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Out There: The world's duck-hunting capital

1/6/2005

It's not a big town. Some 10,420 people live there.

It's not an especially beautiful town, either. However, the renovated downtown and modern residential areas have a quaint country charm that tells you this would be a good place to live and raise your children.

The town is visible long before you get there.

Driving in on U.S. highways 165 or 79, you're still 10 miles or more away when the tall Riceland Rice dryers appear in the haze across the Grand Prairie, rising like monuments to the agricultural industry that is the area's lifeblood.

They seem out of place — buildings 20 stories tall protruding from crop fields as flat as tabletops. But they serve as a beacon of sorts, guiding you into town, growing clearer and looming larger with every mile that ticks off on your odometer.

You continue past fields of rice, soybeans, wheat and cotton, and soon the town itself can be seen — the fast food joints, the service stations, the motels, the grocery stores, the schools, the homes.

The rice fields encroach to the very edge of the city, and erected at the side of one is a small wooden sign that says you've reached the city limits.

This is it: Stuttgart — The Rice and Duck Capital of the World.

It may look small and commonplace, not unlike dozens of other small cities scattered across the Delta. But in the world of waterfowling, Stuttgart is hallowed ground.

The sign's claim about the abundance of ducks is no hollow boast, no chamber of commerce propaganda.

Stuttgart lies at the heart of the greatest mallard hunting area on the face of the globe, and thousands of hunters trek here each year to immerse themselves in the town's rich waterfowling heritage.

Despite its diminutive size, despite its lack of glitz and glamour, Stuttgart is a town known worldwide. And the ducks have made it so.

Ducks were flocking to Arkansas before man began recording his journeys to the state. But why did the Grand Prairie area around Stuttgart attract them by the millions? In one word, habitat.

In the days before land was cleared to grow crops, thousands of square miles of bottomland hardwood forests provided food and refuge.

Ducks fed on enormous crops of acorns and other mast produced by the trees, and rested on the White River, Bayou Meto, Bayou LaGrue, Maddox Bay and dozens of other rivers, bayous, sloughs and oxbow lakes that inscribe the landscape.

But it was more than the coincidence of bottomland rivers and oak trees that drew ducks by the millions to this region. Stuttgart is in the Mississippi Flyway at what is perhaps its narrowest place, along a route followed by more migratory birds than any other in the world.

For thousands of years, ducks have flooded into the Grand Prairie like water through a funnel and have stayed throughout winter in this land of plenty.

The first commercial rice crop was planted on the Grand Prairie in 1904, an event that set the stage for Stuttgart and the rest of Arkansas County — already famed as a sportsman's paradise — to become the self-proclaimed rice and duck hunting capital of the world.

This was before the advent of modern combines, and the rice that was grown was cut and put in shocks. Each field had scores of shocks.

"They let the rice sun-dry, which was just like setting the table for the ducks," outdoor columnist Bill Apple of Little Rock, Ark., explained in 1972.

"The ducks would feed on rice all night long and then at daybreak they would head for the White River bottoms. Then they fed on acorns during the day.

"This was where most of the hunting was done. The guides would have boats on the river and they would take their parties down the river to these old river lakes."

In later years, duck-hunting enthusiasts built green-tree reservoirs to attract ducks.

Water is pumped into the woods before duck season and held there by a system of levees and stop-log structures. After duck season is over, the water is released, thus it does not kill the trees, and they remain green.

Ducks flock to these reservoirs to feed and rest. Hunters follow.

On Dec. 21, 1947, St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Ralph Coghlan wrote this about the number of ducks around Stuttgart:

Let me say that, over a hunting experience of many years, I have never seen more ducks than darkened the Arkansas skies this year. Not being a bookkeeper, an accountant, a human adding machine or a member of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, I couldn't come within 100,000 of figuring how many I saw.

I watched mallards sitting in vast and solid rafts on the Arkansas reservoirs quacking raucously and happily, and at dusk, saw them start for the rice fields. They took off in successive roars like fleets of miniature B-29s, and for half an hour or more the whole sky was alive with ducks.

I have hunted on the Grand Prairie near Stuttgart many times and often seen flocks of ducks reminiscent of those Coghlan recorded more than a half-century ago.

One of my most recent hunts was on Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, the primary public hunting area used by Stuttgart waterfowlers.

My son and I accompanied outdoor writer Jim Spencer, who has been hunting Bayou Meto for decades.

Wading into flooded timber at first light, we took a stand in a small opening and watched thousands of mallards trading back and forth overhead.

Most were too high for shooting, but Jim's expert calling convinced several to drop into our hole, and the three of us enjoyed fast-paced shooting throughout the morning.

At noon, when shooting hours ended, we had six mallards for our efforts.

What happened next was almost too astounding to believe. All shooting ended. We unloaded our guns and sat back to watch.

Mallards that had been flying high all morning started dropping into the timber. At first it was only a trickle of ducks, but the trickle soon grew to a flood and mallards were splashing down all around us.

As the water became crowded with birds, those trying to land were forced to circle and look for open water. Thousands and thousands of them flew round about us, circling through the woods like a huge feathered whirlwind.

The three of us were mesmerized. It was one of the most fascinating wildlife spectacles I have ever witnessed, and I was thankful my son was there to see it with me.

The Stuttgart duck-hunting experience is like no other. I rediscovered this while hunting with my son Matt, who is eagerly anticipating a series of hunts planned for this season.

The first place he wants to go is Bayou Meto, not just to kill ducks, he says, but to spend a few minutes at the end of shooting hours watching thousands upon thousands of mallards drop out of the sky and into the timber, circling through the flooded woods like a feathered whirlwind.

It's something you ought to see, too. Give Stuttgart a try this season.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.