"And in those of us who derive enjoyment from the flight of wildfowl and who know Arkansas's Grand Prairie, a wistful nostalgia for its pin oak flats simmers and simmers throughout spring and summer months. It boils over when the first yellow leaf of autumn whispers that the Hunting Winds are on their way. And when the woodlands along the White River are ablaze with red and orange tints, and the air tastes tangy with frost, the call of the Prairie and its denizens is insistent, siren-like--almost hypnotic. There is only one antidote--to respond!" - Edgar M. Queeny, "Prairie Wings" 1947
A melee of ducks taking to wing blackened the awakening sky like a thick cloud of locust. The drone of the ATV, as we puttered through a flooded corn field toward a sunken blind, had agitated the feeding birds. It was a frosty December morning, and as we settled in to wait for legal shooting light, spirits were high. Success was all but guaranteed.
We'd surely be back at the lodge for an early breakfast, before the sun cleared the treetops. But, alas, breakfast would have to wait- the best-laid plans of waterfowlers often go awry. During our 2-hour hunker in the pit blind, we only managed to shoot a solitary Susie mallard- probably the unluckiest duck in the free world that morning- while flight after flight of more sensible ducks flared away from our decoy spread.
We tried everything to persuade them to come closer- soaking the top of the blind and the decoys to remove frost; repositioning the spread; robo decoys, no robo decoys- the ducks weren't buying it.
Fortunately, we had a great "Plan B" tucked in our hip pocket: Old "No. 11," a posh, permanent blind well-positioned in a stand of flooded timber, where we'd shot our limits of greenheads in less than an hour the previous morning.
I was a guest of the folks from Federal Ammunition, hunting the famed Wingmead Farms, with its traditional flare for waterfowl hunting. Its historic hunting lodge was erected during the early 1940s by inspired waterfowler Edgar M. Queeny- and it's where he penned what is probably the most extensive book ever published on the mechanics of waterfowl flight, and where generations of hunters have greeted the autumn waterfowl migration.
If there's a constant at Wingmead it's the awe-inspiring morning flight. Ducks of every imaginable species- divers and dabblers of every description- turn the awakening morning sky a darker shade of gray as they take to wing in grand flocks. This has changed little since Queeny poled his johnboat out to No. 11 more than 60 years ago.
"At sunrise the flight reaches its height. They appear overhead, sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs and sometimes in swarms. On set wings they scale down to the treetops; then with a slow wing beat they cruise over the flat seeking a likely landing spot," Queeny wrote in 1947.
"Kill 'em boys!" Tim Boepel, our guide, called out as a bevy of mallards dipped below the tree line, landing gear extended. Boepel had skillfully coaxed them in for a closer look and a strategically placed pair of robo ducks were waving the "all clear" signal. Hunters, stationed shoulder-to-shoulder like infantry soldiers, plummeted the incoming birds- Federal high-velocity steel shot putting the final nail in the coffin of the lead vs. steel argument.
Ducks and Arkansas go together like... well, ducks and Arkansas. It's evident in the passion so many locals exhibit for their "greenheads."
Late autumn and early winter activities are arranged, for the most part, around the migratory waterfowl flight.
Darren Walker, a second-generation waterfowl guide at Wingmead, practically grew up there. In fact, he shot his first duck at No. 11 when he was 6 years old. "I was born and raised here," said the 26-year-old as he eyed a pair of high-flying greenheads. "It's pretty exciting to kill your first duck in a timber hole and now hunt it regularly 20 years later."
What makes No. 11 special? "Just an overall lack of hunting pressure in the whole environment here," Darren said. "This is the only hole that's hunted in this entire flooded block of timber. The remainder is set aside for the ducks to rest and feed. They use all the timber area, but this is a place within the timber where they like to be. Queeny was sharp enough to realize that and placed this blind here. The ducks keep coming back to this hole religiously, and we keep getting after 'em. They're not quick learners," he smiled.
Walker says hunting has actually improved at Wingmead through the years. "When I was growing up here, there was hardly any food for the ducks, but now we have 300 acres devoted strictly to feeding wildlife. It has really concentrated the ducks- it acts like a sanctuary."
Boepel says it's the hunters and their hunting styles that have undergone the most change. "There's no doubt waterfowl hunting's gotten a lot more elaborate," he said of modern duck hunters and the sophisticated equipment they use. Mechanical duck decoys have somewhat changed the face of waterfowl hunting in the South, but they're not the cure-all some people make them out to be. "Some days they'll help you, but other days they'll hurt you," Boepel said.
"There are still clubs doing it the way their grandfathers did. Here at Wingmead, with the exception of some of the electronic equipment, we're hunting much the same way they did when Queeny built the place. He knew what he was doing and was so far ahead of everybody else in regard to managing ducks."
Boepel says a well-placed decoy spread in flooded timber works like bait in a well-concealed spring trap. "They're screwed once they commit," he said. "Once they drop below the trees, it takes a lot of time and energy to get back out of there."
Boepel lowered his call as a small flock of ducks flared and vanished behind a curtain of pin oaks. "This is my favorite hunting, right here in the green timber," he said, his eyes scanning the vacant sky. "If I can find a good hole in the timber and hide behind a tree, that's as good as it gets.
"Just two more ducks!" Boepel sternly reminded us that our limits were nearly filled as another wave of greenheads banked for a closer look at the decoys. It was mid-morning and my stomach was growling.
Fortunately, it appeared we'd be back at the lodge in time for breakfast after all.
All Paths Lead to Arkansas
"Because all watercourses within the mountain ranges of our continent's east and west coasts have beckoned them to the Mississippi, geese from bleak and far-eastern Bafflin Land and mallards, greenwings and pintails from the barren wastes of Upper Yukon join their relatices from the prairie provinces in Arkansas. Ducks from Hudson Bay's eastern shore pass over Lake St. Clair, then trace the Ohio River to its junction with the Mississippi; those from the Manitoba follow the Illinois, the Sangamon and the Wabash to the Mississippi; those from the western Arctic tundras, lured by promises of sheltered backwaters and bountiful food, follow the courses of the Missouri, the Platte, the White, the Arkansas, and the great Father of Waters itself. During the migrations all these flights meet and linger in the flats of Arkansas's Grand Prairie, composing the world's greatest concentration of waterfowl."
- Edgar M. Queeny, "Prairie Wings" 1947