here, I would either whip their ass or put them in jail. After that gets around, you don't have many problems."
Thanks to him and the owners, the legend of Claypool Reservoir continues to live on — and probably always will.
The image of Claypool Reservoir is available for for viewing, or to purchase as a poster at the Web site http://theduckseason.com/Claypoolspage.html.